I’m in Singapore right now. I was invited to speak at a conference about education and the future; specifically about how to teach children to deal with the media of the future. I have to confess I didn’t pretend to have any great insights into what that future might be, because while we may guess at where the media will be in twenty years time, the chances are our guesses will be if not wholly wrong, then at least insufficiently right to be able to plan in a prescriptive way.
I suggested we really need to give children the tools to make sense of whatever content comes their way – and in Singapore, one of the most conformist cultures I know, that’s quite hard because the norm is to simply accept what your elders (or purported betters) tell you. In terms of the growing panoply of media, authority can come from peer recommendation, design and presentation or any number of things that do not necessarily include accuracy or knowledge of what the content provider is talking about.
What we need are sceptics – young people who will test everything they’re told. However that has real implications in a state like Singapore where people are encouraged to trust the ruling party, the same party that has been in power since separation from Malaysia in 1965, the PAP.
Perhaps the best part of the entire event was the contribution from those Singapore Management University students who chose to attend. They were pretty sparky. Indeed at the end of the conference they came up and told me that they thought my talk had loads of ideas but no coherent thread. Hmmm!
Actually I’d hoped the logical thread was implicit – I didn’t bother to spell it out, however the thing was that their reaction seemed remarkably frank and fearless for Singaporean first year undergraduates. That sort of response, that preparedness to challenge and criticise, is really what Singapore needs lots of, and knows it needs. It’s just that no one seems totally sure how to get from here to there.
The seminar at which I spoke was actually really very interesting. During the final panel session we started to talk about identity – because we had educators there from almost every continent bar South America. So in this context I threw in my theory of what I see as national myths – peoples or nations create or maintain myths about themselves and they feed into the collective identity (though not everyone buys into the prevailing identity of course).
In America I suspect the national myths were forged during the revolution and the westward expansion of the 19th century when wagon trains rolled across the plains and cowboys fought with Indians and the West was lost and won.
In England I think we have what I call ‘the myth of the just king’; whether it be Arthur sleeping until England needs him, Robin Hood hoping for Good King Richard to return from the Crusades to put paid to Bad Prince John or Richard II declaring at the death of Wat Tyler (leader of the Peasants revolt) ‘Your leader is dead, I shall be your leader’, English culture maintains the conceit that the king is good, it’s just that his advisors are bad.
My strong feeling is that this particular myth is holding us back; we expect someone big and important to fix things for us, for deliverance to come from on high, when really it’s in our own hands.
I’m not an expert on Singapore (though in Malaysia, of which I know more, and for Malays in particular, I’d venture the national myth is probably entwined with that of Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat) but one of the delegates, Lim Lai Cheng (the very impressive outgoing Principal of the Raffles Institution) ventured it might be similar to the movie Hero where Jet Li is unable to assassinate the wicked Emperor because he decides social order is better than the chaos that would follow the killing of a bad man.
So we had some very interesting discussions about the nature of identity. For some people identity can be very simple. They think of and define themselves in very bold and mono dimensional terms; ‘I’m English’, ‘I’m a Spurs supporter’ or whatever.
For me identity is complex and many layered. I am the child that my parents adopted. I am a member of the family I have made for myself; my child, our relations, my friends. I am from the High Weald. I am from Sussex. I’m English. I’m British. I’m European. As Tom Paine put it: ‘The world is my country and my religion is to do good’. Many, many things – all part of who I am.
But what my trip back to Thailand and Singapore reminded me is that culturally I have also become, at least in some small measure, East Asian. I’ve spent getting on for five and a half years in SE Asia. I don’t doubt that to many, if not most, of the Asians I meet I seem thoroughly English. But my time here was a dialogue, not a monologue.
I avoided almost all the expats I met. I spent most of my time listening to people from this incredibly diverse part of the world. I liked a lot of what they said. There are many things where I prefer the Asian way. I used to joke that I have the head and heart of an Englishman but the stomach of a Malaysian. In truth it may extend past my stomach.
It’s not a big deal, but coming back after six years I remembered how very comfortable I feel here, how I have a sense of belonging, at least on the fringes, of its being one of my homes.
So perhaps Sussex and the peninsula are the twin poles of my existence. We are living in a global era and though there are problems that will come from that, there are also amazing opportunities and experiences to be had as a citizen of the world.