As a Singaporean living in the States, I am often given to ponder the cultural differences between the two countries.

The popular account of the East-West divide is that of collectivism vs. individualism, actively propagated by both poles of the world in asserting their regional identities. (cf LKY statements on "Singapore exceptionalism", or almost any piece of mainstream reporting from a Western outlet on an Eastern country)

Lived experience in the States, however, has often given me pause as to what extent people actually practice individualism, all rhetoric aside. I have found its corporations just as hierarchical, its citizens just as prone to bootlicking and mass delusions, just as willing to submit themselves to becoming excellent sheep excellent-sheep as the finest kiasu/kiasi in Singapore.

An unfortunate proportion of Americans still like to believe that their individual enterprise will guarantee them individual gain, when their efforts feed more into the capitalist system, for the benefit of a few wealthy individuals at the top of the food chain, than ever before. Singaporeans harbour no such delusions. Fortunately for us, decades of inundation by Western media narratives have kept us on guard and skeptical about the claims of our state-owned media. There's a saying, that to genuinely know what's happening in your own country, you need only to look to the reports in the foreign press. Many Americans could stand to benefit from such a practice.

Kohr believes that the tendency towards collectivism boils down to the scale of a society, regardless of its particular brand of professed ideology. (Quotes follow) This is an intriguing possibility, and certainly jives with anthropological studies on state formation and function. I do not believe, however, that the inverse holds: that is to say, one cannot automatically assume that small state => individualistic/democratic. If anything, totalitarian control comes even more easily to hand. Just ask LKY.

But all this worship of the masses, the people, the nation, and of the institutions representing them, is collectivism under whatever name it goes. And collectivism is irreconcilable with the ideals of democracy which, like Western civilization, is inseparably linked with individualism. It is logical nonsense to accuse the Marxists of collectivist thinking because they place society above man, and then proclaim ourselves that the nation stands above the individual.

breakdown-of-nationsp. 103

Submissiveness is thus not a human quality that could be explained to a significant extent as the result of upbringing, tradition, national character, or the mode of production. Like most other social attitudes, it is the adaptive reflex reaction with which man responds to power. Its degree varies directly with the degree of power, just as its opposite reaction, the assertion of freedom, varies inversely with it. Where there is power, there is submission, and where there is no submission, there is no power. This is why, historically, the seemingly most freedom-loving peoples have accepted tyranny as submissively as the seemingly most submissive ones, or why it is safe to say that even Americans would submit if our federal structure permitted the accumulation of the necessary volume of governmental power.

breakdown-of-nationsp. 76

But even this will not make us look very different if we realize that communism is not the only the natural system of huge organisms, but the only system by which they can maintain themselves. Hugeness, as we have seen, needs conscious direction, supervision, control, obedience, conformity, efficiency, standardization, discipline, alikeness in habit and thought, unity, centralism—all concepts which in their sum constitute the essence and operating basis of socialism. Our empire being as huge as Russia’s, and requiring the same continuous state of preparedness, will need as much centralization and direction and, though we may call our brand anti-communism or, perhaps, the mood of the age, it will be communism just the same. Thus, a time will come when the two halves of the world, organized along such different roads, will be identical in everything but their name. And the reason for it will be the same which is responsible for the fact that the only thing looking exactly like the North Pole is its very opposite—the South Pole. And this will be the end of the process of consolidation.

breakdown-of-nationsp. 214

Kohr on US being a "successful" federation because of its relatively weak states compared to authority of DC. The inter-state and inter-national nature of its corporations have forced the US to become a "large-scale" society anyway. Temporally speaking, the same thing: only the president has term limits, corporations face little/no effective limits on size or power.

But not in all her relationships is the United States a small-state complex, and where it is not, we see a repetition of the same problems of size which are typical of all large-area or large-power organizations. Thus, private economic power, unlike the political power of the states, is not limited by state boundaries. As a result, we find that a number of economic powers and enterprises have been organized on a large-scale, coast-to-coast, basis. This means that each of them is in a position to throw the entire nation, not just a single state, off its balance if mood or ambition should counsel such a course.

breakdown-of-nationsp. 77


excellent-sheep Deresiewicz, William. 2014. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Simon and Schuster. ↩︎ 1

breakdown-of-nations Kohr, Leopold. 1978. The Breakdown of Nations. Dutton. ↩︎ 1 2 3 4