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Abstract thinking can help us slay orthodoxies

What cerebral traits do Singaporeans need to thrive? Much emphasis has been placed on imagination and creativity as opposed to rote learning, which our examination-heavy system seems to promote.

The authors says the development of Singapore is built just as much on a form of abstract thinking as it is on pragmatism. TODAY file photo

The authors says the development of Singapore is built just as much on a form of abstract thinking as it is on pragmatism. TODAY file photo

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What cerebral traits do Singaporeans need to thrive? Much emphasis has been placed on imagination and creativity as opposed to rote learning, which our examination-heavy system seems to promote.

As Dr Adrian W J Kuah of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy persuasively argues in a TODAY commentary on Jan 23, we must encourage our students to challenge orthodoxies, and not punish them for it.

He makes a crucial point, but there is something else we need to do first – dispel our fear of abstract thinking.

By ‘abstract thinking’, I mean the skill to contemplate a better tomorrow in the form of ethics, ideals and aspirations.

This stands in contrast to Singapore’s longstanding practice of pragmatism, which relies on tried-and-tested formulas drawn from data sets and empirical evidence.

The difference between the two is perhaps best expressed by the 14th century Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun in his magnum opus, Muqadimmah, where he distinguishes between ‘apperceptions’ and ‘speculative intellect’.

According to him, the former is knowledge obtained “one by one through experience, until they have become really useful”.

The latter is “the hypothetical knowledge, of an object beyond sense perception without any practical activity”. Abstract thinking refers to this latter form.

While researching about Singapore’s past for The Birthday Book last year, which was themed ‘What We Should Never Forget?’, it dawned on me that the development of our island-state is built just as much on a form of abstract thinking as it is on pragmatism.

That form is utopia, the abstract idea of the good society.

Today, utopia has become a dirty word. When a suggestion, an idea or a person is described as “utopian”, this is often taken to mean unrealistic, unattainable or quixotic.

Yet Singapore was willed into being by the ideals, visions and dreams of the multitudes who encountered it.

For the Srivijayan prince Sang Nila Utama, this island was not just as a sanctuary from his sworn enemies of the Majapahit empire, but also as a new base from which he could rebuild his embattled kingdom that grew out of Sumatra.

For recognising Singapore’s potential, Sang Nila can be described as utopian.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Muslim intellectual Syed Sheikh al-Hadi co-founded Al-Imam journal here to imagine a different practice of Islam, one that is compatible with and not antithetical to modernity. This venture is less controversial now. Back then though, al-Hadi too could be described as utopian.

Great transformation occurs when we practise abstract thinking. And where better to start than with our educational system, where empirical knowledge is generally prized over theory?

THE IDEA OF APPLIED HUMANITIES

My own attempt at challenging that orthodoxy as an educator at the Singapore University of Technology and Design comes in the form of a module introducing literary theory to prospective engineers – an odd pairing at first glance.

Yet, having ran two renditions of the ‘The Word and The World’ module now, student feedback suggests that there is value in learning about theories on how to ‘read’, especially since a central premise of the module is to apply abstract knowledge as a tool for interpreting the world at large.

Along this vein, one of their assignments was to present in groups a real-world phenomenon interpreted from a literary lens of their choice – thus bridging the gap between reality and theory.

This pedagogical experiment has yielded some insightful presentations. One group considered international environmental laws from the perspective of postcolonial theory, while another explored the contemporary #metoo movement from feminist theories.

Many have said that doing so made them re-examined long-held beliefs and assumptions – an achievement in itself.

Indeed, the value of abstract thinking lies in that it encourages the questioning of the status quo, while also equipping us to appreciate informed critiques as well as to dispense them. These are things we can garner from the humanities, which sadly remains an afterthought in our school system even as we attempt to institutionalise liberal arts education.

Yet, perhaps one of the reasons why the humanities became an afterthought is precisely the perception that it is guilty of solipsism, that humanists are comfortable residing in their ivory tower, speaking only to others like them, not making any impact or connection to the outside world.

This is a mistaken belief. There is certainly value in abstract knowledge that is not directed at any practical ends. But there is also value in abstract knowledge that addresses real world concerns.

We could do many things to encourage the practice of applied humanities.

One would be to establish an Arts and Humanities Research Council that grants awards to theory-based research projects stemming from the non-quantifiable disciplines of the humanities. Right now, arts and humanities scholars need to apply for funds from the Social Science Research Council, which still privileges empirical social-based projects.

This idea of applied humanities is something that Singapore can explore not just in institutes of learning, but also as a form of informal education.

A good example is the School of Life, a private organisation founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton that draws ideas from philosophy, literature and cultural study to develop emotional intelligence.

First started in London, it now has branches in parts of Europe, South America and even Asia, namely, Taipei and Seoul. This clearly shows that there is value in abstract thinking. Why not give it a shot?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nazry Bahrawi is a lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design where he specialises in the study of world literature, translation studies as well as Islam and culture between the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

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