Saturday, July 07, 2007

Talk Singapore

In his blog, filmmaker Shekhar Kapur asks an interesting question: All of us have heard about scientists saying we use only 10% of our brains. So what is the other 90% doing?

Gossiping, he says.

Ninety percent of our brain is reserved for an art that we are fast losing in our hurried daily lives—the art of gossip.

This observation was very much in display when I first arrived in Singapore three years ago.

Singapore came across as a 'silent' city, a ghost town, despite all its progress and efficiency.

The entire city looked like a well-organised library, if you will, with proper indexing for each shelf, and a big sign hovering over in every reading room: Silence Please!

All the hustle and bustle of commuting was observed in silence. In the elevators, people observed a deathly silence, looking down on the floor or looking away from each other. In offices, people paid attention to their work and barely talked, let alone gossip.

If achieving human silence were the apogee of the civilizational process, then Singapore had perfected it.

After all, the Western civilization had taken centuries trying to get people to shut up. Alexander the Great’s armies were mesmerized to see him read a letter from his mother silently—because he alone knew how. After the dawn of Christianity, the ability not to vocalize, not to talk, was admired for centuries.

Silence was not just an achievement, it was a heavenly experience.

Didn’t Confucius say, in reply to his pupils’ enquiry of his request to not speak, “Heaven does not speak. Look at how productive it is.”

But this was a huge contrast from my home country: the land of "argumentative" Indians. There, every hour of work was compensated with fifteen minutes of discussion on the latest cricket match or Bollywood.

And all this talking didn’t do the Indians any harm. It has rather resulted in a flourishing culture of democratic media, literature and cinema. Now you should know why India has thousands of newspapers, hundreds of news channels and an army of writers and filmmakers, some of whom have gone all over the world winning some big awards.

Conversely, a highly successful Singapore made me wonder: Why is this prosperous nation wrapped in such a deafening silence? What has taken the conversation away from them? And what is the psychological toll of this silence?

It is not that silence is engraved in the genes of Singaporeans. As journalist Ravi Veloo has noted elsewhere, Singapore's best ideas were birthed by conversation and debate: a nation of tenants (Singapore's immigrants) threw out the landlords (the British) and this overthrowing had its genesis in the revolutionary conversations that Lew Kuan Yew and his friends had had in the UK while studying there.

So, where has that conversation vanished now?

Forget those ground-breaking conversations. There's not even that small talk. If a stranger uttered as much as a hello to a Singaporean or wished her a good day, she would have a culture shock. How? Why?

I think it can all be pinned down to two major factors: ease of living and a general sense of self-censorship.

It is like what Shekhar Kapur feels about London: “…there is an ease of living, an addiction to security, a secure tomorrow, a secure future - that is almost cloying.”

In that sense, Singapore is like London. The government does so much for its people that there is nothing left for them to figure out on their own. They are born into this life of ease, where each step has been planned for them to follow, and they snugly fit into this lifestyle. Just follow la! That mantra leaves little room for them to be creative and questioning. And all talks start with questions, big or small. The innocent 'how are yous' can lead to a great conversation.

Then there's too much emphasis on political correctness. That stifles many a conversation right in the beginning.

That brings us to the other factor of censorship or rather self-censorship. Many of the interesting topics of conversation lie outside the so called "OB markers". Interestingly, this censorship may not have come from the government--people inflict it upon themselves. And that's it. They won't cross the unseen line. Result? No conversation.

I asked one of my Singaporean colleagues this question. Why don't people talk here?

It's all about attitude, she said. Youngsters don't talk because it is considered so ‘uncool’. You do your own thing--listen to your ipod, read your books, do your own stuff.

On the other hand, she explained, the office culture here is such that talking tantamounts to negligence of work. If you are seen to be talking often, you are marked as an unserious employee.

And which Singaporean would run the risk of earning that label? Because of the constant inflow of "foreign talent" they are too scared to upset their bosses even at a miniscule level lest they should get "replaced" by a cheap but efficient foreign worker--their carefully planned installment-based life might come unstuck.

But that's not the complete picture. Another form of conversation does exist here.

It exists in the chat rooms, forums and the blogosphere.

A digital, not a verbal, form of conversation. An image that is a befitting metaphor for a high-tech nation.

But is that same as a live, face to face conversation? I don’t think so.

In a face to face conversation, there is physical closeness. It makes us feel less isolated as humans. Also, it is a “responsible” conversation as we cannot hide behind the anonymity of chat rooms and forums.

And what is the implication of this lack of face to face conversation, talk and gossiping?

Again I am tempted to quote Kapur as he puts it so succinctly: “The ability to gossip is the ability to indulge in a sense of humour. We lose that and we are lost.”

We are human beings, not dolphins. We need to talk, gossip, tell each other our stories. In fact, American novelist Henry James went to the extent of saying that conversations, exchanges of words, are all that matters.

All nations are talking. Singaporeans too need to talk or they will get lost in the babble of the humanity at large. Not a pretty choice for an otherwise proud nation, right?

An edited version of this piece appeared in The Weekend Today on July 7, 2007.

Update: Here's a reader's comments on my piece that appeared in Today.


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