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Commentary: Singaporeans love viral success stories like Max Zeng's. What does that say about us?

Social media virality can turn anyone into an icon, and people end up projecting their hopes, values and dreams onto the individual. This is a double-edged sword, says CNA's Grace Yeoh.

Commentary: Singaporeans love viral success stories like Max Zeng's. What does that say about us?

Singaporean student Max Zeng from Imperial College London on University Challenge. (Photo: YouTube screenshot)

SINGAPORE: Many Singaporeans find success overseas, but not everyone becomes the nation’s social media darling. 

While there may be tangible steps to attain the former, the latter happens almost always by chance. 

Earlier this year, Singaporean Maximilian Zeng’s performance on British TV quiz show University Challenge turned him from college student to celebrated superstar. 

Zeng, as he’s better known, is a silent killer. The 22-year-old biochemistry undergraduate from Imperial College London appears unassuming – until he is served a geography-related question and slaughters the competition. His signature move? Pinpointing the most obscure locations from seeing just a slice of a map.

And every week, the British public watched in awe of these abilities and his endearing onscreen demeanour, often taking to social media with praise. So did Singapore.

With his skills, likeability and growing media profile, it’s no wonder Max Zeng’s University Challenge triumph became an online sensation. But netizens’ reactions have shown that online virality is a double-edged sword, especially when it comes to one of our own.

THE FLIPSIDE OF SOCIAL MEDIA FAME 

If there is anything that unites Singaporeans without fail, it’s seeing one of us make it big internationally. 

From Joseph Schooling winning a gold medal in the 2016 Olympics to filmmaker Anthony Chen being the first Singaporean to win the Camera d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, few things evoke a greater sense of national pride.

But national pride can morph into its own beast. Under the weight of a nation’s expectations, an individual turns into an icon and we lose sight of the human behind it.

People start to project their hopes and dreams, beliefs and worldviews onto the individual, often by jumping onto one identity marker to further the conversation. From nationality to race, the person is flattened into a representation of that identity group, rather than wholly seen for who they are. 

Zeng’s virality, for instance, has thrown up a range of such reactions, from flag-waving comments to questions of why Singaporeans have to flock overseas to find success.

In an online comment that Zeng read to me with an amused tone, someone had written: “Zeng can be more aggressive going forward. No need to be so subservient in his body language. The Asian Pacific era is starting and the centre of gravity will shift to the Far East”.

And when I shared the profile story of Zeng on LinkedIn, someone commented, “Another story of a talented Singaporean going abroad to find success?” 

He followed up with, “Maybe it took another country for his talent to shine. Thinking of Joseph Schooling who trained in the US for university and then won the Olympic gold medal.” 

I asked if we could just appreciate that everyone thrives in a different environment, just like how there are people who leave their home countries to thrive in Singapore. 

The original commenter replied, “There is definitely a story to be written about the Singaporeans who leave the country for opportunities, social mobility and the space to be creative.” 

Implying there’s nothing wrong with competing on a world stage, another commenter added, “Singaporeans going abroad to find success should be the norm.”

The reality, he argued, is that we need to “maximise our global experience” with “Singaporeans who can bring back culture, language, technology and best practices from any corner of the planet”.

It appeared Zeng's individual achievements led to a discussion of a societal issue: Singaporeans are unlikely to receive equal recognition for their talent unless they leave the country.

This tangent made me recall the commentary around national swimmer Joseph Schooling after he clocked 53.12s and came in last in the 100m butterfly heats at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Singaporeans on social media were divided over the result. One camp criticised his performance, while the other hit back saying Schooling shouldn’t be subject to criticism, especially from people who haven’t participated in elite-level sports.

NO ROOM TO FAIL OR BE HUMAN

While it hasn’t quite happened to Zeng, Schooling was an example where an individual was elevated to a pedestal. And on a pedestal, there is no room to fail – or be human. 

But in both Zeng's and Schooling’s case, the equally passionate comments about their performance are reflective of “stan culture” – an Internet phenomenon arising from easily available information about social media stars. 

The constant news cycle churn about such individuals creates parasocial relationships, where people believe they know the individual beyond what is presented online. They may feel a sense of connection, which is reinforced by projecting their own values onto these individuals.

For example, several fans called Zeng’s team captain Michael Mays racist, simply because he didn’t turn towards Zeng and teammate Fatima Sheriff as often as he consulted teammate Gilbert Jackson on his left. 

Yet, such online behaviour is now common – an individual is only their own person until their virality sparks conversations about bigger issues. 

While this isn’t always bad, social media virality leaves little room for nuance, or to understand an individual as a person and not a nationality or other identity markers. 

In the end, left to fill in the gaps in our minds, what we see says more than what is shown. 

A SENSE OF NATIONAL PRIDE

In fact, we can choose to understand Zeng’s achievements from a more generous perspective too.

Beyond being able to hold our own on a world stage, Singaporeans particularly love it if the individual has found success via unconventional means, even if they aren’t representing our country per se like Zeng. 

Such stories tend to subvert the traditional parameters of success in Singapore of having kids, a house and a well-paying career by a certain age, allowing us to dream a little bigger. 

In our first story, Zeng mentioned he devotes time to reading about geography-related topics, such as maps and cities, even when he isn’t competing. He also doesn't believe in studying for the sake of a quiz, instead relying on pure passion for the topic. 

And in a conversation after the finals aired, Zeng mentioned he was “weird” in school. 

It made me realise his journey on University Challenge resonated because it showed how differences that might make us weird aren’t flaws or weaknesses that need fixing.

Zeng’s performance demonstrated the benefits of embracing difference and diversity. His abstract knowledge of maps and geography – a talent that might not count for much on our little red dot – was his strength that helped his team become champions. 

Yet, having his strengths emerge on an international stage doesn’t have to be seen as a critique of Singapore. It can, instead, be a lesson in knowing who you are – and finding an environment that celebrates it.

Grace Yeoh is a senior journalist at CNA. 

What was competing at a postponed, pandemic Olympics like? Swimmer Quah Ting Wen and rower Joan Poh share their experiences on CNA's podcast, Heart of the Matter.

Source: CNA/gy
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