I refer to the article by Lester Lim, and intend to provide my opinions on some arguments of his which I do not completely agree with.
You say that Ms. Tan’s claim in her letter that “majority Singaporeans are inarticulate” is unfair because firstly her examples are taken from observations of primary and lower-secondary school students, who naturally would not have the courage to stand up and ask questions in a school hall.
As much as this is true, it cannot be denied that this “issue of confidence and courage” is also faced by older students in upper-secondary and beyond, up to working adults. It is mentioned ad nauseam that a person’s early years are crucial in shaping his/her personality. Primary and lower secondary children’s fear and lack of confidence to stand up and speak are as much a result of the social and cultural effects on their upbringing as that of tender age.
As you pointed out a little later, we are instructed from young to “respect our elders” and not interrupt them. But there is a very thin line that separates this and a passive yielding to their views. Very often, the respectful Singaporean may have a point of contention, but he would not raise it thinking the older and wiser adult (whether parent, teacher, pastor, or employer) knows the world better than him and so cannot conceivably be wrong (we are a society obsessed with statistics – it is far more probable that we are wrong rather than them). Children are brought up with this culture of deference.
This self-checking mechanism is reflective of a larger social malaise that pervades every strata of our society. Self-censorship is often borne out of an extended period of enforced censorship and repression. This is the reality of our society. Our media is state controlled, where voicing a dissenting opinion can personally acquaint one with the state’s libel laws and its wielders; the domain of politics and social affairs – which provides endless topics of conversation among students and adults alike in any society – is only to be discussed within ‘acceptable’ boundaries, which often means very little fruitful discussion at all; and the spirit of pragmatism, of a ‘talk-less-and-do-more’ culture is hammered into us in school and beyond. Indeed, many of the best kids in school are those who yap the least and tap (the contents of their textbooks) the most. Ours is a society of rules and restrictions, and these features make up ‘culture’ that shapes our behaviours in the classroom and beyond.
Another crucial factor is the general concern in Chinese society about ‘losing face’. This concern with reputation is also generally prevalent in Asian culture. Nobody wants to open their mouths and embarrass themselves, so it is better to restrain oneself and not take the risk. Not take the risk – the fear of failure, and the general unforgiving nature of our society towards failures is the larger social force that underlies this phenomenon. We bury our losers and herald our winners, and everyone else who dreads being the former and is incapable of being the latter just stands and watches, silently.
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