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It suddenly hit me that I was not embarking on real change at all. I was merely rearranging the furniture. Like a good little boy, I had made all the pragmatic, sensible decisions… and it was about to push me into the abyss. I was still trying to achieve the Singaporean Dream, except overseas, and on a larger scale. Well, not exactly…
It was then that I understood the difference between the Singaporean Dream and the Singaporean Plan. And what is the difference?
I suppose the Dream has to be one of searching for peace and the liberty to conduct one’s life as one sees fit.
That’s probably what my ancestors sought when they left China: the governments of the Ming and Manchu were ruthlessly restrictive of cross-border commerce, the lifeblood of my ethnic Hokkien and Teochew forbears.
And no doubt it was the Dream, fueled by hard work and courage, that has made Singapore the indisputable commercial success it is today. And our story is a wonderful one: the Little Island That Could.
However, invariably once people attain success, they start to canonize the steps they took to achievement. This is how Dreams become Plans, and how one hegemony replaces another: the search for peace and liberty becomes get into a good school, then a good university, then a stable job, then buy property and stock. The problem is, then what?
There is nothing inherently unique about the Singaporean Dream. The American Dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is substantially the same. (And especially in the upper middle class, the American Dream is fast becoming a Plan too: prep school, Ivy League, Wall Street.)
But what to me gives America more hope is that they still celebrate mavericks; they may never find happiness, but their liberty to pursue it is sacred.
My experience in Singapore was, however, very different. There were always people telling you what and how you should do things, and imposing penalties for deviation. There were ‘right’ schools, ‘right’ professions, ‘right’ strategies.
Of course there are those who would argue that ultimately, the choice is one’s own and that there is nothing to prevent one from doing what he or she wants in Singapore. After all, isn’t it one’s fault for caving in to peer pressure? I would humbly submit that while theoretically true, such an argument betrays an ignorance of the combined workings of hegemony and power.
The issue is how expansive the reigning ideology is. In Singapore, the dominant view is to do whatever works (whatever that may be, and regardless of who it worked for). In New York (I won’t pretend that America is homogeneous), the prevailing view is that everyone should find what makes him or herself unique, and capitalize on that.
Manhattan is smaller than Singapore, yet there is space for both Wall Street Wizards and Alphabet City Shamans to coexist. Despite occasional border skirmishes, there is recognition that the city would be a lot poorer if everyone marched to the same drum.
An overly romantic myth? Perhaps. But that such a myth could persist in a hostile and cynical environment like New York, was encouraging to me. And anyway, the ‘fulfillment’ promised by the Singapore Plan was equally illusory. In a competition of myths, I chose the one that gave the most latitude to one’s passions over the one that indulged one’s fears.