Are S'poreans stupid?April 7, 2006
Uproar over Li's 'stupid' remark
Singaporeans are stupider and of inferior stock, says Taiwanese firebrand Li Ao
By Foong Woei Wan
IT WAS a casual comment that sparked a passionate discussion among Chinese Singaporeans.
After a tour of China in September last year, Li Ao, the famously outspoken Taiwanese politician and author, said at a press conference in Hong Kong: 'Taiwanese are still better. They're scoundrels but they're lovable. Hong Kongers are craftier. Singaporeans are stupider. The Chinese are more unfathomable.'
Little did he realise that his offhand remark would lead to dozens of letters and columns in Singapore Chinese dailies such as Lianhe Zaobao and Shin Min Daily News.
On Wednesday, he explained at long last what he meant by the comment.
He devoted an entire 25-minute episode of his popular talk show, Li Ao's Standpoint, on Phoenix TV (StarHub Channel 50) to the topic: Singaporeans' Stupidity.
Singapore, he said, is the perfect actualisation of the ancient Chinese political philosophy, Legalism, which emphasises the rule of law.
Legalism was the central governing concept of China's Qin dynasty and culminated in the unification of the country under the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang.
Li said that under the leadership of Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, the collective comes before the individual, and the success of the Republic is therefore a 'collective creation'.
The flip side of the coin is that there have been few 'outstanding people' in Singapore, he said.
He noted that many of the Republic's forefathers had sailed from China to the island to make a living and were admirably industrious folk.
But they were also poorly educated, like the great-grandfather of Taiwanese politician Peng Ming-min, who had gone from Fujian to Taiwan 'with only his underwear and nothing else, much less culture'.
He argued that since Singapore's forefathers were poorly educated, Singaporeans are 'not of a good stock'.
He said Mr Lee wanted to build a British-style democracy but because the people are not up to scratch, they only know how to toe the line.
'Singaporeans do not po ge (break rules) but they also do not chu ge (stand out),' he said in Mandarin.
'If you ask me, Li Ao, to name Singapore's outstanding people, I can think of only one person besides politicians like Lee Kuan Yew and his son - a very lovable girl called Stefanie Sun,' he said, referring to the Taiwan-based pop star.
'It's not that there is none. It's just that I don't know of many outstanding individuals. The impression I get is: stupid,' he added.
The 70-year-old author is a member of the Taiwanese parliament and is famous for his controversial comments. Born to a professor of Chinese in north-east China, he fled with his family to Taiwan when he was a teenager.
His show airs on weekdays on the Chinese-backed Hong Kong cable channel, and attracts audiences in Asia, including Singapore.
On Wednesday, he said he was elaborating on his remark about Singaporeans after a Singaporean fan wrote to him and asked him to explain himself.
Li said he had not meant anyone any harm, and added that he would have to speak with more care in future.
'I didn't think that when I said Hong Kongers are craftier, it could also mean that Singaporeans aren't crafty, you're just stupid.'
But he also called on Singaporeans to reflect on why his comment had caused a ruckus.
'If even a clever man like Li Ao has this impression - and he has no enemies in Singapore - think: Why does he have this impression?'
But if he thought his explanation would appease angry Singaporeans, he was mistaken.
After his talk-show remarks were broadcast on cable TV on Wednesday and published in Lianhe Zaobao yesterday, angry readers called radio stations here to complain about him.
Celebrities like China-born, Singapore-based compere Guo Liang also spoke up for Singaporeans.
He told Lianhe Wanbao: 'One cannot just conclude that Singaporeans are going to be stupid generation after generation.'
In Lianhe Zaobao, columnists like Wong Lung Hsiang have noted that Li's comment on stupid Singaporeans echoes a saying in China that 'Taiwanese are shameless, Hong Kongers are heartless, Singaporeans are ignorant'.
In Greater China, law-abiding Singaporeans have long been seen as gullible.
In a commentary in November last year, Wong wrote: 'No nation is perfect. As Singapore grows in confidence and strength, there should be constant self-examination - treasure the system when you are at home but when you are away, you should know how to adapt to others.'
Saw this article on the Straits Times (I find the translation unsatisfactory and the article misleading, for those who can read Chinese you can go here for the original transcript.) This sparked my interest because I had followed Taiwanese News quite closely and one of the more famous people in Taiwan is Li Ao.
Apparently, he had caused uproar with his ‘stupid’ remark.
He says Singaporeans are ‘stupid’ because although Singapore is a successful country there are very few outstanding individuals in Singapore. Singaporeans are more of a collective rather than individuals. This results in conformity, which leads the situation that ‘Singaporeans do not po ge (break rules) but they also do not chu ge (stand out)’.
While I disagree with his choice of word, I very reluctantly agree with his observation of Singaporeans.
We, Singaporeans, indeed either prefer or are “forced” to conform to the “norms” of the society.
We, Singaporeans, do indeed prefer or are “forced” to follow the crowd or govt. directives.
This is evident in a few things like when choosing the course to study in university (Singaporeans tend to choose the “hot” course which the govt is promoting, the latest being biotech.) and which country to invest in (China in the past, India and Middle East now).
We have wannabe “entrepreneurs” clamouring for govt to help to start their business (Didn’t we all hear before the “if govt can help me I sure can succeed” talks by many of those wannabe “entrepreneurs”. Don't they realise that asking govt. help is the opposite of entrepreneurship?).
We even have people who ask the govt to provide us with an opposition! (This is so naïve that it I wanted to agree with Li Ao for once.)
While this isn’t all bad, we need social cohesion to build up Singapore rapidly; it does present us with a problem in the new economy where innovation is required. A population that rely on govt. for most of the things is unlikely to be creative enough for the new economy.
Although there have to been rapid changes in the education system in recent years to encourage more creativity, it will take many years to see the effects of these reforms before we can judge if it works. The world will not wait for us while we attempt to change.
So fellow Singaporeans, choose what you like rather than what is “hot” for your university course, invest in where you think best rather than where the govt is promoting, stop clamouring for help from the govt and just go for it if you want to start a business, finally stop asking the ruling party to provide you with an “opposition” and vote in a real one if you think Singapore needs an opposition.
Once we start to act more like individuals rather than a collective, we will not be “stupid” anymore.
I read some of the letters rebutting Li Ao comments; it is clear to me that most of them have not read the original transcript or watched the program or do not understand what Li Ao said.
Most of the attacks are focusing on the part where Li Ao said Singaporeans' ancestors are “of inferior stock”. Anyone who bother to read the transcript or watched the program would know that he is not referring to genetic stock of Singaporeans but rather pointing out that although he admire the ancestors of Singaporean Chinese for their industriousness, it is a fact that they are also mostly poor and illiterate and thus culturally anaemic. Being poor and illiterate and thus culturally anaemic is what he meant by “inferior stock”. He also said this is the same for Taiwan.
According to Li Ao, it will take generations to build up sufficient cultural foundation for our British parliamentary system to work properly, just like the British. He believes MM Lee felt the same too. However when MM Lee begins to rule Singapore, which had a culturally anaemic population, with strict laws (legalism), it produced an side effect.
That is the strict laws and rule (legalism) bonded the people with the system too tightly, thus eliminating some of the advantages of a looser political system. This greatly reduced the individuality of Singaporeans and that is the reason why Singapore lacks outstanding individuals.
The lack of outstanding individuals is what he meant by ‘stupid’.