As a final round-up to our theoretical lessons, we were privileged to have been able to invite the Danish Ambassador and her interns to share with us more about her experiences in Singapore and the Danish culture in general.
It was from the subsequent informal and spontaneous question-and-answer session that I found myself learning the most, and becoming strangely appreciative not only of certain aspects of the Danish culture but also of Singaporean culture and the efforts made by the local government in shaping Singapore to be what it is today.
As true-blue (or rather “red-and-white” or “white-and-white” depending on perspectives) pragmatic Singaporeans, many of us had reservations especially with regards to Denmark’s welfare distribution system and the corresponding notions of job motivations and taxation. No doubt indoctrinated since young (I recall particularly at least half a chapter in my social studies textbook dedicated to the ills of the welfare state) that such a system would be unfeasible and doomed to failure especially within the Singaporean context, it was interesting to note how other students in the class as well were struggling to comprehend how such a system was feasible in practice (as seen from the knee-jerk response when the ambassador first broached this topic with murmurs of “but how about motivation and incentive to work?”).
On a very fundamental level, I think the session really forced a lot of us to question and challenge certain boundary demarcations and assumptions or stereotypes. For example, the assumption that a welfare state involves heavy levels of governmental paternalism (and its consequent submissive acceptance) was challenged as we were informed of how the prevailing Danish culture was one which was founded on frequent challenges to authority, with a corollary emphasis on the freedom of speech and expression. Conversely (and ironically), the meritocratic and individualistic Singapore reflects a diametrically opposed culture which involves heavy state paternalism (think CPF, Medisave etc) and an consequently narrower scope and tolerance for the freedom of speech and expression (think of all the taboo topics pertaining to politics, race and religion).
At the end of the day, as was rightly pointed out by the Danish Ambassador, both countries do have much to learn from each other, and both cultures may be more similar than distinct after all.
– David Yong