by Vinod Ashvin Ravi
We often read and hear how travelling and spending time overseas can turn out to be one of life’s most transformative experiences. How such endeavours broaden our horizons to acknowledge and appreciate cultures and peoples distinct from ourselves. All this may be true, but the reverse certainly holds as well. After four months on student exchange in Washington D.C., I’d like to think I’ve become just as aware and appreciative of how similar people are, even halfway across the world.
Even though we tend to like drawing lines of distinction between ourselves, my observation has been that Americans and Singaporeans today face fairly similar circumstances and challenges – derived partly from having fairly similar wants – in the course of their daily lives. This is not to say that there are no differences, but our constant attempts at distinguishing ourselves from one another should not cloud our vision from the similarities that exist either.
First and foremost, both societies today are witnessing a common narrative of growing resentment against the powers-that-be. From keyboard warriors to Hong Lim Park protestors, we’ve seen a discernably rising tide of anti-establishment frustration in Singapore in recent years. Yet diatribes against the prevailing political system – and those who run it – are no less severe here in America.
Granted, such anger is grounded in distinctly different reasons. Many Singaporeans are angry at what they perceive to be the continued unilateral decision-making style of the Government. In America on the other hand, much of the anger stems from the fact that effective decision-making itself seems to have become nothing short of a miracle given the political gridlock and paralysis in key Washington institutions engendered by entrenched antagonism between Democratic and Republican parties.
What’s common however is that people in both countries seem to increasingly express a growing sense of disconnect with those they elected to power. An American classmate tells me that the conversations on the ground – more so than ever before – are no longer echoed by those on Capitol Hill anymore. That the governed are losing heart and faith in the governing with each subsequent misstep. A recent Gallup poll in March revealed that Congress had just a 13% approval rating by Americans, only 1% and 4% higher than North Korea and Iran respectively.
A second commonality seems to be that the question of identity has come under equal scrutiny in America today as it has in Singapore. Our country loves to celebrate its diversity, and America is certainly no different. My classmates here include Korean-Americans, Irish-Americans, German-Americans, Indian-Americans, and even Armenian-Americans. They look upon their adoptive country with much pride, but regard their home countries with much fondness. Many Americans I’ve spoken to recognize the critical role that immigrants have played in shaping the country’s past, but just as many remain anxious about a continued inflow of immigrants and the effects this will have on their future jobs and lives.
By extension therefore, immigration has become a hot-button topic in America just as it has in Singapore. President Obama in both his Inauguration and ‘State of the Union’ speeches continued to emphasize the need to constantly attract immigrant talent, yet such rhetoric continues to spark concern amongst Americans (why does that sound familiar?). Sure, some nuances of the immigration debate in both countries are slightly different. For one, Americans have to contend with the issue of illegal immigration on a scale dissimilar to the Singaporean context. Yet the general reactions that the debates have provoked – in all their good, bad and ugly hues – remain similar.
They have their magical immigration-related numbers just like us – remember 6.9 million, anyone? – yet here too, the issue of immigration itself seems to strike at something more profound than merely statistics. A classmate tells me that the question of what it means to be American – beyond just the free speech and other constitutional rights – seems increasingly to be in constant flux. Re-negotiating and re-establishing the nuances of citizenship, it seems, is increasingly a central feature of conversations here as well.
Thirdly, discussions pertaining to education – the ‘what’s, ‘why’s and ‘how’s – display distinct similarities in both countries. In Singapore, we recently witnessed a recent surge of public attention on the state – and merits – of studying Literature. Lest we think the ‘Arts vs. Science’ debate is a quagmire peculiar to us, Americans too are increasingly subject to calls to engage in a ‘STEM’ – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – education. In some ways, the education issue here is interwoven with that of immigration, for the pro-STEM lobby has gained traction in recent years riding on the notion that declining rates of STEM education amongst Americans has created the need to bring in more immigrants trained in such specific disciplines.
Another pressing concern on the current American conscience vis-à-vis education – and one with shades of convergence with the Singaporean context – has been the perceived decline in equality of opportunity. There seems to be a growing sense that the most prestigious brands of education – typified commonly by the Ivy League colleges – have become the entrenched domain of a few, and that the implemented designs of the meritocratic system need to be reviewed and rethought. A neighbour I spoke to told me how he felt an urgent imperative to revive the mantra of ‘hard work will be duly rewarded’ as a core tenet of the much-touted ‘American dream’.
A fourth and final commonality – and perhaps a function of convergent circumstances vis-à-vis immigration and education – is a similar sense of awareness of the mounting competition confronting both societies, especially the younger generations. Many Singaporeans tend to lament an endless ‘paper chase’ as one of the banes of an unceasingly competitive education system. Yet a ‘paper chase’ albeit of a different form is prevalent here as well. While the courses we primarily tend to pursue bear grades, those that Americans pursue bear predominantly job credentials.
Indeed, internships are like prime real-estate here in the American capital. Students of all levels scramble to secure a multitude of internships not only between but during semesters as well. The game of one-upmanship for career prospects here hinges less so on letters of the alphabet and more so instead on the breadth of work experience. But this does not discount the fact that the pressures of competition remain significant and equally daunting here in America as well.
As I’ve mentioned, this article does not aim to deny that differences exist between the two countries. Certainly the points highlighted above illuminate divergent finer nuances that characterize both nations. Yet the broader attitudes, mindsets and concerns that undergird these nuances can be argued to be similar. At the end of the day, people in both societies essentially want to lead better lives, and to do so consistently both for themselves and for future generations who succeed them. We put in hard work in the expectation that such effort will engender positive payoffs. We yearn for prosperity because it seems to have become a harbinger of stability in our lives.
My peers and I in Singapore worry constantly over the rising housing and transport prices and the implications these bring to bear on our future finances. Our American counterparts conversely concern themselves with having to pay back exorbitant and seemingly incredible student loans utilized to fund their college education. Once again, the manifestations might be different, but the fears and apprehensions associated with costs – and unaffordability – remain shared between both societies. We look to government to provide guidance and assistance – if not explicit answers – and are disheartened when they fail to respond adequately. Whether it’s the ‘American dream’ or the ‘Singaporean dream’ – whatever either may mean – it seems that more and more people in both societies perceive such visions to be devolving into little more than wistful fantasy.
This exercise in comparison is of course not meant to trivialize the challenges faced by either country, or to exonerate either government from its responsibilities and missteps. The Singapore leadership for one has certainly made its fair share of policy miscalculations in recent times – even by its own admission – and must now navigate a new and challenging phase of governance in an era of hyper-connectivity and re-politicization. But perhaps an awareness that Singaporeans are not alone in fighting the big, bad wolves that haunt us might help us to constructively shape the discourse that emerges from this period of political transition. One of the more sobering revelations I have experienced in my time here has been that many of the pressures we think Singapore faces by virtue of being a small country, may in fact apply to nations far bigger than us as well.
Embracing globalization has often been signaled as a strategy for a small state Singapore to remain relevant to the world. Yet even – and perhaps especially – a larger state like America cannot afford to isolate and alienate itself from the rest of the world, lest it risks its own prosperity. Forging and maintaining social harmony and cohesion are often regarded as paramount in Singapore on account of our small but ethnically diverse population. Yet such maintenance is equally critical to America given its numerous minority groups and the constant inflow of immigrants. We often feel the pressure to upgrade ourselves so as to maintain or enhance our position on the global economic ladder because small nations have it harder in making their mark. But it can be argued that the same pressure weighs just as heavily on those perceived to be atop the ladder so as to avoid being surpassed by those snapping at their heels. Our individual strokes may be different – as may be the size of the ripples we create – but we’re all ultimately swimming to survive lest we sink to darker, bleaker depths.
Back in our younger schooling years, we were constantly encouraged to take part in community service – to engage the wider community – so as to gain perspective and a heightened awareness of our own lot in life. As Singapore today seeks to rediscover and redefine itself – politically, economically and even socio-culturally – perhaps a similar attempt at observing the wider world beyond our ‘little red dot’ may in fact be beneficial to us in finding ourselves as a collective people and nation.
The writer, 22, is a National University of Singapore undergraduate majoring in political science now on an exchange programme at George Washington University in Washington D.C.