Singapore – where whatever we do, is never good enough

This entry is my response to Paul Graham’s old article, which talked about cities, the ambitions of its people and the messages that they send out.  In writing this, I was inspired by my personal experiences and a brief discussion at a Skype group chat that I hang out at.  I’d love to hear what you think about it at the end.

Despite being an ardent Singaporean, I would be hard-pressed to label Singapore as a great city.  With an over-30% diverse foreigner population in its 4.8 million population packed into a meagre 710.2 sq km (274.2 sq mi), a per-capita GDP of US$51,142 that puts us 4th in the world, where our ports and national air carrier repeatedly top global charts with each passing year, and (as the PAP would proudly put it) all within a short span of 4-odd decades of nation-building; there’s really very few things that Singapore – like an over-achiever in a top local elite school – doesn’t excel in.  Yet strangely – just like the over-achiever that never seems to be able to secure the acknowledgment that he so desperately craves from his parents each time he shows them his report card at home – whatever we do as individuals, people or as a nation just never seems to be good enough.

In his article, Paul Graham commented that great cities attracted ambitious people, and that one would be able to sense the overflowing quanta of ambition when one walks around in such a city.  Having been away from home between 2002 to 2006, studying, living and traveling in a multitude of towns and cities across the Americas, and in parts of China and South Korea, when I eventually came home in the summer of 2006 as a matured adult, Singapore felt foreign enough for me to spend the last 3+ years getting reacquainted with my hometown.  In so doing, I have come to realize that much of Singapore has taken to walking the tightrope of ambition synonymous with success and great cities, only to fall and get caught in the web that has come to be associated with the perennial fear of failure.

It is a fine line for those brave enough to toe it, with few ever succeeding in getting across to the other side.  The majority watches on safely by the river bank.

"Ambition" poster

Hugh Mason thinks that the message that Singapore puts out is one where “you must try harder.”  Meng Weng thinks its about “I don’t know how we got this far, but we can’t afford to screw up now.”  If you’re a youth or a young Singaporean, you’ll know what I mean.  In many ways, all of these messages mirrors the insecurities that many of our parents had impressed upon us during our growing up years amidst Confucian-Singapore.  Many of us forget that the era that our parents and forefathers had lived in was a stark contrast to the abundance that we enjoy today.  We continue to stumble along with the baggages of others, and quoting Meng and Hugh, “are haunted by a parental voice so strong that it goes on even after they’re dead.  It’s almost as if letting go of the past would be highly disrespectful.”  Fear of failure has become part of our national identity.

But it shouldn’t be so.  Singapore today is at a crossroad – our Western long-time allies have been fading, and while we continue to strike a balanced approach, our links with the BRIC nations have grown significantly over the years.  We welcome talent from all four corners of the Earth, and despite a recent hiatus, the continuation in the trend of declining birth rates by Singaporeans will probably force our government to keep the policy of welcoming foreign talent firmly in place.  Never before has Singapore seen such an infusion of talent, and never before were we faced with such a critical mass of ambitious foreign talent on our shores.  Quit whining about how the influx of foreigners are stealing jobs from the locals, how you expect Singaporeans to be treated better than foreigners, or spend 90% of your time looking out for that 10% of possibilities that will lead you to be branded a failure.  Instead, ride the forces of our environment, and put the time and energy into harnessing your lofty ambitions to change the world.  Fear has gotten us this far, but won’t have much in it to take us any further.  It’s time to let go, ride the bulls of your ambitions by their horns and reach for the stars.

After all, we’re only young once.

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.