Singapore’s Magic Numbers: A Tale from the Dark Side

“Nation before community and society above self”?

There are always risks, but there are always opportunities too, says the Gambler. Whatever you call evil can be turned into some good, he insists, for he got his eyes set on the winning margin, somewhere in the horizon.

Some might say that the only thing constant in this world is change. What is your home today may not be your home tomorrow. Just consider the investment opportunities, and you will feel so rich, says the Gambler. Nothing is ever sacred according to the Gambler’s logic, except for his own practice of gaming.

There is hence no ‘magic number’, if you ask the government what should be kept aside as minimum income, in order to sustain a family. The typical reply of the Gambler is: when you have more money, you can celebrate with a feast at a restaurant; when you have less, just skip one meal. The Gambler is superstitious, talking about ‘minimum’ is bad luck and is taboo.

There is however some magic formula, for the state to calculate how many new citizens should be introduced each year to inject new life in the economy. It’s just like there is some formula for an insurance company to calculate your monthly premium based on your medical history. Or calculation on how much return or interest you should receive from CPF each month as pension, based on the needs of the ‘nation’, not based on your needs. Money has to be circulated in some mysterious way, that you and I need not know.

In fact, many of us would simply trust everything in the hands of people who are bureaucrats or technocrats, people who are the ‘experts’. It’s like how a lot of people like to keep placing their bets on the same colour that was their lucky colour many moons ago, though the world is fast changing. If the state comes up with a magic number of 30% increase in productivity over 10 years as condition for wage increase, take it as heaven’s decree.

Perhaps the ‘experts’ think they have a popular vote of 60% to support whatever they do. As they are talking as if people are just being unproductive, they forget that Pride, like Greed, is what some people would call one of the seven deadly sins, and ‘Greed’ is what other people would call exploitation. Maybe they have forgotten that there are other principles in life, apart from the Economy, just like there are other models of government.

Or maybe they want the people to keep worshiping this hungry beast called Economy as they do, to chase the same bubbles, so that the bubbles will keep growing. Money is the essence that drives their logic. Hence even when the number of cars needs to be controlled due to pollution of the environment, the pros of revenue from COE prices can always outweigh the cons. That’s how the mind of an opportunist works.

Hence the Gambler has looked at the fengshui of Singapore, and decided it would be a pity not to build a couple of casinos here. Well I may not know much about fengshui, but I have heard this: casinos are designed to suck in money, and to shred you into pieces as you enter. It’s not a playground for everyone.

Yet all of us might have unwittingly given our blessings to such new symbols of a neoliberal economy. In NDP2009, the whole nation was asked to recite the Singapore Pledge at 8:22 pm, numbers that echo ‘prosper easily’ in Chinese. You know, it’s like the well-known urban legend about the octagonal shape of the new $1 coin launched in 1987, just two months before the launch of the MRT, – the bagua to counter the damage of fengshui in the island with all that digging.

There are more stories about fengshui in Singapore that can be shared, but don’t ask me if these stories have a happy ending. You may just ask: what’s the moral of the story? And I may say, the riddle is in the true meaning behind this ‘shared value’ of Singapore: “Nation before community and society above self”.

The thing is, everybody will have his or her own belief in life. But I have this mental image that people in this country are just tokens or chips for the Economy, they may be used as capital, but they are also expendable and replaceable. Similarly, communities are used as chess pieces to counteract one against another. Clan associations for instance may be used as pawns to usher in the king, but pawns will ultimately have to sacrifice for the good of the ‘nation’. If the pawns ask what actually make up the ‘nation’, they will be told that they have no right to ask unless they are prepared to die for the nation.

Hence it is not surprising at all that we would also hear ‘learned’ or well-respected men in this country telling us that there is no Singapore identity, or that there is no Singapore culture. Ultimately, they would rather tell us it is all a myth in the making. If truth be told, we are not exactly all ‘in the same boat’; we are in a luxury liner, where some are first-class passengers, while others are crew or servants.

Perhaps the myth all began with the construction of this mythical creature called the Merlion in 1972 at the original Esplanade, before the British army withdrew from the port of Singapore. Three decades later in 2002, the Merlion, which had stopped spouting water, was relocated to its new ‘majestic setting’ at a cost of $7.5 million, so that it could again ‘bask in its former glory’ at the mouth of the Singapore River – to signify a new reign of prosperity, apparently. Hopefully it is not a bad omen that it later got hit by lightning, literally.

Water is a symbol of life, for it is from water that every living thing is made. Water is used for purification in many beliefs. But for the Chinese, it symbolises wealth and fortune above all.

It is not surprising then that there is also a Sky Park on the top of Marina Bay Sands, with a spectacular pool overlooking the city. A great symbol for the new ‘Singapore Dream’. There is of course an entrance fee, and it is subject to availability. We may need a fengshui master to tell us if this symbolises prosperity for all Singaporeans; or what should it mean when water is just stuck up there for the privileged ones?

It has just been announced that the Singapore River will have to change its course due to construction of MRT, and it may look somewhat different in the future. Now will LTA give local archaeologists some months for excavation before work commences? Excavations in 1998 at the Empress Place site found at least 40,000 artefacts, many from periods before Stamford Raffles; in 2010, the NUS archaeological team was allowed only 20 days to salvage whatever they could at the future National Art Gallery – Chinese coins and pottery from the Yuan and Ming dynasties as well as 17th-century Spanish silver reales.

As it is, so much history in Singapore has been lost due to MRT. Bidadari Cemetery was cleared away with construction of MRT cited as part of the reason. And an MRT line has also been laid down at the doorsteps of Bukit Brown, clearly a strategic move for future property development.

Ancestral graves have been an important part of Chinese fengshui beliefs traditionally, as a good location is believed to help descendants prosper. It was hence said that during the Qing dynasty, the Manchurian government destroyed the ancestral graves of Hong Xiuquan while he was leading the Taiping revolutionary movement. It was also said that the KMT army of Chiang Kai-shek tried to destroy the ancestral graves of Mao Zedong during China’s civil war in the 1930s.

I know what some people would say: if the old does not go, the new will not come. I would just ask: why is the old always considered a hindrance? Why did all the kampungs and all the ethnic quarters like Chinatown with their tightly knit communities have to go? And why should man consider nature as his enemy, and the elements only as something to be exploited for his gains? Is subjugation of nature a proof of man’s power and superiority, and should all members of society subscribe to such a view?

Perhaps the most terrifying of well-known urban legends in Singapore was the story about children being kidnapped in the 1970s, for their heads to be used as foundation of the Benjamin Sheares Bridge. It was apparently unfounded. But stories like this reflect our primitive belief that sacrifice is always needed for a ‘greater good’, as long as you are not the unlucky one.

Perhaps this is the same rationality or irrationality that persuades us into thinking that the rights of an individual must also be sacrificed for the good of a nation. Perhaps it is also the calculation of the careful Gambler that it is better to err on the safe side, especially when it is one’s power or capital at stake. This reasoning leads to a policy that presumes every person as guilty or dishonest until proven innocent. Thus is the logic of ISA, as well as the worry that a welfare system will always lend itself to abuse.

But what is left of our ‘nation’, when there is no regard for the dignity of the individual, only consideration of individuals as human resources; or when there is no respect for the rights of communities to their cultural heritage, only relegation of responsibility to each community for its own welfare?

We are then left with a nation without basic principles of respect and dignity for the individual and for the communities. I guess that’s why they call it Singapore Inc. It’s the dream of a ‘multiracial meritocracy’, a pyramid system where money attracts more money for those at the top, while those on the losing end will have to make themselves cheaper and cheaper, all in the name of ‘competitiveness’.

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