About a month ago, a man died. He was 91-years-old, cheerily wrinkled. He had very nice teeth. And ever since he died, I’ve thought an awful lot about him. Which is weird because until the day he died, I hadn’t thought about him at all.
The man was Lee Kuan Yew, the former Singapore leader. I mean, I’ve never even visited Singapore and it’s hardly top of my list (my Colombian friends claim they like holidays in countries “more developed” than their own. I tend to go the other way) In fact, I wouldn’t even be thinking about Mr Kuan Yew at all, if my friends hadn’t. If they hadn’t said things like: “I wish Colombia could have a leader like that.”
Mr Kuan Yew was a dictator, right? A guy who came to power and stayed there for 30-odd years? Did some amazing things, apparently. Transformed Singapore from a “third world” nation to a “first world” one in the space of a generation. Spoke bluntly. Understood how the world worked. Turned a little nation with no natural resources into one of the world’s richest countries. Took out his broomstick. Made everything orderly, efficient, honest.
One of my friends, who has visited Singapore, said she asked a taxi driver there if he was happy. “This is a good country to live in,” he said, after a pause. “As long as you do everything they tell you.”
Ah, because that’s the catch you see. Mr Kuan Yew liked caning people who did naughty things and, well, dispensing with those who did even naughtier things (“expanding the scope of corporal punishment” I think they call it) You don’t whip out a spray can on the streets of Singapore baby. Not if you value your behind.
Some of you might argue Colombia has already had a leader in Mr Kuan Yew’s mould. You might argue about how successful that was (please don’t, this is a family blog) Some of my friends are convinced Mr Kuan Yew is exactly what Colombia needs. We can all go to bed one night and wake up with sparkling streets and zero corruption. And the prospect of someone smacking us if we are thought to have stepped out of line.
I went to Cuba some years ago and it was just confusing. I used to think all people needed to have a shot at being happy were some basic human decencies. You know, like free education (at least for their kids) and free healthcare. Off you go then. But I’ve never met a people as collectively miserable as the Cubans. Alright, I was only there three weeks (and we can certainly debate the Cuban Government’s Catch-22) But that’s not the point is it? The point is… what makes people happy? Freedom, right? Freedom is what makes people happy.
I’m reading this book at the moment, about women in Afghanistan. Freedom is all they want too. And some of them will go to an extreme length to obtain it. Like changing their gender. Like turning themselves into a man any way they can. Like forsaking any hope of a functioning, romantic partnership. Like exposing themselves to all of the psychological problems that can arise from denying you were ever born a woman. Because none of that matters. Because the only thing anyone wants, is to be free.
So, my friends, I remind you that Colombia is the happiest nation on Earth. That even the man who walks the streets at night, picking through the rubbish for food and something he can sell, can get enough pesos together and buy a pirate DVD from another man on the street and, astonishingly, he can find a way to watch it. Perhaps our greatest failing is our greatest liberation. For better or worse, in Colombia, people find a way to do whatever they feel like. And, for better or worse, they know no-one is going to whack them with a stick for it.
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.
Except it’s not really freedom.
That tradeoff between freedom and orderliness is something we wrestle with too here in the U.S. but I write just to confirm your observation you had about Cuba. I also left thinking that I have never seen a nation so collectively unhappy. I was appalled on how they treat each other. I speak Spanish so I was able to sort of integrate myself and boy, I did not like what I saw.
Anyway, thank you for your comments and your willingness to share your thoughts. Stan
I am currently travelling to Zimbabwe so it’s easier to just reply via mail.
I have to say I completely agree with you. Colombians have the delusion that order and progress go together so individual expression, freedom, respect for diversity and all those things don’t matter because they deviate attention from order. That’s the reason why we are so prone to right-wing fanaticism, as with the Paras, Uribe, and the whole lot.
We are so bloody parochial and provincial , so bloody ignorant, that we fail to understand the value of diversity, freedom, etc. it’s our colonial past, when being Spanish or as close as possible was all that mattered.
Sometimes it takes a blonde, tall Scouser to speak these truths and hopeful people will understand.
Keep it up!
I entirely agree with you about Lee Kuan Yew, and the greater importance of liberty than order. And I would like to agree with you about Colombia being ‘the happiest country in the world’, but that is not really my view; I know about the survey that says as much, but I am far from happy as to its validity: it’s methodology is poor, with this conclusion based on ranking scores for strength of agreement with a single statement expressing self-contentment. Not that I’m saying that Bogotanas/os are regularly miserable, which would certainly not be true. But they are not permanently-grinning fools, either. And freedom? You write: “in Colombia, people find a way to do whatever they want.” Well, no and yes. No, because sometimes they fail. And yes, if by freedom you mean the ability for everybody to do whatever thay want, regardless of any effects their doings may have on others, such as the way that this ability operating in motor vehicle drivers effects the rights and freedoms of pedestrians. Surely, a more desirable idea of freedom involves care for others, and the recognition of these others’ own freedoms…
Yours in thanks for your splendid column,
I was working in a private school in Bogotá this time last year. Previously I´d worked in a much larger school with a high foreign staff, so I was never short of conversation. At this school the staff were nice, but they didn´t chat; they worked.
So although they were really nice, I probably spent more time talking to the cleaners whenever I could and I got to know some of them on quite a level – as much as you can connect with anyone when you´re paid five times what they are. One evening I was leaving at 345 (kids left at 330, but you just try and go through those gates then and you´ll be sent right back) and I was heading to the Transmilenio, hoping to get to my irregularly attended salsa class on time for five. As I left, I waved to Gloria, one of the cleaners, and possibly one of the smiliest people I´ve ever known. The thought struck me – fleetingly because I was in a bit of a rush – that Gloria, working from about 630 in the morning to anything between 530 to 630 at night, then getting a bus that´d take an hour (and she was one of the luckier ones with journey times) would never be able to do what I was doing that evening – doing something for myself, some self-determination, realisation, whatever you want to call it: doing the things that make working worthwhile.
First of all you need a bit of disposable income to do pursue hobbies and you also need a bit of free time. These people like Gloria wake up at 430, they travel at the very minimum two hours a day on exhausting public transport. Oftentimes they spend double that time on it. When they get home they need to clean uniforms and prepare lunches for their families. If I forget my lunch, I can blow 10 mil on something to eat. They never have that luxury. They go to bed early because they undoubtedly have fastidious, fault finding superiors who will jump on them and frighten them with the threat of losing their position if they don´t work like horses, so they have to be on the ball every day. They can´t afford to have an off day.
So, I agree with you that people in Colombia are incredibly, sometimes unfathomably cheery. But I don´t think it´s because they´re free, or at least no freer than people in Singapore or Cuba. Of course it depends on how you define freedom, but using the definition from the article – free do what they want – I see an awful lot of people who really aren´t. I think a lot of the smiles and the happy greetings are driven by an effort to keep spirits up, not to sink under the grind of daily living here, and I think it´s possible that it´s often driven by fear – be happy, smile at everyone, don´t raise suspicions etc. But when you look closer you sometimes see the people who don´t maintain that veneer – when you sit with a woman whose brother was killed in a tragic accident on the job and she has to keep coming to the place where he died every (and where the managers adapted the story of his death to make it seem more his fault than their own) because that´s where she works, and she can´t get another job at 50 and unskilled. When you sit with that woman and listen to her grief and sense of injustice and just general weariness, you realise that this thing about happiness here has a really dark flipside to it.
Of course, I´m a big hypocrite. I much prefer the cleaners at my work happy, smiling, friendly – and the doormen and anyone else I talk to for that matter. I´m often happy to buy into this idea of what remarkably naturally happy folk they are. But it thinly conceals a who sea of misery and oppression underneath it.
Strange because whenever a powerful leader would die while I was living in Mexico, everyone I knew there would talk about how awful it was that they’d gone. Margret Thatcher? What a shame. Hugo Chavez? Such an awful loss.
They’d even talk about their previous dictators with the same kind of respect. It was as though it didn’t matter what the leader had done during their lifetime. The fact that they were in a position of power earned their automatic respect no matter what. I was amazed by this kind of attitude.
Interesting view, in my experience part of what makes the Colombian people is their personal freedom, in spite of the government.
Many Colombians (rightly so) have strong grievances towards to government and in many respecst see it as an hindrance to their well-being, as personal freedom is a highly valued trait.
This years of distrust along with an inherent Latin American social-anarchistic mindset means that the role of the government into the lives of Colombia will never be embraced (democratically anyway).
I believe many of the problems have arisen from the centralised governmental system, and its concentrated elite. The answer does not lie in increased control but a dispersion of influence across all sectors of the society.