The problem with formulas


I have to admit that one of the main movie characters of my childhood was none other than Rocky Balboa, the boxer played by Sylvester Stallone. Rocky was what you’d call the ultimate loveable underdog, who would somehow, through sheer guts and the ability to endure major beatings, would end up triumphant against a bigger, stronger and meaner opponent. The Rocky movies were what you’d call the living embodiment of every motivational speech – i.e life will beat you up but as long as you get up and continue fighting, you will emerge victorious and successful.

It helped that the movie boxer had a few real-life counterparts. There was Mohammad Ali, who became greater than the sport of boxing. Ali’s life story was about struggle and overcoming struggle. He fought against racial prejudice (black kid who grew up in deep South in the 60s), for his convictions (refused to fight in the Vietnam War) and was engaged in some of the most legendary slug fest against heavy hitters like Joe Frazier and George Forman. The fight against the later, was particularly memorable. Forman was younger, fitter and a lot stronger. In the famous “Rumble in the Jungle,” Ali spent the better part of the early rounds having the stuffing knocked out of him, and yet he somehow emerged the victor, knocking out Forman.

In my living memory (as in actively boxing whilst I was watching), there was Evander Holyfield, who most people regarded as a “blown-up” cruiserweight that had been plonked into the heavyweight division by clever promotion. Like Ali before him, Holyfield had a “heart” that made him a hero. The “blown-up cruiserweight,” defeated the most fearsome fighter of his generation (Mike Tyson), not once but twice and held his own against the most physically powerful fighters of his generation (Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe).

The most famous movie boxer and his real-life contemporaries are the living examples of how the human psyche seems to thrive on stories of struggle. Rocky movies became very watchable because we could identify with the struggles of an ordinary guy facing extraordinary circumstances. Ali became a legend because the guys he fought were as good, if not better and somehow, he had to overcome them.

The story of “human struggle,” is something politicians around the world are particularly good at exploiting. It gives them something to “unite” their followers. Politicians in small countries are particularly good reminding the population of how “vulnerable” they are and hence need good leadership (read – voting for the right politician”) to help them overcome their vulnerabilities. The entire Israeli state is the prime example of this. Binyamin Netanyahu built an entire career out of destroying the Oslo Accords, thus ensuring the reality of hatred against the Israeli state in every street of the Arab world.

Our local politicians are also very good at exploiting struggle. Singapore likes to compare herself as an “Israel in Southeast Asia” (read – small non-Muslim nation in a neighbourhod of larger hostile Muslim nations).

To an extent, this has helped build Singapore into what it is today. Singapore has played a deft game and staying on the right side of world powers. We’ve been open to investment and particularly open to the world’s policemen having a base on our tinny island.

Our politicians have often harked back about the “bad” old days. Singapore has struggled against “racist,” “communal” and all sorts of tensions in its past and if you believe our politicians, we’ve overcome them and are as a result a wonderful place to live.

Whilst there is some credence to this myth, there is a problem. Myths can become irrelevant and no longer believable. Let’s look at the Rocky series. The story and heroic in Rocky I and Rocky II. Rocky III could have been a good conclusion. Rocky IV was an obvious sop to American nationalism in the Cold War and by the time we reached Rocky Balboa, it was clear that the franchise was desperately clinging onto former glories – the idea of an Old Man trying to relive his youth. The character of Rocky only returned to credibility when the aging Rocky was retired to the role of coach in the Creed series.

If the story of an aging boxer was sad in the movies, it was downright heartbreaking in reality. Take Mohammad Ali’s fight against Larry Holmes in 1980. By then, Ali was more than past his prime and it was clear to everyone as the fight wore on. You could see that Larry Holmes didn’t want to hurt the man whom he had once worked for and cried as he was forced to inflict damage on an aging Ali.

More recently, there was Evander Holyfield who, at the age of 58, thought he could make a comeback. The former “Real Deal” wasn’t a shadow of his former self and the fight had to be stopped in the first found with Mr. Holyfield failing to land a single punch on this younger and fitter opponent.

Boxing is infamous for producing champions who have died poor and in bad health. Champions simply didn’t know when to quit. The few boxers who have retired with their money and brains in tack were those who knew when to walk away. Floyd Mayweather, for example, quit while he was ahead and hasn’t blown his money. The same was true for Lennox Lewis in the heavyweight division. Of the “baby boomer” generation, we had George Forman who reinvented himself as a grill salesman and built a second career and fortune. His contemporary, Larry Holmes also walked away and kept his fortune and brain intact.

Herein lies a lesson that politician should take note of. It is good to have “courage” when facing adversity. However, you need to be able to reinvent and become relevant. One of the biggest issues I have with Singapore’s politicians as that they’re too dependent on the struggles on the 1960s. One only has to listen to them talk about the struggle to achieve racial harmony.

Yes, there were communal riots and Singapore has seemingly overcome them. There is unfortunately an element of racism that still exist. However, the “racism” issue of today is not a carbon copy of the racism of the 1960s. Yet, the approach appears to be the same.

If we apply the 1960s solutions, we start to look like the latter part of the Rocky series. Old men desperately trying to relive past glories and thus inflicting damage to themselves. Our approach needs to be like Rocky in the Creed series. We have to reinvent and become relevant to the problems we face today or else face the risk of brain damage and irrelevance.


Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.




5 Responses to “The problem with formulas”

  • Old solution:

    Problem when we keep going back to old working solution to new problem that need new solution.
    Same when we keep producing fixed mind people for an ever fast changing and unexpected world like what we are facing now.
    Pandemic and climate change havoc…

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  • NotMyProblem:

    Old solution:
    Problem when we keep going back to old working solution to new problem that need new solution.

    Pandemic and climate change havoc…

    The PAP’s way of solving these problems;

    Live with the virus.
    Adapt to climate change.

    Done. Let’s get back to sleep…. zzzzz

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  • xoxo:

    Why be like Rocky?
    Be a RAMBO!



    THE PEOple suffer so much becos of the errant n erratic way$ of the PAPple.

    Btw,i empathise with PSP’s Mr Leong.
    He got surrounded by a pack of wolves but bystander WP just kept silent?


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  • Temusik Patriot:

    Rocky like the Illusion we are living is NOT Reality like Ali who eventually succumb to Real Life sickness

    Like all Illusion it will End and Realty creep in slowly but SURELY similar to Ali…

    Float like a butterfly dying like a LEE

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  • Harder Truths:

    There is no vaccine against stupidity.

    Albert Einstein

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