Singaporeans Are Not Dumb

by Jerrold Soh | Jun 24, 2013 | 6707 views

I am Singaporean. I am unhappy about the haze. I believe the government can do more to combat this issue, especially with regard to diplomacy with Indonesia. I feel a Stop Work Order (SWO) could have been issued to select industries most affected by this problem. I am not dumb.

I was lucky to have been overseas in the last few days, so I managed to stay clear of the haze, in more ways than one. Following the issue from outside Singapore, I observed something interesting – that the haze not only clouded our skies, but perhaps our thinking too. There were indeed many misguided statements and complaints being made, but a response that particularly disturbed me was this one, which quite inaccurately accused Singaporeans of being dumb, selfish, and immature.

I did agree with a number of good points made by the article, particularly that we must not politicize the issue, and that some people in Singapore have really gone too far in their antics and failed to consider enough facts and perspectives in making their complaints. It was also good that the article identified the importance of considering precedents from other countries and analyzing the true costs of an SWO.

However, I find it hard to agree with the article's main point that Singaporeans at large are dumb and whiny. There are numerous examples you can quote to support this, but these are exceptions, not the norm, and it makes little sense to generalise from these minorities to say this “does not bode well for the country’s future.” What was worse was that these ideas were spreading under a guise of logic. Bad logic is not as bad as bad logic which seems like good logic, because the latter is far more able to misinform.

Despite the article's many good points, we would do well to recognize its loopholes, including the how it forgets that…


1 - Being Wrong Is Not Being Dumb.

It is a rather big charge to call our fellow countrymen dumb, if their only fault is that they are illogical and failed to consider important information. Just because some of us blame the wrong people does not mean they are stupid, and much less that the majority of us are stupid.

I would admit many complaints and opinions are misinformed, misguided, or mistaken. But to use the word dumb is not justified unless the haze has provided us superpowers which enables us to calculate the average IQ of the person who posed a complaint. Even then, IQ is far from a sufficient factor to consider in determining someone’s mental abilities.

ideadrunk.com
Every one of us has been wrong before. That does not make us all dumb.

It is possible to interpret the article's title of “Dumb and Dumber Singaporean Responses to The Haze” to be targeted only at the responses themselves, not the respondents, and that would be a better interpretation. However, in the rest of the article the writer uses phrases such as “Is there a brain in there”, which cannot be construed as anything but a personal attack.

It is likely that in trying to gain views, likes and shares for an article, strong and inaccurate language was chosen to attract attention. This is understandable, but it is also irresponsible. I may seem to be picking on semantics here, but it is important to realise that word choice is crucial in writing on an issue of national concern. If you’re posting your thoughts on a national issue and it has the potential to go viral and be read by a lot of people, you have the responsibility to carefully consider your words.

And in support of this ill-worded thesis were a few points offered for consideration which were unable to bear the full weight of the claims being made, especially because they contained…


2 – Incomplete Logical Analysis

Let me first begin by qualifying I found it encouraging and refreshing that the writer of this article sought to offer good points, grounded in logic, to discredit numerous insensitive complaints. The problem, however, is that some of these points lacked the elaboration necessary to fully demonstrate what they needed to say.

On the use of Precedents

It is good that the article offered some consideration of other countries and their actions. We indeed need to take reference from others, especially given that other countries are more experienced than us in almost every way, particularly in dealing with natural phenomena.

However, it is not safe to assume what other countries do is immediately applicable to Singapore. We should follow precedents only if they make sense to us, and there are actually a lot of problems with applying precedents from other countries to Singapore because Singapore is not any other country. The circumstances, culture, governance and environment are all different. Just because someone else did something in the same situation does not mean we should do the same thing when we face this situation, especially if we’re smaller, younger, and so on.

Suppose the US also faced an identical haze problem in which a PSI of 400 enveloped the entire country. The authorities may have wanted to implement an SWO, but stopped short when they realized it was far from easy to roll out such an order across the entire country, consisting of 51 separate states. This does not necessarily mean that, in Singapore, where it is clearly far easier to implement the SWO, none should be given.

ahoracriticoyo.blogspot.com
How PSI 400 over USA might look like.

Furthermore, the link between the AQI which the US follows and the API which Malaysia uses to Singapore’s PSI is very contrived. I am not an expert on air quality indicators, but a short wiki search showed me how different countries defined and measured them very differently, and it is very difficult to position an API of 746 against a PSI of 400, much less draw meaningful conclusions from such a comparison.

Therefore, there needs to be some justification on why we should follow what they did. Without this, the first argument that since other countries don’t have an SWO and therefore we shouldn’t have it is incomplete at best and misleading at worst. There is also no consideration made for having a milder version of the SWO limited to industries, such as construction, most affected by the haze. Precedents are meant to be considered, not copied.

On Costs

It was also good that the article recognized the severe costs of an SWO, because that’s exactly what we need to consider when we are deciding whether or not to enforce one. What was missing, though, was the realization that these costs are only important as a counterweight against the benefits of an SWO.

It’s a simple cost-benefit analysis really: if we believe that the health risks we face are far greater than the economic costs we will incur, then we need to have one. If not, then no SWO. The costs are very very serious, yes, but that doesn’t mean anything if the benefits are greater. However, the article merely glossed over them, saying the costs were “possibly more [serious] than bad air?” Note the choice of the word possibly over the better alternative probably, and clearly it is not just bad air we are concerned about here.

At the same time, the article tends to...


3 – Make Sweeping Generalisations

The article makes a big point out of the differences between how the Japanese responded to the Fukushima disaster and how Singaporeans are reacting to the haze. Even if it was easy to equate a major nuclear meltdown to hazardous smog engulfing a country, it is problematic to conclude from there that the Japanese responded better than us.

thediplomat.com
How Fukushima might have looked like.

To quote the article,

“When Fukushima happened, the Japanese were queuing up in an orderly manner for essential supplies like water”, while during the haze, “we see some Singaporeans hoarding masks, or even worse, reselling those masks at a marked-up profit.”

There is no question that the hoarding of masks is deplorable. But apparently, as the article suggests, the entire population of Japan started queuing up for rations, and this makes them better than Singaporeans because some Singaporeans were totally inconsiderate and starting hoarding masks.

sg.news.yahoo.com
... And how PSI 400 looks like.

I’m not saying the Japanese affected by Fukushima did not respond in a very commendable manner. But when we put things in perspective, even though the affected Japanese probably outnumbered the entire Singaporean population, they still constituted a minority. To draw any safe conclusion, we would need to compare the proportion of people who reacted well in Japan against the proportion of people who reacted badly in Singapore. And, even then, the only thing we can arrive at is that some Singaporeans are worse than some Japanese, not that Singaporeans as a whole displayed “shameless public behaviour”.

Furthermore, the article also demonstrates ignorance to local culture, because…


4 – Complaining Is Just What We Do.

It is ironic that the article is complaining about people complaining, and perhaps even more amusing that now I am complaining about the article complaining about people complaining, but it is inevitable for someone, especially a Singaporean, to complain about something he is unhappy with.

I would like to offer that most of us are just complaining because, honestly, it’s innate in our culture. It may not always be good, but it is not always bad either. Expressing our unhappiness usually does not cause harm, unless we’re killing people and going on strikes (which people in USA and Japan do, and since in the article some people in some country doing some things can be representative of the entire country, I’ll use the same logic here).

en.wikipedia.org
And we don’t really go on strikes that often, do we?

More often than not, we don’t really mean our complaints. They are of more a subconscious habit to us. That does not make it excusable, yes, but it would make it a little more understandable. It would indeed be extremely selfish for someone to seriously hope an SWO is enforced so he can enjoy one day off, and indeed some people will genuinely think so, but there’s nothing wrong with joking about it, and those who are not are the minority. In fact, I was very encouraged to see a lot of creative expression in the past few days and how people are managing to take this all in good humour.

That said, my point on it being alright to complain does not cover those whose complaints and insensitive behaviour has created costs on others – including the good example raised in the article about an author in The Heart Truths trying to “poke holes in VB’s claims”. The article is right here in pointing out that such actions are unacceptable. However, that still does little to show how Singaporeans are dumb.

Lastly, another problem rampant in the article was the occurrence of…


5 – Inaccurately Phrased Statements That Mislead

Including:

“To blindly insist on a stop work order shows a failure of imagination and research.”

It was difficult to understand why it was the job of the complainant to imagine and research before complaining, and hence why it was a significant failure on their part to not have conducted the apparently necessary imagination and research before making their points. Unless most of them were either imagineers or researchers.

disneyandmore.blogspot.com
It's an actual job, by the way.

And:

"'Singapore should do something to the Indonesians! The PAP is inept!'

Hello? Are you asking for an act of war?"

I’m not sure when the definition of the phrase ‘do something’ became limited to ‘act of war’. To me, doing something could include things like offering even more aid than the amount which was rejected. In fact, I don’t think anyone meant anything related to war when they called for some action, and there are such things as diplomatic actions too. For those interested in the exact logical fallacy being made here, check this out.

Or:

"It is crazy to insist on unilateral action that goes against the sovereignty of another country."

This line does a great job in defining what war means, but does not support the point that this complaint is unfounded. Here, it sounds like big words are being used to make up for the lack of something substantial to say.

Taken together, such inaccuracies in the diction of the article unfairly disadvantages, perhaps intentionally, the position of the ‘dumb people’ the article attacks, and creates an illusion that they are far more numerous and senseless than they actually are. But not everyone who calls for action is a warmonger, and not everyone who calls for an SWO is self-centred.


In summary, this article was a refreshing and promising alternative voice to the flood of misguided complaints and insensitive behavior demonstrated by a vocal minority of Singaporeans. It made the important point that we should not politicise this issue, and was very constructive in highlighting certain articles and sites that sought to profiteer from the haze. There were, however, unfortunate problems with the choice of words and logic within the article, which prevented it from giving a full and accurate take on the issues raised. My objective here is not to discredit or discount the writer's views as much as to highlight ways in which the article can be improved, so we can achieve a more tempered perspective. I saw also a need to moderate the flood of negativity regarding the overall intelligence of our population that may or may not have been promoted by this article.

In the end, there are indeed many mistaken perspectives out there - including the articles', and maybe even including mine - but you are not dumb, and I am not dumb.

Singaporeans are not dumb.

Cover image by straitstimes.com.

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