Monday, January 19, 2009

Civil servant makes a splash, gets a public dunking

For all our cosmopolitan aspirations, the vast majority of us S'poreans are still very much a kampong people. We keep a close eye on each other's behaviour and expect that all of us should conform to a certain standard of decorum in our public conduct.

That's probably fine in most situations -- we do want an orderly and safe public space to live in -- but when we set our expectations on the basis of pettiness and envy and enforce them through punishment, or in this case, public censure, I think we're causing our own brain drain. We're chasing away those who appear "different" and narrowly defining our society as only accepting of those who are equally small-minded and conformist as the rest of us.

So a top Civil Servant makes a splash of his publically-funded wages by taking a long vacation with his family to bond over exotic Parisian cuisine. And he has the temerity to publish his travelogue in the local press. But because the rest of our incomes are going down the toilet with this economic climate, we get upset because this "insensitive" individual refuses to put on an unhappy face and wallow with us in the dumps of despair. It rankles further because we feel that it's our taxpayers' money that has gone towards funding his high life, and so we can take the moral high ground to question if this is how our hard-earned taxes are to be frittered away.

The S'porean mind is complex and hard to fathom. We tell our kids to strive for success, to do everything it takes to raise their lot in life. Do better, work harder and above all, earn more money so life can be more comfortable for them and their family. And then we have this backlash directed at someone who has attained the S'porean Dream and is living the way his parents had hoped he would one day.

It's an interesting message we're sending our kids. Perhaps more than our National Pledge, that dusty old Ribena ad has done more to dictate S'porean existance for the generation that still remembers it. Two kids under a tree are having a conversation that goes like this:
'What are you drinking?'
'Ribena. My marder say it is good for me.'
'Can I have some?'
'Yes, but not too murch.'

It seems moderation in all things is the expected norm, so much so that we're now dictating how one's earned income should be spent to maintain par with the Tans of the underclass. All the more so when said income comes from taxpayer dollars. Let's see, which government department did he work in? Ah, Environment and Water Resources. Now, how much would we pay for our relatively low levels of pollution in our densely packed urban landscape? For the garbage disposal efficiency that so many of us discard our junk without thought to where it all goes, apart from away? For the swarthes of green oases blended integrally and seamlessly with our buildings and roads? For the crystal clear water from our taps we drink, wash and play in with no fear of falling sick upon contact? These conveniences are our taxpayer dollars at work. If we still lived in squalor in an environment made of crap and he was livin' it up, I'd shout "crucify him!" with the rest of the mob, but in all good conscience, I can't because I don't.

And consider this: what has he bought? Some international exposure, some new knowledge, a new skill, a cultural exchange and a potential partnership with a world-renowned institution. If only our own vacations were so focused and purposeful. Most of us just hop on a bus and drive through city after city bleary-eyed just to come home and say that we've been there. Guess we get what we pay for.

It's not the over-the-top vacation expense that worries me as much as the public response to it. It's a response that will drive our best and brightest away from our doors. If they're not appreciated here, they have the means and resources to move elsewhere where they and their money are more welcome (and good riddance because they were spoiling our kampong anyway with their extravagant lifestyles).

Even more scary than that, we're implying that dreams and aspirations have no place in our society because they don't -- or shouldn't -- come true. We take a perverse delight in tearing others down if we don't make the grade ourselves. In a different kind of society such stories tend to be celebrated instead. Think Forbes' "Made Bank?" programme on Channel 5, for example. Such societies comprise a population that is enterprising, innovative and optimistic. They're also a people that are proven to be able to pull together as they stand through hard times.

I don't know how we're going to respond as a people to this current economic situation. But if today's story is any indication, the biggest problem we face isn't the financial crisis. It's Small Penis Syndrome.

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