Thursday, May 04, 2006

Post No. 65: A Dialogue Between Generations

Unless you all have been hiding under a rock for the past few weeks (or busy mugging for exams, that’s acceptable also), you all would most likely know that there has been much talk recently about how the recent dialogue session between MM Lee and a group of 10 young Singaporeans (they were all 30 years old or younger) had bring into the open the generation gap between younger and older Singaporeans. This was evident in not only the different perspectives that MM Lee and the panelists in the dialogue session have about the state of local politics but also in the starkly different reactions from those whom have watched the dialogue session (and wrote in letters to the local newspapers, both the Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao). While those older in age were generally more critical of the young panelists’ questions and behaviour during the dialogue session (“rude”, “disrespectful”, “ungrateful”, “naïve”, “idealistic” and “lacking in Confucian values” were some of the criticism thrown at them), those younger in age (at least those whom have bothered to watch the dialogue session) were, on the other hand, more positive in their reaction.

Of course, all that is perhaps water under the bridge with the current hustle and bustle of the General Elections. However, as interesting as the GE may be and as interested in it I may be, I prefer to focus my attention on the generation gap issue as I feel that it would have a crucial significance to Singapore as it moves forward into the future. Anyway, I mean, we all know who’s going to win the GE already, don’t we? Thus, as much as I would like to discuss the GE with you all I would now instead look at the generation gap issue.

Yet, before I say anything else, I would like to point out to you all that the division between the older and younger generations may perhaps not be that well-defined. What I mean is that one may be young in age but perhaps hold the same attitudes of those older in age and vice versa. In the end, “the younger generation” and “the older generation” are but generic labels used for simplicity’s sake to categorise people in society.

Also, I would like to inform you all that I would be presenting this essay in the format of a dialogue between 2 quasi-fictional characters, Mr. Wise Old Man and Mr. Young Intelligent Man, so as to make it easier for you all to understand the gap in generational attitudes, as I see it. Of course, I cannot deny that my decision to present this essay in such a format is also in part due to the influence of Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or”, having been slightly acquainted with it recently.

Let the dialogue begin…

Mr. Wise Old Man: You youngsters want to change everything! Well, let me tell you that there is a very good reason for why things are the way they are today, in other words, why we are using our current methods to do things. That reason is that they have been proven to work. In fact, they work exceedingly well. Just look at the progress, stability and prosperity we all enjoy now. These did not come by accident but are the results of the current methods; methods which we, the older generation, implemented after a long struggle and with the most serious consideration. Yet, you youngsters want to change our current methods. Why? Because you all think that things can be better than how they are now? Sigh. The current methods work, are still working and to depart from them because you all think things can be “better” would be akin to sacrificing a certain “good” for an uncertain “better”. Why fix the wheel when it’s not broken? To depart from our current methods, believe me, would only lead to suffering. Just look at our neighbouring countries. Is this what you want for yourselves and your children? Perhaps instead of always wanting more & more, you youngsters should be satisfied and be more thankful with what we have today.

The current methods are there because they are the best methods for us. Perhaps you all are not satisfied with the current methods because you all feel that they are forced onto you and that you have no choice. However, what you all must understand is that this is not a simple matter of choosing what mobile phone you want to purchase but a matter of life versus death. Make a wrong choice and we all will be doomed. Make a wrong choice and we will be send back to the “bad old days”, that is if we all are lucky enough to still be alive after the wrong choice is made. Yes, I know that you all will argue that you all are intelligent and matured enough to make the correct choice and that we should trust you all to make your own choices. Yet, are you all really absolutely certain that you all will make the correct choice when the time comes? Yes, you all are intelligent but we are not stupid either. And we have something that you all do not have and that something is experience. Like what the Chinese say: “我们吃的盐比你们吃的饭更多。” (“We have eaten more grains of salt than the grains of rice you all have eaten.”) The experience we have must count for something. Even if you don’t respect me, you must respect the experience that I have.

You all are still young. And I understand that it is common for the young to be critical of conventional wisdom and to clamour for change. However, I believe that as you all grow older, your attitudes will change. I believe that as you all start to have families and careers of your own, your priorities will change. You all will come to realise that the most important things in Life are not abstract concepts such as choice, freedom, democracy and change but concrete issues like job security, cost of living and property value.

Mr. Intelligent Young Man: yes, we do want change but it is not our wish to change everything. We wish to change only those areas where we think change is necessary. Also, we are not clamouring for change for change’s sake but for the sake of improving our lives. I agree with you, Mr. Wise Old Man, that the current methods have worked in the past and they are still working now. However, will they work in the future? Will the current methods be adequate enough to meet the challenges of the future? Undoubtedly, the current methods have brought us to where we are today but does this mean we stop trying to reach even higher peaks? I believe that we can reach higher peaks but my question would be: are the current methods enough for us to climb these higher peaks? I mean, the equipment that allows one to climb Bukit Timah may not be enough for one to climb Mount Everest. Anyway, if we abide by the logic of what worked in the past will continue to work forever, then I suppose we will need to continue feeding babies breast milk even when they are able to consume solid food, perhaps even continuing after they have grown up to be adults? If we choose to preserve the status quo and forever not pursue change, then our society will never progress. In fact, we two would not even having this dialogue now but may perhaps be communicating with grunts, gestures and pictures on cave walls.

Yes, I admit that with change, also comes risk. However, what you, Mr. Wise Old Man, must understand is that it is not revolution but reform we are asking for. We are not foolish enough to want to throw the baby out together with the bath water. This is not an either/or situation; we can make changes to our current methods to improve them while not throwing our society into disorder & instability. Anyway, must we always compare ourselves with our less fortunate neighbours? Are they the only alternatives we have? Why can’t we try to emulate the good parts of countries more advanced than ours and perhaps even overtake them? I mean, if we are able to achieve so much today despite all our limitations, is it an impossible dream for us to move ahead further?

I would not deny that we of the younger generation want choice but we do not want it merely for its own sake. Nor are we clamouring for it because we want things to be more exciting. We are asking for choice so that we can have a greater sense of ownership. This sense of ownership is not only about whether we own our homes or whether we have a stable job or not but it is also about whether we feel that our voices can and are being heard. Yes, I concede that this is not choosing what model of mobile phone we wish to buy but something with the most serious effects on our future. Yet, that is exactly why we are asking for choice! If we do not have a choice in something as important as this, how are we to feel that we have an important stake in it? How are we to feel committed to decisions not made or chosen by ourselves?

You question our ability to make the correct choice but my question would be: how can you be absolutely sure that your choices have been the correct ones? I mean, they may perhaps seem correct now but 40 years is only a very short time span in History. Perhaps, in another 100 years, historians would be looking back and saying that despite them being correct in the short-run, the choices made by your generation were actually wrong in the long-run. Anyway, your generation cannot be there forever looking over our shoulders to tell us what are the choices we should make; we will have to learn to make our own choices sooner or later. Yes, I concede that experience is on your side and that we have not lived through the hardships that your generation have. However, I believe that experience can be accumulated. Anyway, wasn’t your generation also young and somewhat inexperienced when you all made the decisions that are now the correct decisions? Also, though experience is an asset, it should never be allowed to become an obstacle in the path of innovation and improvements.

In the end, perhaps my current desire for change and choice is indeed due to my youthful idealism; idealism which would be swept away by the realism of Life as I grow older. However, that in no way reduces my youthful idealism to the status of being misguided or wrong. Man may need bread to survive but Man does not survive only for bread.

Okay now, after reading what both Mr. Wise Old Man and Mr. Intelligent Young Man have to say, what do I have to say? Well, though what they have said both make great sense to me, I suppose that, as a member of the younger generation, I would be more sympathetic towards Mr. Intelligent Young Man’s points. However, do not be mistaken, this is not a case of who’s right and who’s wrong. To me, it is more of a case of different perspectives. No matter young or old, we all want the best for our country & society. The only difference is how we think this “best” can or should be achieved.

In my opinion, we all should be humble enough to see that we do not possess the monopoly of truth and that we should try to understand the rationale behind each other’s perspectives. We would not be doing any of us any good if we just dismiss each other’s perspectives and ideas as “old-fashioned” or “naïve” just because they are different from our own. We all should be more open-minded and accepting about one another’s ideas and opinions. We should examine them more closely and see what value they hold, instead of seeing only their inadequacy.
In conclusion, perhaps instead of focusing all our attention on the gap between generations, we should think about bridging this gap. However, a bridge cannot be built only from one side, it must be a bilateral effort for the bridge to be a good strong one. The old need to remember that they were young once and the young have to realise that they will also grow old.

1 comment:

lp said...

was searching info to do my zhuo wen on the dialogue session with MM Lee... felt ashamed that i didnt watch the prog, anyway i think what u had written is v interesting n showed me a new perspective of tt talk...
i cant believe no 1 left comments, i tink u had written quite well =D

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