Sunday April 23, 2006 The Star
‘Stupid’ remarks stir up hornet’s nest
By SEAH CHIANG NEE
SINGAPOREANS are affluent, educated, but are they really survival smart?
In a world of harsher living, this question that never dies has again
grabbed the public focus here with a general election less than two weeks
At the core of the debate: Without natural resources, the Singaporean
increasingly has to depend on his own guile, not only a good education, to
survive; has he got it?
It’s not a new debate. In the past decade, the Education Ministry has
changed the education system to teach independent thinking and
entrepreneurship to correct some fundamental defects in the average
The average Singaporean is good at academic studies and works hard, but
falls short on individual initiative and streetwise qualities, relying too
much on the government for help.
Revisiting the debate is controversial Taiwan lawmaker Li Ao, who recently
ranked Singaporeans rather lower in natural intelligence to the people in
Taiwan and Hong Kong.
“Taiwanese are scoundrels, but lovable, Hong Kong people are craftier,
(Chinese mainlanders are unfathomable) and Singaporeans are stupider,” he
said, adding that it is partially due to genetics. The original migrants
who came here from China were of “poor stock”.
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew once told Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping that
the ethnic Chinese in Singapore were descendants of illiterate coolies and
farmers from southern Fujian.
This had made them less able than the people of Hong Kong or Taiwan, whose
ancestors were mainly businessman or technocrats.
Singaporeans could function well only as a group, not as individuals, Li
told a Chinese newspaper. They would never be non-conformist or stand out
above the crowd.
“If you ask me, other than Lee Kuan Yew, his son Hsien Loong, politicians
aside, I can only think of a cute girl, (pop star) Stephanie Sun, there
aren’t many other outstanding people. The impression that I get (of normal
Singaporeans) is stupid”.
Singapore’s system, Li said, stemmed from the ancient Chinese political
philosophy of legalism, which emphasised on the rule of law.
“Singaporeans do not break rules, but they also do not stand out,” he said
He said Lee Kuan Yew had wanted to build a British-style democracy but
because the people were not up to scratch, they only knew how to toe the
His report card on Singapore has shaken up the people at a time when
election fever is rising, indirectly touching on a campaign issue ?
government control on society.
Predictably, Singaporeans have reacted angrily to the terms “stupid” and
“poor genes”, dismissing them as a popularity stunt that takes no account
of their successful, modern achievements. This “genetic weakness” doesn’t
aptly describe today’s diverse, more mature and worldly-wise generation.
But some critics say there is some truth in what Li said, but insist that
the fault lies not in genes, but in years of political and social
conditioning by a top-down government.
One writer however, said: “A better word to describe the Singaporean is
naïve, which comes about because of a paternalistic and rather efficient
government. Everything is so structured and laid-out that the people do
not need to fight for a living, blunting their ability to compete. They’re
lulled into thinking the outside world also behave like Singapore.”
Businessmen from Taiwan and Hong Kong are more alert to opportunities, as
well as cheats, compared to even the capable Singaporeans, whose
preoccupation is getting a high salary.
They know where to take the short cuts when faced with a problem;
Singaporeans will just sit and wait for better days.
Under the Lee Kuan Yew leadership, the collective good comes before the
individual, so the republic’s success is a “collective creation”, Li added.
The individual is often lost on his own.
It has led some critics to ask whether the Singaporean has an original
viewpoint of his own beyond what the government says.
“I won’t say we are stupid. We are just not daring and street-smart,”
commented a Singaporean studying abroad. In his university, other Asian
students would walk up to the microphone and talk about some cause, not
“,0] ); //–> the Singaporeans, he said.
Li Ao is not alone in his views. Singaporean columnist Wong Lung Hsiang
said it reflected what he heard in China that “Taiwanese are shameless,
Hong Kongers are heartless, Singaporeans are ignorant”.
In Greater China, law-abiding Singaporeans have long been seen as gullible
In a commentary in November last year, Wong advised Singaporeans to
treasure their own system at home, “but when you are away, you should know
how to adapt to others”.
What Chinese Singaporeans have inherited from their grandparents is
peasant culture, explained “peasant judge” online.
“Peasants don’t care for much else except a bowl of rice on the table, a
roof over their heads, and the chance to go out to the rice fields to do
the daily back-breaking chores day in day out.”
Politics, too, is affected. Almost everyone goes to the polls with his
rice-bowl in mind.
It occupies the citizen’s mind a lot more than his counterparts in other
countries, who are more passionate about issues like justice and equality.
“Just imagine, well-informed Singaporeans advocating a one-party rule,
saying it is good for the future. If this is not stupidity, what is?’
This could be a recipe for future trouble should a foreign predator one
day use this character weakness to take over the country.
All he needs to do to retain the people’s compliance is by keeping their
stomach full and their mind empty.
I briefly read through this article before but i didn’t think it was worth commenting on. When the above was forwarded via email to me, i was going to just write a short reply to my friend… but then i decided… heck, i might as well post my reply online:-
Of ‘cos there are some Singaporeans who are overly dependent on the government and blame the government for all their woes. But there is an even greater number of people in other countries that depend wholly on government handouts & social welfare for their day to day expenses, living as tramps on the streets, under bridges, etc. If the typical blue-collar Singaporean is concerned solely about bread & butter issues, at least he’s taking personal responsibility in ensuring that he’s not living off the generosity of others. I say aye to that rather than people who are streetsmart – and live on the streets.
And if individualism is heavily promoted and adhered to by society, as it is in certain countries (esp. the one that takes “freedom of speech” as a sacred entitlement), what comes out of it? What kind of scandals and destruction have those countries caused?
I would say that Singapore has a very well-balanced system of democracy + socialism. We are a social democratic country and this system has worked well for us.
I’ll rather have a one-party parliament that’s focused on bringing Singapore into the next lap of economic competition, than a parliament whose politicians’ main activity is wrestling. (Sure, at least citizens of those countries will never fall asleep watching parliament on TV).
I’ll rather have a country where the police pre-empts/steps in to prevent/break up any sort of illegal public demonstrations, than a country that sends tankers to bulldoze its citizens.
I’ll rather have a country where citizens enjoy racial harmony & religious tolerance, than countries that clam down on religious freedom and where i can get shot for the colour of my skin.
In fact, i’m thankful even for the fact that my country allows me to post this blog entry without government imposed restrictions on what sites i can or cannot go.
Are Singaporeans stupid? I’ll let the quality of life i live here in Singapore speak for itself.
P/S Who the heck is redbean?? (highlighted in red above, pun unintended.)