SINGAPORE: When Nominated Member of Parliament Kuik Shiao-Yin stood up in Parliament in April this year, she took aim at “kiasu-ism” and the “national habit of fear”. She said it had resulted in huge, costly trade-offs in human development, manpower and time and dollars spent.
The reactions came soon after, with much of it on both ends of the spectrum – some lauding, some condemning her point that Singaporeans should kill the kiasu culture in Singapore. For those who would celebrate that culture, many claimed that if Singaporeans had not been kiasu, Singapore would not be as successful as it is today.
Ms Kuik, the Co-Founder and Creative Director of social enterprise The Thought Collective, went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about this, why she wants to hear more emotion in Parliament, how Singaporeans can work towards having more moderate public debate, and the one conversation that changed her life.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Well, I probably lean more on the kiasi than the kiasu side. When I was growing up, I lived pretty much in my own world of stories and comics, so I wasn't actually thinking very much about the kiasu thing like "Oh, I must get into this JC. I must get this scholarship." I actually wanted to go into the arts. So when I was a kid, I suffered more from kiasi-ism. I knew I wanted to do things differently. I knew I wasn't interested in the normal stuff and it was scary to think about it as a kid.
Bharati Jagdish: Scary, because of the culture? The people around you?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Yes, I grew up in the 80s. There was still at that point, a pretty strong culture of "there is one route to take". And I was an arts student. So the one route that we were told that has to be taken by any kid who is decent in the arts, is you either take up a Public Service Scholarship, or you become a lawyer, or you become an educator.
I'm sure even back then, that wasn't necessarily the truth. It was just the limited story that most of our peers and most of our parents were telling us, and I think a lot of us thought "That's it".
When you're 18, you don't have anyone else giving you a broader narrative. So, at that point, actually, I was thinking of “stupid” sounding careers like "Oh, wouldn't it be fun if I went to New York and wrote and drew comics". So I thought that sounded fun, or "Let's go to art school." My parents were typical Singaporean parents in that when I told them that's what I wanted to do, they told me that that was a pretty bad idea.
So the compromise I made was "All right, why don't I do architecture?" It wasn’t because I cared about architecture, but because it sounded professional to them, and it sounded artistic enough for me. And that's how I wound up in it. And so when I think about my early life, I think of it as very “Singaporean”; in that I think I just went with whatever was presented in front of me as "the decent choice".
Bharati Jagdish: The acceptable choice.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: The acceptable choice, or the beneficial choice, and I didn't think it was possible to do something else. It just sounded like that's not how it happens.
Bharati Jagdish: But at some point, you moved away from making simply what society deems acceptable or beneficial choices.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: The big game changer for me was when I was in University, and in the second year, I became a Christian. I remember the first big question I asked God was "Do you want me to be an architect?"
I didn't get a straight answer. And in fact, I got a very contrary event happening. It was my third year in school. I was just dying to graduate and get out of architecture school. But my dad calls me up in the middle of final-year project and says, "Oh good news, I managed to engineer a prestigious internship for you in the States." And I thought, “This is terrible. This is like fate telling me I'm supposed to be an architect. All right, I'll suck it up, I'll learn to like this.”
A LIFE-CHANGING CONVERSATION
Bharati Jagdish: But something happened in the US that changed your perspective.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Yeah, that was also another game-changing perspective because it was the first time I was taken out of a certain culture. So, out of the Singapore culture and now working in American culture. And I had a very simple conversation that changed my career choices as well.
An American friend asked me a very simple question. She said, "So what are you going to do after this?" And I sort of laid it out, "I'll finish this up, then I'll go to Singapore. I'll finish up the rest of my internship and then I'll find a good job. I will save up enough money, and after I do, I'll think about whether I can go and study art."
It sounded very sensible to me and I think it would have sounded perfectly sensible to any Singaporean. But because she was American, that story sounded weird to her. She said "That's so strange, if you already know that you don't want to do this, then why are you still doing it?"
And it was just the way she said it that it clicked; and I thought, "You're right. It's so weird. Why?" And I think that's when I decided to screw this. I'm not going to finish my Master’s. As Providence would have it, the year I came back was the dot-com year, year 2000. There was a very strange cultural shift going on, even in the Singapore narrative. At that point, nobody understood what the Internet was. Everybody was talking about it like it was a big gold rush and you could be young and inexperienced and someone would give you a fancy title, like “Creative Director” or something.
Bharati Jagdish: And was this something you wanted? Unlike the architecture degree that you had to do.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Yeah, I was attracted by just that concept that I get to direct something, I get some sort of sovereignty.
Bharati Jagdish: Two years later, you went on to co-found "The Thought Collective" and all the other businesses associated with it. Have you shrugged off the kiasi-ism?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Yeah, going into the dot-com thing was a fantastic Master’s degree, It taught me many many things. One of which is – as long as you knew what you were doing, or had firm convictions about how you could carry out a certain task – the person across the table didn't really care. They didn't question it. They didn't question your conviction as long as you delivered what you were talking about.
Bharati Jagdish: So your paper qualifications didn’t really matter. It was about one’s capabilities and competence.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Yes, that was a great experience. I learnt a lot about what I was capable of.
ENTHUSIASM IN THE FACE OF FEAR
Bharati Jagdish: You’ve talked about killing the kiasu culture. What do you have to say to people who say that if we hadn’t been kiasu or kiasi, we wouldn’t have achieved what we have today as a nation?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: You know the weird part is, I've seen those comments like, oh kiasu-ism is what built this country, but I don't think so. I think when you look back at who built this country. It was people who built it on a lot of bravado. They weren't scared. They weren't scared to die. They made very frightening choices.
Bharati Jagdish: Such as?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: I was reading a book about the history of the EDB (Economic Development Board). It tells these really funny stories about how the early EDB officers had to fly to the States, and talk to these very big-time CEOs, and talk a very big game about how we can be an oil refinery hub. And that point, at the back of their minds, they knew that Jurong was still a bit of a swamp, but they talked with great confidence that they could do it, because they trusted that they could do it, even though there was a great deal of fear.
Bharati Jagdish: They felt the fear and did it anyway.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Yes, yes. So when I think of Singapore, I don't think of ourselves as a country that succeeded because we were kiasu, kiasi. I think kiasu, kiasi is actually a product of our success.
Bharati Jagdish: We're afraid of losing the success we have achieved.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Yeah, now that we have succeeded so much, and now that we have all this wealth, now we're scared. Now we're scared of losing it all. Whereas I think in the past, it was sort of we had nothing. What else do we have to lose but to go out with an emotion of ambition.
So if I had to nail it down to what was the emotion that built our country, it was ambition. And it wasn't a stupid ambition. It was a very mindful ambition. I want that to come back to Singapore. I think we should shore up that original heart of our pioneers. There was a certain enthusiasm in the face of fear, a certain ambition in the face of the possibility that we could be crushed. We could die. Malaysia, Indonesia, and all these other bigger countries could have succeeded far more than us. But you know what, the pioneers said “We're gonna give it a shot.” And they did. They talked and played a very, very big game.
A STORY ENTITLED “WE HAVE NO CHOICE”
Bharati Jagdish: On a micro-level though, you have mentioned the Government should perhaps have bespoke roadmaps for the long-term psychological and emotional transformation of our people - treat it as seriously as it would any economic initiative. So who should spearhead this cultural intervention?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: I am not a big fan of “the Government must solve everything" mentality because I think it needs to be a whole of society approach. If you want kiasu culture to stop, especially in education, what can the Government do about it, if a parent chooses to burden themselves and their child, with this need to keep getting better, or keep doing more without a very mindful decision about "What does more even mean to me?"
Bharati Jagdish: But on the flip side, some say it was the Government that set the tone for the kiasu narrative, through the education system, in how the civil service hires people. By virtue of that, the government has to be one to change the thrust and texture of the larger Singapore narrative and you did say in Parliament that they should have a roadmap for psychological and emotional transformation.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Yeah I think the Government can afford to have a more expansive story, and to its credit, I think it has. I think we can quibble about how we would prefer to write the story but, I think it doesn't discount the fact that each of us can choose to write our own story about the kind of life we want to live. I have a kid now and I hear from a lot of parents who say "it's okay for you to talk about being anti-kiasu now, but wait till you go to Primary One, then you will know."
Bharati Jagdish: Yes.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: It’s so threatening. What strikes me in general about the culture of kiasu parents is how unhappy they are. If you want to defend and love kiasu culture because it brings you joy, then okay, but I feel many parents who are adopting a kiasu approach to their child's education are generally unhappy. And their child is unhappy. My question is "If it's making you so grotesquely unhappy, why do you keep doing it?" And when I ask that question, the answer that comes back is "I have no choice."
Bharati Jagdish: "It's for survival" is what a lot of them say.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Yeah, they say "No choice. It's Singapore." I keep hearing that phrase "no choice, no choice." That, to me, is the most dangerous narrative that a parent can give to a child. So it's not so much about the kiasu, kiasi thing. I think at the heart of it, there is a story in Singapore called, "We have no choice."
Bharati Jagdish: And you don’t believe that story.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: I don't agree with it at all, not just from a Singaporean perspective but when you look at psychological research, they tell you that that is one of the most dangerous narratives a person can take on.
Bharati Jagdish: Because even if you have chosen badly, it is still a choice.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Correct. To tell yourself you have no choice is to completely disempower yourself.
Bharati Jagdish: But don't you think that to a great degree, it does feel like there are few choices if you want to survive in this country. The cost of living is high, and if you want to feed your family, you want to feed yourself, you want a roof over your head, this is what you really need to do to excel. With many employers fixated on people who've gone to so-called "top schools" for instance, do I really have a choice if I want to survive. And yes, I choose to survive, which is why I have to do all of these things.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Yes, I think what a better approach to this is not to say I have no choice, but to own the choices that we have made and to be at peace with them, and to have reasoned it out for yourself why you made this choice. Then I think you are able to be happy.
Bharati Jagdish: But you also seem to advocate that we re-examine what would make us happy, not just rationalise the unhappy choices we make.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: I think they change when we each decide to make choices according to what we stand for or believe is the better way. In that exercise of your choice, you will always feel at least empowered. And you'll always feel like you can navigate your life. I think having a realistic sense of what is within your scope or within your power is important and we can all definitely control our own choices, and to some extent, we can help to shape the choices of our children and our family.
SHOULD THE GOVERNMENT BE BOLDER IN EFFORTS TO CHANGE MINDSETS?
Bharati Jagdish: I want to go back to the Government though. Today you seem focused more on the individual, but you implied in Parliament that the Government should be doing more to shift mindsets.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: I think the establishment should be listening a lot more. I think they're trying. I think the difficulty actually is in implementation. So, if you look at education for example, we can talk about how the PSLE system should be dismantled and that will take a lot of competitiveness out.
Bharati Jagdish: What do you think of the changes that have been announced so far? A lot of people say they are piecemeal changes that aren't really going to make an impact. Shouldn't the Government be bolder if it wants to actually change culture and mindsets?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: I think it can afford to be bolder, but I don't know enough about the complexities behind the decisions. And at these points I always wish I was in the civil service, because I think the civil service actually sees a whole world of factors that we on the outside don't.
I would personally love to see the PSLE taken away. But I also recognise that there is actually a sizable number of parents who would not want that to happen for their own reasons.
Bharati Jagdish: What are some of the reasons you've heard?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: I think there’s a lot fear about taking away the PSLE, because some think: “Then, where is the guarantee that by 12 years old, my child is of a certain calibre?”
Bharati Jagdish: Isn't that again kiasu-ism and kiasi-ism rearing their heads?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Yeah it is. So it's always about fear and anxiety, right?
Bharati Jagdish: But should policy really continue feeding that sort of thinking?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: My guess is even if they said "Okay, let's take this drastic step of dismantling the big exam”, I think you'll see in the few years surrounding that decision, people will form their own systems of filling that gap.
Bharati Jagdish: If they are kiasu parents, yes. Just like they did with the school rankings.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Correct, and that proves the Government's point in some sense like "I can take away the school rankings, but you guys will artificially create it on your own anyway because that's the fear that you have."
Bharati Jagdish: But surely this shouldn’t mean the Government shouldn’t bother taking bolder steps. Take the steps, set the tone, then let people take responsibility for their own mindsets and approach to life.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: I think it’s about weighing out whether the benefits of it would outweigh the cost. Thinking about whether in the long-term people will support it, versus the short-term aggravation you will get for the decision. I think the Government has not been a stranger to making very firm, bold decisions overnight, if they choose to.
Bharati Jagdish: Yes. So why not in this case?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Well, I'm not sure. I'm not entirely sure, but I think in the meanwhile, what the rest of us can do is, we can also form our own systems. We don't necessarily have to wait for a larger system to shift because it takes a long time for a large system to shift, and my personal belief is that as a parent, I can choose to structure my own system for my child as well. I can create my own shadow education system. The home schooling network is one example of that. Or I can find a way to balance it. That means stay in the education system, but help my child manage expectations of the exams. If you get 60 out of 100 on an exam, I'm not going to cry about it. It doesn't tell me anything about whether you will succeed or fail. It just tells me about "Oh, maybe we should have worked a bit harder here and there."
So I think there are ways that we can fill in the gaps ourselves. Just be a bit more reflective about why do we do what we do. If you have lived your life generally around fear, you always chose on the side of things that keep you safe from fear, and if this is leaving you dissatisfied with where your life is going. It’s just an invitation to ask yourself why you choose that way, and what would happen if you chose something else.
IMPROVING THE QUALITY OF PUBLIC DEBATE
Bharati Jagdish: You talked about being a Christian earlier. A lot of recent public debates have involved some of the more vocal members of the Christian community in Singapore taking a strong stance on certain issues, for instance, LGBT issues, issues related to single unwed mothers and the Government benefits they get, compared to what married mothers get. You, in fact, have spoken up for the uplifting of single unwed mothers in spite of the fact that they may have made bad choices at some point in their lives. Why do you process such issues so differently from some of the more vocal Christians who speak up against equalising benefits for such mothers?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: I think for the Christian community, like all communities, there is a spectrum of beliefs. So even among Christians, you have extremists from both ends. You have the extremist conservatives, and you have the extreme liberal Christians. And they have very different views. And then you have the big moderates in the middle right, who are not always vocal.
Bharati Jagdish: Where do you lie on this spectrum?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: I would say I'm in the moderates. I'm in the silent majority. And actually I've seen more people in that group speak up. I guess part of the reason why I speak up more now is because I recognise there is a great need for the moderate voice to be known, or to be heard, in public. I think a great deal of public discourse, or at least the types of discourse that go the most viral, are the ones in the extreme ends. Not just from the Christian community, but from the LGBT or the Muslim community. So I think there are a lot more moderates who are seeing the problem, and are trying to put their voices out there. But of course the voice of moderation is not necessarily a fun one to listen to.
Bharati Jagdish: It's not as sexy.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: It's not as sexy. The voice of moderation is about balancing things out. It might not be as sexy. It may not be as thrilling. But that's the reality of how we're going to solve our problems. We have to find a way, we have to find a middle ground, between the extreme ends.
Bharati Jagdish: You have asked before, “How do we encourage a culture of moderate and fair-minded public dialogue, that gives everyone space in society” in the context of religious discussions and religious harmony and values. Have you found any answers?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Right now, in discussions about faith, or how faith sees moral issues or societal issues, it feels like it's a very high-stakes game. If you misstep, you say something that someone else perceives as potentially offensive, there will be hell to pay. And you'll be trolled forever, and hunted down.
Bharati Jagdish: Or even arrested.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Or even arrested. We’ve put so much stakes on it, that people feel it's best not to even talk about it; even if that's what they believe inside. I do feel there needs to be some safe space, where we are willing to lower the stakes, and have a discussion.
Bharati Jagdish: How far should the stakes be lowered to do this in a meaningful way rather than in a purely diplomatic and potentially meaningless manner, but also in a way that ensures bigotry is not allowed free rein?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: So as you mentioned that there have been a lot of very public and ugly conversations, between certain members of the Christian community and certain members of the more liberal community around moral issues. And I always wish that people would take that conversation offline, and have it in real life. Then let's just see. And I always think, why do people want to present their position? Is it just to establish that you are right, or is there something that you want to move the needle on. And if your concern is moving the needle on a certain issue, then it's best achieved when you meet face-to-face, in real life, to have an actual dialogue, to get to the middle ground where we can meet. What's the concession that I'm willing to give, and where's the movement I'm hoping to see.
I find a lot of these online conversations are fixated on proving that “I am right”, not about moving the needle. So if you look at the single unwed mom issue, both sides have a good that they're trying to defend. And both “goods”, are good. When you have two competing goods, I think both sides get most furious when they see it as “it's either your good, or my good”. And only one can win. And I think the middle ground is about “okay, how can we find a way for yours to have an inch, and mine to have an inch. And we'll keep on doing this negotiation.” It can’t be about decimating the other side and letting my “good” win. It really is about everyone in the community choosing to leave their keyboards behind, and just meeting and talking human-to-human.
I think we're actually scared. We're actually very scared of telling someone else what we believe that contradicts their beliefs. We don't dare say it to their face. But having the courage, and the vulnerability to say that to someone's face is where the first steps are towards a more compassionate society.
Bharati Jagdish: To what extent does the texture of public debate have its roots in the education system? Many of us grew up learning there is a right or wrong, black or white, there are no grey areas.
Kuik Shiao-Yin: I teach kids General Paper in a socially conscious way. The funny thing is when I think about General Paper, it is essentially about how we teach 18 year-olds how to argue about issues. And I think the problem with teaching argumentative writing just to pass an exam, which is what many schools do, is you don't teach people what's the real point of (being) “argumentative”, which is how do you present your arguments in a compelling way that brings you an audience.
A lot of 18 year-olds actually don't know how to write a decent conclusion. And many schools dodge the bullet and don't teach them how to write conclusions. But a conclusion is about having the courage to say what we believe. And argumentative writing here is not taught as an expression of self-belief. It's taught like this: These are the points that you should spit out because this is what everyone's talking about. So spit it out in a certain order, and then write your conclusion. That's it.
Bharati Jagdish: So clearly the education system needs to change, right?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: It goes back again to what's the point of education. Is it really about helping a whole bunch of kids get “A”s, or is it about the holistic development that we claim? Then lots of things have to change about our approach.
It really comes down to individuals actually. It really comes down to an individual teacher or individual parent to change how we experience the system. I think it's impossible to homogenise a system. So even if the top came down with a drastic policy change that is meant to go a certain way, all we need to do to complicate the situation is to have different individuals, all choosing to interpret it their way. And then there you go. That's how to create all sorts of different experiences.
MORE EMOTION IN PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES
Bharati Jagdish: What do you hope your speeches in Parliament will do?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: I am there to present a different sort of voice. And I think in my first term as NMP, I honestly felt fear. I felt fear of whether I was doing or saying the right thing. And I did think about things like who am I to be sitting here, when there are plenty of other people in this world who are far more experienced at talking about politics and economics. And then I thought the only space I can talk is from what I see.
I see things from an emotional perspective. I see things from a narrative perspective. And there are certain experiences that I hold as a mom, as a Christian, as a social entrepreneur. So I was learning to speak from that space. This year, I was very conscious that I wanted to write a budget speech that held emotion. I want to hear more emotion in Parliament. A lot of people complain that Parliament is boring, and that's why they don't tune in to hear Parliamentary speeches. And it made me think about how Lee Kuan Yew was a lot of things, but he was never boring. That was because he spoke with so much conviction and ambition and enthusiasm, and he was ready to take you on, even if you thought he was so wrong. And he brought that out of people.
It made me wish that more Parliamentarians would “bring it”. I'm not a fiery speaker like Lee Kuan Yew, but I thought, “Okay, let me see what I can do to bring out my own ambition and enthusiasm.”
Bharati Jagdish: What's your intention at the end of the day? What do you hope to achieve?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: To stir up a conversation.
Bharati Jagdish: You mentioned your daughter once. How has motherhood changed the way you look at things?
Kuik Shiao-Yin: Oh definitely, motherhood makes you think a lot about what you want for the next generation. For her, I'm very clear what the KPIs are. I don't care. I really, really don't care whether she turns out to be a top “A” student or not. That's not on my radar at all. I care a great deal about her character. I want her to turn out to be a kind person. And kindness is a really difficult thing to actually achieve. I want her to be broad-minded. I want her to be able to speak to people of different classes, of different races, of different religions. I want her to be curious about the world, and if I can achieve all that for her, I don't actually care about what grades she brings home. Partly, because I think if you have those traits, your grades won't be that bad. I think anyone who embodies those traits will go very far in the world.