Monday 31 December 2012

Moving from value to values

Singapore is seeing a subtle shift from an almost exclusive focus on economics to softer social values
By Willie Cheng, Published The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2012

WHICH subject most engaged Singaporeans in 2012?

Typical answers to such a question could range from the sex scandals to happiness and other topics in Our Singapore Conversation.

I would suggest that underlying the keen discussions on many of these topics is a subtle change, perhaps the beginnings of a tectonic shift, in our value system.

From value to values

CERTAINLY, there is a palpable move from an almost exclusive focus on (hard economic) value to (softer social) values.

In a previous article, I argued that we, as a nation and a society, had been driven largely by economic imperatives. In the words of Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University, who made this observation of many developed countries: "We have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society, (where) everything is up for sale and where market values govern every sphere of life."

And the consequences of our market society have been increasing inequality and the devaluation of social values.

However, there has been pushback against widespread marketisation and its effects, particularly in this last year. For example, there were calls for a national happiness index, not just gross domestic product, as a measure of progress. Educational reforms to remove school banding and reduce PSLE stress and other forms of excessive competition (competition being a core market-based trait) also began in earnest.

One reason for this pushback may be the result of the significant economic progress we have made. In Abraham Maslow's theory of human motivation, people naturally first seek to fulfil their basic physiological needs, then quickly progress to fulfil higher-order needs such as aesthetic needs and self-actualisation.

As a country, we have largely met our basic economic needs. Most of us have our stomachs filled and a roof over our heads. And in looking over the horizon, some citizens find that there are good role models such as the Nordic economies where there are equitable distribution of income, work-life balance, and sustainable development.

While heeding the call, including from within his own party, to move away from "growth at all costs", Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong nevertheless defended the need for some growth. "Without growth," he said, "we have no chance of improving our collective well-being." Hence, the current governmental policy focus is on "inclusive growth" and achieving a better balance between growth and equity.

To be sure, economics and bread-and-butter issues will remain important in Singapore, but going forward, it looks like there will be greater consideration in favour of social values by the Government and the broader population.

A classic value-versus-values decision, for example, was that regarding the casinos. In 2005, when the decision was made to build two casinos, clearly value trumped values. While the economic payoff did come, we have had the occasional, and likely perennial, debate over the social costs of gambling and the most appropriate measures to contain them.

I would hazard to say that if we are confronted with such a decision today, or say, a decision for a third casino licence, it will likely not be the same decision.

What values?

YET, it is not a straightforward case of national and societal decision-making being weighted in favour of social values versus economic value.

A further question is: Which (social) values, really? After all, some values can be poles apart from each other.

Witness three recent situations that hit the headlines and the diametrically opposite reactions (reflecting diametrically opposing values) to each.

The first was when Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer resigned over an extramarital affair. The public reaction appears to be divided between those who considered it was right and just for him to resign, and those who viewed the situation as "a private indiscretion" that is separate from and irrelevant to political office.

The second situation was the two-day strike by bus drivers from China. On the one hand, there was public outrage and swift action by the employer and the authorities against what was deemed an "illegal strike" because the workers did not give the requisite 14 days' notice of the intention to stop work in "an essential service".

On the other hand, there was an outpouring of sympathy from other quarters for the low-income foreign workers' grievances over pay and living conditions, and the need to treat them fairly.

The third situation was the scrapping of Mandarin announcements at MRT stations. Some xenophobic commuters cheered at not having to put up with what they felt was unnecessary pandering to the increasing numbers of arrivals from the mainland. Others felt that to be fair, there should be announcements in all four official languages.

Indeed, we have always lived in a heterogeneous society. However, it seems that changing demographics and modern, perhaps more crowded, living may be increasing stress levels and the social divide.

Singaporean society has long been viewed as a largely conservative one. The conservative majority lament at what they see as the erosion of the family unit and moral values. They wring their hands at increasing permissiveness, infidelity and divorces, and declining marriage and birth rates.

However, there is a growing and more vocal liberal portion of the populace that is seeking more space, alternative lifestyles and the right to choose what they can do and cannot do.

Add to this the issue of different races and religions, as well as the recent influx of foreigners. This makes for a big mix of different value systems and cultures that need to be reconciled and integrated.

Leading values

AMID this tussle over values, there is an opportunity for political and civic leaders to take the high ground and define the kind of values that can take us harmoniously forward.

In 1988, then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong envisioned a set of principles for Singaporeans to live by. These came to be called "Singapore's Shared Values", and they are:
- Nation before community and society above self;
- Family as the basic unit of society;
- Community support and respect for the individual;
- Consensus, not conflict; and
- Racial and religious harmony.
While these core values were never outrightly rejected by Singaporeans, somehow they never gained traction, nor are they much mentioned these days. Analysts argue that such values cannot be "mandated and managed from the top". Values have to come from citizens, and cannot be achieved with just sloganeering.

One common value

YET, we all grow up with values. Some were taught to us. Some may be intrinsic in us as human beings.

A good starting point would be to find one common value that can be reinforced and built upon for the greater good. One such value might be what is known as the Golden Rule or the Ethic of Reciprocity: Treat others in the way in which you would like to be treated. This is a rule that can be found in almost every faith and religion. In some cases, it is stated as the obverse, for example: Do not do unto others as you would not others do unto you.

And for those who are not religious, this rule can also be explained from the perspective of philosophy (seeing ourselves in others), psychology (empathy for others) or sociology (treating others as fellow human beings).

The beauty of this rule is that everyone knows it. We can all relate to it. It actually resonates with our fundamental (selfish) human nature, even if the end result is that it emphasises selflessness, empathy and community.

In other words, it is a simple and universal value. At the same time, it can be transformational.

Imagine if we had collectively applied the Golden Rule in making choices in the following cases.

First is the weekly day off for foreign domestic helpers. It would not have needed 10 years of campaigning by the likes of Transient Workers Count Too and the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics for such a law to be passed.

How many of us want to work seven days a week without rest? And now that the law will be effective on Jan 1 next year, none of us should seek to take advantage of the monetary loophole in the law to continue to deprive domestic helpers of their weekly day off.

Second is the Nimby (not in my backyard) syndrome. Instead of protesting against a foreign workers' dormitory or nursing home being built in our neighbourhoods, we would be welcoming and looking at the benefits of such a facility, that is, we should be thinking how Gimby (good in my backyard) it would be.

Third is the adultery prevalent in the many sex scandals we seem to be reading about this year. If we do not wish for our spouses to cheat on us, then we should not be doing it to them.

The list can go on. But with just these three examples, we can see how the world is already a much better place.

Happy New Year.

The writer is a former managing partner at management and technology consulting company Accenture. He sits on the boards of several commercial and non-profit organisations, and is the author of Doing Good Well.

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