Singaporeans are talking about Madonna again because she just got banned here. Ironically, Madonna probably does not care. She may not even know. She's the highest earning female singer of all time. Last year her concert tour sold out in Europe, Japan, the US and Canada and grossed US$260 million. Conquering a little red dot like Singapore can't be high on her list of commercial priorities.
Although Madonna does not need Singapore, I daresay that in some ways, Singapore needs Madonna. You may or may not like her music. But her life story holds, in many different ways, the lessons that Singapore, and Singaporeans, need to learn. I'll just highlight five:
Madonna as the Outstanding All-Round Student
Many young Singaporeans study too hard. They may have a passion for non-scholastic pursuits, but they don't know how to achieve the balance. Consequently, all-rounded Singaporeans are rare. Instead we often meet parents who have barred their children from taking part in sports or cultural activities, so that they can spend more time studying.
In her teenage years, Madonna spent a lot of time on ballet lessons. She even hung out at gay discotheques with her ballet teacher. But she was no dumb blonde. Despite all the time she spent on dance, she was a straight-A student in high school. In fact, she did so well that she won a scholarship to enter a top US university - the University of Michigan.
The University of Michigan counts 25 Rhodes scholars and seven Nobel Prize winners among its alumni. It's currently ranked the 11th best university in the world. That's 25 places above NUS, and 60 places above NTU.
Madonna and the Courage to Take Risks
In recent years, the Singapore government has been saying that Singaporeans are too risk-adverse. We stick too closely to the standard paths. We place too much faith in paper qualifications. We define success too narrowly. We need risk-takers, we need dreamers, we need people who dare to veer off the trodden paths.
Like Madonna. Having entered a top university on a scholarship, she proceeded to do the Bill Gates thing. She quit without graduating. Like Bill Gates, she had a dream and she was going to pursue it. She would go to New York City and become a top professional dancer. She describes the pursuit of her dream here:
"When I came to New York it was the first time I'd ever taken a plane, the first time I'd ever gotten a taxi-cab, the first time for everything. And I came here with 35 dollars in my pocket. It was the bravest thing I'd ever done."35 dollars was all she had then. She took a risk. Today, her personal net worth is estimated at USD 325,000,000.
Madonna as Entrepreneur
Singapore wants entrepreneurs. Singapore needs entrepreneurs. Singapore has been desperately trying to breed entrepreneurs, but after all these years, Singapore is still down to the same few poster boys & girls of entrepreneurship - Ron Sim of OSIM, Olivia Lum of Hyflux, Sim Wong Hoo of Creative Technology.
Madonna is also an entrepreneur. Her product is herself. She is well-known to be a very serious businesswoman. In fact, the very staid, very serious financial magazine Forbes once suggested on its front cover that Madonna was "America's Smartest Business Woman".
And guess what? With a net worth of USD 325 million, Madonna is richer than Ron Sim. She is richer than Olivia Lum. She is richer than Sim Wong Hoo. The next time Singapore wants a new model example on how to get rich via entrepreneurship, we should study Madonna's business strategies. Singapore wants its companies to go global, but Madonna was already a global brand 20 years ago.
Madonna As The Almost-Senior Citizen
Approaching their 50s, most Singaporeans start dreaming about collecting their CPF money and enjoying their sedate retirement years. Many Singaporeans were aghast by the government's decision to raise the official retirement age to 62. This is despite the fact that many Singaporeans will probably not have enough money to support themselves comfortably in their old age.
Madonna obviously does not need more money. Furthermore she is almost 50. But she shows no sign of stopping. She doesn't even show any sign of slowing down. This year, she'll be making a new movie. Last year, she did her sell-out concert tour around the world. Reports say that she worked on her dance routines 13 hours a day. This is the same woman who sustained three cracked ribs, a broken collarbone, and a broken hand, in a horseback riding accident as recently as August 2005.
If Singapore's rapidly ageing population needs some inspiration on how to live life with more enthusiasm, Madonna could be their role model.
Madonna & Free Speech
Singapore has a poor reputation for free speech. Many Singaporeans are afraid to speak up. As recently as last Saturday, Dr Cherian George and I were at an NUS seminar trying to convince the audience that such fears are largely groundless, that Singaporeans can speak up openly. Alas, later that day, I learned that even members of the ruling political party have adopted a strategy of making anonymous postings on the Internet.
Madonna has much more testicular fortitude (to steal a phrase from Cherian). She's not afraid to push the borders in her music. Throughout her career, she has repeatedly used political, sexual and religious themes and imagery in her work. The only time she ever really backed down was in relation to her ninth album, American Life. The video for the single was filmed in the run up to the second Iraq War, and its content was deemed "unpatriotic" by early reports. She withdrew the video, saying:
"I have decided not to release my new video. It was filmed before the war started and I do not believe it is appropriate to air it at this time. Due to the volatile state of the world and out of sensitivity and respect to the armed forces, who I support and pray for, I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video."
The album did badly in the US but according to Wikipedia, did better in countries which did not support the Iraq war. In France, the album reached No. 1 and sold more than 500,000 copies. One major reason for her great success in France was the large anti-war community and their pleasure at seeing an American artist that opposed the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.
Wikipedia tells us that Madonna does not support US President George Bush. She endorsed Wesley Clark's Democratic nomination for the 2004 United States presidential election, in an impassioned letter to her fans, saying that "the future I wish for my children is at risk." In the autumn of 2006, she expressed her support for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 election. She also urged her fans to see Michael Moore's movie, Fahrenheit 9/11. She is a person who is unafraid to speak up for her political beliefs.
Today, Singapore has banned Madonna. The grounds are that her latest Confession performances contain scenes that are religiously impermissible in Singapore. The decision could be right. Madonna has a lot to teach Singapore - but perhaps we're just not ready.