Natural Born Failures
by Michael Lee Hong Hwee
Pictures by Han
Header: How to live fulfillingly? Fail. Strategic rule-breaking exercises and unexpected crises require us to exit comfort zones, experiment with remote possibilities and encourage novel outcomes. Yet, the global obsession with success sustains the fear of trying anything new, not to mention failing purposefully. Such aversion to risk stunts growth. So, is it surprising that a society that embodies, celebrates and pursues success as Singapore does, is home to many disgruntled souls?
Beneath the Singaporean
The ‘average’ Singaporean adult enjoys a life of contentment in an economically and socially stable society, with gainful employment and cheerful relationships. He usually owns a property, and has disposable income for shopping and travel. His main preoccupation is his work, from which he gets a regular pay and a sense of self. But, probe further, and one senses regrets and grievances. For every Singaporean devoted to his job there are others who find their work a drag, remaining in it only to pay the bills and sustain their material pursuits. Herein lies the vicious cycle: Singaporeans work hard, tire out, seek recreation, and so, continue working to sustain their lifestyle. Neither critical thinking nor creative endeavour can enter this self-contained logic. In fact many people fear the repercussions of criticizing public policies. Those who have done so are exceptional cases, a number of whom have been reprimanded for their ‘improper conduct.’[i]
Most Singaporeans are sure they are not, cannot and will not be artists because they are not creative enough. Even if they enjoy painting, poetry or music they choose not to pursue it as a career because it does not pay them enough. Hence participation in culture veers more towards coffee shop grouses than systematic critique, entertainment more than critical art, and consumption rather than creation. Tentative and meek in engaging with experimental ideas, many Singaporeans are cosmopolitan in appearance but conservative in thinking, outwardly 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 the causes, effects and coping strategies of a comfortable life.
Species of Solace
Singapore’s intolerance of failure is, to a large extent, based on the prevalence of two types of consolation. The first, which I call ‘The Cradle’, comprises the work ethic, with its emphasis on diligence and delayed gratification, and the culture of consumption, in its myriad varieties - alcohol, fashion, the latest gadgets, pop music, fine dining, clubs and health supplements. It tells us: ‘Keep working and buying, and you are on your way to happiness. Moreover, the government will keep things in check’. The ruling People’s Action Party, which I refer to as ‘The Wand’ type of consolation, has long kept a vigilant watch over many aspects of its citizens’ everyday lives. These range from education to housing, employment to marriage, health to recreation.[ii] The government’s glowing record in ‘delivering the goods,’ especially in 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, Assistant Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, observes, despite talk of a more liberal society, 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….”[iii]
The main problem with ‘The Cradle’ consolation is that the reduction, avoidance or numbing of pain may be temporary and illusory, and more damaging than helpful in the long run. Work and alcohol, when engaged excessively, can lead to complacency, escapism and ill-health. On the other hand, the main problem with ‘The Wand’ consolation is that it dismisses desire with the aim or effect of keeping people contented in their ‘rightful’ place. In many Singaporeans’ heads is a series of mantras on pragmatism: Do the least to achieve the most; don’t stand out; just follow the rules; don’t upset the system; relax; don’t take things too seriously; turn in early; get up; get back to work; don’t get fired…
Such obedience has a structural similarity with the New Testament reminder: “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh….” (Colossians 3.22-4).
Failing is Succeeding
What Singapore 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 Singapore’s ‘culture of comfort’.
This proposal engages a third type of consolation for failure, which I shall call ‘The Library’. It urges us to read widely, think critically, create things of our own, and then repeat the cycle. If ‘The Cradle’ regards our problems like weeds to be nipped in the bud, and ‘The Wand’ pinpoints desire as responsible for our misery, ‘The Library’ says pain and pleasure coexist. Friedrich Nietzsche lambasts people who avoid difficulty:
“If you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you even for an hour…. 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.” [iv]
Nietzsche argues that a fulfilled life must involve art. Stop consuming; start creating. A disclaimer: Adopting ‘failure’ as a principle in life and art is not condoning shoddy practice. Instead it’s about setting ambitious goals beyond the expected and imaginable. Here, the artistic life is not self-indulgence but a critique of society’s preference for conformity, mediocrity and comfort.
I recommend ‘hyper-cantilevering’ for the overall architectural form of the proposed museum, for a sense of precariousness and engineering impossibility. The following set of dual truisms suggests the museological stance:
A museum compiles human achievements.
A museum celebrates human failures.[v]
Though apparently incompatible, these statements are flipsides of a coin. The history of innovation has been a history of struggles and failures. New ideas are often deemed useless or dangerous at the point of conception. Every recorded success belies countless unnamed setbacks.
Singaporeans have discipline, which is crucial for any breakthrough in art or science. What they lack is the recognition that they have the innate impulses and the option to create, grow and lead individualistic lives. If humans are inherently creative, and if we accept that the creative journey is arduous, then it follows that we are always already ‘Natural Born Failures’. Since we are to fail anyway, rather than keeping failures or problems at bay, we might as well try to fail better, more often, more interestingly, drastically and perhaps even more successfully. This way, we 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 artefacts and words.
Han is a documentary photographer based in Singapore.
[i] 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).
[ii] 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.’
[iii] Kenneth Paul Tan, In Renaissance Singapore
[iv] 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.
[v] Michael Lee Hong Hwee, Foundations: The Consolations of Museology (Hong Kong: Studio Bibliothèque, 2008), 107.