“Why is a young Dutchman worrying about the Strait of Malacca? Why aren’t there any Singaporean teenagers worrying about the dirty and polluted waters around Singapore? The simple answer...is that there is a deficit of idealism among Singapore’s youth.”
- Dr. Kishore Mahbubani
“The problem is that our personal realities are often too narrow to accommodate some things which really deserve our attention and empathy.”
(Note: a just-for-Singaporeans version of this note was originally put as a Facebook note by me; if you'd like to read the original, you can do so here: https://www.facebook.com/notes/liren-fu/on-idealism-in-singapore-and-the-postcolonial-legacy/10153256126925940)
Recently, Dr. Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, released an article in The Straits Times about how Singaporean youth lack idealism. Yesterday, as of when I’m writing this, a very dear friend wrote a reply to his article. I (respectfully, but also verily) disagree with both, on the first claim that Singaporean youth lack idealism, and on the second, that there are other things that we should be paying attention to; I disagree because not only do I think that we are idealistic, but that there is no need to justify our idealism in the first place (as ironic as that makes this article).
To caveat this as an admissions article though, two things. First: I don't think this applies only to Singapore, I think in many ways there is a particular western (and oftentimes American and British) discourse that continues to shape the way us from elsewhere view ourselves, and how our national narratives are then constructed to tell us that we are never enough, because we aren't "like the west enough". Second: I would never have been able to write this without Dr. Sarah Pinto's amazing class Gender and Sexuality in South Asia, as well as Dr. Susan Russinoff's class Logic, so take this as a kind of PR campaign for them both. I've also written this as I would any other essay I would submit for an English class, using close-reading to frame my inferences; so this essay, for me, crosses between the sort of stuff I've learnt through studying Anthropology, English, Philosophy, Linguistics, and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and indeed needs all of them in order to have been constructed. So stay with me, whoever is reading this: I promise to make it worth your while.
So, if you're still with me, what is idealism? Idealism feels, to me, like one of those things that we can always count on to make an impact without necessarily imparting any more than a vague sense of the term: you’re so idealistic, alternatively to rally support around someone (Bernie Sanders) or to throw subtle criticism that they haven’t thought things through enough (also Bernie Sanders). But what exactly is idealism, and perhaps more importantly, what is the sense with which Dr. Mahbubani and Bumsoo are using it? While Dr Mahbubani uses no explicit definition, he seems to define it implicitly: idealism is in contrast to the “pragmatic” and “sensible”, it is the impulse to be following something impractical because you believe in it. But is this fair?
Is idealism and pragmatism mutually exclusive? This is, of course, a question loaded with historical context, not least the fact that they are almost always contrasted as opposites. But from a purely intellectual (and idealistic, haha pun) viewpoint, can we imagine an idealistic pragmatist or a pragmatic idealist? I think we can. I think idealism, in its purest form, is the sense of chasing after an ideal, after a perfect version of the world; pragmatism, in contrast, makes no demands on how you must ideate the world, only that you go about it in a manner that acknowledges practicalities and is willing to make compromises. One is vision, and the other is method; can you be an idealist who pursues your dreams in a pragmatic fashion?
I think the answer has to be yes; I think if you have someone chasing after becoming a world-class ballerina and they decide to stick to a cheaper dance class, or someone who wants to be the best engineer but goes to community college to save on bills, we would recognize them as idealists even if they are making compromises. I think, particularly important in context, if we had a Tufts applicant who continued chasing their dreams even if they had to compromise on coming here, we would still rally around them as idealists (I'm thinking about you, Idelle).
I would argue that even the language we use to talk about idealism betrays this fact; that Dr. Kishore Mahbubani, who claims that “The paradox of idealism is that it always pays off in the long run”, integrates pragmatism into the very ideation of idealism, that idealism is rationally pragmatic and beneficial. It doesn’t seem quite right to contrast the two then, or even to invoke the two as oppositional; so the prevailing culture of pragmatism cannot stand as reason to whether idealism exists or not. But is there idealism in Singapore?
I think so. I think back to a conversation I had at a birthday party last summer, where an Army officer told me he wanted to go into teaching because, watching his men struggle with English, he couldn’t let that continue being a reality; I think of a friend who shaved her hair every year for Hair for Hope, who balances baking and making a business with wanting to go into Kindergarten education and a million other things. I think of the friends I have fighting and volunteering in different social causes, I think of the friend who interned at Aware supporting women's rights, the ones who wrote Let’s Get Back Together and who volunteer at Pink Dot supporting the LGBT community back home.
I think, too, of the religious ones, I think of the friends who constantly look to align Christianity and religion and belief with how they want to act in this world, I think of the comments and debate on the Catholic Archbishop's disapproval of the Madonna concert in Singapore (and yes, I am placing both the support of the LGBT community and the conservative Christian bloc side by side in idealism). I think every single one of them is chasing an ideal world, I think idealism permeates Singapore the same way it must permeate every society, that ideation and the chasing of dreams is something fundamental and demonstrable at every level.
But is this idealism? Bumsoo, and possibly Dr. Mahbubani, might disagree: “simple dreaming can’t qualify as idealism”. So what does? When do our dreams compare to a Dutchman, who “ran into a wall of rejections” but “raised US$80,000 in 15 days...has now designed a V-shaped array of floating barriers that can passively capture plastic”. Perhaps the deeper question: why aren’t we asking whether the Dutch have idealism?
Frantz Fanon, in 1968, wrote that “colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: “In reality, who am I?”” In a country that would not exist without colonialism, in a community that lays no claim to some past national identity, perhaps the question is better rephrased as “Who am I?”, a question we raise incessantly to the world around us, and the question I am asking right now is that the idealism both articles seem to be arguing for is deeply suspect. It is deeply suspect in that Dr. Mahbubani believes that the seed of idealism is to be found in that young Singaporeans do not “have to deal with real challenges”, and that instead we should be partnered with someone far worse off to “unleash the inherent moral sensibility and make him or her far more idealistic”; because the idealism wanted is one that must be relevant to others and, it seems, grander and more global in scale.
It is suspect in that Bumsoo writes “The complacency of an arguably successful system makes it easier to ignore bigger problems”; because “Singaporean youths chasing their music dreams” aren’t big enough, because “national events like Chingay and National Day hav[ing] their spectator management plans entirely headed and executed by youths”, and youths, who I must note, return year after year to devote countless (rather thankless) hours, is not an impressive enough achievement. That we can gather youths to figure out the logistics of national events and who believe in it enough to return year after year does not count as idealism; it is the “idealism typified by young people in the West” which passes muster, when our own (non-western) dreams do not.
It is suspect because at the end of the day, we don’t even need a census of how idealistic the Dutch are; we just need one 21-year-old to make it to the World Economic Forum for us to decry our nation’s youths as not being idealistic enough, that we need to generate more, or better, idealism. Our idealism isn't worth anything, not till we can make some effect beyond our shores; but when are we enough? Our discourse about Singapore can never stray too far before invoking a magical paragon of virtue: some other country, and often some global ranking (conducted by a western organization).
When we talk about the youth in Singapore lacking idealism, what are they lacking idealism for? What is the purpose of this idealism? Because idealism isn’t an arms race; we can’t possibly be in a competition for competition’s sake with every singular example of an individual. So if we are to ask for our youth to be more idealistic, or even to be more creative or innovative or entrepreneurial or the thousand other things we ask them to be, then it must be for a reason, and it cannot simply be “so that we are better”, because better for what? Who are we being better for?
And if the answer is survival, if the answer is that we are a Little Red Dot with limited resources surviving on the whims of the world, if this is always to be our answer, then Fanon’s words ring deathly true: we do not survive for ourselves, for what we want, for what we believe in, but solely for the approval of the world around us, for asking them “Who am I?” Our existence is always then referential to the standards the world sets for us, not our own, not our own desires or our own thoughts or even, as trite as it is, our own cultural norms.
And if that is so, when do we become our own country?