Monday, August 10, 2015

What would Steinbeck say about Singapore?

John Steinbeck uses the rich backdrop of marine creatures in order to think about humans and humanity.  I will, in turn, use his musings in the context of Singapore in order to think about humans and humanity and, in the process, to perhaps even convince this skeptic that deep reading is a worthwhile effort ;)

On Good Friday, while looking at marine animals in Baja California, Steinbeck thinks about disease and suffering and genetics and, therefore, how the species changes to "another animal entirely."  And why the elimination of diseases might trigger discomfort to "religionists":
For it is through struggle and sorrow that people are able to participate in one another--the heartlessness of the healthy, well-fed, and unsorrowful person has in it an infinite smugness.
There is something in pain and suffering and sorrow that makes us reflect on life and cosmos as more than merely about ourselves, right?  During those tough times, those who believe turn to their gods.  They pray. When everything is going well, most believers that I know not only forget their own gods but go one step more and claim that all the success was theirs and theirs alone.

The dystopian science fiction also suggests that a future with abundance and free of diseases is not one that we might enjoy.  One of the Swedish girls whom we hosted during the California years remarked about depression and suicide among teenagers in her country along the lines of "we have everything, but there is no meaning, and so the kids invent troubles."  It is a rather strange notion that troubles, pain, suffering, help provide us with meaning to our lives.

Singapore, which recently celebrated its 50th birthday, is the closest contemporary example that we have of a place on earth where troubles, suffering, and diseases, have all been pretty much wiped out.  To such an extent that the government has even preempted potential troubles that could otherwise arise from people freely expressing thoughts--a notion that always makes me uncomfortable.

Pankaj Mishra puts a spin on it and argues that if the authoritarian leaders put their minds to it, they could make the country "an exemplar of that much-invoked but nearly extinct thing: democracy."
Rule by and for the people seems to have been replaced in many formal democracies with rule by and for the rich and powerful. It’s clear now, after decades of rhetoric about democracy, that its original ideal -- a community where human beings live together without holding power over another -- can only be realized, imperfectly if at all, in small states. ... Singapore has a huge advantage over centralized and dysfunctional democracies. It's actually a functional city-state with a relatively small (5.5 million) and highly literate population, and it has no enemies.
But then, maybe the leaders are like those in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451--they worry that if people are allowed to think and express their thoughts, then they will get depressed and become unhappy.  The two-legged paradox haunts Singapore, too!  If only we would understand that a happy life does not mean a life of nothing but happiness.


Anne in Salem said...

I am willing to be a test subject. Take away all my stresses, worries, anxieties. Heal my loved ones; give me ample money; guarantee my children will always make the right choices; remove all commercials from the radio, slow drivers from the road, government officials, taxes, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. See how happy I become! In the meantime, I'll accentuate the positives and suffer the difficulties because they are all part of a full and rewarding life.

Sriram Khé said...

"accentuate the positives and suffer the difficulties because they are all part of a full and rewarding life"
Exactly. After all, Trump won't easily go away. Clinton might even be the president not for four but even for eight years. Worst of all, we slow drivers will torment the likes of you ;)

Ramesh said...

Oh yes - Utopia is actually a curse and not a blessing. Happiness and sadness are two sides of the same coin and each can't exist without the other, I think. I would venture to suggest that Anne would actually be unhappier in the scenario she paints than she is now !

But what makes you think Singapore is anywhere near this utopia ? There is much trouble and suffering there too. To a visitor, the plastic neatness and efficiency points to "an ideal state". But there is much suffering and difficulties there too. It is one of the most unequal states in terms of income distribution . Lots of people actually struggle to make both ends meet. Sure it does not suffer from hunger, famine or pestilence. But the Bhutanese happiness quotient would not be way off the charts.

One thing will please Anne in Singapore. There are no slow drivers. Everybody thinks he or she is a Formula One driver !!

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, but that is the point--if there is any place on this planet where we could create the closest that we can get to an utopian democratic society, it is Singapore. But, it will require political leadership that will have to be very different from what they have had for fifty years.

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