Wednesday, 10 January 2018

A Tale of Three Cities

Singapore, Adelaide (Australia), Tokyo.
Asked by a friend about different lives in each, my pithy responses are:
  • Singapore: progressive but controlled, cheap but expensive.
  • Australia: ostensibly progressive, ostensibly fair.
  • Japan: one man's exotic tradition is another man's foreign pedantry.
But things weren't always like that.


  • If betting were open in the 1960s on which Southeast Asian nation would succeed, the odds would have favoured the Philippines over Singapore.
  • Australia was famed for its White Australia Policy, and we are still discovering the extent of the Indigenous genocide.
  • Japan modernised and stagnated in spurts, often in single lifetimes, so all of us can remember it alternating between representing advancement and sclerosis. From paper planes to bullet trains to still using fax machines, in one generation.
Cultures are no less dynamic.
  • Singaporeans were not always law-abiding or racially harmonious.
  • Australians are surprising themselves with how quickly they're abandoning ideals of housing as a human right, and embracing it as a speculative asset.
  • Japanese were not always insular and conservative. The Japanese diaspora was sizeable until the end of World War 2.
Which brings me to my next point: the three countries share close histories.
  • Australia supplied tertiary educations to Singapore's elite, many of whom also sent their children there, or migrated back to Australia permanently.
  • Singapore's multicultural mix once included Japanese who, until British restrictions, controlled the fishing industry. Heck, Singapore was once part of Japan.
  • Japanese workers once bolstered Australia's pearling and sugar cane industries, and now fill the ranks of working holiday-makers.
Thus differences I experience in these countries have less to do with culture or geography, and more to do with technology and bureaucracy, but even these are not uniform. Much of Japan won't accept my credit cards but my broadband connection is superb, in direct contrast to Australia. Convenience will come with time, though I suspect (Chinese) AliPay will spread faster in Japan than Visa or Mastercard.

The tales of these three cities are tales of interdependent characteristics and boundaries changing with time, making any differences ephemeral and shallow, which raises the question:

Why are we so curious about differences?

Why are we looking for points of differentiation as opposed to points of similarity? Why are we so attracted to narratives of 'progressive' Singapore, 'sunburnt' Australia, or 'beautiful' Japan? To my cynical ears, they have the hint of ethnic cleansing about them.

My guess is that we are getting used to patriotism - love of one's country - being revived as a means of manipulation, while being reckless to what follows closely behind: nationalism; the contempt for others'.

Announcing membership of a tribe, country, or culture was once considered parochial baggage. Now, 'globalist' is perjorative. To be one is to be somewhat a Marie Antoinette figure, telling betrayed salt-of-the-earth that they can eat cheap flat-screen TVs. It has become trendy to be a 'somewhere', who is woke to eternally irreconcilable cultural differences and doesn't confuse the issue with elitist nuance.

Seeking simplified revisions of history which can unite citizens (and exclude others) through their exceptionalism is, ironically, what these countries have in common.

However, to accept these is to ignore that much of what differentiates each country was in fact imported and cannot be claimed to be homegrown.
  • Institutions credited for Singapore's stability such as the CPF and HDB have their roots in the colonial administration.
  • These same colonialists are behind Australia's bias towards white perspectives, perpetuating its isolation in the region.
  • Japan's proud traditions of using imperial-era dates and its family registration system come from China. Salary-men and continuous improvement in select industries are part of postwar U.S. corporate experimentation.
While not saying that the 'one world' naivete of the 1990s should be resurrected, I feel that Singapore, Australia, and Japan are similar countries in search of different stories.

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