Finding Singa: Principles of Singaporean ‘exceptionalism’

In recent years the idea of a Singaporean exceptionalism has been raised by those who make the argument that for Singapore to continue being what it has been, being  ‘exceptional’ is a necessity and not an option. The meaning ‘exceptional’ takes on in those contexts tends to be in terms of the achievement of distinct national economic capabilities.

Between the first and second steps, there’s something of a gap. The first step, that Singapore needs to continue being Singapore to remain Singapore, is a truism. What the second step does is to specify conditions and interpose criteria. I don’t wish to go too far into discussing the technical economic/social/geographical/historical details, but the two main discourses this second step draws from include the discourse of national vulnerability, as well as the discourse of the primacy of economic concerns.

Yesterday I was in a discussion where two participants took issue with what they saw as whiney or ‘escapist’ Singaporeans, whom they criticized as responding to a perceived economic pressure in non-constructive ways (futile complaining & leaving the country, respectively). Their suggestion was for ‘escapists’ to be more realistic about economic pressures and dig in their heels, and for complainers to reduce their expectations about their income level if they wanted to enjoy more free time

While neither were irrational suggestions, I had serious points of disagreement with each. Regarding the first, I said that rather than regard Singaporeans as being escapist if they truly believe that the economic pressures are too great and decide to leave, wouldn’t it be more rational to conclude that they made a good choice? As for the second, it contained that argument that economic pressure is more perceived than real, and can be opted out from; while this is true at the level of the individual, I think it is fair to say that Singaporean society as a whole would not (perhaps cannot) endorse this choice.

In my assessment economic pressure is an inherent feature of Singaporean society as it currently exists. As long as Singaporeans continue to seek what they currently seek (a certain ‘quality of life’), pressure will be the status quo.

I happen to prefer not to deny that what I see Singaporeans seeking is worth seeking, but this is something anyone with an opinion is free to disagree with. What I think is an undeniable feature of the situation is the exceptional consensus (or perhaps habitus) that has developed, and that has persisted. I think this is something we could fairly term a Singaporean exceptionalism.

How I opted to describe this attitude of Singaporean exceptionalism was as a decision matrix, one with a unique mix of factors. The curious thing about this decision matrix is that, when applied to the question of whether to ‘do Singapore’ or not, it will always generate the same solution. (Or at least it must do so for enough people to sustain a viable population.) The kind of economic aspiration that is the norm now, can be thought of as some subset of relevant factors.

According to this logic I think it becomes easier to understand how some individuals will come to the point of decision that their priorities are incompatible with what is on offer, and that this decision need not be something to lament or regret over much. At the same time we can see how some individuals will decide that their priorities may not be an entirely comfortable match but that there remain compelling reasons to continue with the status quo.

One of the other things I like about this description of Singaporean exceptionalism is that it contains the possibility of out-Singapore-ing Singapore. We could theoretically apply this matrix to search for something somewhere that is worth ‘doing’. The thing we find might be something we can emulate and perhaps eventually integrate. Perhaps it might be something that shows us where we have fallen short of our own standards.

As for the sustainability of this way-of-being, it rests squarely on the extent to which the matrix can be improved and adapted while having it continue to serve its users. It calls for the kind of resilience built on flexibility and creative destruction. It calls for knowing ourselves and being true to it, while trying to outdo ourselves and recognizing where we may be outdone.