Thursday, 25 December 2008

Natural Born Failures (revised)


Publication: C for culture, Jan 2009

Title: Natural Born Failures[i]

Text: Michael Lee Hong Hwee

Photo: han


To lead a fulfilling life, one must fail. Both strategic rule-breaking exercises and unexpected crises require one to leave the comfort zones, experiment with remote possibilities, and encourage spontaneous outcomes. Yet the global obsession with success supports the fear of trying anything new, not to mention failing purposely. An aversion to risks stunts growth. Should it be surprising that, as a society that embodies, celebrates and pursues success, Singapore is home to many disgruntled souls?


Beneath the Singaporean


The ‘average’ Singaporean adult appears to lead a life of contentment in an economically and socially stable society, enjoying gainful employment and cheerful relationships with family, friends and colleagues, and usually the possession of a property and disposable income for shopping and travel. Probe on, and one senses regrets and grievances. The main preoccupation of Singaporeans is work, from which they get a regular pay and also a sense of self. For every Singaporean devoted to her job, however, there are others who find their job a drag but remain in it to pay the bills, or to sustain material pursuits. Therein lies the vicious cycle: They work hard, tire out, seek recreation, and so, continue working to sustain their lifestyles. Neither critical thinking nor creative endeavour can enter this tight and self-contained logic.

The fear of ‘repercussions’ of voicing opinions critical of public policies is prevalent, though there are exceptional cases who are, at times, reprimanded for their ‘improper conduct.’[ii] Most Singaporeans are sure they cannot or will not be artists because they are not creative enough, or, even if they enjoy painting, poetry or music, they will not pursue it as a career because it does not pay them enough. Hence participation in culture among the citizens veers more towards coffeeshop grouses than systematic critique, entertainment than critical art, consumption than creation. Tentative and meek in engaging with experimental ideas, many Singaporeans are cosmopolitan in appearance but conservative in thinking, apparently jovial but secretly unfulfilled.

The three k’s that allegedly characterise a typical Singaporean, namely kiasu, kiasi and kiabo (Hokkien colloquialisms referring to the respective fears of defeat, death and wife), seem, at once, the causes, effects and coping strategies of sustaining a comfortable life.


Species of Solace


Two popular types of consolation prevail to deter Singaporeans from taking risks. The first type, which I’ll call The Cradle, shares the modus operandi of the medical sciences. This involves diagnosis (of the causes of your pain) and prescription (by way of medication, anesthesia or surgery). It calls out to our worn-out or wounded soul: Come to mummy! The second category of comfort, The Wand, the mainstay of a number of key religions in the world, operates like a magician’s stick that instantly flicks our desire and pain into existence or oblivion. It says this of the problems we encounter: Accept your fate as you accept god, and your sufferings will be gone!

Singapore’s intolerance of failure is, to a large extent, based on the prevalence of these two types of consolations. The bulk of the society is steeped in the work ethic, with its emphasis on diligence and delayed gratification, as well as the culture of consumption, in its myriad varieties of the booze, fashion, the latest electronic gadgets, pop music, fine dining, clubs and health supplements. The Cradle tells us: So long as you keep working and buying, you are on your way to happiness. Moreover, there is The Magic Wand around to keep things in check: The ruling People’s Action Party has long kept a ‘vigilant’ watch over all conceivable aspects of its citizens’ everyday life, ranging from education to housing, employment to marriage, health to recreation.[iii] The government’s glowing record over the decades in ‘delivering the goods,’ especially in terms of economic progress and social stability, legitimises its continued existence and control. Recently, it has attempted to adopt a less ‘authoritarian,’ more ‘consultative’ management style. Yet, as Kenneth Paul Tan observes, despite talks of a more liberal society and expressed dreams of becoming a cultural hub, the ruling party continues to play “old politics” in “new times”: a “politics of apprehension – a ghostly kind of fear that, in a menacing way haunts the minds of Singaporeans….”[iv]

The main problem with the Cradle mode of consolation is the decrease, eradication or numbing of pain may be temporary and illusory, and more damaging than helpful in the long run. Work and alcohol alike, which allow one to forget one’s sorrow for the time being, may well, especially when engaged in excess, lead to complacency, escapism and ill-health. The main problem with the Wand type of consolation is that it dismisses desire with the aim or effect of keeping people contented in their ‘rightful’ place. In many Singaporeans’ head is a series of mantras about efficiency, pragmatism and conformity: Do the least to achieve the maximum, don’t stand out, don’t upset the system, just follow the rules, don’t make life difficult for yourself and others, relax, take a break, don’t take things too seriously, turn it early, get up, get back to work, don’t get fired…. Such obedience has a structural similarity with the New Testament reminder, even when one experiences ill-treatment by one’s boss: “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh….” (Colossians 3.22-4).


Failing is Succeeding


What Singapore urgently needs is a Federation of Failures, a museum that celebrates difficulty. I propose that it be sited beside the Integrated Resorts, the centre of upcoming gaming activities at Marina Bay, as an intervention of the ‘culture of comfort’ that characterises Singapore today.

            Such a proposal engages a third type of consolation for failure, which I shall call The Library. It first congratulates us on our sufferings: You’re in luck!, it says, and then it urges us to work: read widely, think critically, make things of our own, and then repeat the cycle. As much the realm of philosophy as of art, politics and other humanities disciplines, it considers failures as ‘constructs’ of social conditioning and thus ‘opportunities’ that bear critical reexamination and possible transformation into strengths, aesthetics or new truths. If the Cradle type regards our problems like weeds to be nipped in the bud, and the Wand variety pinpoints desire as responsible for our misery, the Library relief reminds us that pain and pleasure go hand in hand. Friedrich Nietzsche has this to say to people who avoid difficulty:


If you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you even for an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress way ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that [you harbour in your heart]… the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable… people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or, as in your case, remain small together.[v]


Crucially, Nietzsche is of the opinion that a fulfilled life must involve art. Stop consuming; start creating. A disclaimer: Adopting ‘failure’ as a principle in life and art is not to be equated with shoddy practice. Instead it’s about setting impossibly ambitious goals beyond the expected and imaginable. In this regard, the artistic life is not mere self-indulgence or personal fulfillment. It is a critique of society’s preference for conformity, mediocrity and comfort.

I recommend a ‘hyper-cantilever’ concept for the overall architectural form of the proposed museum, to create a sense of precariousness and engineering impossibility. The following set of dual truisms suggests the museum’s overriding ideological slant:


A museum compiles human achievements.

A museum celebrates human failures.[vi]


Though apparently incompatible, these two statements are nonetheless flipsides of the same coin. The history of innovation has really been a history of struggles and failures, landmines and mistakes. New ideas and inventions are often deemed useless or dangerous, impossible or immoral, at the point of conception. Every success story that is achieved, told and recorded belies and necessitates a host of unnamed setbacks.

            What Singaporeans have in abundance is discipline, which is crucial for any breakthrough whether in art or science. What they lack is the recognition that they, like any human being, have the innate impulses and the option to create, grow and lead individualistic lives. If humans are innately creative, and if we accept that the creative journey is arduous, then it follows that all of us are always already Natural Born Failures. Since we are to fail anyway, rather than keeping failures at bay or cushioning ourselves from stress, problem and discomfort, we might as well try to fail better next time, fail more often, more interestingly, drastically and perhaps even more successfully. This way, we can avoid being bland, rigid and under-fulfilled.




Michael Lee Hong Hwee, a Singapore-born artist based in Hong Kong, is enjoying his occasional investigation of his nervous excitement through artifacts and words.

han is a documentary photographer based in Singapore.



[i] All photographs by han are of Federation of Failures, part 6 of 10 in Michael Lee Hong Hwee’s The Consolations of Museology (2008), an installation of 10 pieces of origamic architecture of hypothetical museums that provide solace to problems of everyday existence.

[ii] In 1994, writer Catherine Lim was rebuked by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for writing an article suggesting that the latter’s promise of a more consultative approach to governance had not come about. Goh then advised that anyone who “wants to set the agenda for Singapore by commenting regularly on politics… should do this in the political arena.” Chua Mui Hoong, “PM: no erosion of my authority allowed,” The Straits Times (Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, 5 Dec 1994).

[iii] This is in light of the nation’s small size, geopolitical position as having a predominantly Chinese-ethnic populace amidst several Muslim nations, lack of natural resources, post-war turbulences, and ongoing threats to social harmony from ‘oppositions,’ ‘critics,’ ‘communists’ and ‘terrorists.’

[iv] Kenneth Paul Tan, “In Renaissance Singapore,” in his (Ed.), Renaissance Singapore? Economy, Culture, and Politics (Singapore: NUS Press, 2007), 2.

[v] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882), trans. Walter Kaufmann (London: Vintage, 1974), 338. Quoted from Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy (London: Penguin, 2000), 232-3; bracketed words and ellipses are de Botton’s.

[vi] Michael Lee Hong Hwee, Foundations: The Consolations of Museology (Hong Kong: Studio Bibliothèque, 2008), 107.

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