On Kishore Mahbubani’s “Love Singapore”- We should start with Why.

Here’s a quick summary of Kishore Mahbubani’s The final Big Idea: Love Singapore, which kinda left a bad taste in my mouth:

  1. If we can Love Singapore with total commitment and conviction, Singapore can last another 50 years. (V: If.)
  2. Hotel Singapore: Singaporeans litter a lot. We expect foreign workers to clean up after us. We treat Singapore like a hotel, not a home. (V: Agreed. Why do we do that, though?) In contrast, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan clean up after themselves.
  3. Singaporeans don’t laugh enough. We score poorly on Happiness indices. We lack a cartoonist.
  4. It would be foolish to try to analyze the deeper sources of our relative unhappiness (V: I disagree), but the most obvious thing might be lack of physical space, which we can’t do very much about. (V: point taken. See janefyp’s comment.)
  5. We should encourage cartoonists, encourage history and narratives. (V: Agree. But we ban films like To Singapore, With Love instead of having a public conversation about it.)
  6. We should demonstrate our love for SG by living the pledge. This is why we have CDAC, Mendaki, Sinda. (V: Aside- why must helping the under-privileged be determined by racial lines? What do the resource breakdowns look like?)
  7. If Singaporeans donate to or volunteer to help less-privileged citizens outside their own communities, we could demonstrate through our deeds, not our words, that we love our fellow Singaporeans “regardless of race, language or religion”. (V: If.)

Here’s my central, biggest criticism of the whole piece:

All of the above address symptoms, not the disease. The what and how, but not the Why.

Kishore is effectively asking for a behavioral change. If we behave differently- “demonstrate through our deeds, not our words, we love our fellow Singaporeans”, then everything will be okay.

Here’s the thing. Anybody can ask for behavioral change. If you study hard, you will do well. If you save your money, you will be financially better off. If you exercise, your healthcare costs will go down.


Philip II of Macedonia: You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army on your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people and raze your city.

Sparta: If.

Here’s my guess, though. Singaporeans aren’t going to stop littering, laugh more and start living the pledge just because Kishore says we ought to.

We can’t change anybody’s behavior until we understand the reasons why they behave the way they do.

It’s almost never because people are ignorant about what they “ought” to be doing.

No smoker thinks, “Oh wow, I had no idea that smoking was unhealthy.  If only somebody would write a Big Idea piece about how it’s important to Love Your Body! Oh, I would change my behavior then.”

That doesn’t work! In FastCompany’s 2005 piece Change Or Die, we learn that 90% of heart patients don’t change their lifestyle even when it means they’ll literally lose their lives.

“If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle.” – Dr. Edward Miller, dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University [source]

Why? Habituation. Learned helplessness. Depression. Fear. Anxiety.

So. Why do Singaporeans litter? Why don’t Singaporeans laugh more? Why don’t we donate and volunteer more? Why don’t Singaporeans love Singapore?

Lecturing won’t help.

Kishore said that it “would be foolish try to analyze the deeper sources of our relative unhappiness in a brief article like this”. I think it’s far more foolish to try and make headway on a problem without first identifying the deepest sources.

Kishore goes on to talk about how we live in cramped spaces, and we don’t have a cartoonist. But do cramped spaces make people treat their country like a hotel? I don’t think so. I think it’s a symptom of a mercenary, transactional meritocracy. “The Govt treats me like an economic digit, I am valued according to my economic contributions- my taxes pay the cleaners’ salary, they can clean it up.”

Re: cartoonists, I don’t think we have a lack of them, I think there’s a lack of demand for them. There are always some cartoonists, some musicians, some artists. Whether they rise to prominence or fade into obscurity is a function of the interest of everybody else.

I find myself thinking, “What would Singaporean cartoonists say, anyway?” and I’m instantly reminded of Colin Goh and his wife Yen Yen, whose story is very worth reading. They wrote that back in 2001, and I think it describes Singaporean culture with much deeper insight than Kishore does:

“While I enjoyed writing and drawing, never for a second did I think this might be a career. Worse, I felt compelled to downgrade their importance in my life. First was money, then pleasure. It was simply un-Singaporean to think one could get pleasure without money, or that working should be pleasurable.” – Colin Goh

That in turn reminds me of Lee Kuan Yew describing Singaporeans (or all humans, perhaps) as digits in a machine:

“At the end of the day, we are all so many digits in a machine. The point is, are these digits stronger digits than the competitor’s digits?” – Lee Kuan Yew [source]

I think that’s a valid, pragmatic perspective. Though it’s worth realizing that in the Information age, the strongest digits are those that find meaning and purpose in their lives, those that have a fundamental reason that they believe in. I think the pioneer generation of Singaporeans had that to a degree that many of us today don’t. (People tend to respond to this with “Ya lor! Last time people understood real pain. Kids nowsadays so soft.” But even that is really just complaining rather than trying to figure out a solution to the problem.)

Suppose this were a failing marriage.

All of this is like a spouse saying, “If you really loved me, you would help with the dishes. If you really loved me, you would take me out to dinner sometime.” And yes, a good relationship is partially about meeting and fulfilling all those needs.

But what if the person on the other end is tired, exhausted and drained? What if they’re thinking, “Jeez. Do I even love this person anymore? Life is so hard. Why do I have to put up with his crap? What do I even want, really? Am I stuck with him? This sucks.”

I think if we are to rekindle our love for each other, we ought to focus less on “What have you done for me lately?” and more on “What do we see in each other?” We ought to remind ourselves of why we’re here in the first place.

It’s easy for me to say this as a random person writing on the Internet, but I think what we need is some initiative, some leadership, some bold vision and a sense of possibility.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Update: I just noticed that Chee Soon Juan of the SDP actually put out a manifesto of sorts called “A New Vision For Singapore“. I find it kinda boring.

4 thoughts on “On Kishore Mahbubani’s “Love Singapore”- We should start with Why.

  1. 4. It would be foolish to try to analyze the deeper sources of our relative unhappiness (V: I disagree), but the most obvious thing might be lack of physical space. (V: I bet there are counter-examples of crowded spaces that are happier. Isn’t Hong Kong denser than Singapore?)

    Actually, I agree that our physical space situation is one of the deep-seated sources of our unhappiness. Having lived in London and recently been to Hong Kong, two cities whose populations are denser than Singapore, I do feel more boxed up in Singapore. This is despite my Macritchie getaway (beware crowded trails on Saturday mornings) and the rural retreat options Ubin, Kranji etc. Other green and recreational spaces are beautifully maintained and provide pocket-sized luxuries of space (thank you NParks), but however can get busy especially on weekends.

    Singapore is a city AND a country. London has England and the UK; 30 mins on a train from central London brought me to mind-blowing fields and forest trails where I couldn’t see, hear or smell traffic. Hong Kong may be incredibly crowded (their MTR is probably more packed than our MRT), but it has no lack of dramatic scenery and mountainous land. The rural and uninhabitable areas (in the mountains) are as much the essence of what Hong Kong is as the dizzy glare of lights in the city. It goes without saying there is probably as much mountain/coastal land area as what is built-up.

    The same is not true of Singapore. Singaporeans may well be able to afford travelling in the region thanks to our strong currency and relatively high wages, but our sense of what land is us is sorely lacking compared to many other cities around the world.

    (Just defending that particular space point)

  2. Absolutely agree with what is written here…….coherent….tight…..and thought provoking. It is indeed regrettable, Mr Mahbubani does not make as much sense as what you have to say. I wonder how he derived at this formulation – if we can love singapore with total commitment and conviction…..singapore will last for another 50 years.

    Perhaps it’s fair to say. Even he must know only too well, his reach like those Potemkin village sites online are a best very limited and very short.

    Darkness 2014

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