Monday, 14 January 2013

Resilience: Do we have what it takes?

Being self-reliant is best protection against possibility of a future weak govt in S'pore
By Han Fook Kwang, The Sunday Times, 13 Jan 2013

I didn't think I would get so much reaction from readers when I wrote about what impressed me on a recent trip to Taipei and contrasted it with Singapore.

The e-mail that arrived showed the interest among Singaporeans in the softer aspect of our development which has to do with how civic-minded and gracious we are as a people.

Others have noticed this too. It was reported last October that when young Singaporeans discussed their vision of the country, they focused on issues such as kindness, graciousness and compassion.

Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong, a member of the panel overseeing the national conversation, was quoted as saying: "There is something that people do feel in wanting a kinder society, a more gracious society."

This is a good sign because Singapore's development so far has been one-sided, with resources and energies devoted to economic growth. It was understandable when the country faced serious unemployment and an uncertain economic future.

But more now want to see a more rounded Singapore that is gracious, compassionate, inclusive and civic-minded. There is one other aspect of our development that troubles many, and I can do no better than quote this extract from a reader's e-mail:

"In one of my visits to Taiwan for an exhibition in 2010, I chanced upon a stand which exhibited an interesting piece of machinery. When I began asking questions, the part-time girl apologised that she knew little, as she was a student earning some pocket money, and that the boss was out for lunch.

"I mentioned that I intended to visit Taichung the next day, and would like to visit the factory. She promptly passed me a brochure, called the boss on her mobile, then called the factory, and wrote down their mobile contacts for me before passing her mobile (to me) for me to talk with her boss. When I asked about getting to Taichung, she fished out an old crumpled train schedule from her purse, and wrote down the train station's name in Chinese.

"When I arrived in Taichung, it got better. The cab driver from the station had to ask for directions along the way, but everyone was very helpful and polite.

"At the factory, I was hosted by a 22-year-old Miss Kao who could answer almost all my questions. She was attentive and professional and very enthusiastic. Besides making tea for me personally, she also offered to order a packed lunch, in case I was hungry!

"She then escorted me out of her factory to the cab which she had earlier booked for me.

"This will never happen in Singapore! The typical response from a 22-year-old administrative assistant would be 'I dunno'!"

Obviously we shouldn't over-generalise, and I'm sure you will find many Singaporeans who will go out of their way to help others.

But I've also heard enough from many about how poorly we compare as a people in exercising initiative and being active citizens contributing to the well-being of society.

In my last piece I attributed this to a weaker sense of community than in Japan or Taiwan. Several readers have suggested it has to do with how parents bring up their children, and the education children receive in schools.

That same reader said a friend of his attributed it to the lack of Confucian ethics, which schools and parents should inculcate, and lamented: "But how, when even the parents are ignorant, and congratulate themselves that we are a First World society?"

The underlying sentiment is that life has been too good here and there isn't the same drive to improve ourselves and our social habits. A large part of that good life has been delivered by a government intent on solving as many of the challenges facing Singaporeans as possible and to be involved in all aspects of life here.

But when government is domineering, the people tend to shrink back and develop reflexes that discourage initiative and active participation in public life. In contrast, when government is weaker, the people have to compensate and become more pro-active and vigorous.

I have no scientific proof of this inverse relationship between strong government and weak people but examples elsewhere support this. The Hong Kong and Taiwanese administrations are generally perceived as politically weak but their citizens are known for their enterprising spirit, civic-mindedness and the vigour with which they pursue causes they believe in.

Japan and Israel have people renowned for resilience and the ability to bounce back repeatedly, one from natural disasters, the other from man-made wars. Neither has a government known for unity and strength.

Singapore has been fortunate in its formative years to have had strong government acknowledged to have played a critical role in the country's success. But there is no god-given rule that government will continue to be dominant and strong here.

In fact, it might be almost self-evident that government here will never be as strong as it used to be because that was a unique period in the country's history. The changed circumstances today, with a more educated and vocal population who want more competitive politics, will accelerate the transition to a more normal form of government found in other democracies.

Already there are some who think the present government is showing signs of this by being unduly populist in its response to public pressure on some issues.

As this transition takes place, Singaporeans had better develop the instincts of a strong, resilient people.

How to develop these reflexes?

Education and the values of the people are obviously important. But to develop the instincts to be self-reliant, Singaporeans must also have enough practice doing so.

That means strong civic action, and having more Singaporeans participate more actively in issues that matter to them.

This has to be a sustained effort, by enough people who believe strongly in their causes, overcoming difficulties along the way, and learning from setbacks that will invariably occur.

Then, over time, a stronger sense of community will develop, by a people who have the capacity to solve their own problems without waiting for someone to start first.

It's the best insurance against the possibility of a future weak government in Singapore.

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