When I was in the beautiful American state of Vermont two months ago, I zipped across the road from my hotel to buy breakfast at the petrol station. Being the cheapskate I am, I had realised that it was really expensive to have breakfast at the hotel and I discovered that breakfast at the petrol station (or gas station as the Americans call it) was not only much more economical, but delightfully American too.
This is what it looked like…
So I munched my doughnut and my cookie, and savoured Vermont’s famous Green Mountain Coffee sitting at the old table pictured above, outside the gas station.
Then I noticed this hole in the table…
I realised that the hole represented a major difference between Vermont and Singapore. In Singapore, we would surely have thrown that table away. How could we possibly accept a table with a prominent hole in it in Singapore? No standard, as we would say in Singlish. Shameful!
But this table continued to happily exist at a little gas station in the United States of America. It still served its function — the hole occupied less than one-tenth the surface area of the table and you could still have your breakfast at the table. The people were happy with it — and happy with its flaws. Even the table seemed happy. It was an old, happy, flawed table at an old, happy, flawed gas station. It represented the contentment and simple joy that come from acceptance.
I also noticed that many flower beds in Vermont, even in good hotels, had their flowers arranged in a rather haphazard or crooked fashion. But they were beautiful nonetheless, in the same flawed way that embodies the acceptance of imperfection. This is what the Japanese call wabi-sabi — the beauty of imperfection.
But in Singapore, our flower beds have to be so perfectly straight. When visitors are driven down the highway from Changi Airport, they are greeted by miles and miles of immaculately pruned flowers (pruned by foreign workers, of course) in perfect straight rows. They are eventually greeted by nice new buildings with nice new furniture and old buildings being relentlessly torn down for “upgrading”, one of the chief Singaporean mantras. No tables with big holes in them please, we are Singaporean.
In Singapore, we have little tolerance for flaws. Even good is never good enough. We are always seized by the need to “upgrade”, to “improve”. Students need perfect or near-perfect grades to get into the junior college or university of their choice. One A2 at the O-levels could keep you out of Raffles Institution or ACS (Independent). One B at the A-levels could shut you out of law school, and even straight As do not guarantee you a place in medical school anymore. Students come to believe that they are stupid just because they get an A2 or (horrors!) a B3 in any subject. But the truth is that no one is good at everything! Not Steve Jobs, not Lee Kuan Yew, not Alexander the Great.
Is it any wonder that Singaporeans ranked as the least positive people in the world in a Gallup poll last year? We also ranked as the most emotionless in another Gallup survey. Rather than reacting as most Singaporeans did — being defensive or treating the polls as a joke — I really think that the right response to these poll results is to do some soul-searching.
I accept that as a minuscule country with no natural resources, upgrading and robust competitiveness are necessary for our economic survival. We have delivered on these counts with spectacular success and, according to a study by Citi Private Bank and Knight Frank last year, have become the wealthiest country in the world. But what is the point of knowing how to make a lot of money, or explain the use of thermistors and light-dependent resistors, or differentiate a dactylic tetrameter from an iambic pentameter, if we do not know how to be happy? If we do not know how to relax? If we do not know how to be contented?
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