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The Greeks


The Greeks

by Kenneth Lyen

Throughout history, the Greeks have often been the most unlikely victors. They defeated the Trojans using the famous wooden horse technique. They trounced the Persians at Marathon and Salamis. Now, once again, against all odds, they have defeated not just Portugal, but all the bookmakers, who didn’t give the Greeks an iota of a chance. No wonder the Greeks are shouting, jumping with joy... European football champions 2004... Zeus has been smiling at them.

When the Greeks started the Olympic Games in 776 BC on the plains next to Mt Olympus, they probably did not envisage it to spread worldwide. They must be astonished how their little competition became branded and global. But next month, with the return of these games to Athens, they are out the challenge the rest of the world.

It is incredible how the Greeks continue to influence our modern world. The golden age of Greece was around the 5th century BC. To this day we are still discussing the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, learning the mathematics of Euclid and Pythagoras, reading plays by Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Sophocles. Plus they invented democracy.

Although there were no proper population censuses in ancient Athens, most educated modern guess puts the total population of 5th century BC Athens, to be around 250,000. This is about the size of Bedok.

We in Singapore have always compared our city state to Athens. Both are small countries dependent on sea trade for our livelihood. Both have relatively few natural resources. Our aspiration is to be like 5th Century BC Athens, producing world-class thinkers.

We are not a country known for our prowess in sports. Perhaps it should not bother us if we didn't get a team into the football world cup finals. A former President of the University of Columbia made the comment that his university traditionally did not do well in sports. He did not mind his university losing their games, provided that they compensated by scoring more Nobel prizes than losses in the sports arena. The scoreboard in 2002 stood at -- sports games lost: 44; Nobel prizes won: 71 (see below).

I think it would be a far nobler aim for Singapore to emulate Columbia University, striving to achieve excellence in academia, rather than in sports. I have great faith in my country. We will get there provided we put their minds to it, and provided there is a greater freedom of speech, a willingness to accept dissent, and tolerance of failure.

All right, it wouldn't hurt if we also won the football world cup!

(In 2004, Columbia University counted 71 Nobel laureates among its faculty and students.)