Dear Singapore, It’s Okay to Not be Number One

Dear Singapore, It’s Okay to Not be Number One

Dear Singapore,

When I was a child, you told us our airport was number one (it still is). My eyes sparkled and my heart swelled – us? A small island nation the best in the world? I too wanted to be number one. Number one has a special place in the world. Number one is shiny and visible. Being number one meant I’d be like you, a proud beacon standing above other insignificant numbers.

Chasing number one came almost naturally. You gave us permission to wear ‘kiasu’ as a badge of honour. The fear of losing became our motto and we even had a comic mascot for it. School was a high stakes battleground. Number one meant honour for the family (bragging rights at gatherings) and a promise that our future is set. So we show up armed with a team of tutors along with all our knowledge accumulated in eye bags.

From one chase to another, we funnel through the best education system in the world only to somehow find ourselves knee-deep in adulthood with one of the longest working hours in the world. It was at this point, that I realized that number one comes with a few rules of its own.

Number One is Temporary
There were moments where I got a chance to be number one. For a fraction of a moment, I tasted what it felt like to be a king. But after that moment was over, it was back to square one and like everyone else, I had to scramble again. Number One has everyone in an over-exhausted loop, constantly chasing for something they can never hold on to. In a way, Number One is the Princess Peach of our reality – just when you think you’re there, it’s waiting for you in another castle.

Number One has Hidden Costs
Time is a necessary sacrifice for the Number Ones of this world. Michael Phelps the king of Olympic firsts, is only who he is because he is swimming 80,000 meters a week. Elon Musk, the king of start-up firsts, is known to work for 85 to 100 hours a week running SpaceX and Tesla. This also means an almost non-existent social circle and if you’re not careful, your health and sanity.

I’m sure you too have felt the cost when the Happy Planet Index called you one of the most unhappy places on Earth and Gallup crowned you the most emotionless country. Even Durex jumped in on the action and told you your sex drive was near the bottom of the list.

There can only be one Number One
What makes Number One so coveted is the nature of its scarcity. This is why competitions where every child gets a first place trophy is a meaningless exercise (and a blasphemy to math). However, where does this leave the masses who didn’t place first? Usually, a cocktail of guilt, shame and pressure.

To be frank, you’ve had a great run. But having been on the chase for 53 years, I’m sure you must feel at least a little fatigue. If you do decide to one day retire from the chase, I’d like to invite you to join me and consider becoming average instead.

The Perks of Being Average

The BB stickers best embody the perks of being average

Why average of all things? It’s after all the most boring spot on the leaderboard. Average doesn’t make a good news story. Average is what the Number Ones snicker and scoff at in exclusive locker rooms. But in my search for an alternative to the Number One chase, I found that choosing Average has its perks. And let me assure you that Average isn’t an excuse to be lazy or to live an uninspired life.

Average is a mix of successes and failures. Knowing that you’re average is to be okay with failing and not basing your self-worth on titles, medals and other temporary shiny things. This isn’t an excuse to not give your best shot but is instead a guilt-free attempt at success.

You might say that with all this guilt-free feel-good nonsense, you’ll never leave your mark in this world because everyone else is working twice as hard and resting twice as little. And you might be right, you are after all the expert at climbing ranks. But maybe there isn’t a need to climb ranks. Maybe sometimes good enough really is good enough. And rather than being number one in one aspect of your life while sacrificing the others, you can instead choose to be good enough in five areas of your life.

If you’re still hung up on being number one, think of average as the number one of being holistic. Average is a productive day at work. Average is binge-watching Netflix on a Friday night. Average is complaining about SMRT at family dinners. Average means having the time for work, play, love, family and yourself.

Average is probably not where legacies are carved into history books. But if you’re okay with that, then maybe you’ll find that Average is also where life happens.

An Average Singaporean

P.S. Happy Birthday Singapore!

Dave Tai

A haiku writer and a taichi instructor, Dave can hold a pen and a sword.