Good luck trying to change Singaporeans

March 23, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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Published 14 March 2003
Business Times Mail Bag

WE are a nation of campaigns and contradictions. So much so that these days, we are best off laughing at ourselves.

Come May 31, the young and the restless will head for Orchard Road, where a government-organised Singapore Street Festival with graffiti, street wear and inline-skating contests will be held.

The event, the first of its kind in South-east Asia, aims to nurture a vibrant street culture in Singapore.

Little surprise why it is the first of its kind. Of the many campaigns launched relentlessly to encourage creativity and spawn ingenuity, organised graffiti must surely bring our government’s efforts to a new high, or low for the more cynical.

Let’s be absolutely clear about something: well-intended campaigns such as these provide opportunities to showcase and develop individual skills and talents – nothing more. Elsewhere around the country, receptive Singaporeans may hopefully pick up the not-so-subtle message they convey: that such behaviour is officially
condoned, so let’s have more of them!

The truth is that Singaporeans cannot be changed. The now defunct Hong Lim Park is a perfect illustration that engineered or organised spontaneity has short lifespans. Unfortunately, creativity, energy and vibrancy share the single characteristic that lies well beyond the reach of human persuasion: Attitude – with a capital A.

Attempting to nurture such attitudes is eminently consistent with our government’s approach to solving problems. But while you can usually train people to do a job, you cannot as easily change their minds and the way and manner in which they think and feel.

What we need – and need badly – are mavericks. And assuming they even exist, will the people, the law, and the government accommodate such mavericks? Most importantly, can and will the maverick instinct be infectious?

We are, at the end of the day, a rule-encumbered society. Singaporeans are incapable of contemplating difference. We clamour for action from the authorities when anything goes wrong. We are incapable of seeing how some things can be changed through our own actions.

Can we be blamed? This is a country where bar-top dancing is outlawed, where protesters require a permit to galvanise collective action, where fines and penalties abound and various forms of behaviour are frowned upon.

We are in need of a revolution. But as with all revolutions, it is not the people who must be changed, it is the people who must want change.

Cheng Shing Chow