Monday, January 10, 2005

Can Singaporeans think? 

Despite having left Singapore, Steven McDermott’s blog continues to generate controversy among Singaporeans.

In a post dated 2 January, McDermott highlighted the lack of criticism in Singapore and cited the case of one of his students in Singapore who, when asked to think about a question, replied: “I didn't come here to think. I came here for you to think, then tell me what to think.”

The description of that incident generated a lot of comments to the blog, which led to another post on how the utilisation of power in Singapore has led to a situation where people lose their capacity for critical thinking.

There is a lot of good stuff in the two posts which, unfortunately, sometimes get lost in the fixation over the remarks apparently made by the student.

Personally, I have long realised that you can’t always take what others say at face value. It is perfectly conceivable to me that the remarks made by McDermott’s student may have been such a case.

I can think of three reasons why what a person says may not reflect exactly what he or she actually thinks.

One is, of course, to mislead. This may involve outright lying. Or it may involve just the judicious omission of facts, obfuscation, the intentional use or misuse of innuendoes and so on. The intention to mislead can be conscious or subconscious.

The second is poor articulation. This can be the case when the person has poor language or communication skills. It can also be the case when a person is rushed into expressing himself. Which is one reason that, whenever I need an opinion or stand on something important which needs follow-through — as opposed to casual verbal jousting — I often prefer it to be given in writing. Writing gives a person a better opportunity — as well as an incentive — to think through what he says.

The third reason is humour. This includes any remark made to elicit a laugh. Here, I include glib remarks made by a person to appear smart.

The other pertinent point is one that several others have also raised: Even if the student’s statements reflect what she actually thinks, there may be a logical basis for it — she needed to find the most efficient and effective way to pass her exams. It does not necessarily mean that she is incapable of critical thinking.

Having said that, she is not my student. She was McDermott’s. He may know her better.

Whatever the case, I think that the underlying message that McDermott was trying to convey remains valid: Critical thinking is important and Singaporeans need to be mindful of the insidious capacity of those in power to erode it.


NOt so much can they think, of course everyone can think. The question is do people want to think forthemselves?

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