27 December 2003

Great Classics II

I had an interesting ICQ chat with a friend. Life is treating him well relatively well, you could say. Even as an overworked and underpaid management trainee with a bank, he still has one more job than me, and that's where it counts the most.

We exchanged employment histories for the past 2 years (I had the longer story, in and out of temp jobs and freelancing), and he concluded: "You know, you're not stupid. If you just stopped being a critic, the civil service would be an easy job to get. If you're not from the cookie-cutter, and you are not, you'll never get employment from them, not with that kind of attitude... Challenging ideas should be done in academia. The civil service doesn't hire dissenters or mavericks..."

The civil service is a kind of Holy Grail for Singapore graduates. Like the imperial examination system in old China - which gave us the word "Mandarin" to denote any civil servant - the best products of our education system move on to a job with the bureaucracy. Or at least, that was the way life was supposed to have worked till not so long ago.

Because of the lasting strength of the civil service, and the fact that it IS the pillar of society (You can throw away the leaders, but you can't throw away the cookie-cutter!), thousands of grads still aspire to a cushy job. It helps that with the new year, a grad's starting pay as Mandarin has been adjusted to the more 'reasonable' rate of $2100. A very modest adjustment of 20% downwards in light of the economic realities, given that the starting pay of grads in the private sector is $1500 (if you're very lucky).

Eventually, as my friend hinted, even the mavericks and dissenters have to feed themselves or secure a fatter wallet, and join the Mandarins. We should resist the urge to deny the interviewers, just give them the answers that they want in their essay questions. You're smart enough to get the job, if you just say the right stuff.

Indeed, one of the "great classics" of Chinese literature, the Outlaws of the Marsh (水浒传), depicts a band of rebels, dissenters and mavericks during the waning years of the Song Dynasty. 108 bandit chiefs led a wider resistance centred around Mount Liang against the corrupt and inept administration of a weak emperor, and believed that their dissent - robbing the rich to give to the poor, killing corrupt officials - was justified.

The 'civil service' had failed the system, producing either scholars who said the right things in the exams (but were incapable of fixing the real problems), or officials who were content to receive their guaranteed salaries, pensions, and bribes.

Much is remembered from the Outlaws of the Marsh, especially the exploits of the 108 Heroes: Wu Song killing the Tiger, the Golden Lotus, the Cannibal Inn... But the least-mentioned story is the most important, and it comes at the end of the great novel: the Dissolution of the Outlaws.

The leader of the outlaws, 宋江, used to be a low-ranking civil servant who couldn't get promoted because he wasn't corrupt enough, who believed in some principles, until his desertion. For 100 chapters in the book, Song Jiang frustrates the venal and incompetent administrators and paper generals who come to destroy the bandits. Yet, in the end, the bandit king himself was bought off with an amnesty, a high rank in the civil service, praise for his "patriotic duties", and his bandit army recognised and given official military titles.

Join the civil service. You can't go wrong.

The comeuppance for the Song Jiang was swift. In return for his amnesty, his title, his recognition, the weak Emperor orders his army to combat the Golden Horde of the Mongols in the north. A quarter of the 108 Heroes (and their soldiers) are sacrificed.

Then, on the urging of the same venal, corrupt, and incompetent civil servants, the bandit army is sent south, to quell a rebellion from another group of bandits. The civil servants were farsighted: the capable Song Jiang won the war for them. And his bandit army was exterminated in the battles, eliminating any challenge to their control.

A great bandit leader, a gracious robber is lured by promises of Respectability and a position as a Mandarin, and crosses over. Nothing in Western Lit prepares us for a noble hero "selling off" his principles for a position in the Establishment.

It would be as though Robin Hood, another righteous bandit leader, gave up his fortress in Sherwood Forest, disbanded his Merry Men... for a position as a general. And then, getting sent off to fight a bunch of rebels in some other forest, and having his own army exterminated.

I'd like to prove my friend wrong, of course. I hope... not everyone wants to sell their soul to the civil service, not everyone will say the "right things" just to get the job. But seriously, how many of you here would?

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