200 years on, Self-determination still trumps Openness 42 to 24.

Self-determination suggests we are owners and masters of our destiny. Openness suggests we’re willing to share and forge that destiny with others.

Self-determination suggests that it’s all about me, myself and I. Openness suggests that it’s about others too.

Self-determination suggests it’s about me getting ahead, even at the expense of others. Openness suggests it’s about all of us getting ahead together.

Self-determination fights for meritocracy. Openness appeals for inclusivity.

This contrast between Self-determination and Openness came to me yesterday on a trip out with my son Jaedon.

You see, this year Singapore celebrates her Bicentennial, and one unique way to celebrate was via a special public multi-media exhibition and presentation called “The Bicentennial Experience“. Opened til end 2019, visitors get to spend an hour in this exhibition (including waiting time) learning about the key milestones in our country’s 200-year history since its founding in 1819.

Among the many highlights? An indoor ‘rain room’ where visitors hold up transparent umbrellas and ‘stand’ with earlier generations (flashed as moving images in the room’s interactive media walls) as water pours down from overhead sprinklers, and a voice-over summarises our nation’s achievements to date, forged by the blood and sweat of our forefathers. The intent was to simulate us as a nation weathering the storms of our history together across generations.

As I stood there, I had to acknowledge that it was certainly a multi-sensory experience for visitors like Jaedon and I (Caleb had already attended it previously during a school field trip). And particularly for locals like us, a (literally) cool and creative history refresher.

But we both came away from the event feeling that it was a rather compressed and harried walk down memory lane. Yes, the seamless flow of history told in five acts was certainly impressive, and displayed our country’s prowess as a frontrunner in the area of retelling history using the latest engaging audio, visual and touch tech. But there really wasn’t much time to fully soak in Singapore’s history, and process its implications on our future ahead.

In short, more ‘sense (mind)’ than ‘soul (heart)’ [Yet another example of tech running ahead of content and delivery – but that’s fodder for another day’s blog].

Perhaps the only concession was at the very end, where a guide gave us an opportunity to vote which of three values listed we hold as the one most important for Singapore to embrace as we march into our future: Self-determination (SD), Openness or Multi-culturalism? (No mention by guide as to who came up with these values to begin with!)

No surprises really which came out tops as seen by the screenshot shown here. But the disparity between number 1 & 3 is pretty large. Out of nearly 297,000 visitors to the exhibition so far, 42% voted for SD but only 24% picked Openness.

Maybe the presentation was slanted to warn us how a nation’s sovereign independence can be lost if we allow foreign invaders and ideologies to take control, as evidenced by our tumultuous history. So the mostly local visitors so far were swayed to vote SD as a key to Singapore’s future continued success.

But for me, this only serves as a reminder that my hopes – for Caleb and other special needs children – that we be a more inclusive society (which I believe a value Openness embraces) is pretty elusive.

For if the majority supports SD, that means there’s not going to be much room for diversity and tolerance for those who can’t forge ahead or fend for themselves without help. There won’t be much room for weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Instead, these traits will likely be looked down on as impediments to Singapore’s relentless pursuit of excellence.

Where will that leave Caleb and his friends? Where will that leave those with special needs and others who need our help and acceptance?

So no prizes for guessing I picked Openness.

As much as it’s a value I aspire to, it’s also one I hope for desperately to take centrestage in our nation’s narrative, simply because Caleb’s chances for survival in this rat race we call home is better served by it than by SD and its ilk, such as protectionism.

There’s been much talk of late about the growing climate of protectionism around the world, no thanks to Trump, Xi and Brexit. It’s clear that when push comes to shove, SD and protectionism will still be the baseline politicians and people fall back on. The adage ‘every man (thank you Trump, Xi, Mask, Ma) for himself’ practically screams this out!

But for Caleb’s sake, I must lend however small a voice I have to champion Openness and appeal for inclusivity, because that’s his best hope of being accepted as a legitimate member of Singapore’s future.

Even if it takes another 200 years, I hope someday that a different, more inclusive public exhibition will showcase a more Open Singapore, one ‘determined’ by everyone and not just by the ‘self’ and the privileged few.

And for that to happen, it must begin with me, Jaedon and everyone who desires Openness over Self-determination.

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