Sunday, 25 November 2012

Why are we Singaporeans so hard on ourselves?

The nation needs a different narrative - one that is more positive and grounded in optimism and trust
By Laurence Lien, Published The Straits Times, 24 Nov 2012

IF A Martian were to come to Singapore as the first port of call in its inaugural visit to Earth, what would its report back look like, as a detached observer?

Perhaps it would look like this:

"Singaporeans are disappointed that they are not happy. They are ranked only 90th on the 2012 Happy Planet Index. They debate whether the Government should set happiness, instead of gross domestic product, as the national goal.

"They have had four decades of extraordinary economic growth and social success. But they are still insecure about their future. They worry about their population size, and they lack self-confidence.

"Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew weighs in with his views on the limits on indigenous growth. In the book, Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, he says that Singapore should not even try to grow global manufacturing champions because of its limited talent base. Even if companies become successful, they will be swallowed by a global one.

"Citizens say that life is tough. They work too hard, and the cost of living is excessively high. They lament that they lack creativity or productivity at work, and are ungracious and 'kiasu' outside it.

"Life for children is demanding too. Many parents work themselves into a frenzy over paper validations of their children's capabilities. On the other hand, some disadvantaged parents and children give up on a system that is too fast-paced for them. It is not a society that believes much in second chances.

"Sometimes, in public policy in Singapore, the Government is distrustful of its people. Policies are designed with an emphasis on preventing gaming and the erosion of the work ethic. Hence, there are always tight conditions such that accessibility is sometimes sacrificed."

How have we arrived at this state?

There are many reasons, but I will offer three.
First, we are anxious because human nature is averse to losses, and we tend to benchmark against success previously achieved. We compare today's reality to what it was before - the high watermark - and underplay how far we have come and how well we stack up against other countries. 
Second, we have a culture that tends to focus on a glass being half-empty, rather than half-full. This is partly born out of Singapore's unique vulnerabilities and partly because of perfectionism in our culture, which can have an adverse impact on self-esteem and confidence. 
Third, Singapore's leaders have a tendency to focus on the country's and citizens' deficiencies, vulnerabilities and needs.
I believe we need a different narrative, one that is more positive and grounded in optimism and trust. Political and community leaders must demonstrate trust in people, not the caricature that I started out with. Many studies have shown that encouragement leads to better outcomes.

There are costs to a pessimistic vision of ourselves. A one-sided negative view often induces discouragement and a sense of despondency, and compromises community capacity building. Individuals would then see themselves as inadequate and incapable of taking charge of their lives, and they risk become disengaged.

Tom Rath and Donald Clifton's popular How Full Is your Bucket? conveys the importance of positive interactions for better work and life outcomes.

In a study on fourth- and sixth-grade students in a mathematics class, Dr Elizabeth Hurlock did an experiment on the effect of praise, or the lack of it, on the problem-solving skills of three groups of students in a class over five days.

One group was praised for good work, another criticised for poor work and a third was completely ignored. By the fifth day, the group that received praise showed a 71 per cent improvement in performance, the one criticised 19 per cent, and the one ignored a measly 5 per cent.

Similar studies have shown the importance of positive encouragements at work and at home. A top reason for people leaving their jobs is the lack of appreciation and recognition.

Likewise, while Singapore's leaders do rightly make provocative statements to perturb people to face the challenges we face as a nation, a leader also needs to evoke, inspire and encourage, so that people are willing to be more engaged and committed to working for progress.

For example, in the case of our population challenge, I have written that Singapore is well-equipped, compared with most OECD countries, to cope with population ageing.

We can afford to be more upbeat and not portray Singapore's rapidly ageing demographic in unduly negative terms. In fact, pessimism could worsen the problem. Why would Singaporeans bring new children into this world if the outlook is so dire?

A sense of hopefulness is critical for building strong communities. The tonic to the seeming loss of social and community cohesion is to focus on the strengths of and potential contributions from the people. It requires leaders to inspire the people to give of their best, by displaying authentic trust so that people will rise to the occasion, away from criticisms, exhortations or platitudes.

In particular, I advocate building our nation from inside out, using the Asset-Based Community Development approach advocated by Northwestern University professors John Kretzmann and John McKnight.

Whether developing a neighbourhood or a nation, our starting point must be the recognition that Singaporeans are special and already have sufficient strengths, gifts and talents to propel us into the future.

The underlying philosophy is that each individual has fullness and has something worthwhile to contribute. This is more likely to inspire positive action for change than an exclusive focus on needs and problems.

Seeing the glass half-full is not to deny the real problems that a community faces, but to focus energy on how each and every member has contributed, and can continue to contribute, in meaningful ways to community and economic development.

Those disadvantaged among us also have much to contribute, and should not be typecast as needy recipients. We must design schemes for them assuming they have strengths to harness.

Moreover, a weakness is usually an overdone strength. If we suppress the former, we suppress the latter too, and cannot harvest its benefits.

What is the half-full glass that I see in Singaporeans?

We are a kind people. Singaporeans readily help when asked to. We are a generous people. When there is a disaster at home or abroad, Singaporeans contribute abundantly.

We are one of the most tolerant nations in the world towards other cultures and religions. We are straightforward and honest, diligent and trustworthy.

We, the nation and its citizens, are somewhat like teenagers in our stage of development. We can be self-conscious, sensitive about the self, and engaged in an absorbing search for our identity and freedom.

We want to be better understood, and may sometimes lash out too easily. As we grow as a community, I think we deserve to love ourselves a little more, and be less hard on ourselves and on one another.

The writer is a Nominated Member of Parliament who is the chief executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre. He is also acting CEO of the Community Foundation of Singapore and chairman of the Lien Foundation.

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