Monday 9 December 2013

The perils of selective solidarity

Too much emphasis on common interests, ties can breed intolerance of those outside the circle
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Sunday Times, 8 Dec 2013

When I first saw the photo of the man reportedly caught snatching about $200 from a fishmonger's counter in Chong Pang, my initial reaction was one of approval.

Good that Singaporeans are stepping up to fight crime, I thought. According to the Chinese evening daily Shin Min Daily News, the fishmonger's shouts attracted other stall-holders and passers-by. The alleged thief was caught; he struggled, but was overpowered and restrained with cable ties.

But as I looked at the photo of the bare-bodied man on the floor, with his hands and feet tied together, I had another thought: He must have been desperate to try to snatch money in broad daylight.

Many others felt similarly. The photo and article posted on The Straits Times Facebook page had over 284,000 views as of Friday afternoon. They drew 642 comments and had 602 shares.

One commenter wrote: "Tragic but may have no choice if person was violent. He will have no sympathy from his fellow countrymen too. However, too many cable ties but glad Singaporeans help to avert crime." It got just three "likes" as of Friday afternoon.

Another comment: "Too cruel. Feet and hands turning purple." 180 "likes".

Another comment: "He just probably got no money to buy food that's why he resorted to stealing. Just give him some food to fill his stomach. why must tie him up like this." This got 103 "likes".

Reading the views was heartening and got me thinking that Singaporeans are moving beyond a sense of solidarity only with their kin, to developing a sense of solidarity with their fellow men, women and children.

After all, it was natural for the market stall-holders to come to the help of the fishmonger. Common interests and friendship ties bind them. Passers-by getting involved is a sign that Singaporeans are overcoming their bystander reticence, and are more willing to step forward. Such communal initiative is welcome.

Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam spoke about the importance of social culture - the ethos and values of a society. His main point was that the Government's redistributive efforts and social policies must support, not erode or replace, personal self-reliance and community initiative.

At its core, his message was about the importance of thinking about and actively supporting the kind of culture and values we all want for Singapore, so that it continues to be both successful and pleasant to live in.

This is vital as Singapore expands its social safety nets. As Forum Page letter writer Toh Cheng Seong put it pithily, Singapore must avoid the emerging "cancer" of self-entitlement and "half-baked egalitarianism across all strata of our society".

But to my mind, one social "cancer" at risk of taking root is selective solidarity.

Solidarity is a good thing, but too much of a narrow kind becomes invidious. Selective solidarity is based on ties of kinship and friendship. Singaporeans have always been strong in this respect. Social policies promote and are based on such kinship solidarity. Families are encouraged to pool savings and apply together for public housing so they can live with, or near, each other.

Family members can use Medisave funds for each other's hospitalisation expenses. Means-tested subsidies are based on household, not individual, income.

But while kinship solidarity is good, too much emphasis on it can turn us all into xenophobes of some kind who care only about our own immediate family, our own kin or people with whom we share common interests (fellow market stall-holders).

Depending on the situation and our own value system, such selective kinship solidarity can breed intolerance of others outside our narrow circles. So the Tan family may look out for each other, but only by keeping out, or keeping down, the Lims. Singles may say "Yes" to insurance for long-term care because they benefit from it when old and alone, but "No" to insurance that covers babies with health defects because they don't have any children.

And we may care about fellow Singaporeans if the threat is from a foreigner but have no compunction about exploiting a fellow citizen if it gives our own child or friend a leg up.

I agree with Mr Tharman that self-reliance is a key virtue for Singaporeans. But too much stress on the self and family can strain solidarity. I would like Singapore to be a society where we feel solidarity based on the ties of compassion and common humanity, not just those of kinship.

This requires us to view each other less as competitors for the spoils of life (a place in childcare or primary school, top scores in exams, a good job, a Housing Board flat) and more as fellow citizens who all deserve a fair shot.

Life would then be less of a zero-sum game and more of an experience of the commons: If I take too much of something today, someone else may suffer, if not today, perhaps tomorrow.

Then we will see that if my property value rises today, I may benefit, but young people will be priced out of a home. We will see that if this generation of asset-rich retirees who have already benefited from an exponential rise in the value of their assets clamour for more subsidies, tomorrow's children will suffer. The latter will start off life having to pay high prices for assets that may at best appreciate modestly and at worst lose their real value.

Conversely, a world view of genuine, not selective, solidarity means we would be able to celebrate each other's success without envy or competitive pressure. There would be no need to force schools and parents to hide top scores (and scorers) in the Primary School Leaving Examination. Top students should stand up in assembly to be lauded for their achievements, perhaps with others who beat the odds to do well, in the same way the sprinter and gymnast get their applause on Sports Day, and the artist gets recognition when her work of art is exhibited at the school's Open House.

If policies are meant to encourage the right culture, then clearly the decision to keep mum on top PSLE scores is the wrong one. Government policy must not pander to the tall poppy syndrome or spur a false modesty. Government policy and good parenting must instil in our young pride in achievement so that success is celebrated, unabashedly, in many different fields beyond the academic.

When the rich can feel empathy for a down-and-out man who resorts to stealing, and when parents of kids who struggle in school can feel pleasure at the success of other people's children, then we would begin to have a society based on genuine solidarity, where we understand that, in the end, there is no Them and Us; there's just Us.

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