Saturday, January 23, 2021

"Confucius is a bastard !" - How to fight off Singapore's Cultural Involution

I was brainstorming one of the worst titles an author could come up with for a philosophical piece of work with a friend and we settled on something that can piss off a significant part of the ethnic Chinese population. The working title he came out with was "Confucius is a bastard."

We were, of course, being deliberately immature. At that time, we did not work out the central thesis of the work, and we settled on some small-time critique of Confucius' love for ritual and music. 

Little would I know that cultural anthropologist would complete the task for us.

Before you read the rest of the article, I strongly suggest that you follow this link and read this article on involution. 

Involution is a powerful idea that should animate all Singaporeans. It is the concept that encapsulates the problem that plagues all Confucian societies. There comes a point in a Confucian society, that people become imprisoned in such a narrow definition of success, that they give up hope because they cannot find a way to get out of this narrow mindedness. 

I'm a product of such a society. 

When I got my third degree in SMU Law School, even with my financial independence, I felt constrained by the GPA system in SMU. For every law subject that I felt interested in, being of average ability in class, I had to pay a heavy price with my GPA score. This was fine until my GPA started hitting the low 3.4s. Any slip-up could mean losing one Honors classification. So, subsequently, I started playing safe, and took subjects I had a serious competitive advantage in. The final outcome was that I did not really stretch myself to learn areas of the Law that gave me the most intellectual growth. 

Involution also affects our career choices. This CNY I expect questions from relatives why I wasted a law degree and did not get into practice even though I make relatively good dough on my career choices. 

(This topic is so interesting the Rotary Club may invite me to speak about NOT taking up a legal career next month.) 

Sometimes, I would imagine my financial independence being the sole reason I can tell folks to fuck off and leave my career choices to myself. But deep inside I know this - without my dividend payouts and magical middle-finger made of my investment portfolio, I may not have the strength to resist societal expectations and I would be pretty depressed dealing with divorcing couples today. Every decision I make relating to career and family will be scrutinised and criticised by nosy relatives. 

All the Confucian societies pay a heavy price today for involution - No sane mother would give birth to a child so that he/she will lose or play second fiddle to other kids. Worse, the trend is now assortative mating that entrenches genetic advantages to the child of two working professionals.  I am now no longer surprised that the fertility of Confucian societies is now trending down compared to other societies with more Protestant roots. 

I don't think anthropologists have found a solution to this problem. Confucianism has been around for thousands of years and this rules out a mindset change. China may collapse because of this.

Here are some ideas I have:

  • Universities should just award Pass degrees and give out prizes for best dissertation and maybe subject performance. This allows every candidate to be assessed based on their merits and personal interests. HR departments cannot use a shortcut to cut down the candidates they interview so they need to assess everyone individually.
  • Secondary school, one of the largest sources of inequality, need to be debranded and every student is routed to a nearby secondary school.  
  • Instead of minimum wages, institute legislation to cap maximum time spent on work. 996 culture will just induce a rebellion against corporate culture. If you want to stand out, get more work done within 10 hours. 
I suppose none of my suggestions can produce a mindset change within one generation. But at a personal level, we know how to resolve that issue if it really gets into our nerves.

Simply emigrate to a non-Confucian society.

Lee Kuan Yew himself said that in a slow-growth economic regime, it is better to experience slow growth in Australia than in Singapore. I think academically, our average students in Singapore kicks ass in a society that does not have Confucian roots. This is simply some something Australians do not emphasise in their society. 

This is also what I observe about Asians who settle in Australia - laggards can become winners when they venture outside the country.  



  1. Hi Chris,

    It all depends on individual's mentality. One can simply ignore the "noises" and make the decision to suit its preference. It is up to one to decide whether the expectation of others matters. For me, I know that personal happiness is the upmost importance and other's expectation does not matter to me.

    To each of one's own.


  2. "There's no other way to govern a Chinese society." ;)

  3. Is that quote by Jackie Chan ?

  4. My view is it was those Confucian disciples who had or had not deliberately misinterpreted Confucius' teachings. Ancient Chinese were expansionist and adventurous, that's how Chinese civilization expanded from Yangtze River and Yellow River regions to occupy large part of mainland China. There are also different 'schools' regarding Confucius teaching which were probably differ from the original meaning or intent Since Han Dynasty adopted the Confucian as the only philosophy in governance, China has became more and more inward looking. The learned Confucius scholars despised skill, technology and commerce. And thus all was history till the British used guns and cannons to knock on China's door.

  5. Middle finger portfolio. Lol. I'm also growing my middle finger so I can show it to society.

  6. In Singapore society, we define success in a very narrow way namely material wealth.
    Not only that we also narrow the ways that are regarded as successful to achieve material wealth. That make matters worse.
    Even if FI folks successfully FI and gain reasonable amount of wealth. Our success might still not be regarded highly and get brushed off because our way are considered heterodox!
    It is like those kungfu shows by Jin Yong.
    One might still reign in the martial art world with unorthodox skills but those orthodox folks might still regard them as despicable!

    Our society have to continue to broaden the definition of success and the ways to achieve it. There seem to be improvements in past 5 years but it still feel quite slow to me.

    Perhaps, there is still a large number of folks who came through the old system and they are still kicking and alive to keep those old values alive.

  7. I think the way we broaden the definition of success is too contrived. For one thing the cheerleaders for the Polytechnic system were JC students when they were young. The Government emphasizes skills while hiring for grades. For me, I can't afford to wait for things to change. Once my kids prove that they can't make it academically here, I'm off to the Land of Oz.

  8. Expenses for FIRE in Oz will be higher though --- labour / services (no more $1 kopi-o and $2.50 beehoon; better learn DIY plumbing & car maintenance), mortgages, housing in/near big cities, education (unless your kids can get PR), health & medical insurance, medications.

  9. I don't think folks who leave Singapore for Oz mind the additional DIY. They can do blue collar work and get the highest minimum wages in the world. The question is always how big of a loser my kids will be if they stay in Singapore. This depends on whether the involution gets worse.