By Augustine Low
Singapore: First World, Cosmopolitan City, Shining Metropolis.
But still a sampan.
How incongruous that Singapore should still see itself as a sampan, after all that the country has achieved, and all the talk about how the country is consistently able to punch above its weight on the global stage.
But PM Lee Hsien Loong’s assertion this week that Singapore is still no more than an upgraded sampan – “Sampan 2.0” as he calls it – may be a well thought-out response after all.
It works for the PAP for three reasons.
Firstly, marketers call it the status quo strategy. Who represents the status quo? The men in white, who have always found it hard to shake off the perception that the Party is unable to transform and reinvent itself.
So, keeping the metaphor of sampan is very much in keeping with the status quo. In essence, it says that you must not rock the boat. Why depart from what has worked well for nearly 70 years, and brought us to where we are today?
Secondly, the sampan metaphor makes Singapore so insignificant that it becomes a wake-up call. It says that even if you have done well, you must behave like an fisherman eager for the next big catch.
This rules out complacency – just because you are on the rise doesn’t mean you can’t decline and fall. Barack Obama has carried out this strategy well – even when polls showed he was winning state after state, he behaved as if he were still struggling to compete.
Thirdly, the sampan metaphor harks back to the idea that Singapore has been transformed from a mud-flat swamp or fishing village. This is among Lee Kuan Yew’s most memorable quotes: “Over 100 years ago, this was a mud-flat swamp. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear.”
If Singapore continues to see itself as a sampan, then memories of the country’s remarkable transformation under the PAP will remain vivid.
So, all things considered, as far as the PAP is concerned, let’s not ditch the sampan.
What about Singaporeans? How do we see ourselves?
This is Steve Jobs’ most iconic quote: “It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the Navy.”
It represents what Apple is all about: vigorous, irrepressible, courageous, brash. It points to a law of life, with implications far beyond shared metrics and confined boundaries.
Singaporeans as pirates aboard a sampan? Now, that would really be something.
Augustine Low is a communications strategist.