Monday 22 October 2012

We are kind, but we could be kinder: Tommy Koh

Tommy Koh gives his verdict on Singaporeans' graciousness, urges the public to do more
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 21 Oct 2012

Most Singaporeans are kind, but people can still aspire to be kinder to all who share the places where they work, live and play, Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh said yesterday.

There are certain areas that the public can work on to create a gracious society, he added.

For example, Singaporeans could be nicer to the elderly, the disabled, foreign workers and one another. Bosses could also be kinder to their employees by respecting work-life balance and practising profit-sharing.

Professor Koh, the rector of Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore, also called on the public to "stand up against the minority of selfish people who oppose dormitories for foreign workers, hospices, facilities for the elderly in their neighbourhood".

"Let the voices of the majority of Singaporeans who are kind rise above those of the unkind minority," he said.

His assessment was made during a keynote speech at the National Conference on Kindness at the Marina Mandarin Hotel.

Prof Koh came to his conclusion after presenting evidence which supported opposing views on the question of whether Singaporeans are kind.

His speech was followed by a 45-minute forum attended by about 500 people, including students and business owners.

The conference, the second held to date, was organised by the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) and aimed at encouraging Singaporeans to discuss and reflect on ways to help one another show simple acts of graciousness and generosity.

Audience members posed questions to SKM general secretary William Wan, Madam Moliah Hashim of Malay self-help organisation Mendaki and Ms Braema Mathi of human rights advocacy group Maruah. Prof Koh was the forum moderator.

The questions were wide-ranging and included topics such as how to teach kindness in schools, getting Singaporeans to clear their trays in hawker centres and giving maids annual home leave.

Senior Minister of State for Education Lawrence Wong, who attended the conference, said: "Translating our values into action takes effort.

"It requires personal commitment and discipline to practise the right behaviour, so that over time, we get into the habit of kindness."

At the end of the three-hour event, Dr Wan said he was encouraged by the strong turnout and spirited discussions.

He urged the audience to show acts of kindness in their daily lives so that others can be inspired to act graciously too.

Audience members said they found the conference useful because it reminded them that simple gestures of kindness can make an impact on the lives of others.

Mr Manoj Sharma, who runs a company that provides service-related courses, said: "I was reminded to show kindness as a boss.

"I can do this by stepping up to cover the responsibilities of my employee if he has urgent family matters."

Are Singaporeans kind or unkind? Prof Koh's checklist
A summary of points made by Prof Tommy Koh in his speech at yesterday's National Conference On Kindness


Foreign workers

There are many instances of foreign workers being subjected to unkind treatment by their employers.

Some are housed in unsanitary and inhumane circumstances, some are not paid promptly or at all.

"The worst case was probably the employer who left his injured foreign worker to die on the roadside."

Foreign maids

Some maids have been sexually abused by male employers. Others have been physically or psychologically abused, not given enough time to rest, food to eat and a decent place to sleep in.

"I was disappointed that some employers opposed the Government's belated decision to grant all maids a weekly day of rest," said Prof Koh.

Neglecting elderly parents

Prof Koh's wife, a volunteer in a hospital, told him that some elderly people living alone or in institutions complain that their children never visit.

"I wonder if our cherished virtue of filial piety is beginning to wither."

Treatment of the disabled

Education should be compulsory for disabled children too; the quality of education available to disabled children varies widely.

It is hard for the disabled to find jobs. And it remains hard for the disabled to get around in office buildings, shopping malls, trains, buses and restaurants.

Cruelty to animals

"As an animal lover, I am appalled by the reports I have read of cruelty towards animals. I cannot understand why there are some sadists among us who apparently enjoy torturing and killing animals."


Foreign workers

For every unkind employer of foreign workers, there are probably several who treat their workers kindly. There are also non-government organisations which champion the rights of foreign workers, and doctors, lawyers and other professionals who volunteer to look after their welfare.

Foreign maids

For every unkind employer, there are several who treat their maids with kindness and respect.

"I have also come across employers who have shown extraordinary kindness towards their maids, for example, by paying for their medical treatment or helping them with their children's education or giving them time off to further their education."

Response to humanitarian disasters

Singaporeans always respond with generosity to humanitarian disasters abroad, especially those in Asia.

"If Singaporeans do not have kind hearts, I do not think they would have responded so generously."


Donations keep going up. Philanthropy has taken root and "Singapore is emerging as an important philanthropic hub of Asia".


The proportion of volunteers has risen from 15 per cent in 2004 to 23 per cent in 2010.

"I am very impressed by the spirit of our young people. Many of them are helping the poor, the disadvantaged, the marginalised, in different countries in Asia and elsewhere."

Kindness to strangers

The "bouquets" in The Straits Times Forum Page, from Singaporeans and foreign visitors, express gratitude to Singaporeans who have gone out of the way to show kindness to strangers.

"My foreign friends have told me that they are very impressed by the kindness of Singaporeans."A summary of points made by Prof Tommy Koh in his speech at yesterday's National Conference On Kindness

In search of a gentler Singapore
By Wong Kim Hoh, The Straits Times, 21 Oct 2012

Some really wanted to know. Others just wanted to unload.

When Professor Tommy Koh, Singapore's ambassador-at-large, asked the 500 people in the room if they had questions, many made a bid for the mike.

The enthusiasm was understandable. The topic was kindness and everyone had something to say about grace and compassion, or their lack, in Singapore.

One man wanted to know why polite and kind children turn into mean and unkind adults. A Methodist pastor said bureaucracy can be a stumbling block to kindness if government departments do not respond to civil groups trying to help the vulnerable such as foreign workers and stray animals.

And one architect launched into a rant about inconsiderate Singaporeans who do not return food trays and the need in this country to do away with demeaning jobs such as cleaning.

The animated proceedings of the second National Kindness Conference yesterday confirmed one thing: Singaporeans are starting to get a little antsy about the state of kindness in the Little Red Dot.

Eavesdropping on the chatter and conversations, one got the distinct impression that those who came - corporate and community leaders as well as ordinary people - all believed that, as a nation, Singapore is a lot less nice, gentle and kind than it used to be.

"Maybe we have become so caught up with our fast-paced lives and so focused on achieving goals and results that we are no longer socially conscious. When parents are like that, their children turn out the same way too," said Ms Trudy Loh, deputy director of the Language Council's Secretariat.

Interestingly, what was also obvious was a widely shared view that something needed to be done to right this wrong.

Prof Koh, the keynote speaker, set the tone with a provocative address asking: "Are Singaporeans a kind or unkind people?"

Then he set out signs of meanness and signs of kindness.

This was followed by a dialogue with three articulate panellists: Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, Madam Moliah Hashim, chief executive of Yayasan Mendaki, and Ms Braema Mathi, president of human rights group Maruah.

Madam Moliah teased the audience by asking if there's a racial dimension to kindness and if Malays are kinder.

For the record, she doesn't think so. She believes people's values are shaped by their world views.

The crowd was in a buoyantly discursive mood when everyone broke up into small group discussions. The doodler, the yawner, the listless participant - all were conspicuously absent.

The teaser was: "What can we do to help build a more gracious society?" There was no lack of ideas.

One group suggested getting students to start "a gratitude journal". Another lobbied for the media to use more sensitive language - such as "differently abled" instead of disabled, "domestic workers" instead of maids - in describing certain groups, while yet another pushed for action against cyber bullies.

Dr Wan said he hoped the conference would be a connector and catalyst and spur participants to organise and mobilise activities to promote kindness.

Ms Jennifer Yin of the National Library Board was struck by the hope she felt.

"People were more than willing to participate. This is an issue really close to our hearts," she said.

"There was a consensus that we needed to do something about it, that it was our responsibility and we cannot just leave it to the Government."

Detractors will say talk is cheap.

But Alexandra Health group chief executive Liak Teng Lit begs to differ.

"If you don't talk about it, you forget about it. So this is a good reminder," he said.

He added: "Muslims go to the mosque on Friday, Christians flock to church on Sunday to listen to the same philosophy and values. We already believe and this may seem like preaching to the converted, but it's always good to get inspired again."

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