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ST - The Curse of the Highly Successful

ST - The Curse of the Highly Successful

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Published by bryan_ti

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Published by: bryan_ti on Jul 28, 2012
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[buy a copy of ST today] 
The curse of the highly successful
The Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs dwelt on thedelusion of the highly intelligent in a speech at Raffles Institution's 189thFounder's Day last week
By BILAHARI KAUSIKANPublished on Jul 28, 2012MY COMRADES and I spent our six years in Raffles Institutionwaging insurgency against allestablished authority. At a verytender age, one of our teacherstold us we were all born to behanged. And if that extreme did notcome to pass - perhaps I shouldsay, has not yet come to pass -several of us were at least caned. Our then principal failed to achieve his dearestambition of getting us all expelled only due to our dumb luck.So here I stand before you, living testimony to the role of chance and serendipity inlife; a role more often than not, insufficiently acknowledged if not ignored, particularlyby Singaporeans of a certain ilk. And that is my theme.Eighty-five years ago, an American writer by the name of Thornton Wilder publisheda short novel entitled The Bridge Of San Luis Rey. The book has never been out of print, but deserves to be better known.The novel begins at noon on a certain day in 1714 when a bridge in Peru - 'the finestbridge in all Peru', writes Wilder - inexplicably collapses and five people who happenat that moment to be crossing, plummet to their deaths.The tragedy is witnessed by a devout Franciscan monk, in Peru for missionary workamong the natives, who immediately asks himself: 'Why did this happen to thosefive?'The monk is convinced that it was not a random event but some manifestation of God's Will for some greater end and vows to investigate so as to prove to the natives
the necessity of divine purpose. But his investigation runs afoul of the Inquisition andhe is burnt at the stake.Wilder poses, but never directly answers, the question: 'Is there a direction andmeaning in lives beyond the individual's own will?' The point, of course, is that itcould have been any one of us on that metaphorical bridge.I do not think that there is any particular meaning, pattern or direction, divine or secular, in the drift of human events. History, as Winston Churchill is reported tohave remarked, is just one damned thing after another. The innocent die young andthe wicked flourish; and not necessarily in equal measure either because to thewicked, the innocent are often prey.The world is far too complex a place to be comprehended in any holistic way by thehuman mind. It is made up of too many moving parts interacting in too manyunpredictable ways for human reason to grasp.I mean, of course, the socialworld: the world of humaninteractions, human relationshipsand human institutions; of loveand hatred, politics andeconomics, war and peace,infused with emotions like anger,pity, joy and sorrow, and not thematerial world of rocks andstones and trees and the earth'sdiurnal course.In the material world, the apple will always fall whether or not Newton was there toobserve it. In the material world, all phenomena must ultimately conform to the lawsof physics. In the material world, when we return to earth and ashes, we too willconform to the laws of physics.But in the meantime, we inhabit a social world of sentient beings who observe, thinkand respond so that our every effort to act or comprehend alters what we try tocomprehend and every thought and action begets a never-ending, ever-shiftingkaleidoscope of unpredictable possibilities that makes all social science anoxymoron.Reason may distinguish man from beast, but the sum of the interactions of differentreasons, of many logics, is only coincidentally and occasionally logical. That is whyactions always have unintended consequences even if they are not always
immediately apparent, and our best-laid plans and most fervent hopes are constantlyambushed by chance and events.Most things eventually fail. The shade of Ozymandias hovers unseen butomnipresent over every human enterprise, biding its time. The ancient Greeksadvised us to call no man happy until he was dead. This is good advice. We can bereasonably certain of something only after it has occurred. The only true knowledgeis historical, and even then there is always room for argument over interpretation.None of us ever sees or understands the same thing, no matter how conscientiouslywe try to observe or communicate. As I stand here speaking to you, at least three different things are occurringsimultaneously: first, what I think; second, what I say to convey what I think which,whether because of the limitations of language or by design, will not always be thesame as what I think: deception and self-deception are intrinsic parts of humannature; and third, what you hear and understand of what I had intended to convey,which is again not necessarily the same thing. A world without fixed meaningONE could call this, after the title of a short story by the Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the Rashomon phenomenon. It makes for a world without fixedmeaning, which accentuates its fundamental incomprehensibility. A world in whichthe past can only be partially known, the present is largely unknown and the futurecertainly unknowable.None of us asked to be born. Yet having had life thrust upon us, we must, unlessbent on suicide, nevertheless live. Although we can only, if dimly and darkly, knowbackwards, we have to live forwards.No one can live in a constant Hamlet-like state of existential doubt. We must professa certainty that we do not necessarily feel. To keep the metaphysical horror of unfathomable meaninglessness at bay, we all, singly or collectively, consciously or unconsciously, adopt mental frameworks to simplify a complex reality in order to dealwith it.Since the Enlightenment of the 17th century, belief in Reason has replaced belief inGod as the primary organising mental framework of society. We are all the creaturesof this Western-defined modernity and the most successful of the non-Westerncountries, Singapore among them, are precisely those who have embraced it themost closely.

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