Singaporeans sometimes can be too literal, interpreting things inflexibly, and being unable to think outside the box.
A friend in human resources recounted an incident that exemplified the “computer says no” mentality sometimes found in Singapore. A person resigned from a local company but left some of his personal belongings behind. His colleagues contacted the HR department, asking what they should do with his belongings. My friend was bewildered by this common-sense question and quipped that they should pop it in a brown manilla envelope and mail it to that person. This reply, she thought, would put the matter to rest. So, she was shocked by the follow-up question: “But our manilla envelope is not brown, how?”
My friend was rendered speechless as she pondered the many ways in which she could answer this question. Should she be sarcastic? Should she explain that the colour of the envelope mattered not?
Are we too literal for our own good?
I was reminded of this incident when I read that the answer to a maths problem was marked wrong despite the student arriving at the correct answer!
5 x 8 was marked wrong while the supposed correct answer was 8 x 5, leading netizens to poke fun at the teacher, with one suggesting that it was highly likely that the teacher was marking in autopilot mode.
While this situation borders on the ridiculous and could seem hilarious to some, it does shine the spotlight on a far bigger issue. In our quest to follow rules and procedures, have we missed the forest for the trees?
If this is the way kids are taught at school, it is no wonder that they carry this “literal approach” to life.
After all, how are we going to solve problems if we are so wedded to a rigid approach to everything? Are we too bogged down by what is deemed “correct” that we end up arriving at nonsensical outcomes, such as being stuck on the colour of the envelope or being unable to see that 5×8 and 8×5 get us to the same point?
What is the root cause of this mentality? While some may blame the rigidity and rote-learning methodology that our schools employ, I wonder if the problem goes deeper and higher up than that.
We have been governed by the People’s Action Party for over 50 years. By and large, all of those in power tend to sing from the same song sheet. After singing the same chorus for so long, our minds can get lazy and follow instructions blindly instead of being able to critically assess a situation and come up with a solution that best suits the given problem.
Is this inability to think outside the box stemming from the way in which we are governed?
The Leader of the Opposition, Mr Pritam Singh, recently explained in Parliament why it was important to have at least one-third of the MPs in the opposition.
“Singaporeans want an opposition to check the PAP because, in their heart of hearts, we all know that ‘ownself check ownself’ is not realistic,” said Mr Singh.
“The inherent nature of power makes this unrealistic.
“Secondly, it is in our collective self-interest that no one party can amend the Constitution, the highest law of our land, at will.
“So it is wise to have at least one-third in a party, or parties, other than the PAP.
“Thirdly, in the same vein as the Prime Minister alluded to in his speech in this debate, Singapore’s future is not a given. And it follows that no one can ignore the possibility of a rogue government springing from the bosom of the PAP.
“Our people should have real political options if or when that happens.”
In other words, our “one size fits all” approach due to a lack of effective challenge to the government is doomed to fail. Are we regurgitating answers without thought? Or, are we able to come up with actual solutions that are unique to the problem at hand?
If the government is being kept in check only through “choice ownself”, how is it different from the 8×5 versus the 5×8 example?