Shaping the Singapore soul

OLDER Singaporeans will recall how Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s 1960s refrain of a rugged society inspired the people to overcome the odds in the difficult years. After the nation got over the hump, the buzzword was resilience. This was the consolidation phase, to preserve gains against vitiation while striving for niche accomplishments in a world become borderless.

A half-century on, with the status of a developed economy seemingly achieved, Singaporeans are taking a hard look in the mirror at themselves and the evolution of society.

Mission accomplished? Hardly. Coming next is the maturation phase, the locus of humanity by which successful societies are judged for their attractive civilisational qualities.

A jibe is occasionally heard about Singapore having First World trappings but Third World ways. If the people do not like the characterisation, they should take steps to change it. As an aspiration, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s invitation to the people to help create a society based on decency, a generosity of spirit and respect for diversity may arguably be the hardest call thus far in the Singapore Story because any change will have to first be at a personal and individual level.

At the National Day Rally, PM Lee asked that the people shape the kind of society they want. Materialism will assuredly remain. How it can be reconciled with the striving for a less stratified society is a point to ponder offered up by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who also spoke. Calling for some balance to “material pragmatism”, he noted that “extreme meritocracy and competition can lead to a winner- take-all society, with the winners thinking little of others”. This is one illustration of the difficulties in the consensus-building that he will lead.

There are pointers.

  • The Americans are admired for their philanthropic nature, a willingness to give aid and succour without expectation of a return.
  • Another example: Japanese victims of the quake-tsunami disaster. They showed respect and concern for one another in the face of death and devastation.

How did such character develop?

In societies imbued with the right values, people do not stop to gawk at accident scenes but offer what help they can. Motorists make way for ambulances. Old people are shown courtesy, animal cruelty is unthinkable.

Singapore’s next level of progress is towards a comparable level of such symbolic reckoners, where material norms will no longer be the sole measure of the country’s standing and a person’s worth. Civil society will thrive as conduits for social support and enlightenment. This can transpire only if the image in the mirror that Singaporeans earnestly wish to see is that of big-hearted people, gracious towards one another and others.

EDITORIAL, Published on Aug 29, 2012, StraitsTimes
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