I hate to admit it, but it’s getting increasingly tough for anyone born without a silver spoon to succeed in Singapore. In a land of 4.5 million inhabitants packed onto all of 710.2 km2 (274 sq mi), news travel so fast that failure is simply not an option to some amongst us.
Yet, things weren’t always this way. An elderly lady resting her feet after a hard morning of grocery shopping and catching up with her neighbours at a HDB estate would tell you success in her life is seeing her children happily married, gainfully employed and hard at work in the bedrooms on weekends to try and bear her a grandchild or two. The cheerful middle-aged taxi driver whom I once took a ride from declared that there was nothing else he needed in life beyond his family. He was contented to earn whatever he could by ferrying whoever God sent his way, while enjoying the occasional conversations with passengers from all walks of life. When asked about the bumpier parts of their lives, both were quick to dismiss them as days since gone, preferring instead to look forward to what little time they had left in this world.
Move further down the age group and you’ll soon be faced with a radically different set of criteria for success, one that is heavily steeped in the relentless pursuit of fame and fortune. Singapore’s mandarins have done a far better job than its Thai, Japanese or Taiwanese counterparts at relieving its citizens of any civil, political or racial and religious burdens, so much so that its people are left with few other things to chase. Our adults spend the better part of their lives as useful economic units, swapping time for cash like pastured cows that serenely feed on grass while their udders get milked. Our youths spend much of their childhood pushing themselves to outdo one another in school over mere grades – so much so that the Spartans could probably be forgiven for mistaking the Singapore education system for their Agoge – and even on television, under the guises of television programmes like Campus Superstar. Out of this highly engineered society, the talented and fortunate (winners) rise to the top of the pack to become top dog; as celebrities, leaders and rulers of the rest of our highly meritocratic society. In the process, materialism and envy gets its field day.
All politicians on left and right agree that meritocracy is a good thing…If you’ve got talent, energy and skill, you will get to the top; nothing should hold you back. It’s a beautiful idea. The problem is, if you really believe in a society where those who merit get to the top, you also, by implication and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental but merited and deserved. And that makes failure seem much more crushing.
I cannot speak for the ‘less merited and deserved’ in Singapore – it would be blasphemous and condescending of me to claim kinship with the majority of our populace to speak on their behalf. Instead, I shall speak on behalf of two friends who are no longer able to do so. Both were merited members of our society who fell from grace and found it impossible (or perhaps lacked the courage) to scale back up the heights of their own successes. Failure, in their cases, was particularly crushing. Lead actress Envy and supporting actor Meritocracy both starred and directed in a double tragedy that strangely never merited any attention by the press.
Botton’s talk taught me much about contentment. It’s about time we Singaporeans take a hiatus from the rat race and take a leaf from Botton’s kinder, gentler philosophy of success. Heck, if our layman finds it hard to comprehend Botton’s stiff upper lips, Singapore’s famous bloggers could do an Ah Beng and Ah Lian version of his speech – I’m sure Alain wouldn’t mind! Everyone deserves to have a chance to receive his message, regardless of race, language, religion or political affiliation. Only then, perhaps, can we be a nation that is both wealthy and happy.
As for our entrepreneurs, I believe you lot have already succeeded by virtue of your profession. According to a working paper from the NUS Entrepreneurship Centre titled “Antecedents for Entrepreneurial Propensity: Findings from Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan” (April 2005), Lena Lee concluded that the fear of failure has a significant adverse effect on entrepreneurial propensity in Singapore. You entrepreneurs have overcome your fears of failure and succeeded by redefining your game and world-changing rules in your pursuit of global domination. You brave men and women, who step into the gaping void in spite of of almost-certain statistical failure rates, deserve my utmost respect. Any future government grants, customer wins, product releases, trade sales and IPOs from henceforth can only be the icing on your cake.
Who says our entrepreneurs can’t have their cake and eat it too? All this cake talk is making me hungry – I might just bake my own one day 😉