Subba’s Serendipitous moments

May 20, 2009

Can a Susan Boyle happen in East Asia?

My learned friend Ananth put this question to his email group. His precise question was: Can Susan Boyle, (58 million views on YouTube), Julian Smith and Diversity happen spontaneously / organically in East Asian societies?

Here’s my answer to him and I just thought I would post it here as well:

I don’t think it can happen spontaneously / organically in East Asian societies. Let me try to deal at 2 levels: — The nature of East Asian society and the issue of culture and specifically creativity.

For such things to happen, society needs to be a genuine melting pot. East Asia may have immigrants, but the practice of assimilation and morphing of identities is only residual. Cultural pluralism may exist on the surface, but politicians and institutions have often curbed growth because they felt the need to retain control or sometimes even believed that they need to architect society, and hence have never allowed cross-cultural pollination to take place freely. Hegemonic practices have often imposed covert forces on the sections of society which have lived on the edge and tried to dominate them. In Western societies there is a not merely an appreciation of diversity, but a collective conscious to make it inclusive.

Now one aspect of spontaneity and organic growth is that it should be possible to have keen debate, not dumb reverence for just great personalities; historical consciousness and self-reflection not adherence to supposedly timeless values; and a continual expansion of a societal canon to match a necessarily unsettled sense of who we are and what we care about. East Asian societies in its singular adherence to Confucian thinking has led to creating a hierarchical and often authoritarian social constructs which has curbed spontaneity. Now add to that, the sheer fixation on commerce and materialism becoming a prime pursuit, it is natural to see less emphasis on experimentation and spontaneity.

Culture is not a package of knowledge, attitudes and customs which can be parceled up, handed over to the child and then passed on intact to the next generation as seem to be the general thinking in East Asia. It has to take deep roots and often allowed to find its own flow.

There is a dialectic between culture and learning which in turn is a manifestation of spontaneity and growth. Creativity thrives when the social substratum has been enriched with diverse experiences and perspectives. And such diversities occasionally produce creative conflicts. East Asian societies have often shunned anything that could even remotely produce a conflict and placed a (undue) premium on compliance.

Now coming more specifically to creative minds (the Susan Boyle of the world), immersion in an environment of cultural ferment is more likely to fuel the selection process. Pablo Picasso is a case in point. He borrowed, stole, and assimilated his way and produced over 20,000 works of art in varying styles because there was a deep cultural ferment during his time. Being surrounded to by contemporary creators often inspires even marginally talented people to attain heights well above what they could possibly achieve in isolation. The individual genius often flowers through cultural interaction.

Creative people by their innate nature often tend to have wider interests and are open to more varied influence. They thrive on ambiguity and have varied interests. They are non conforming and independent minded. They have the capacity to expose themselves to a full range of cultural variants available in their milieu and then choose to adopt a unique subset that develops their talent. In East Asia such creative people do not have much opportunity and hence even if there existed such people, they tend to migrate to environments where their nature is better appreciated.

People have often asked me both seriously and causally about whether India or China can produce the next Google or Facebook. My answer is the same — The chances are very low, because while Indians or Chinese may be smart engineers; the kind of business thinking that needs to envision something novel is not there.



  1. It may happen eventually,… but probably not in our lifetimes. The proliferation of infocomm technology cld be an enabler allowing values and norms plus information to spread faster across the globe, leading to a virtual melting pot where ideas can cross-fertilise. Youths today are exposed to more external influences etc. etc. So all these small ripples taken as a whole could result in societal changes over time,….

    Comment by Foong — May 25, 2009 @ 10:31 am | Reply

  2. Appa – I agree to some degree, but I think the 2nd generation growing up in the west are definitely catching up fast to the creativity and freedom of thought as I and many of our friends are experiencing with our kids. But, so also, if you have seen the various shows in the east I have seen many talented artists of Susan Boyle calibre showing up once-in-a-while in various shows like Saregama, Indian Idol, etc. I am sure we will see more soon.

    Comment by Sanjiv — May 26, 2009 @ 7:06 am | Reply

  3. “Can a Susan Boyle happen in East Asia?”
    Why not , Even though she has a much harder time to sing given that she has to collect drink can for a living at her age.

    Comment by Anderson — May 27, 2009 @ 11:01 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: