“Can we?” I asked Charmaine Yam over Skype and wine.

In 2004, my fellow Singaporean Kishore Mahbubani, asked this provocative question on his book cover. He offended a lot of people.

But it’s a question I come back to time and time again. And every time I contemplate this question, I come down to the same answer.

Of course, we Asians can think.

The real question is: how do we think and what are we thinking about?

I’m not going to delve into politics and economics the way Mahbubani does. Instead, I’m going to focus on where we get the ideas we do about the world and our place in it.

“School is boring,” Charmaine said. “Unimaginative.”

I laughed.

It’s an opinion shared by many people – regardless of where you grew up. Whether you loved school or hated it – it’s still where you developed some of your ideas about this planet. In fact, it’s where Charmaine and I met.

“I was the only Asian person in my class for many years,” she said. “I felt foreign. Everyone looked different. I moved to Australia from Hong Kong when I was four. I don’t have any other experience to compare it with so it wasn’t a big deal.

“When you’re the only ‘one’, you’re not conscious of it. People still talk to you cause you’re the only ‘one’.

“If there were a small group of Asian people, then they would all stick together – even if all the other Asian people grew up in Australia. But I was in my teens before there were other Asian people in my class.”

Charmaine’s Chinese and I’m Indian. Charmaine is also Australian and thus western. Geographically, Australia is not quite in the west. Even the term Asian itself is one that could refer to anyone living in the world’s biggest continent.
But I won’t bore you with the semantics. I wrote a thesis on it – which I’m sure will put you straight to sleep.


“I was in school because I had to do it,” Charmaine says. “The only thing I enjoyed and was naturally good at was English. I liked writing and enjoyed the humanities. I was also good at art, but had to start narrowing down the subjects I had to take when I was 16. So I dropped the ‘subjects that don’t matter’. My art teacher was upset.”

For those of us who grow up Asian – whether it’s in the East or West – our families inevitably guide us into accountancy, dentistry, medicine, law and engineering.

It tends to be a thing that runs in the family.

Deep down, I reckon I’m as Asian as they come. But…my mother’s side of the family is British, and I was educated in Australia and Israel. I was studying to be accountant…but life showed up with other plans.

Contemplating the big questions in the Negev Desert, Israel.

“Asians are scared of failure,” Charmaine said. “Science and math are a sure way to do well. We do things that are guaranteed to succeed. We stick to what we know. 

“Even when we do well in those more subjective subjects, we don’t know why. Scores in humanities are more subjective. Teachers over the years have had different opinions on my work. It freaked me out a bit.

“When I was in third year, people thought I didn’t know how to speak English. But, I was just shy. They sent me to a learning support group. I didn’t take it personally, though.

“Asians want more certainty and tend to be more practical, realistic and safe. We’re goal-oriented and status-orientated so we focus on jobs that are secure. Asian people want success not dependent on teachers’ opinions. Success in school is a rigid concept.”

Tell me about it.

As a language teacher, I’m often in a dilemma. Some students make lots of grammar mistakes but express themselves in a way that grabs your attention. Other students give you word for word textbook answers more boring than my thesis.  

I don’t have to tell you which one gets the high score.

I’ve always believed that humanities subjects should include more coursework. While correct structure has its place, even in humanities – it shouldn’t be the only criteria by which we judge our students. We should have a panel of examiners – instead of one lonesome soul with the power to decide everything.

But I’m not naive. I know that ultimately what makes money – with certainty – is what gets funding. It’s not that the arts industry doesn’t make money. It’s just that it doesn’t do it with certainty

And by the way, it’s not just Asians that value conformity. The world can be a cruel place for those who don’t fit into a box.

Charmaine ended up becoming a doctor.

“I have mixed feelings about it,” she said. “My parents guided me into it. I think it’s good to have security and hold down a job. Thankfully it all worked out, and I really enjoy my job.”

Charmaine’s generally a happy person. (Image courtesy of Charmaine Yam)

The Asian kid that’s top of the class – even in western universities, is one of those ‘positive stereotypes’ we can’t run from. If you grew up Asian, being lazy is not an option. Hard work doesn’t necessarily lead to success, but it does increase your chances of it.

We aim for full marks – and tend to get them.

“I think top students feel like they have to pursue more conventional jobs,” Charmaine said. “Especially if you’re from an Asian family that puts you through an expensive private school. It’s a bit of a payoff.”

This rote learning that we inevitably wind up doing to get those full marks has made us unadaptable. We are not able to adapt because our minds are not moulded to deal with uncertainty.

I hated rote learning growing up, but I did it – many many MANY times over because I knew what was good for me.

When you get full marks – you are a God. You are revered. We seem to derive a lot of our self-esteem from our grades. If I didn’t do well in my exams – especially in those ‘hard’ sciences, I would have no future.

End of story.

Growing up, I picked up languages easily and had a fascination with history and people from other cultures. But I was guided in a direction that did not nurture what came naturally to me. 

Trying out wood-carving in Cambodia.

Belittle it as we do, languages and humanities are a difficult thing to learn. People are also self-conscious and not brave about being different from whatever happens to be the norm at the time. 

“As for my own kids, Charmaine said. “As long as they’re not being a bum, I’m ok with them doing whatever they want to do. If they wind up being top students and want to do something different – I’ll think that they’re brave. People good at drama and arts are under recognised.

“In a way, arts is harder because it’s expressive and there is really no right or wrong answer. It’s a lot more subjective. You have to express yourself and you don’t know if people are going to get it. Where else with math and science – you kind of just have to learn it. You either got it right, or you got it wrong.”

Black or white. Right or wrong. Top student or not.

“A ‘negative stereotype’ of Asians is that we’re not creative,” I said. “What are your thoughts?”

“The difficulty,” Charmaine said,  “is that if you want to access someone objectively, you have to put them through exams. Everyone has to learn the same thing and go through the same tests. But even if you can pass an exam, it doesn’t mean much in life. It’s a piece of paper. And sometimes it’s just luck.”

Charmaine’s right. Looking back at the thousands of years of Asian history, I can’t help but wonder what happened.

My maths is terrible, but my Indian ancestors had better luck with it. They invented the Hindu numerical system: which forms the basis for the current widely used numerical system worldwide. They also invented decimal place value, a symbol for zero, shampoo and even the game: snakes and ladders.
img_3175Charmaine’s ancestors were no different. China is the birthplace of the four great inventions: paper-making, printing, gun power and the compass.

There is nothing in our genetics that is inherently uncreative. But facing the harsh realities of the past couple of centuries has made us cling to this notion of certainty. We’ve done whatever is necessary to survive in what a lot of us consider an incredibly unkind world.

And survive, we have. Of course – we Asians can think.

We’ve been doing it for a long time. Our biggest problem these days is our fear of failure. And because of this paralysing fear, we are not innovating the way we once did.

Anyone who’s ever had to do something they’ve never had to do before is going to mess up time and time again till they get it right.

I know I write this from that elusive place of ‘privilege’ (a relative concept, by the way). If you’re reading this – you do, too. I grew up in a country where education was compulsory and almost free. This was not always the case in Singapore, but it was in my generation.

I’ve also had the opportunity to live and work abroad. It’s not the case for a lot of other people – wherever you grew up. 

But as Asia grows – and this security that we’ve longed for perhaps finds its way to us – I wonder what will come of my home continent in the next century.

I don’t have all the answers. I really, really don’t. I never will.

But I think we will have to evolve to a point where we can embrace uncertainty as a learning process – so that we can be creative like we once were – and invent and discover things that were not there before.

Everyone can think. 

The real question is – can we be both secure and innovative? The answer to this question is what will define the next century for the rest of us. Asian or not.

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