Friday, April 13, 2007

This is MADNESS!

"IN THE climactic scene of the movie, 300, Persian emperor Xerxes was laying siege on the Spartans. He offered the Spartan king Leonidas a deal to save his people from almost certain death. In return for his subservience, Xerxes offered to make him ruler of all Greece, and shower him with loads of money and glory. Leonidas rejected the deal and was killed.

After the movie, I asked a friend what she thought I would do if I were in the same situation as Leonidas. She said: 'You will take the deal. You are not Spartan, you are Singaporean.'

It was hard to disagree with her. Money, power and glory versus death, albeit in honour? It's almost a no-brainer. I am Singaporean and staying alive with all the trappings of a good life is the practical, if not the most distinguished, choice. I don't think I am any different from my peers. Singaporeans, especially the post-65ers, have by and large bought into the pragmatic ideology of the People's Action Party Government, with a strong emphasis on economic development - in both the public and private spheres. Or as Professor Simon Tay wrote in these pages last week, this is a society that puts 'rational calculation' first... As a people, we have subscribed, celebrated and enjoyed an ethos of pragmatism, often marked by vulgar consumerism.

After all, most of us buy into the Singapore Dream that is a naked pursuit of the Five Cs of cash, credit card, car, condominium and country club....So if we Singaporeans define success by money, we must also accept the idea that good work should be rewarded with good money... If Singaporeans are unhappy with the increase in ministerial pay, they would do little good to lament and complain. Truth is, this issue of ministerial pay will never go away as long as we are a nation where practicality overwhelms passion. The more important question to ask is: Is it time to rethink how we define our meaning of life? Otherwise, as Cassius said in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'"
~Peh Shing Huei, 'Why Old Guard ideals no longer apply', in the column Insight: The Post-65ers, Straits Times

So naturally, the newspaper has churned out more interesting stories today, but this one for me is especially worrisome. Peh seems to be taking the general ideas of 'rationality', 'must get high pay before people would serve', 'pragmatic ideology of the Action Party' and extrapolate it to excuse acts of treason. No-brainer, it seems. I can imagine military commanders reading this piece shaking their heads, and wondering, 'is it really so easy to buy over this group of 'post 65ers' whom Peh claims share his sentiments?'

I think there are a few things that are not quite right with this article. There are too many stereotyping and sweeping statements about our value system, for a start. Also, in the movie, the offer to surrender is offered to Leonidas (the angry guy depicted in the picture above) near the beginning of the story. Of course he refuses due to admirable sentiments, and thereafter his 300 professional soldiers manage to slaughter at least 100,000 invading Persians soldiers according to the historian Herodotus and modern scholars. If we were to say that we would surrender then for 'rational' reasons (i.e., for money) before the battle even starts, then it'll be no different from what the everyday traitor does.

The point is that this analogy about surrendering in the most awful of circumstances doesn't really have much to do with the debate of salaries in Parliament. Sure, I'd agree with Peh that I probably would break under torture. But 'practicality' in more peaceful times (when the offer of surrender is presented) is very different from the sort of 'do or die' scenario depicted in the movie's last scene. The latter should be treated separately and not to be tied to our analysis.

In Leonidas' case, money and power has long been offered to him even before this last scene. It actually happens in the 'madness' scene which starts the movie off, described below. To say that it is 'rational' to betray Sparta for Persian money is, in my opinion, high treason. This is what happened to the other government official in the movie who actually receives money from the Persians (even though he seems to have no pockets to hold the coins) to facilitate capitulation, and is discovered later. The Spartans call him a traitor, and rightly so. Let us not so flippantly excuse traitorous behaviour with 'practicality overwhelming passion', 'meaning of life is 5Cs' etc. (Anyway, aren't the 5Cs supposed to be outdated already?) I may be wrong about what Peh is trying to say, though. It just seems to me that he's saying this thing called 'practicality' is so strong that it can 'buy over' things very easily. I really don't think that's the case at all. Because if this were true, in matters of national security, we'd all be in quite a bit of trouble... And to that sort of thinking and behaviour, Leonidas would probably have said, 'This is MADNESS!!' :p

Context of original 'madness' quote [Source]:
Persian messenger: All the God-King Xerxes requires is this: a simple offering of earth and water. A token of Sparta's submission to the will of Xerxes.
Leonidas: Submission...Well that's a bit of a problem. See rumor has it that the ATHENIANS have already turned you down. And if those philosophers and boy-lovers have that kind of nerve...
Theron: We must be diplomatic.
Leonidas: And of course Spartans...have their reputation to consider.
Persian messenger: Choose your next words carefully, Leonidas. They may be your last as king.
[Leonidas draws his sword and points it towards the Persian messenger, whose back is to a large, deep well]
Persian messenger: Madman! You're a madman!
Leonidas: Earth and'll find plenty of both down there.
Persian messenger: No man -- Persian or Greek -- no man threatens a messenger!
Leonidas: You bring the crowns and heads of conquered kings to my city's steps. You insult my queen. You threaten my people with slavery and death! Oh, I've chosen my words carefully, Persian. Perhaps you should have done the same!
Persian messenger: This is blasphemy! This is madness!
Leonidas: [He looks at Gorgo, who nods to him] Madness? THIS IS SPARTA!!. [kicks the messenger down the well]


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

With Great Power Comes...

On a certain day during the school holidays a few weeks ago, I was supposed to drive to school, but for some reason (maybe I was dreaming or something), I turned instead onto the highway and headed for teacher's college. (I do really like that place.) I only realised my 'mistake' only after reaching the expressway's exit ramp. But, on the highways of life, there're no mistakes, only possibilities. (!) I accomplished something on the highway that I'll remember for the rest of my fast life. It was a glorious, sunny day; not many cars were on the highway. I could see the bright red flattop of a Ferrari some distance ahead of me. I had always wanted to get close to one since I first experienced the loud exhaust sound of these red cars one day on another part of the island. It was quite fantastic, their two jet engines made such a ruckus that I could feel my steering wheel tremble. Anyway, back to today's Ferrari, I sensed that something was wrong with her. She was taking the right-most lane, and in right-hand-drive areas like Singapore, this meant that she was supposed to be going quite fast. (Of course, she should be going quite fast in whatever lane she was at!) But no, the strange thing was that it seemed to me that she was going quite slowly. Another car was behind and overtook her. Bizarre... Naturally, I decided to see how fast she was going by adjusting my speed to match hers. My odometer showed around 90km/k. 90?! That's the official speed limit; and this driver's observance of the the speed limit where the road ahead was empty for the next kilometre was just not right. I decided to do the unthinkable; I would overtake her as well!! So I came up from behind and sort of 'tailgated' her just to see if she would increase speed. She didn't. She was road hogging! I took my chance, took the adjacent lane, drove up alongside and maintained my speed. Was an old man behind this Ferrari? No, the driver looked like JingChengWu, athletic, young-movie star! He seemed to be enjoying the ride, there was no rush at all. Everything's cool. I accelerated and overtook her (the feeling was tremendous!), but I then realised there's something rather intriguing about this whole thing. The Ferrari could overtake any car, but this one was going rather slowly and hogging the road. The only reason why I thought there's something wrong was because I tend to equate fast with 'right', as least for a car designed to go pretty fast. But here was something that transcended this 'value system'. The driver was going at the speed he wanted, and that's probably all that mattered to him; he didn't have to care if people are horning at him to go faster. And then I realised that he had the power, and with great power comes... the option not to use it. Very measured and unassuming Ferrari driver, and the first one I've overtaken. I can't wait for the next one... ;)

Not Prepared To Concede Non-Success In Nation-Building Efforts

Sir, I think we are all idealists in this House. We all believe in this great social enterprise that we call Singapore. We have to, otherwise we would not have sacrificed our time to be here, we would not have heeded the call of duty and served... If we have reached the stage where money is necessary to draw able Singaporeans into public office, then I think we might as well pack up now, because we would have failed, because Singaporeans obviously do not see Singapore as a nation worth fighting and sacrificing for. Sir, I do not believe that to be the case. To believe otherwise, is to admit failure in our nation-building efforts. I am not prepared to do so. And I hope that the Government is not prepared to do so either, and will show that in future revisions. Thank you, Sir. ~NMP Siew on civil service salary revisions, full text here.

I mentioned a few days ago about the 'admirable sentiment' I see daily around the workplace. On Monday, NMP Siew spoke to the House, with optimism, rather than with pessimism and end-of-the-world scenarios. The Singapore Story has long being built on faith and idealism (cue your favourite national building story and NE song), hopefully it will continue for generations to come...

PS. My favourite blog is now the YP blog. It's incredibly interesting! I used to think that I was quite good at detecting satire. After reading the second paragraph of this article, I really don't know if I'm reading satire or not! It's quite a strange and disturbing feeling... The last paragraph is a real gem though! :)

Sunday, April 8, 2007

A Poverty of Ambition?

"There’s nothing wrong with making money, but focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself, and in the end, I suspect, will leave you unfulfilled.” ~ Barack Obama* to students of the Campus Progress National Student Conference, 2006. (Source, source)
I finally found something that is a bit of consolation and counterpoint to the strange pronouncements over the past few days. The reality of those who 'serve the country' in one form or other seems to be quite different from the weird straw man arguments I'm hearing. Many of the folks I see seem to do their jobs out of a fair bit of idealism. I wasn't quite aware of this sort of thing before, but in these few weeks of Basic Training, it has become quite apparent to me. The Newspaper has been working overtime to bring out feature articles about the work done by the various Departments. Today's article is on the Learning Branch, and I like what I'm reading. I think overall, we have a good system working here, all things considered. All thanks to the rank and file who possess quite a fair bit of 'admirable sentiment', I reckon. :) *President of the United States in 2008, conditions apply.