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Smart Nation, SG50, and Categorical Inflexibility

To the PAP, SG50 is a useful vote-buying activity. Smart nation, in a certain way, presents the usefulness of technology in the eyes of the PAP.   However, the rigid classification of usefulness and uselessness will lead to a categorical inflexibility.  And the PAP will end up shooting the wrong targets, missing the usefulness votes and losing the uselessness votes.

The efforts and promotions that the PAP puts on SG50 will have a diminishing return on votes.  They see things in a straight line and think promoting pioneer generations, senior citizens, old kampung spirit, smart nation, democratic socialism, CPF and medical reforms will attract votes. However, all these useful activities are all pointing to their weaknesses. How come they have not solved these problems in the past 50 years?  

Smart nation, according to PM Lee, is to leverage on the latest technology to make life better.  He said, “One major initiative will be to allow people access to maps and geospatial databases by contributing to information such as animal sightings, traffic incidents or even the best mee pok eateries.” (

Is smart nation just a smart use of technology? Will life be better if one has all the latest technology? Is this classification flexible enough for a smart nation?

Take PSLE for example,  students who score 250 points and above are the top 10% of the cohort. Based on this classification, they can go to good schools or top schools. It creates a division between useful and less useful persons in the society. In many ways, useful people need less useful people to show their usefulness. Shanghai, London or New York cannot be great cities if there is no China, UK or USA respectively. Without the support of countries, these cities are not great. Can we say these cities are great and the countries are not? Hence, Singapore will have to depend on Southeast Asia or the greater world  to be relevant.  

Will less useful people use less technology when Singapore becomes a smart nation 10 years later? Will useful people use more technology in future? Or they can employ useful and less useful people to do the jobs for them.  They, in fact, use less technology instead.  

PM also gave his assurance that citizens who are less technologically savvy will not be left behind, pledging to “prevent a digital divide from happening.”  Will closing the technology gap be more important than closing income gap? Will people’s happiness only limit to using technology finding the ‘mee siam no hum’?

A smart nation needs categorical flexibility. A smart nation needs to make good use of less useful persons.   An inflexible smart nation will always place usefulness first, money first and technology first, like the past and present PAP.

The PAP’s categorical inflexibility will constrain our ability to think in novel or creative ways. Confucianism only considers useful people as they can contribute to society like paying taxes. People having power are also important as they can change the society and improve the life of ordinary people(?).  In many ways, less useful people’s contribution is absent in a Confucian society.  A smart Confucianism nation will be very rigid in recognising the usefulness of less useful or less intelligent people.  This is very a dangerous option in a one-man-one-vote election when majority of us is less useful and less intelligence.  The recent election defeat of KMT in Taiwan shows the irony of such ignorance and categorical inflexibility.

Ask yourself these questions: Instead of having all the latest technology, why do our trains still breakdown? Why does our stock exchange go powerless or face software problems?  Why can’t we improve our productivity after technology upgrade?   

PAP’s definition of SG50, smart nation and PSLE has a narrow focus on usefulness. As a result, the PAP will only judge less useful or less intelligent people on whether they meet their pre-condition of usefulness, just like the case of PSLE. Their narrow focus can further extend to include money, talent, grassroots activities, social media, and so called ‘new normal’.   

To understand the changeable focus of usefulness and uselessness, and the categorical inflexibility, we can look at the following wisdom from Zhuangzi.     

[Huizi’s gourd]

[Huizi said to Zhuangzi, “The King of Wei gave me a seed from a huge gourd. I plant it and the fruit ripened into gourds that weighed half a ton. I used one for a sauce jug and it was too heavy to lift; I split another into a ladle and there was no room in the house to set it down. It isn’t that their size wasn’t wonderful, but I saw they were useless so I smashed them to pieces.”

Zhuangzi said, “You are certainly clumsy when it comes to making use of what is big! There was once a man from Song who was skilled at making ointment for chapped hands. For generations, his family had made their living by washing raw silk. A traveler happened to hear of it and offered to purchase the formula for a hundred catties of gold. The man called his family into conference and said, ‘For generations we’ve made our living washing silk and never earned more than a few pieces gold. Now we can sell our formula and earn a hundred catties of gold in an instant. Let’s give it to him!’ Once the traveler had the formula, he went to the court of Wu to persuade the king to use it in dealing with his troublesome neighbor state of Yue. The king put him in command of his forces to engage Yue’s navy in a midwinter river battle and the forces of Yue were routed. The King of Wu carved a slice from his newly gained territory and rewarded the traveler with a fief. The traveler and the silk washer were alike in possessing the formula of preventing chapped hands; one used it to gain a fief, the other to wash silk – it was in the use of the thing that they differed.

“Now you have a half-ton gourd: why didn’t you think of making it into a big boat and sailing the rivers and lakes, instead of worrying about having room in the house to set it down? Really – your mind is no better than a tumbleweed!”]


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