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]



Saltwetfish said...

Sorry Jeff, nothing to do with your blog... do you know what's happening to SPUG.NET?

Now the 755p is launched, we need info from the Singapore side!!!

jeffyen said...

The temp forums are at . The original one will probably be up by the end of this month...

Saltwetfish said...

Aiyah, stupid me, forgot about it. I was trying and it does not redirect to the forum...

Keane said...

Just passing through, and I saw your post. Really cool.

If you think in a larger perspective, as I'm sure Leonidas must have, you'd probably assume the offer of safety and gold an empty promise. To serve under the rule of a foreign dictator would essentially be killing his people and their way of life. So, in a sense, he sacrificed himself to save his loved ones and their culture. And in death, he was able to rile up the other Grecian forces to battle.