Are we scared of excellence?

Jan 04, 2017 07.00PM |

by Bertha Henson

EVEN The Sunday Times has got into the act of trying to find a word to define 2016. Its poll involving observers and industry experts from 13 sectors threw up this blah word: challenging. I call it blah because most times, challenging is a euphemism. Why not say problematic or difficult? That’s because it smacks of too much pessimism. Say challenging and there’s still a chance that we can “rise up to the challenge”.

It’s like a weight-loss challenge – eat less and exercise more to achieve your desired weight. Would that it would be so easy to extrapolate from individual to country… Eating less and exercising more is well within an individual’s control or rather self-control. Being unable to rise up to the “challenge” means a lack of discipline and will power on the part of the individual. Outside forces (who’s forcing you to eat that bar of chocolate?) have little part to play in meeting the challenge.

So will 2017 be “challenging” too? And can we, as a nation, rise up to it?

We know the economy isn’t in high gear. The Prime Minister has said that we grew by more than 1 per cent last year, that is, probably between 1 and 1.5 per cent as officially projected. He said that it could be between 1 and 3 per cent in 2017. Who knows really? Projections have a way of being revised over the year, especially a city-state dependent on so many outside forces.

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Questioning whether the people here still have the mettle to go through hard times, The Straits Times columnist Han Fook Kwang called for a clearer vision of national identity or where the country wants to go.

Frankly, we’ve been navel-gazing over the identity issue every few years or so. Who remembers the Our Singapore Conversation? Here’s a re-cap if you want to recall:

  1. ‘Tweaks’ won’t fix S’pore meritocracy
  2. SGfuture dialogues: Let them not be same old, same old…

Or maybe it’s an economic identity we need and we should find it within the Committee on the Future Economy report expected this month. Hopefully it will not be so esoteric a vision that it can only be fulfilled in the next generation or the one after that.

We can expect the panel to point to new sectors of growth that will maximise our limited land and scarce manpower. We can also expect the panel, helmed by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, to say that a foundation is being laid with the focus on skills training and becoming master craftsmen. Engineering is being made sexy again.

But what about the rest of us who have passed through the school years and are half-way into a working life? We’ll be asked to train and re-train, no doubt. Or maybe to make sacrifices of some sort to assure the country’s continued future. Expect to hear the word “resilience” often.

I would like to offer an old-new word, “excellence”.

I would like to offer an old-new word, “excellence”. It’s been a long time since the phrase “the pursuit of excellence” has been in vogue. Like “meritocracy”, it’s been put on the back burner because it’s simply too stressful to be excellent. In fact, people associate excellent with excellent grades which equals to terrible stress on Ah Boy and Ah Girl. I doubt that the term is even used in working life because it’s hard to pursue work excellence while pursuing work-life balance.

Face it. We’ve gotten fat and flabby.

It shows in the way we don’t want to take up jobs that demand time and physical energy and can cite so many reasons why we won’t. It shows in our young people’s heightened expectations of the good life once we step into the working world. It shows in the way we are complacent about Number 1 rankings on international charts and yet chafe when things don’t go as efficiently or effectively as we think they should.

Everybody else and every group/agency should be excellent in their production or service. But we wouldn’t think the same for ourselves because we need time to smell the roses and explore the world. Yup, we deserve our work-life balance.

Our children, even more so.

This is not an attempt to deride young people. The fault, really, lies in the members of my generation who grew up to be better-off than our parents and want our children to be better-off than us – immediately. But for things to be better, we have to work harder and be even smarter. We have to be excellent.

We’re already working the longest hours we say? But we can’t be very smart about it since it isn’t showing on productivity charts. We used to progress at breakneck speed and suggestions that we can slow down the pace were slapped down. Nobody slaps anybody for wanting a slower pace now, because the mantra that we should be content with moderate growth has been drummed into us over the past decade.

We talk of forces beyond our control, which make for excellent scape-goats. We don’t say that we’re fat, lazy and unproductive people who like to grumble about everything. A politician who harangues the people this way risks political suicide. We don’t have Lee Kuan Yew to lecture and hector us to be the best that we can be.

We don’t have Lee Kuan Yew to lecture and hector us to be the best that we can be.

We’re content with “good enough”.

It’s demonstrated in several areas (except public transport which must be beyond excellent). Ah Boy’s grades are good enough. Not so many mistakes, so good enough. Being competent is good enough. Why drive yourself so hard when you’re good enough? Why not be content with good enough? Some of us can think that way, but not all of us.

We’re a city-state. We’re not competing among countries but among cities. The best talent in a country live and work in big cities. They can pull along the rest who decide to opt out of the rat race and live in the country-side. We don’t have a countryside with a slower treadmill.

But it’s not good to have high standards because you’ll be construed as unreasonable and described as a slave-driver. The bar gets lowered until mediocre becomes good enough. Why does the bar go down? Because it’s easier to make people feel good about themselves and harder to tell them that they are fat, lazy and unproductive.

I thought the pursuit of excellence would be in fashion because there was a time when the word “exceptional” was being bandied around.

Here’s what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the May Day rally in 2015: “We as a country we have to be ordinary people creating an exceptional nation because we are a small country in this part of the world and to survive you have to be exceptional. If you are in Europe, you might say if I’m something like my neighbours, that’s good enough. In Singapore, in Southeast Asia, if we say let’s just be something like our neighbours, you’ll be pushed around, shoved about, trampled upon, that’s the end of Singapore and the end of us.” 

Of course, it sounds like end-of-the-world rhetoric and we’re so put off by the “vulnerability” narrative aren’t we?

Maybe we do need a clearer vision, a new dream that will push us further.

After Mr Lee died in 2015, his phrase “chasing rainbows” made in a speech more than 20 years, was resurrected. His son, the PM, referred to it a few times. What the late Mr Lee said: “The sky has turned brighter. There is a glorious rainbow that beckons those with the spirit of adventure. And there are rich findings at the end of that rainbow. To the young and the not too old, I say, look at the horizon, find that rainbow, go ride it.”

The phrase caught on even though rainbows are elusive and a rainbow chaser could be as mad as a storm chaser. I like it though. It’s aspirational but it seems a more apt motto for individuals than a body-politic.

I don’t think I want to live through another bout of public navel-gazing about identity. I would appreciate someone just putting that dream out there, and getting people on board. That would be excellent leadership, methinks.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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