Thursday 30 August 2012

National Day Rally 2012: Strengthening our heartware

Keep spirit of understanding, Singaporeans urged
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 28 Aug 2012

SINGAPOREANS are not a xenophobic people and the vitriol hurled at foreigners online is out of character, two government ministers came out to say yesterday.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam stressed that most Singaporeans are fair-minded and gracious.

"The vitriol towards foreigners that we see especially in online discussions is quite out of our Singaporean character," Mr Tharman wrote in a Facebook post. "Bad behaviour by a small number of foreigners does not justify spiteful comment about foreigners in general, or all foreigners of a particular race. It does no one good," he added.

Mr Shanmugam said on Facebook that "the small minority, which is highly negative, and hiding behind anonymity, and spewing vitriol, should not be allowed to set the tone for the debate".

In his National Day Rally on Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong raised concerns about the ungracious behaviour of some towards fellow Singaporeans and towards foreigners.

Yesterday, The Straits Times found that community leaders and experts had a range of views on the causes and seriousness of the problem. Some said Singapore society has indeed become less gracious. Of this group, some were also quick to point out that social media has amplified the voices of the discontented, who are in the minority.

Mr Tharman said concerns over foreigners were understandable, and that the Government has acted to reduce the inflow of foreign workers and change policies to favour Singaporeans.

But more than those adjustments in policies, the question is one of national character and the kind of Singaporean that people want to be, he said.

"We are basically a fair-minded, gracious people," Mr Tharman wrote.

He urged Singaporeans to keep a spirit of understanding and empathy to other Singaporeans and foreigners. He encouraged new citizens to make an effort to build friendships with Singaporeans, respect their values, and learn English so they can interact with Singaporeans of all races.

Mr Shanmugam said some of the comments made online against foreigners are "repulsive and xenophobic" and do not really represent the best spirit of Singapore.

"The majority of Singaporeans are tolerant, decent and open hearted," he added.

Speak up when you see bad behaviour, say community leaders
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 28 Aug 2012

ONE way Singapore can become a more gracious society is for more citizens to speak up when they see bad behaviour, said several observers and community leaders yesterday.

Such self-policing by the community is common in many First World countries, said Nominated MP (NMP) Janice Koh.

She recalled how she was chided by a bus driver in Scotland when she unknowingly cut the queue for a bus in Edinburgh. And when she stopped to take a picture while cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, a fellow cyclist told her off for holding up traffic.

"They know what's right, and they have no problem standing up for it. That's stronger than any government message or campaign," she said.

But many among the 20 observers and community leaders interviewed believe Singapore still has some way to go in becoming a more civic-conscious society.

Some attribute Singaporeans' reticence to a deep-rooted cultural fear of confrontation while others trace it to their dislike of being inconvenienced.

"They think if they get involved and if the police are called in, they'll have to give a statement. So, they don't say anything," said NMP Teo Siong Seng.

These leaders were commenting on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's observations on Sunday about Singaporeans' lack of graciousness towards one another as well as towards foreigners.

Mr Lee, speaking at the National Day Rally, was troubled by their behaviour, which includes berating foreigners online for bad behaviour while staying silent when they do good.

He cited how a foreign nurse helping a sick old woman on a bus was highlighted in a Straits Times Forum Page letter but it was not mentioned online.

While most want Singaporeans to speak up, especially when a person is bullying, injuring or inconveniencing another in public, Ms Koh is convinced "our Asian culture" is an inhibiting factor.

But Mr Chua Thian Poh, president of the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, feels Singaporeans have become more outspoken.

Some cited how Singaporeans do not hesitate to speak up - and loudly too - when an established social etiquette is violated, like when a person cuts a queue at a taxi stand or hawker stall.

But how Singaporeans speak up is important too, said Mr A.M.A Nasirudeen, chairman of the Abdul Gafoor mosque. "When you scold someone, the person gets defensive... So you should always explain in a nice way."

As Singaporeans work on overcoming their inhibitions, former NMP Braema Mathi believes technology can come to the rescue.

She cited a video clip that went viral in June, showing Mr Alex Ong, 25, pushing a 76-year-old woman off a stationary bus during a row. He was chastised online, "showing the Web, in highlighting bad behaviour, can play a role in reinforcing social norms", said Ms Mathi.


YES: Stress levels raised by sense of being squeezed
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 28 Aug 2012

TEMPERS are getting shorter and actions becoming nastier in Singapore, said some community leaders and analysts yesterday.

They agreed with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who in the National Day Rally on Sunday had flagged "troubling signs" in Singaporeans' behaviour towards each other and foreigners.

But in analysing the causes of the problem, some went a step further by noting that it may partly be of the state's own making.

In his speech, Mr Lee highlighted a "rising trend of not so good behaviour", like residents who do not want nursing homes in their backyard. He was also worried by the "one-eyed dragon" syndrome, in which some Singaporeans are quick to criticise foreigners' bad behaviour but slow to notice good actions.

Mr Lee said the loss of the kampung spirit may be one reason "we seem to be getting less patient, less tolerant, less willing to compromise to get along".

People now lead more private lives and interact less, leading to self-centred behaviour, he said.

Things get worse when you add the stresses of living in a dense city, said National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Paulin Straughan. "When you step out of the house, you can't get to the MRT, when you're on the MRT, people are in your face. It can change your whole outlook of life," she said.

Unlike in other countries, Singaporeans do not have the option of moving to the suburbs when life gets too stressful or expensive in the city, added NUS political scientist Reuben Wong. "We're living in a goldfish bowl which is too small."

The sense of being squeezed - especially in the past six years - has contributed to Singaporeans' unhappiness with foreigners.

"Singaporeans are not xenophobic," noted former National Integration Council member Edward D'Silva, adding foreigners have always been present here.

He said Singaporeans now feel strongly against foreigners not so much out of double standards, but because of festering resentment that they have seemingly been passed over despite sacrificing for the country.

Others like sociologists Tan Ern Ser and Mathew Mathews pointed to the competitive environment which creates a self-serving attitude.

"When people feel their interests threatened, they tend not to display a spirit of generosity," said Prof Tan.

Self-interest is also the unintended side-effect of two cornerstones of Singaporean society: meritocracy and self-reliance.

On Sunday, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, also speaking at the Rally, said "extreme meritocracy and competition can lead to a winner-take-all society, with the winners thinking little of others".

The Government's emphasis on self-reliance, with "little outright social safety nets", means people are conditioned to take care of themselves first, added Ms Corinna Lim, executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research.

Most observers agreed social media has changed how people interact. Nominated MP Faizah Jamal said the angry online chatter could be because people did not have a channel for speaking up prior to the Internet.

But Singaporeans are in the process of learning how to "disagree without being personal", said Madam Faizah.


NO: It's a minority made louder by social media
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 28 Aug 2012

ONLY a minority of Singaporeans behave badly towards fellow citizens and foreigners, some observers say, but their acts are often blown out of proportion.

Besides, they add, ungracious behaviour has been around for many years; only, they are now being amplified by social media, giving the impression of increasingly ugly behaviour here.

"The majority of us are gracious," said Mr Chua Thian Poh, president of the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. "It's only the vocal minority that makes us look bad."

The dean of Nanyang Technological University's College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Professor Alan Chan, noted that even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had made it clear that the few incidents he cited should not be over-generalised.

Said Prof Chan: "There are also examples of 'big-heartedness' that would make us all proud."

Observers said most Singaporeans were peace-loving, polite and respectful of others.

Ms Wong Soon Fen, 49, would likely prove their case. The university lecturer invites foreign students to her home and takes them around Singapore.

"It's not that Singaporeans aren't warm-hearted, but we are too busy sometimes," she said. "If you ask us to help, we'll help. But we don't go out of our way to make people feel at home - or we don't know how to."

Some blamed social media for exaggerating the situation.

"Singaporeans are sensible, but new media is very loud," noted sociologist Paulin Straughan. "There's no need for 1,000 voices to be heard. You just need one mischief maker at the keyboard to stir up unhappiness."

Nominated MP Janice Koh, too, said that Singaporeans behaving badly was nothing new - only it largely went unreported.

"Even in PM Goh Chok Tong's time, we were conscious of the need to develop a more gracious society, that certain 'ugly' Singaporean habits like littering and so on had to be addressed.

"I've been driving in Singapore for more than 10 years. It's always been stressful. Perhaps road manners have not necessarily gotten worse, but now we can tweet about it. We can install cameras in our cars to record that bad behaviour and put it on Facebook."

Still, observers stressed that the issue of bad behaviour should not be trivialised.

Whether or not it was a minority that lacked graciousness, the PM's message was "a timely exhortation and reminder, if we aspire to be a first-world country in all senses of the word", said sociologist Tan Ern Ser.

The chairman of the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle in Kolam Ayer, Mr K.J. Nair, warned that care should be taken so that the minority did not grow into a larger group. He said: "We must try to correct these people. Talk to them, ask them to participate in activities... to be part of society and community."

Singaporeans could also learn from ethical and religious traditions, suggested Prof Chan, the chairman of NTU's Confucius Institute. After all, he noted, PM Lee had alluded to the golden rule: Treat others the same way you want others to treat you.

Agreeing, Ms Wong said she had experienced the warmth of people in Nepal where she taught English for a year as a volunteer: "They invited me to their homes and made sure I wasn't left out."

Singaporeans need to choose...
How they want to behave
By Phua Mei Pin. The Straits Times, 29 Aug 2012

THE decision is up to Singaporeans to make, not the Government, on the kind of society they want, and the way they behave towards foreigners.

This was the message from Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Acting Manpower Minister and Senior Minister of State for National Development, last night when young Singaporeans raised xenophobia and ungraciousness as top issues on their minds.

"All of you here have choices to make. Do you want to be consumed by hate, anger, unhappiness? Or do you want to say, let's do something positive," he said.

Xenophobia and graciousness had been key points of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech on Sunday, when he called on Singaporeans to acknowledge the good in foreigners in the country, and to show more graciousness towards others.

At two separate youth forums last night, it became apparent that Singaporeans remain divided on the matter.

At Mr Tan's dialogue with about 100 Singapore Management University (SMU) students, some locals spoke up for their foreign friends, saying some are having a hard time finding a job in Singapore after graduating, while others continued to express discomfort with the competition they face from foreign students.

Separately, at a People's Association forum where immigration was a hot topic, several pointed out the good they do for the country's economy.

National University of Singapore undergraduate Tan Pei En highlighted the need to show appreciation for all groups who contribute to society, including low-wage foreign workers.

Said the 20-year-old: "Instead of stereotyping them, understand them better. We appreciate teachers, nurses - what about foreign workers?"

The minister acknowledged during his dialogue that some anti-foreigner reactions were sparked by the surge in their numbers in recent years, but assured the students that the Government's priority was to place Singaporeans at the core of the workforce. "There has been an impact and we need to calibrate," he said.

But he questioned if the situation gives Singaporeans the licence to behave ungraciously towards foreigners.

He also cautioned them to choose their reaction based on fact, not perception. For instance, there is a perception that firms prefer foreign workers when in fact, employers in certain sectors cannot find Singaporeans to do the work.

While the Government can manage manpower policies, only Singaporeans can decide how they would react as individuals.

"It's a free country, you can do what you want," he said.

"The collective character and values cannot be decided by the Government... Eventually, all our individual choices make up who we are as a community."

Shaping the Singapore soul
Editorial, The Straits Times, 29 Aug 2012

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.

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