February 20, 2005

Focusing on what's important

One of the greatest American poets, Walt Whitman, once wrote these lines:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

He was referring to the chaos of his own soul. Inevitably, it seems that when you have aims and goals which extend beyond yourself, you come into conflict with different ideas. Often, both ideas come from within yourself. How does one reconcile them?

Firstly, I wish to clarify my goals and aims in doing this swim. I am not against foreign-born Singaporeans, nor against the Foreign Talent scheme; I am not xenophobic or afraid of competition from others. On the contrary, I wish to remind Singaporeans that we need not fear anyone: we can compete with anyone and all the scaremongering in the newspapers about people from other countries, such as China, taking away our livelihoods and outdoing our children in schools is rubbish. Anyone, anywhere can excel, no matter who you are, or where you are from. Competition is a good and healthy thing and we should not assume that because we are Singaporean we are inferior, just as we should not assume that because others are not Singaporean they are superior.

Equally, my call is not a nationalistic one. I willingly admit to an affinity with my homeland, and to be susceptible to patriotic and partisan appeal, but my message is universal. The world today is rife with recrimination, suspicion and hatred, and I'm not about to add to that by drawing yet more boundaries of division.

It's an interesting conundrum, though. I was reminded recently about the dangers of nationalism, and, ever the optimist, I responded by pointing out its positive benefits as well. At some point, people need to identify with something greater than themselves. It's inevitable, because we naturally tend to draw lines and make distinctions between groups of people. Perhaps it has something to do with how our brains are pattern-seeking, or perhaps we just feel a need to group together.

Yet it is also true that nationalism is dangerous. We don't need to be reminded of how nationalism has been the basis for genocide, war, murder and hatred. My girlfriend, bless her, is writing a PhD thesis on Japanese prisoners of war, and she never fails to remind me of the pain and suffering caused by a single nationalistic cause. On the other hand, my own proposed PhD thesis is on the positive aspects of nationalism- how we can successfully create a national identity to supercede older divisions such as race, religion and class. There's no right and wrong here, but a deeply complex issue which needs to be handled carefully.

It seems to me that if nationalism is indeed inevitable, then we need to channel it and use for positive purposes. I can't avoid the nationalistic overtones of this campaign, since I would be the first Singaporean to make it across the English Channel, and I'm not going to deny it would indeed be nice to be first- but I must reiterate, it is not the most important thing- the people I inspire and the money I'm raising for charity are.

Thus, while it would be nice to capitalize on nationalism, I'm also worried about the overtones and repercussions. I don't want to emphasise any more divisions in a world which is rife with them. I'm not going to play up the obvious nationalistic aspects of this campaign and instead focus on what's really important: setting a positive example and trying to help kids get a good education. Let's keep our minds on doing some constructive good instead of worrying about lines that are drawn on a map.

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Crack-Up.

Posted by pj at February 20, 2005 03:25 PM