Sunday 21 October 2012

In search of the Singapore dream

by Kannan Chandran, Published TODAY, 19 Oct 2012

You have seen a lot, in your years in corporate and social environments. How has Singapore changed?

(Singapore) is nothing but a piece of rock. We have to create the wealth we hope to have. Hard decisions have to be made to keep the economy ticking away. We have been successful at that. Problem is, we have been successful in a hurry.

We became independent in 1965 and realised we had no real competition. China was still Communist, Vietnam still embroiled in war. Thailand had just started industrialising, and Indonesia was facing challenges. In a hurry, we took advantage knowing that some day they would open up and catch up. And we have done tremendously well - only trouble is, human beings do not evolve at that speed.

You can force-feed knowledge and competencies, but emotions take time to evolve. The Europeans and Americans went through hundreds of years of history as slave-traders and lived with violence to evolve emotionally. 

I think only 20 per cent will find success while the rest will struggle, and those who are struggling will want to find meaning in life. Success is defined as personal fulfilment. Thus, whilst wealth enables a high level of comfort, it has no direct link to fulfilment.

You can have all your economic things, but if you want to build a nation, you must have social order - and society needs to be in a good state. So in the last few years, there has been greater emphasis on social welfare and social issues. 

The very technical team that has built up the economy is trying to address social issues in the same way. It does not quite work that way. You cannot use the same KPIs for developing the economy for social issues.

What is the Singapore of the future going to be like?

It is difficult to figure out what we will be like. We will certainly be cosmopolitan. It will depend on how successful we are in getting the new Singaporeans integrated into society. We are talking about one-fifth of the population, so that is a lot of people. 

It is nice to say we have a melting pot of cultures, but it does not lead to a cohesive society. That is a nice place to visit, but not a nice place to live in. A nice place to live in is where the society is cohesive.

What needs to be done?

We need people to have that end-vision that we want a cohesive society, and get everyone to do that extra bit. If everyone takes half a step, you will feel the effects. If nobody budges, you are going to have pockets of different people. 

We have a few things in our favour. The common language is English. If you cannot communicate, there is no meeting of the minds. Let us be patient, work on the children. A lot of families have stopped eating sharks' fin because of the children. Children are great influencers. Parents will do a lot of things for them. 

It is doable if we plant the messages in the children. When the children grow up, hopefully the next generation will be better off. It takes two to three generations to effect change ... 

Sometimes we say new generations are soft, but that is not necessarily true. They are just avoiding (issues) because they do not know the right answer. It is difficult for Singaporeans because we only like things that have a right and wrong answer - we've created this culture of right or wrong, pass or fail. No in-betweens. Moral dilemma has no right or wrong. You just have to be comfortable with it.

How would you define the heart and soul of Singapore?

A lot of committees have been formed to figure this out. I have participated in three of them. I do not think anyone can put a finger on what Singapore is for people. 

I think nobody has really looked at it from a non-economic point of view. If you look at America, it is a diverse group of people, and they are proud to be Americans, especially in a crisis. They do not sing Star Spangled Banner; the common theme uniting them is America the Beautiful, because the song is about a dream.

Compare it to Stand Up For Singapore and Count On Me Singapore; it is as if we have not done enough. What holds people together is a common dream. Where is that song that paints the dream that we can share?

Why is that dream not happening?

You need people who are that way inclined, not people who are into economic substance. 

Economic substance by nature is about constant change. It is not something you will sustain. When it comes to building a community, you need someone who says you will be building on the same dream three generations on. You need a different mindset. 

The starting point is to look at what Singapore needs. We have to do what we can for the economy - globalisation, specialisation education. But having done or planned all that, the missing link is this: Not everyone is born to fit into that system. 

I use the analogy of a Chinese physician's prescription to explain this. The sinseh will diagnose your ailment and write in the top half of the prescription sheet the herbs necessary for treatment. He knows every herb has a side effect, so when he is finished, he goes back and writes in the second half the herbs that will balance and counteract the side effects. 

We are very good at the first half. We do the right things for the economy, which is why we have never suffered any of the downturns for very long and we can always turn it around and keep on going. 

But people are feeling the effects of it and there is nothing to mitigate it. They are beginning to (do so), but they have not been good at it. I think the reason it is been neglected is because we have not even begun the science of calculating the cost of not doing something - which can be many times more than the cost of doing it.

We are beginning to be a bit better at it. If we look at healthcare, greater investment is being put into keeping people healthy than to treat them when they fall sick.

How do you inculcate 'having' versus 'getting'?

It is down to your value system. It should tell you that it is okay that you do not have what your neighbour has. What should rank highly in your value system are contentment, love, your family and so forth. 

Meritocracy has good and bad aspects. In its proper context, it does not matter who you are. If you are willing to work for it, you will rise through the ranks. To rise, you have to be above people.

You want to be successful in your career, but within your value system you must include compassion for others less fortunate. Can you truly be happy in an environment where everybody else is suffering? 

Is empathy lacking in society?

I think so, due to the lack of exposure and interaction. People are just so busy trying to be a success in life. There is a whole list of things that are must-dos, like the annual holiday. In the old days, you did not even think of it because you couldn't afford it. 

Having said that, developing empathy is a question of proper planning - even if it is corporate social responsibility (CSR). Meet someone disadvantaged and you never know how it will touch you. At the very least you will appreciate more your own blessings. 

While I am critical of many CSR activities, it is still an opportunity for volunteers to interact with beneficiaries. Maybe out of 1,000 people at the event, 10 lives will be touched. They will then influence their immediate family and friends.

These are excerpts from an interview first published in SINGAPORE Relaunch Issue 2012, a quarterly magazine of the Singapore International Foundation.

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