From Discipline to Disarray: A Cultural Leap from Singapore to Spain
During my four years living in Singapore, I experienced a strong sense of safety, followed by an indescribable feeling of frustration It almost felt as if the nation’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, had installed a CCTV system in every corner, monitoring my every move in real-time. The constant reminders to refrain from littering, spitting, or committing petty crimes such as theft were ever-present due to the stringent public conduct code. For instance, due to the strict prohibition of food and beverages on public transportation, our 10-year-old son, who was absentmindedly munching on an ice cream cone, stepped onto the subway platform and was promptly stopped by a staff member. I vividly remember my shock when I dozed off while studying at a public library, only to be awakened by a librarian who informed me it was a place for studying, not sleeping. This incident made me miss the American university libraries and student centers where I could pull all-nighters studying without any disturbances.
Fast forward to a year and a half later, now living in Spain, I’ve discovered the country’s unique attributes and moods. Spaniards are typically conservative, warm-hearted, and kind, yet they hold a firm sense of personal style and boundaries. Their emotions can sometimes overflow, seeming unrestrained and intense, but they always appear authentic and sincere.
Spaniards can be paradoxically perceived as being quite open yet slightly defensive, friendly and sociable, but gradually revealing a more reserved side. During a recent vacation with my husband, we visited several museums and art galleries in Madrid, providing us a brief insight into the history of medieval and modern Europe. Through these experiences, I realized that the unique sensibilities and tendencies of Spanish society are closely related to the origins, history, and the formation of dynasties and ruling powers in Spain.
Just as Lee Kuan Yew is known as a national treasure for establishing the national structure of Singapore, Philip II of Spain is also a figure worth considering as a national treasure. He represents the golden age of Spain and built a systematic administrative system. However, in Anglo-centric world history, his presence is somewhat diminished, often painted in a negative light.
Every nation or ethnic group strives to preserve and pass on their “golden age.” Therefore, the national institutions and habits I currently perceive in Spain can be largely seen as a legacy of Philip II’s governing style and national system.
Paperwork King: An Encounter with Spain’s Administrative Legacy
Philip II was known as the “Paperwork King,” a title I quickly understood upon my arrival in Spain. The most “overwhelming” part? The endless paperwork. The guide provided by the school for smooth transition of new foreign professors detailed a whopping ten steps needed to gather all the necessary documents for settling in.
In Singapore, a single school staff member handled all my affairs. In Australia, a lawyer hired by the school was my one-stop solution. However, in Spain, I had to personally visit various government offices like the police station, health center, and tax office to get things done. What’s more, the process was painstakingly long, involving scheduling appointments, visiting, and then revisiting to pick up paperwork. Spain was a country of excessive administration, with no apparent sign of change in the offing. I found myself longing for the days of living in Singapore, home to the most efficient and productive government and an airport where immigration is done in five minutes.
Philip II was known to be a meticulous king, heavily involved in every minor issue and known for his doubting nature. Legend has it that he spent nights reading documents and signing them himself. In essence, he was a micromanager.
Typically, when a diligent but not-so-intelligent person (although it’s said that Philip II had his fair share of clever and insightful moments) becomes a boss, decision-making speed and efficiency take a plunge. Why did Philip II end up with such an extreme micromanaging, paternalistic, and bureaucratic character? Probably because he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, having plenty to guard from birth. He was not an individual who achieved through aggression, combat, or innovation but one who was born with the destiny of a defender, tasked to guard and carry on what he had already inherited.
El Escorial: A grand throwback to Spain’s vibrant past. #GoldenAge #SpanishLegacy
Redefining Philip II: The Defender King of Spain’s Golden Age
Despite all this, many today view Philip II as a tyrant or an imperialist. Perhaps it’s because when we think of the king of Spain’s golden age, the ruler who led the Invincible Armada, we imagine a dazzling and dominant figure, much like Louis XIV and his absolute monarchy, right?
The image of Philip II is often likened to a dominant Western European figure who led the Invincible Armada and controlled various South American colonies. However, the true story of Spain actually began with the strategic marriage between Queen Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand I of Aragon. Moreover, it was during Queen Isabella’s era that Spain, after ousting Islam, established its identity as a Catholic nation.
Philip II’s father, Charles I, was a king born from the marriage between Princess Juana of Spain and Philip I of Habsburg, who led the Holy Roman Empire. So, Philip II’s golden age of Spain was more a result of inheritance than invasion wars. Even the colonies in South America were the result of a successful venture investment that Queen Isabella made in Columbus, not the result of an invasion war by the Invincible Armada.
Philip II’s ruling style and personal traits were more akin to a ‘defender’—calm, meticulous, and focused on consolidating his strength—rather than flamboyance or aggression. A deeply religious man, he inherited the modest Catholic traditions of his family and spent his life waging defensive wars to protect what had been given to him.
Between Personal Ambitions and National Interests: An Insight into the Battle of the Armada and the Battle of Lepanto
The Battle of the Armada with England, while steeped in complex political and religious contexts, is perhaps better perceived from Philip II’s personal perspective. It was less about preemptively “invading” England and more about retaliating against what he saw as a betrayal by Queen Elizabeth I, whom he had politically protected. The political pretext was avenging the execution of Mary Stuart, who had received Catholic backing. However, the actual impetus was Elizabeth’s endorsement, or at least her tacit acceptance, of English pirates plundering Spanish ships trading with their colonies. Yet, the English navy, characterized by Elizabeth’s cunning and craftiness, outshone Spain’s comparatively naive approach to the battle. As a result, Spain lost its maritime supremacy in Western Europe following its defeat in the Battle of the Armada.
Similarly, the Battle of Lepanto, a confrontation not solely about military might, but also about personal motivations. Here, Don Juan of Austria, appointed by Philip to lead, took part as a member of the Catholic League to stem the tide of expanding Islamic forces. Interestingly, tensions brewed between Philip and Don Juan; the former focused on neutralizing threats to Spanish territory, while the latter championed a total eradication of Islamic forces.
In summation, while a myriad of political and religious factors influenced both battles, it’s impossible to overlook the pivotal role of Philip’s personal ambitions and objectives. These monumental clashes were also molded by the interplay of divergent strategic interests and individual agendas, underscoring the intricate, multi-faceted nature of warfare and politics.
King Philip II’s diplomatic demeanor and strategies aptly mirrored his conservative and steady nature. He consistently favored defensive tactics over preemptive strikes, which was also reflected in his approach to governing his realm.
Certainly, Philip II’s remarkable defensive prowess is recognized as having made a significant contribution to the refinement of Spain’s internal administrative system. Regardless of which dynasty ascends to the throne or which faction seizes power, Spain’s vast and burdensome administrative system is akin to a “phoenix”, an entity characterized by its “durability” and “stability” that remains largely unchanged despite numerous side effects.
Therefore, Philip II’s character offers a stark contrast to the flamboyant, lavish, ruthless, and cunning absolute monarchs such as “Louis XIV” or “Henry VIII” that we often envision. Instead, Philip II can be likened to a meticulous scholar or civil servant who carefully reviews documents and refrains from harming others unless it directly affects him.
This leadership style, if one had to categorize it, seems more suited to times of peace rather than times of war. In fact, a close examination of Philip II’s military record reveals a generally tragic history of numerous defeats, largely attributed to his somewhat naive, textbook approach to warfare, slow decision-making, and lack of decisiveness.
A friend who transitioned from a decade-long career in accounting and finance in France to a company in Spain relayed that managing subordinates in both countries is quite challenging, albeit for different reasons.
In France, employees tend to habitually throw unnecessary and unproductive questions when given a task, such as “Why should I do this? Can’t it be resolved in a different way?” This behavior may stem from the fact that France, the birthplace of Enlightenment, has an education system that encourages critical thinking.
On the other hand, Spanish employees’ primary response is to proffer excuses as to “why I can’t do the task”. In other words, while both show a negative response rather than promptly completing the assigned tasks, their approaches differ. French employees attempt logical and aggressive persuasion, while Spanish employees are more inclined towards emotional and subjective defenses.
These differences could serve as a reflection of the contrasting national characteristics—Spain’s conservatism and reactionary tendencies versus France’s radical and aggressive nature.
Spain seems to mirror the measured, meticulous, and defensive character of Philip II. Expats and immigrants in Spain, including Koreans, often comment on the initial hurdles in settling down; however, once they adjust, they find it remarkably comfortable. This comfort might owe much to the soothing allure of the Spanish ‘aesthetics of slowness.’ Spanish people, once they form deep bonds, are not quick to betray or abandon; they readily extend kindness and consideration.
Once you secure a permanent position in Spain, it’s said to be legally challenging to fire employees. The behemoth bureaucratic system might curb entrepreneurial spirit, but it also creates a societal environment that, when complied with, results in minimal disadvantages.
In Madrid, the grand and authoritative buildings that exude power and prestige are predominantly government offices. In contrast, the general public values frugality and restraint. Unlike neighboring countries such as France and Italy, known for their luxury industries, Spain has seen a boom in fast fashion catering to the masses, likely due to these values.
Stubborn yet Resilient: The Unyielding Spirit of Spain and its Historical Roots
Could this be why one of the most developed fields in Spain is ‘tax collection’? I recall hearing about a Korean who was working in Spain under a residence permit. Upon returning to Korea, they applied for a tax refund using their passport number and ended up being caught by the authorities, resulting in a hefty fine. Spaniards, often known for their lax and laid-back approach to most public services, surprisingly showcase precision and cutting-edge capabilities when it comes to tax collection. Even football stars like Messi and Ronaldo experienced significant setbacks when they mishandled their tax affairs while playing in the Spanish League. It’s wise to meticulously adhere to what the government asks of you. This approach serves as a basis for maintaining order and social structure among society members in an ever-changing environment.
On the other hand, one area where Spain notably lags behind is marketing. Not many people are aware that Spain is a country of beer. European flagship beer brands, such as Dutch Heineken, as well as those from Germany, Belgium, and even the USA, Japan, China, Southeast Asia, and South America, are imported to Korea in large quantities. Yet, very few Koreans are likely to be familiar with Spanish beer brands, including Mahou, a representative beer brand of Madrid. I, too, had never heard or seen this brand until I arrived here.
El Escorial, constructed by Philip II, is a unique palace boasting closed architecture and a pious atmosphere, with an exceptional architectural beauty. However, its recognition pales in comparison to palaces like Versailles. I, myself, was entirely unaware of this palace until I came to Spain. Paris is one of the most popular romantic destinations for tourists, while Madrid, despite its charming old-world architecture and numerous outstanding art museums, is often perceived merely as a dull administrative city.
King Philip II inherited a vast empire, and unlike other European monarchs, he never had to endure the turmoil of power struggles in his youth. His life was never in danger, nor was his security ever compromised. This shaped him into a relatively stable personality. He was a diligent model student who strove to protect his inheritance and honor his ancestors. He grew into a “managerial” monarch, remembered as a king who failed in his foreign ambitions but succeeded domestically.
While monarchs in England and France lost their lives to parliamentary impeachment or civic revolutions during turbulent times, the Spanish monarchy remained remarkably stable. It survived the brutal Spanish Civil War and the long reign of Franco, even managing a restoration of the monarchy. Despite political crises, the royal lineage has continued to this day. The more you learn about Spain, the more you realize that its history is unique compared to other European nations.
Today’s Spain, with its blend of strengths and shortcomings, can arguably be seen as a testament to the legacy of Philip II’s era. In an age of rapid globalization, Spain’s tenacity may seem like a hindrance, potentially causing it to lag behind the swiftly evolving world.
The Spanish are often perceived as stubborn, but this characteristic stems from their fervent commitment to their values and the essence of their lives. This resilience is rooted in their efforts to safeguard Spain’s rich historical heritage and uphold its distinct European spirit, making it a unique strength that defines Spain.
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