The Lady on the Lion City
On 25 September 2013 At 9:44 AM
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by Bertha Henson
So, the Lady sweeps into town and we hear her talk about our education system being “workforce oriented’’. Said Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi: “That made me think… what is the purpose of a workforce… of work… of material wealth? Is that the ultimate aim of human beings? Is that what we want?’’
Material achievement is important so that there is freedom from want, she said, but values such as love for each other, loyalty and spirituality were what kept her people going through years of oppression.
“So there are many things that help us to survive that had little to do with material achievement.’’
What a change from reading about foreigners who come over to learn from Singapore and heaping praise on how we work! What a change from reading about how little Singapores were being created in parts of China! Here is someone saying, “Thank you, but no thanks.’’
In fact, it is a reflection of our hubris that one of the questions put to her, according to the Straits Times (ST), was what she saw in Singapore that she might like to recreate in Myanmar.
Her response: “I don’t think ‘re-create’ is the word, ‘learn’ yes.’’
Of course she was polite. “One gets used to thinking of Singapore as a financial, commercial city, where people are more intent on business and money than human relationships, but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised that there is a lot of human warmth going round this place.’’ Ouch!
As for what Singapore can learn from Myanmar, she suggested a “more relaxed way of life’’. (Oh! Blasphemy!) She also suggested “warmer, closer family relationships’’.
We should do some furious thinking and soul searching.
Are we just a money-grubbing nation, efficiently churning out digits for the future workplace? Are we all about the Central Business District skyline? Is that really how other people see us? As calculative individuals who do not put much stock in human relationships?
We can play the finger-pointing game here. But maybe the root of the problem lies far deeper. Yes, we are a nation that survived hard times – but which moved on to being built on the promise of economic wealth rather than social health. Our relentless pursuit for the good life has become so natural that we aren’t even conscious of it.
Here’s one example. In my past life, there was an American journalism consultant who came to Singapore to look over the content of our newspapers. What he said surprised those of us who were in charge of putting the day’s news. He said The Straits Times was all about numbers, especially dollars and cents. Fees, cost, price, salaries, discounts, premiums, investment, household income, bonus, credit, subsidy, scams, indices, stocks seem to dominate all areas of coverage whether education, transport, health, sports – not just business news.
He asked if Singaporeans were interested in nothing else. Because the image to foreigners from reading the media is that the country is all about materialism and money. Then the news editor, I was taken aback at his remarks. Yes, there always seemed to be an instinctive need to suss out the “accounts’’ of anything, so to speak. It became so that dollar signs also dominate headlines, never mind that the amount is insignificant to the matter at hand.
What about religion, he asked. With so many temples, churches and mosques, people must be interested in religious issues as well.
So we took a stab at covering religion. Quite tentatively, because ST is a secular paper and would not want to be seen as favouring one group over another. Still, quite naturally, articles would veer into the dollars and cents type of stories – remember Ren Ci? St Teresa? Now City Harvest?
Maybe we’ve forgotten how to report on the softer, spiritual side of life. Or maybe the media is merely a mirror of society, reflecting what citizens care and talk about. Money.
Now we seem to be taking steps to get back to the heart of who we are or want to be. The Our Singapore Conversation series concluded that we (too!) want a “more relaxed way of life’’ with more opportunities and chances to level up. We’ve come to realise too that the good life is more than just about money.
The fear, of course, is that we will move from being a hard-charging nation pounding the economic treadmill to being happy enough at walking pace. That is, we will move from one extreme to another, forgetting that, unlike Myanmar, we are a very small country that can be easily be overwhelmed by forces outside our control.
Can we find a happy mean?
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