9 Apr 2006

Ao Li: What I meant when I said ‘Singaporeans are stupid’

Taiwanese politician and intellectual Ao Li made waves among Singaporean circles by claiming that Singaporeans are stupid in a press interview last year. He has since made a recent clarification in his own talk show. Here is my translation of what Ao Li said, based on the original transcript posted on the PhoenixTV website. Accuracy not guaranteed. Corrections welcomed.

I received a letter from a Singaporean viewer. Here is the envelope, [it] comes from Singapore. The letter itself says, Mr. Li, frankly speaking, we are a group of Singaporeans who respect you very much; several months ago, we wrote a letter to you, asking for an explanation of your comment that "Singaporeans are more stupid", and your rationale for saying so.

When I had said Singaporeans are stupid, this is what I had meant: I said, Taiwanese are not the most ill-intentioned, Taiwanese are the most inept, people from Hong Kong are relatively more ill-intentioned, mainland Chinese are inscrutable, and Singaporeans are the ones who are more stupid. I said Singaporeans are stupid. I meant to say it in an oversimplified manner, to describe a general phenomenon: this kind of statement is made in a very crass fashion, I never said my words were not oversimplified. When reporters interview you, you will naturally make a general point, but if we want to read too much into it and split hairs, then of course you'd think that this is too strong a statement, and have this kind of furore. But I must say, if we make such a big deal about this kind of talk, getting all straight-laced or overly serious, that is somewhat of an overkill.

People only hear me say "Singaporeans are relatively stupid", they don't realize, when I said Hong Kongers are ill-intentioned, the converse is to say that Singaporeans are not ill-intentioned, just more stupid. Why resent being called stupid without knowing why you are [allegedly] stupid? I need to tell everyone about this person in this photograph, who is he? This is Lee Kuan Yew, a person I respect very much; why do I respect him? I tell you, many people dislike him, they say he was too strict or too nitpicky, he cajoled his critics into silence; for example, people say he likes to wage legal battles. I repect him for all these reasons. He was essential in the making of independent Singapore; under such gruelling conditions, he managed to work his way up step by step, and eventually put Singapore on the map: this is a remarkable achievement, so I respect Lee Kuan Yew very much.

When people see the young Lee Kuan Yew, as he was in this campaign photo, what am I raising as a discussion point? My point is, how many of you knew how Lee Kuan Yew was raised? Who was his great-grandfather?When his great-grandfather was sixteen, he had nothing, just like a commoner, who journeyed to Singapore and raised a family from scratch; after he had some success, he sponsored for himself an officialdom from the Ming government, named the Office of the Seven Character Virtues (七品官) (Ed: literal translation), and after a second generation, a third generation, and then the fourth generation was Lee Kuan Yew's; the ancestors of today's Singaporeans, like Lee Kuan Yew's great-grandfather, from places like Fujian (福建), were desperately poor, and came to places like Singapore and made their livings here; this kind of industriousness and assidiousness are worthy of our respect. But one thing I must remind everyone, their level of culture was not high, because they didn't even have enough to eat; they couldn't live in rural Fujian and elsewhere. That is why, as I had just said, their industrious and assiduous nature is good, but their cultural literacy was poor, because they were a very poor people, and this batch of people were the ancestors of modern-day Singaporeans, and also the ancestors of modern-day Taiwanese; when we look from a historical perspective, we view them with repect and empathy. But we must acknowledge that these people did not have solid cultural foundations.

When Lee Kuan Yew burst onto the scene, he had had a good education; to have become a world-renown figure from such complex circumstances is the pride of Singaporeans everywhere, isn't it? Yes, but there is a minor point: this success, albeit mostly from the leadership of the illustrious Lee Kuan Yew, is still a collaborative result, you understand? If you ask me to name a few exceptional Singaporeans, besides Lee Kuan Yew's son and a few senior government officials, I can only name one other person I know, and that is that adorable girl Stephanie Sun (孙燕姿). If you ask me, to name yet another, I cheerfully admit my ignorance. What does this prove? It proves that labors of Singaporeans, their successes, are collective and not very many. Not to say there aren't any, it would be because Ao Li doesn't know of them, but who knows how many more talented individuals are there. This gives me an impression that Singaporeans are stupid. This is not a pejorative accusation, but rather that while Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew's leadership has her successes, it also has had other consequences. Philosophers tell us that the ancient Chinese pursued a legalistic government, as espoused by intellectuals like Guan Zhong, but ancient China did not succesfully implement a legalistic ideology, or better to say that there was not long-term success, no reasonable success, yet this principle, this legalistic principle, under the governance of Lee Kuan Yew, has borne fruit in the soil of Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore have materialized this philosophy of ancient China perfectly in the real world. But it has its flaws, namely that the country is governed too strictly and too tightly, everywhere there are signs telling you what fines you are liable for. Everyone has become dominated by a collectivist mindset, and very few truly individual, individualistic, exceptional individuals have emerged. An important reason, which everyone should consider, when I say that the seeds that born today's generations] were bad, I do not meant it in a derogatory manner. How could seeds be bad? [Recall that] three generations before Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, there was a single remarkable, destitute, culturally illiterate sixteen-year-old indivual, who came to Singapore.

Among the poor of Taiwan four centuries ago, was the great-grandfather of the famous scholar Ming-Min Peng; his great-grandfather had only the underpants he was wearing when he came to Taiwan from Fujian. He was that destitute, and was of course uncultured too. These kinds of ancestry can't possibly compare with countries like England with a culture accumulated over countless generations, so when Lee Kuan Yew wanted to establish English-style democratic institutions in Singapore, the populace was frankly not up to par. So I think in Lee Kuan Yew's heart, he had some intuition that his people and his citizens were not altogether up to scratch. But his legalistic foundations, built from that oppressive civic philosophy of ancient China, are responsible for the sudden appearance of Singapore on the world scene in her own right, in a way that I of course do not fully know. But this form of government and this herd mentality have fused together too well, and so we feel the absence of spontaniety. This is what I mean when I say Singaporeans are relatively stupid: 'stupid' is that kind of go-through-the-motions reflex, that lack of deviation [from the social norm]. Of course, the advantage is the lack of exceptional deviants; but the disadvantage is the lack of exceptional talents. Such is the situation. I never meant ill will; why should I? But I tell you, being an intellectual and a historian, I see this problem with crystal clarity. That is why I have the confidence to speak up.

E.D.: More thoughts and specific translation comments on my blog.

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Anonymous said...

"But this form of government and this herd mentality have fused together too well, and so we feel the absence of spontaniety. This is what I mean when I say Singaporeans are relatively stupid: 'stupid' is that kind of go-through-the-motions reflex, that lack of deviation [from the social norm]. Of course, the advantage is the lack of exceptional deviants; but the disadvantage is the lack of exceptional talents.

Now, that is very well-said.

Anonymous said...

"笨" = claim 'England with a culture accumulated over countless generations'

To hear Li Ao waffled like that is the most laughable thing in the world. If you think Singaporeans are 笨, then say 笨, don't go on to make relative justifications between the stereotypical taiwanese, hongkongers or mainland chinese. Doing so would only point to your own 愚笨 and smudge the meaning of what is known as an intellectual or a historian.

Since Li Ao does not know about other "successful" Singpoareans, how come Li Ao can go on to say so many things about Singapore? And since Li Ao does not know yet can make a 笨 judgment on another's mental state, then Li Ao can only be 笨 as well.

Why is cultural legacy so important? Li Ao's ancestors is likely to be an ape, and likely so is my ancestors as well (possibly around the same forest too). Is Li Ao saying that my Taiwan who has the same origin is better than Singapore who also has the same origin because Taiwan is freer and more individualistic? The last I know, this was also a mindset of a herd mentality of a certain herd that individualistic freedom equates better regime, then Li Ao is just as 笨 as the people he judged.

Who is a deviant and who is a talent? Is this not a definition made depending on whose cause you serve? Since Li Ao serves no one but himself, then let him be silent on this.

Li Ao begs a last question: how can someone who is so 笨 sees with crystal clarity? One who is like that should not have confidence to speak up, but have humility to understand.

Anonymous said...

I'm sick of PAP parading these new candidates from so called post-1965s, in hopes of bringing new prespective. but nobody realizes our Mentor Minister LKY is still active and spends most of his time mentoring other ministers and new candidates.

If anyone noticed, lot of those speeches by the new candidates are blatantly scripted and dumb, bringing even stupider society.

take these for example...
"There are certain policies, rules and regulations which may not always be very popular with the community. But there are certain things and actions that need to be taken, and people may not be aware of the long term consequences of such issues. So I think some regulations are certainly necessary and politics is something that should not be considered as entertainment," said PAP candidate Dr Fatimah.

"I think my aspirations at this point is to be elected as MP and one should just take it one step at a time. The opposition sometimes have an easier tagline - vote us in and we'll check on the government. They check on the government and do what? What exactly are they going to change? I suppose part of the aim is to bring the debate on some sort of grounds, on what is wrong that needs to be fixed or changed," said PAP candidate Alvin Yeo.

"Although I have taken a different path, I still benefited from the system in Singapore and from the social mobility. From my life experience, you can see that there is a second chance in Singapore if one is prepared to work hard for it and never to give up," said PAP candidate Liang Eng Hwa.

so stupid.

death to LKY!!

Anonymous said...

He hits the nail right in the head. We are indeed stupid.
Despite being screwed by the govt,
we continuously vote for them although PAP already has overwhelming majority through walkovers each election

Calvin aka Yamada Shun 山田駿 said...

Its interesting and concidental to see you posting this as I did.. I thought his name is Li Ao and not Ao Li?

Personally, I do not feel offended by his comments. In fact, i agree with his comments.

That's right, we rather pick HDB apartment lift upgrades for every level in exchange for Freedom of Speech.

We rather join the Meet-the-People Session to claim outdated cheques than to discuss about issues of national interest...

So it shouldn't be too tough to understand what he's trying to put through...

Anonymous said...

i quite agree with him.
I am a s'poreans, and i think S'poreans are more simple-minded and maybe naive compared to Taiwanese, HK or China people.

What to do? Coz with a controlled media and press, we are brainwashed and made to believe that the government will do anything for our good...without any other politics scheme or self-interest.

Anonymous said...

I agree with him.

Singaporeans are indeed stupid!

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