In my view, Singapore is in, but not of, Southeast Asia. One way to appreciate this — and to grasp Singapore’s staggering economic success, especially in contrast to the Malay peninsula and the rest of Southeast Asia and — is to think about prevailing attitudes regarding work. I’ll begin with a crude stereotype and then offer a competing but related explanation. The generalizations I’ll here peddle are, I hasten to add, subject to the usual qualifiers: they admit of exceptions, and they reflect only my limited experience.

The crude stereotype: Chinese people are hard-working. Malays, Thais, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Indonesians…, by contrast, are lazy. The crude stereotype applied: Singapore’s success is best explained by the industry of its largely Chinese population (roughly 75% of Singaporeans are of Chinese descent). The crude stereotype is, I’d guess, fairly widely accepted here. Given Singapore’s ethnic makeup, this is both self-serving and totally unsurprising.

I think that in fact things are a little more complicated (no duh). In particular: I suspect that what makes Singapore distinct from the rest of Southeast Asia isn’t so much the industry of its people, but rather the attitudes Singaporeans take towards work and their fundamental anxieties. In this post, I’ll address those attitudes, and in the next post I’ll address those anxieties.

Consider two extreme views:

Extreme View 1: work is everything. One’s ultimate lot in life is determined entirely by how hard and how smart one works. No fate but what we make. If you want to live a happy life, it is up to you to build that life for yourself. And if you invest great effort and ingenuity into the project of building that happy life, you will most likely succeed. Honest, hard labor is the primary ingredient to success in life, and very few factors can either stand in the way of such industry or make up for its deficiency. Proponents of the so-called Protestant Work Ethic often endorse views in this neighborhood (see, e.g., the stories of Horatio Alger Jr.).

Extreme View 2: luck is everything. Whether one works hard or smart doesn’t have much to do with one’s ultimate lot in life. That is, instead, determined by the assets and capacities with which one has been endowed purely as a matter of luck (innate intelligence, loving parents, family wealth, timely investment opportunities, racial & sexual identity and the privileges that come with it, etc). Social justice advocates often endorse views in this neighborhood, emphasizing the pervasive inequalities that luck creates and how we might best correct them.

These views come in a continuum, and one’s views might fall anywhere on that spectrum. But  my hypothesis is that most Singaporeans accept something closer to Work is Everything. Many Americans like to think that they are self-made, that they have been lifted up by their own bootstraps. Similarly, Many Singaporeans like to think that Singapore is self-made, a country lifted up by its own bootstraps. Whether these self-conceptions are true isn’t the point; my claim is that they reflect an interesting attitude about the place of hard work in a successful life.

By contrast, many others in Southeast Asia accept something closer to Luck is Everything. Here’s just one small example. As a kid, I loved reading fairy tales, folk stories, and mythologies. One thing that always struck me about Cambodian folk stories (in contrast to, say, Western European folk stories) is that the characters who win (get the girl, get the money, get divine favor, get the food) almost always do so, not because of work, but because of luck. A typical story might involve three brothers: one  works hard in the fields, one makes regular and pious sacrifices to the spirits, and another sleeps all day. As things turn out, bad weather screws over the hard-working brother, an irate spirit screws over the pious brother, and the lazy guy (who spent the whole story in a hammock) inherits the estate of a long-lost uncle. Luck, not work, is everything. To be clear: this is just an example (and one I find vivid). I do not think it provides much evidence about how, in general, work is viewed in Southeast Asia. But I do think that the generalization holds. Outside of Singapore, something closer to the Luck view prevails.

The Singaporean attitude towards work, then, is one respect in which Singapore is in, but not of, Southeast Asia. And this isn’t just a matter of Chinese culture. I actually think this generalization transcends ethnic categories in Singapore; it holds true of the Chinese majority and of, e.g., Tamil and Malay minorities on this island. The fact of the matter is more subtle than the crude stereotype suggests. It’s not merely that Singaporeans work harder than do, say, Malaysian Malays; it’s that Singaporeans, in general, have different expectations about the results of hard labor. The origins of these attitudes towards work are, no doubt, complex. And they probably involve (as the crude stereotype above suggests) both Chinese elements and a powerful UK influence on Singapore (it is a former British colony, after all).

Next up: my take on the fundamental anxieties that combine with the Singaporean attitude towards work to create the Asian Tiger we know and love.

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