Friday, May 1, 2009

Balance between stable growth and loosening up on controls

Asia’s kung fu star puts foot in mouth
Saturday May 2, 2009

Jackie Chan’s assertion that the Chinese need to be controlled has not gone down well in this city state whose people want more freedom.

ASIA’S popular kung fu star Jackie Chan has touched on one of Singapore’s – and Asia’s – current pressing debates when he said in China: “I’m not sure if it’s good to have freedom or not. We Chinese need to be controlled (or else) we’ll just do what we want.”

In his easy-talking manner, the Hong Kong star said that the Chinese people have to be controlled or society would be “chaotic”, like in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and Singapore, too, had it not been the strict laws.

“When you reach Singapore, you must obey its laws, if you are caught littering, you will go to jail right away,” Jackie Chan said.

Yes, people had a habit of sticking chewing gum on tables and chairs until the authorities banned it (the ban has since been partially lifted).

Why? The actor, who has made 100 movies, said this was because Singaporeans did not have a sense of self-respect, and were not as orderly as Japanese and Americans, Shin Min quoted him as saying.

His allegations about Chinese needing control were largely about lifestyles, but also intruded into politics, which has been turned into Asia’s political freedom issue.

The people in Taiwan and Hong Kong, who dislike the idea of control, are reacting more strongly than those in Singapore and China.

China’s revolution was only 30 years old, Jackie Chan said, so he was unsure if freedom would be a good thing for it.

He went on: “I’m really confused now. If you’re too free, you’re like the way Hong Kong is now. It’s very chaotic. Taiwan is also chaotic.”

Some, however, feel that the audience, which included many Beijing officials and business leaders, might have been a large factor in his staunch defence of authoritarian rule.

His speech is likely to go down well, not only with China’s leaders, but also with Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

A permanent resident here since 1998, Jackie Chan has long been an admirer of Singapore’s disciplined development, and Lee’s role in it.

His affinity with the city came in several ways. Only recently, he donated his prized collection of seven antique wooden Chinese houses amassed over 20 years to Singapore – instead of to Hong Kong as originally planned.

It could become a tourist attraction, to showcase the culture and skills of China’s past.

Earlier, he had paid S$11mil (RM$26mil) to buy Singapore’s historic Jinriksha Station (built: 1903) that was once the central depot for rickshaw pullers. He owns several ex-pensive condos in central Singapore.

What Jackie Chan said in China recently reflects what Lee had often said, that “too much” democracy and individual rights would destabilise social order.

This view is, however, not shared by many younger Singaporeans, who want to see an end to controls. Jackie Chan’s speeches have revived a hot “democracy-versus-control” debate in Singa-pore.

This explains why they set off so much hostility here. A few youths even called for a boycott of his films.

“The people’s self respect will not increase under a regime of controls,” said a Jackie Chan critic.

Some questioned whether Jackie Chan was planning a political role after his retirement from movies. “He is not a political figure, so why these political comments?” a lady asked.

Not all were critical. The older, conservative elements say his observations are a necessary reminder of what life really is about.

Actually his opinion is nothing that has not been said by many people before, but in more refined language.

What he says, more bluntly than others, is that Chinese people are not civic-conscious and Singapore is not yet a civil society where people behave well without the threat of punishment.

The Jackie Chan saga comes at a time when Singapore is striving to find a balance between stable growth and loosening up on controls to satisfy the people.

A solution is critical because of another reason. Too many controls could stifle plans to produce a new generation of creative workers for the next leap.

Do Singaporeans really lack self-respect? Some Singaporeans think Jackie Chan exaggerated; a better term is “lack of self-pride” – or even national identity – that society regularly discusses within itself.

Jackie Chan was, however, partially right in one sense. Singapore’s character building is relatively poor. Social development has lagged far behind economic progress.

People who were raised in this rich business hub, often dubbed Singapore Inc, are still pondering about their national identity and who they really are.

Many youngsters have grown up as good students and professionals, but without love of country – or respect for each other. Their emigration rate is high – and rising.

The bonding has been further weakened by a large influx of foreigners, most of them to make money before leaving.

Singapore has not got a whole lot of history, unlike bigger, older civilisations with their centuries of achievements and shared disasters.

There are few heroes to emulate or world achievements to augment the people’s self-respect or pride.

The wave of the future for this rapidly transforming society is unlikely to be the control advocated by Jackie Chan. It lies in the continuing relaxation of regulations, including political controls, and collective education to inculcate self-discipline.

At any rate, the world has had a chance to enjoy Jackie Chan’s unique films because of his upbringing in “chaotic” Hong Kong and America.

Singapore, for one, will be happy to have a little of that chaos, if it can produce people like him in any field.

The talent of Jackie Chan, if he were born, educated and working in regulated Singapore, would have been lost to the world.

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