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Commentary: Singapore is awash with metaphors. It’s time to rethink some key ones

As director of the National University of Singapore Futures Office, part of my work involves talking to students. After all, who better to shed light on the future than the “future” themselves.

The author believes that the metaphors we use construct our reality.

The author believes that the metaphors we use construct our reality.

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As director of the National University of Singapore Futures Office, part of my work involves talking to students. After all, who better to shed light on the future than the “future” themselves.

In my recent conversations with them, a surprising theme emerged as we tried to make sense of the different crises gripping the planet, especially the climate crisis.

At some point, these young adults asked some version of: “Is there a different metaphor for how we should live?”

I was pleasantly surprised at this. It is not often that unbidden, pre-university students raise the topic of metaphors. Then I was embarrassed, for I had clearly underestimated them.

In his novel “Kafka on the Shore”, Haruki Murakami had this great line, “…everything in life is metaphor”.

You might think this doesn’t apply to no-nonsense, pragmatic Singapore, but you’d be wrong.

We are awash with metaphors, and have been for a long time.

Look no further than the language that defines our public policy enterprise.

We deem policies effective as those that “move the needle”, as though there is an imaginary dial or gauge that measures their velocity, altitude, or some other appropriate quantity.

That in turn evokes the all-seeing, all-knowing, data-driven “dashboard” that is indispensable to governance these days.

Or else we talk of “policy levers”, presumably applied at that unique Archimedean fulcrum from which the world can be shifted.

In case it is not obvious, the language of public policy is built on engineering metaphors, and reflects a worldview that privileges the quantifiable, the material, the efficient, the practical, and a problem-solving mentality.

The metaphors we use construct our reality.

The types of systems that we set up and the goals and values we define for ourselves all reflect the metaphors we daily and often unconsciously deploy.

All metaphors have an expiry date. Thus, we need to revisit them and, if necessary, to revise them where possible, and even jettison them in order to make space for new and more useful ones.

If we accept that the future is inextricably intertwined with how we think, feel, speak and act, then the new worldviews we articulate and the new metaphors we derive are not just intellectual parlour games; they are urgent exercises in survival.

Albert Camus, in his novel “The Plague”, described the town of Oran where “everyone is bored and devotes himself to cultivating habits”.

His point is that one can go through life unthinkingly once habits are formed. Or when worldviews are uncritically cemented and reproduced.

If we are to have new metaphors that will buttress both our daily experiences and our grand projects, then a radical imagination is necessary.

But a radical imagination must be preceded by a radical critique of our current metaphors.

In a 2021 Unesco report, “Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education”, the authors argue that our “ecological imaginations need to fully position ourselves within the living planet”.

Our current metaphors of “stewardship”, “caretaker”, and “protector” presuppose a divide between human beings and the environment, and are thus inadequate.

Worse, locating humanity above nature allows us to consider the environment from a position of superiority, a superiority that often allows us to dispense with our obligations in the name of other shorter-term priorities.

The report argues that the key to humanity’s survival is relearning our inseparable enmeshment in nature, an insight long at the heart of many indigenous cultures across the world but somehow lost on modernity.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, professor of environmental biology at State University of New York and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, suggests an alternative metaphor of “kinship”.

In “Braiding Sweetgrass”, she speaks of how Native Americans have long regarded plants and animals as “nonhuman kinfolk”. Care for nature then becomes less a guilt-ridden grim duty, and more a labour of love and, indeed, self-love.

Prof Kimmerer argues that the metaphor of kinship among the human and nonhuman has the potential to radically reframe our economic paradigm as a “gift economy”.

The essence of a gift is that it cultivates relationships and reciprocities among people, and between people and nature.

That sense of mutuality restrains our desires and puts a clamp on our rampant consumerism and extraction. In Singlish terms, it stops us from being “chao kuan”, which means “being ungracious and unscrupulous”.

In fact, such a transformation challenges a key assumption of conventional economics: Scarcity. Instead, we would have “abundance”.

Not in the sense that nature’s gifts suddenly become literally boundless (hence, the quotation marks).

Rather, “abundance” comes about simply because, with that sense of kinship, people do not take more than what they need from the planet or from each other.

By focusing instead on both kinship and the abundance of the gift economy — the latter best represented by the metaphor of the cornucopia, or the horn of plenty — a sense of gratitude and an ethic of fullness is cultivated, and displaces our accustomed zero-sum, dog-eat-dog competitive worldview.

Such alternative metaphors could enable us to transcend the uncomfortable and politically fraught trade-off between sustainability and economic pursuits.

Indeed, the economist Kate Raworth has developed the concept of “doughnut economics”. Her doughnut has two rings:

  • The outer ring represents planetary constraints to ensure humanity does not extract resources beyond the point of sustainability.
  • The inner ring is the social foundation so that no one falls behind. Both rings speak to the metaphor of kinship.

Are these alternative metaphors realistic?

That really isn’t the point, since metaphors are clearly not meant to be. Nevertheless, metaphors are powerful devices by which we not only make sense of the world, but create it. They have real consequences.

Francis Bacon, the Enlightenment philosopher, wrote of how nature had to be “hounded in her wanderings”, “bound into service”, and “put in constraint”.

Such metaphors came to define humanity’s relationship with nature as one of exploitation and domination. And yes, it is essentially a patriarchal metaphor.

Do we now dare to boldly imagine new ways of being in the world, to imagine new metaphors to replace our hitherto useful but now failing ones?

We need answers, and quick. Because students — some of them, at least — are starting to ask.



Dr Adrian W J Kuah is director of the National University of Singapore’s Futures Office. These are his own views.

Related topics

metaphor language culture

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