Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sharing Nugget #54

#54: Being Human

This is an essay I wrote for a course I really like. It makes us reflect - not only about our lives now, but also about where it is heading. This is a draft I am submitting. It is my attempt at story-writing. And now I know how hard it is to write short stories.

Being Human.

“This is the room, Sir. You are sure about this?”

“Yes. Let’s do it.”

The three sharp knocks on the wooden door startle Wen. He is off exploring the New World in the German bestseller “Measuring the World”, a luxury Wen indulges in during the hostel silent hours. A quick glance at the wall clock tells him it is too late to be expecting friends who drop by to ask him out for supper.

Wen waits for the second three knocks before pushing the door half-open.


“No, Wen, I am not who you think I am,” says a clean-cut important-looking man in an expensive dark grey suit. “May we come in?”


Wen’s glance skips between the man sitting across the table and two others who stood smartly at both sides of the seated man.

“Am I in trouble?”

“Far from it. Wen.”

Wen’s heartbeat hastened. This man looks like Wen’s father, but has Wen’s exact voice. The man and Wen have the same height but Wen is slightly skinner.

“Who are you?” Wen finally asked.

The man takes a measured breath. “I am Sir Wen, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore in the year 2037. I am you, 30 years from now. Arvind, Weixiong and I have traveled far to find you.”

The burst of truth feels like a punch to the heart. Wen’s body goes limb and slumped into his chair. Arvind rushes forward to make sure Wen does not fall off the chair.

“Looks like ‘I’ too, cannot escape the ISR,” Sir Wen joked.

“Nobody is immune to the Initial Shock Reaction, Sir”, Weixiong explains, “all individuals who are visited by their future self react in extremes. At least yours is just a lapse into unconsciousness”.


“Our deep-sea probes chanced upon a warped space off the coast of Tekong Island. Believe it: a time-travel portal right here in Singapore. It is a state secret. Only a privileged few know of its existence. Our scientists worked out how to use it. But our philosophers warned against changing history due to unknown implications. But I’m not here to change history. I am here to talk to you.” Sir Wen explains.

Wen struggles to comprehend the tide of information.

“… Our experiences tell us that the former self fails to remember the ‘visit’ after they fall unconscious during sleep. Thus, you will not remember this meeting come tomorrow morning, and I will have no memory during the past 30 years of ever being ‘visited’. It is as if memory is not stored in the brain, but rather, stored in space of another realm…”

“You come for a reason. Not just to talk.” In spite of the excitement of hearing science fiction becoming fact, that halting statement spills out from Wen’s lips.

“Yes.” Sir Wen responds after stealing a smile. “I come for answers.”


Sir Wen flips through The Straits Times.

“October 19, 2007. Hmm… This is the era of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong,” Sir Wen remarked, “that was the era where the BioHub was first conceived. Pioneering times.”

“The focuses of the 2007 Singapore were to make Singapore a ‘great place to live, work and play’. Your leaders wanted to attract talents from all over the world so as to create a niche economy to survive in an uncertain environment dominated by China and India. They scouted for creative talents, bio-research superstars, and technological innovation leaders. A country of 5 million cosmopolitan dwellers working together to create a world-class city - that was the plan.”

“In 2037, Singapore is a proud nation of 20 million. We are the green-capital, the bio-hub, the health-restoration center, and the space-tourism headquarters of the world. The intensive efforts to attract first-movers to Singapore paid off. The first of the stem-cell scientists who arrived at our shores won Nobels in 2010. Concurrently, we won the bid to build the first Space-Tourism Launch Center. We never look back.”

Sir Wen cannot hide his pride and excitement.

“Singapore rode on the whirlpool of the positive cycle. We gained a reputation of a city that is most conductive to innovation. Then they all came - the corporations, the star scientists, and the leaders in innovation in green technology, medicine and pharmacy, robotics, and computer. This unleashes the agglomeration effect. The Government pumped in more money, and then more came.”

“We provide 80% of the world’s solutions to Global Warming, from solar harvesters to hydrogen cells. 70% of bio-medical patents are filed by Singapore. As a result, we now receive 85% of the world’s ‘health-tourist’ who come here to have their bodies ‘serviced’ and ‘restored’. We lead the industry in space tourism – voted the best spaceline for almost 3 decades straight.”

Sir Wen took a sip from the glass and continued.

“As you can see, we not only survived. We bloomed. The Americans may be the leaders in military technology, the Chinese in physical engineering, the Indians in computer technology, the Europeans in brain research and Russians in space exploration; but we, we are front-runners in green and white technology. White being the movement to bring humanity out of the darkness of the natural degradation of the human body.”

“Singaporeans now have first-class jobs and a world-class standard of living. They have privileged access to premier healthcare – thanks to our advanced Healthcare sector, live in a pollution free environment – due to our Green solutions, and study locally in few of the best educational institutes the world offers. Singaporeans have the highest life-expectancy in the world. Our very people solved the problem of land-use – we built up! Our Sky-town technology was the foundation behind China’s famous export of Sky-cities. We are self-sufficient in water, food and energy. Our scientists solve everything with technology! King William even knighted me for my contribution to the world. What more can Singaporeans ask for?”

Sir Wen glances at Arvind and Weixiong, before settling on Wen. “I think we have done it. We have given Singaporeans a better life.”


So many questions to ask. Which one first?

“Is Global Warming real?”

“Indonesia has lost 15% of her islands and Singapore in caged in a plastic wall to keep out the rising sea levels.”

“You are the leader of the People’s Action Party?”


“PAP has been in power all along?”

“Our legitimacy is based on performance. And we delivered. The people re-elected us for the past 30 years.”

“Human Cloning?”

“Yes. But it is heavily regulated. Cloning is only offered to people who have lost their children. It has become a taboo subject every since a corporation in the States was exposed for using human cloning as a means of organ harvesting. We never enter that field though. Our culture and values forbid us to.”

Without a second thought, Wen continues.

“Did Singapore enter the Football World Cup?”

“No. We don’t want to. Sports is a distraction. We need all the brains we can nurture.”

This time, Wen paused.

“A distraction?”

“Yes. Sports is officially classified as a National Distraction in 2020. It joins the list which contains blogging, photography, painting, theatre, recitals, outdoor concerts, arcade and online gaming, watching frivolous media, on top of the ND list-pioneers like political demonstrations.”

“But why are they distractions?”

“Because they hinder our survival. They take minds away from our national commitment. The banned activities have proved to be obsessive pursuits for many Singaporeans such that they neglected their national duty; or even threatened national stability through their irresponsible broadcasting of their opinions. We need all the brain-power to be channeled to innovation and the pursuit of knowledge. It is the national duty of every citizen to contribute to the collective intelligence of Singapore. This intelligence is what makes us tick. Everyone is empowered to do their part, to craft not only their future, but also the future of Singapore…”

“…Trivial jobs like serving at McDonald counters and cell-growing are now handled by artificial intelligence. The top minds are groomed for management and politics. There is nothing we cannot control and regulate. Academics and bureaucrats are sent from all over the world to study how we organize everything, from transport, healthcare, R and D, education, land-use and human resource…”

“But what do people do for entertainment?” Wen interrupted.

“We consume! Food, documentaries, books, gadgets, antiques, and holidays. Fashion is one of the largest industries. We almost put it in the ND list – but the economic implications are too costly – so we decided to keep it.”

“But… but… how do people express themselves?”

“They do it through their work! Professional achievement is the ultimate self-actualization. We give them the environment and support to reach their dreams. And they are happy.”

“They are happy?”

“Yes. Of course.” Sir Wen straightened himself.

Wen took a deep breath and said, “It cannot be.”

A full minute passes before Sir Wen takes his glance away from his younger self and stared into the pastel wall. Another minute passes before he looks Wen in the eye and said,

“You know, this is why I am here.”


“Why can’t it be? Why can’t they be happy? What else can they ask for?” For once, Sir Wen betrays his composed demeanor and exposes the emotions that arise from the tremendous pressure of running a country. “I cannot solve this. I cannot find an answer. It frustrates me. We have been doing so well. But we hit a ceiling. Now, on the surface, people are happy. But deep down, something is dying. People are not as motivated anymore. Our level of national innovation has dropped. It is as if people are giving up. It is a national crisis - although only we know that it is happening.”

“Somehow, especially just before I fall asleep, it occurs to me that I may know the answer.” Sir Wen continues, “But I cannot find it. I can feel it. But I cannot see it. It frustrates me. It taunts me. I need an answer. Then one night, I dreamt of you - me, when I was young. There, I saw it. I saw a young man who is passionate and fired up. He had the heart factor - the factor that can be the antidote for Singaporeans. This is why I come, Wen, this is why I come. I need answers.”

Sir Wen leans forward from his chair, cupped his hands together, and said to Wen, “Why are they not happy?”
The 3 minutes Wen take to compose his thoughts are agonizing for Sir Wen.

Wen collects himself and speaks to the Prime Minister. “I cannot imagine surviving in your kind of world. Yes, it is stable, prosperous, and comfortable. Yes, people are living better in a quantifiable way. I admire the use of technology and science to build a world-class nation. I am proud that our brand of efficiency, transparency and diversity is a model for the world to emulate. But it is also sterile, it is dry, and it is boring. Work cannot be the only way to express oneself. It cannot be our self-actualization. Yes, some types of work are what define one’s happiness. What how many people are truly happy about their profession? They need something else… They need an outlet. They need channels to express themselves - channels outside their scope of work.”

“I can imagine,” Wen drops his tone, “living in your world where national progress drives our lives; and where machines, gadgets, science and technology cage us in. To me, it is stifling. Do you remember a time where you looked forward to play soccer every weekend? You loved the game. It allowed you to feel emotions, it allowed you to express yourself, and it allowed you to fight. Do you remember how you reflected on life on a Blog, how you screamed your head off at the ‘Red Hot Chili Peppers’ concert at Fort Canning Park, and how you un-winded with a good movie or a shoot-everything-in-your-path computer game? Look at where all those ‘distractions’ got you to today? You, Prime Minister, of all people, bans those forms of expression that you grew up with?”

Wen become conscious of the emotions that grip him. He takes a long breath to slow himself down.

Sir Wen waits.

Wen lightly gestures his exposed palms, lowers the thinner ends of his eyebrows, and asked, “How else can Singaporeans feel human?”


Wen recalls the firm handshake. There is no other way to say ‘thank you and goodbye’. The moment of his life has passed. The most extraordinary thing to have happened to Wen will be forgotten in the morning.

Wen resists all urges to write about it on paper, and eases himself onto his bed. For he knows, when he wakes in the morning, Sir Wen will be born.


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