Singaporeans love a good story.
To be frank, humanity as a whole has loved good stories for time immemorial, whether as histories, folktales or religion. Many cultures developed oral traditions for recalling myths and history through song and story, even in traditions where a system of writing had already been invented. In the present day, stories such as those told in Tolkien’s books, the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the latest shows on Netflix capture the imagination and attention (as well as billions of dollars of revenue). Singaporeans are no exception to this—we, too, are massive patrons of online streaming services, box offices, YouTube, and the library. A good story can have an entire table of friends chatting about it over a bowl of mala, a few colleagues joking about it in the office pantry, and even older folks discussing it at the local coffee shop.
But there’s just one issue.
Singaporeans don’t like storytelling.
And the problem is with us.
Death of a dream
Singapore is lauded for being a meritocratic society. There’s no doubt that efficiency, productivity, and stability are important goals for a society, and these things are most commonly seen in the quantifiable. You can measure GDP fluctuations. You can count the output of a machine, and the fuel consumption of an engine.
But in our pursuit of quantifiable merit, we, as a society, often push our children away from things with less tangible value—such as stories and storytelling. Before our children reach teenagehood, we push them away from reading for enjoyment, and towards reading textbooks.
“Why do you mess around with this? Go and study harder.”
“Take Arts for what? Go take Science lah. How to get money like that?”
“Draw comic book for what? Comic book can earn money meh?”
Is it any wonder, then, that our children would turn to phone games, TV, movies, or any other possible outlet to let their childlike imaginations breathe? Is it really so confusing, then, that a large number of Singaporean youths enter university and national service having lost all passion for actually learning and pursuing something they are excited about?
Performance vs Prose
Now, it is understandable why we push our children to study harder and harder; we live in a meritocratic society that places high importance on academic merit while effectively dismissing the arts and sports (unless you happen to be Joseph Schooling or Yip Pin Xiu, but not everyone can be an Olympic-level athlete). That’s not likely to change anytime soon, according to then-Minister of Education Ong Ye Kung in a 2019 speech—even if the government is trying to diversify the definition of merit.
Currently, we are judged on performance, or at least performance that can be quantifiably measured in examinations and the like. We must do well in these examinations, and put all other things aside, or else the sky will drop. Now, Singaporeans have succeeded in attaining high performance according to those quantifiable metrics. Economically, Singapore’s GDP in 2021 was US$374.394 billion, despite the impact of COVID-19. We have an estimated GDP per capita of $58,400 (second-highest in the world) putting our economy at world-class. We are lauded for our education system, and rated as the world’s best in producing high scorers by OECD. We have been driven to prioritise quantifiable metrics of performance, and we have become exemplary at it.
But it does also mean that most of our children are drowning in mathematics and scientific principles before they have even lost all their baby teeth. We push them to the point of tears and burnout in national examinations, all in the name of academic success, forgetting that our children are more than just scores on a test sheet.
Even the last safe haven of stories and storytelling—writing, literature, and language arts classes—are often reduced into a scientific process. The methods with which literature is analyzed are often restrictive. The subjective elements of an analysis, such as whether an author is using a sorrowful or a pensive tone, are judged right and wrong, and students are penalised for not getting it right. As for writing one’s own work, students are often constricted by the ‘proper format,’ which leads to the great irony of a student limiting their expression and what they intended to say in a poem or prose so that they fit within the ‘requirements.’
I remember several professors sharing in my classes how the art of writing a proper essay is now completely pulverized, shredded, and repackaged into a tasteless mold, even in the most reputable junior colleges. The same goes for any kind of letter writing or prose. Several of my university friends have shared how they had experienced being marked down in secondary school and JC for not following taught structure to the letter—only for more senior academics to share that their essays were fine, adherence to such form being irrelevant. Often, as I remember my history tutor lamenting, the entire process ends with no clear argument made, evidence improperly connected and barely analyzed, and a structure that is so blatantly adhered to that it detracts from its own argument. Why? Because the General Paper demands it. The curriculum has emphasized the form over the function of learning. The irony is that critical thinking skills and creativity—both highly treasured assets for employability and productivity—are heavily strengthened by literature, storytelling, and poetry, and yet, how we are taught it directly reduces these benefits.
What’s more, poetry is easily derided by our parents and peers, only for them to plug in their earphones and listen—with tears in their eyes—to their favorite music. Music which has rhythm and rhyme, which uses symbolism and synecdoche, metaphor and meter, and assonance and alliteration (see what I’m doing here?) to tell stories and speak to hearts. Employers, policymakers, and professors have long been preaching the value of communication skills, critical thinking, and qualitative analysis that comes with the humanities and arts, despite little action from universities and courses to reflect this mindset and highlight the importance of that education.
The Working World
Even after leaving academia, Singaporeans are almost immediately thrown into an incredibly overworked environment, too overworked to pursue the valuable lessons of stories and literature. While not quite as bad as the 9-9-6 culture (9 am – 9 pm, 6 days a week) which proliferates in China, 44 hours a week is still a tiring obligation. And that’s not including the “highly encouraged” overtime. Money is an all-important consideration; the same is said much less for the leisure and rest of employees, no matter how necessary and meaningful such rest may be.
With such a work-life balance, where can one find time to tell stories? To write stories? For most of us, we can’t. And we don’t. What little leisure time we do get is spent on family, exercise, transport, the news, cooking and eating, chores, and a myriad other obligations from the company, the country, and the family, until it can’t really even be called ‘leisure’ time.
We have to make time, then. And how hard is this when so many other things draw the attention like Netflix, YouTube, video games, and movies? All of these are much less tiring than actually formulating a story. So we turn to the stories of others, because trying to make a story ourselves has been studied out of us from a young age.
Is it any wonder, then, that our creative scene as a nation struggles?
When those adults who work in the Singaporean media industry have to deal with low funding, long hours, and low interest?
When most of our youth who might want to earnestly pursue the arts are shot down?
When most of our young children who want to try writing a story get scolded for not writing equations?
Is it any wonder that we produce the least happy adults in the world, when storytelling—along with music, song, and dance—is disparaged apart from its ability to make money? At least with some types of the arts, parents will flock to expensive teachers and lessons with the dream of turning their child into a successful musician—turning a curiosity or potential hobby or passion into yet another money-focused, loveless endeavour. Storytelling lacks even these incentives.
So, why storytelling?
The Primal Art
Storytelling is at the core of who we are.
Stories teach us valuable lessons about life, love, philosophy, and the various ways others perceive these things. Folktales tell us how our ancestors saw the world around them, and often reveal age-old lessons as true today as they were then. They are important parts of our culture and heritage. Fantasy allows one to explore the imagination and the adventure that may be inaccessible in this modern era, even as science fiction looks at the near and far future and stokes our interest in the cutting edge of technology. And all stories draw, in some ways, on the perspectives and experiences of their storyteller. Every old experience can be a story, and every new one may quickly become one as well. It is within human nature to understand this, and to value and understand the power of stories. Stories are innately valuable to understand and to tell.
As it is, we love good stories, but we do not appreciate the process that goes into creating them; we are afraid of chances that might be forgone whilst writing and telling stories; and we fail to value those who tell them. We as human beings were made not just to hear stories, but to tell them, and it is a miserable thought to deliberately leave our society in a state where that most primal human expression is denied, undervalued and virtually prohibited at times.