Is Singapore becoming increasingly “Kafkaesque”? |

by Ho Wei Jian

In 1915, German author Franz Kafka published one of his most famous novels, ‘The Metamorphosis’. In that story, protagonist Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into an insect.

Instead of caring about his inexplicable transformation into an animal, Gregor instead worries about not being able to get out of bed and go to work being the sole breadwinner for his ungrateful family. There coins the term ‘Kafkaesque’.

‘Kafkaesque’ is a term that is used to describe Kafka’s nightmarish world that he portrays in his works. His works – a range of fictional short stories to novels – portray a deep sense of dread that remains existential throughout his stories but by far the biggest leitmotif is the constant drone of limitless bureaucracy.

Having worked at an insurance company for several years, the tale of The Metamorphosis was an extremely personal story. Kafka understood that bureaucracy, the endless set of reports and paperwork, the convoluted procedures to accomplish anything.

Kafka’s works often bog down to an incredible sense deep-rooted of irony; irony that is often created from the character’s circumstances. 

In his short story ‘Poseidon’, the mythical Greek god has no time to explore the underwater sea; he only does it while he is travelling to Olympus as he has too much paperwork to handle and deems everyone unworthy of doing his task for him.

So that begs the question: is our society in this country becoming increasingly “Kafkaesque”? A place so filled with constant bureaucracy, where we cannot get anything accomplished because of the excessively complicated administrative work? Are we all entangled in our own chains? Chains that we ourselves create out of our own disregard?

An overseas friend once jokingly remarked to me, that the funniest thing he finds about Singaporeans is that, despite owning an automobile, we decide to take the MRT to go to work instead. This is due to the cost of petrol and the rising cost of keeping a car on the road; being one of the most overpopulated country in the world certainly does not help us. Especially our roads.

The irony is that despite owning an automobile, we insist on sharing transportation with everyone else due to the costs of maintaining an automobile.

Then there is the bureaucracy. Not the bureaucracy that refers to the administrative work and complications that Kafka had to endure as a worker for his insurance company (although it happens to plenty of white collar workers) – it refers to the system an average person goes through. It stems from having too much of your life planned out for you.

A Singaporean living in their own country, when he or she is born, will go to kindergarten before going through six years of primary school, and then four to five years of secondary school. After that, they go to a Junior College, a Polytechnic, or an Institute of Technical Education where they spend several years. The males would then go for their two year mandatory National Service and the females to universities.

Education for at least 10 years is mandatory. Coupled with that, we have major examinations, like the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) and GCSE ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels to impose on our highly stressed students who are sent for private tuition week in, week out to achieve a good grade.

Throughout this whole process, we forget that an education is most importantly about enlightenment. Enlightenment to the joy of learning and discovering.

After we are maybe done with our education and the males are done with their NS and both the genders finish their tertiary education, perhaps it is time to go into the workforce.

Unfortunately, the problems with this system do not end there, as we work a 44-hour work week, with very little time and money invested in ourselves. Before we know it, our bones start to grow fragile, our energy dissipates, and our skin wrinkles and it is time to retire before realising how much the bureaucracy of life has crushed us.

With this bureaucracy of a long and tiring path of mandatory education, and the irony of after having worked so hard in education to do what we want in work, we end up overworking to the point that we have no time for ourselves.

It is truly a nightmarish world.

Perhaps Kafka was in a way some kind of prophet in detailing the problems of a modern society.