Sunday 6 October 2019

First World Singapore, Third World Singaporeans

Why are Singaporeans a Third World people? Public figures react to Tommy Koh's comments
They have some way to go in civic-mindedness, consideration and kindness, say observers
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 6 Oct 2019

Professor Kishore Mahbubani recounts a recent occasion when his maid asked for time off to go to the airport.

"Why?" he asked. Her friend had broken her arm, the maid explained, and her employer had decided to pack her off. She wanted to say goodbye to her friend who was flying home.

It is behaviour like this, said the veteran diplomat, that makes Singapore a First World country with Third World people - just as Professor Tommy Koh said last week.

"I think that's a fair way of describing it," said Prof Mahbubani, who was formerly dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

He and other prominent public figures have, by and large, expressed agreement with Prof Koh's strongly-worded comments, with some feeling that his words were a wake-up call for Singaporeans.

Acknowledging that some progress has been made, many however believe that Singaporeans still have far to go when it comes to kindness, consideration and civic-mindedness. "Singaporeans should celebrate the fact that their country has gone from Third World to First World," Prof Mahbubani said. "But they should deeply reflect on what this means in terms of their moral responsibilities."

Added Singapore Management University sociologist Paulin Straughan: "We can't really have a First World country with Third World behaviour. It's the community that defines the country."


At the Singapore Bicentennial Conference, Prof Koh, who had laid out a wish list for the country's fourth-generation leaders, was asked what he had to say to ordinary Singaporeans. He did not mince his words in his response.

"Many of our people don't give a damn for the environment when they should. Many of our people are selfish and unkind," he said.

Prof Koh's remarks resonated with many, who pointed to the poor treatment of foreign workers and misuse of public property as examples that prove his point.

Last year, the problems surrounding bike-sharing hit the headlines, with many snapping pictures of shared bikes parked haphazardly in common areas, shoved into drains or even chained up for private use.

Others noted that Singaporeans are not known for being gracious drivers or clearing their trays at hawker centres, with critics lamenting attitudes that smack of entitlement or self-centredness.

For example, said 33-year-old Ahmad Farid Zakaria, many drivers intending to change lanes either signal their intentions at the very last minute - or don't signal at all.

"Sometimes, the driver with the right of way will just speed up to prevent another car from lane changing," the technical officer added.

"I hope the mentality of Singaporeans will become more developed, just like our city."


But why do Singaporeans display such ugly behaviour in the first place?

It could be that there is too much emphasis on individual success and comfort, suggested National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser. "I believe it's because we have been socialised to be more focused on 'I, me and myself', and our own family, rather than the larger community and society," he said.

In certain situations, bad behaviour could also be explained by unclear social norms, said Prof Straughan.

For example, the expectation of returning one's tray is not the same at every hawker centre. That could partially explain why so many Singaporeans still do not return their trays, she said.

On the other hand, norms such as queueing up to enter the MRT train and giving up one's seat to a person in need are now clearly established and people are more likely to abide by them.

She noted that problems of bad behaviour were also common in other densely populated cities, where the people around one another tend to turn into "faceless entities". "It's easy to criticise a faceless entity," Prof Straughan said.

Elaborating on this point, former National Environment Agency chairman Liak Teng Lit pointed out that agrarian societies tended to focus on communalism and cooperation.

This is not so in cities. "In a city, you begin to professionalise and monetise almost every role. Cleaning is a cleaner's job. I make a mess, somebody cleans it. I pay the guy to do it," said Mr Liak, who has also held top positions in various hospitals and healthcare groups.

His sentiments were echoed by financial planner Devan Tay. "This is how self-entitlement starts - when people feel that whoever pays more should have the right of way or be first in line, at the expense of all others," he said.

The 41-year-old also pointed to immigration and race-based discrimination in workplaces as issues which he feels have placed stresses on national identity.

In his speech, Prof Koh called for the Government to look into such discrimination, as well as the pay gap between top executives and rank-and-file employees.

Mr Tay said: "In order to protect themselves, Singaporeans have learnt to become more self-serving and less kind to others."


One way to look at improving the situation, suggested Nominated MP Anthea Ong, could be through the lens of the Bicentennial Experience, which explores how the country has progressed "from Singapore to Singaporean".

"We must go beyond thinking of us coming together to be Singapore in a physical or material sense," she said, adding that we need to think about what it means to be Singaporean, and how this shapes our relationship with fellow Singaporeans who are different from us. This is a personal responsibility, she said.

Ms Ong also said the answer to "What is a Singaporean?" must now come from citizens and not from the Government alone. This is new ground for both parties, one of which is used to leading how the social compact is shaped, and the other expecting this to be the case in all aspects of life, she said.

Prof Mahbubani also made the point that Singaporeans should think about what kind of society they want Singapore to be a decade from now. "If you don't inject an ethical dimension into it, it really is an empty society. It's not just about material goods," he said.

And, on a day-to-day basis, the first major step is for individuals to become "other-centred", rather than focusing on the self, said Singapore Kindness Movement general secretary William Wan.

"When we are other-centred, we become thoughtful, and start to think of others before ourselves. In turn, this will impact the way we treat others and public property positively," he said.

Mr Liak agreed with this view. "To me, being civilised means you think about the next person," he said.

"You live with other people. Before you think about your entitlements, you have obligations."

Tommy Koh laments that Singapore is a First World country with Third World citizens
Singaporeans can be more civic-minded, considerate, says Prof Koh
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 Oct 2019

Veteran diplomat Tommy Koh laments that Singapore is a First World country with Third World people. Many Singaporeans lack the civic-mindedness that citizens of an advanced country should have, he said yesterday.

“I am more critical of Singaporeans than of the Government. Many of our people don’t give a damn for the environment when they should. Many of our people are selfish and unkind. Just look at the way they drive,” Prof Koh said, drawing laughter from his audience.

He was at the Singapore Bicentennial Conference, organised by the Institute of Policy Studies.

Fellow panellist, Bloomberg News editor-in-chief John Micklethwait, pointed out that meritocracy has created its own problems, both in Singapore and other cosmopolitan capital cities. In such cities, the result is “a tribe of people who are working insanely hard to keep pushing ahead”, often pumping money and resources into their children.

“That is a very good thing for your children, but it means society gets a bit harder for others to catch up, and that is one of the dilemmas of a modern country,” he said.

He recounted how a friend had attended a dinner at which none of the guests, including Singaporeans, could understand why people in the United Kingdom had voted for Brexit. “Nobody could understand why anybody had voted for Donald Trump. Nobody could understand why the protesters in Hong Kong had anything to protest about at all,” he said.

The troubling conclusion his friend came to was that the guests, though from different parts of the world, had far more in common with one another than those living a block away from them. “He worried that his children only ran into poor people when they were delivering their Internet shopping,” he said, adding that societies must find a solution to be more inclusive.

Prof Koh called for Singapore to set a poverty line and raise workers’ pay, saying top executives are paid “New York and London wages”, while the bulk of workers continue to earn Third World wages.

He noted that companies used to practise profit-sharing, with a portion of the profit distributed to all employees at the end of the year, but this had been abandoned.

The average bus worker here earns a monthly wage of $3,600, he said. But the chief executives of the bus companies can be paid in excess of $1 million a year, with one paid between $1.75 million and $2 million a year. He asked: “Is this fair? Is running a bus company rocket science?

“There seems to be an obscene race in Singapore between our leading financial institutions and companies. The obscene race is to see who can pay the CEO more. So $7 million not enough; $10 million, maybe $20 million. Have they ever asked themselves what is the median income of the employees? What is the Gini coefficient of the company?” he asked.

Asked whether there is an alternative to capitalism, Prof Koh said the question to ask is what kind of capitalism Singapore wants.

Moral capitalism is where companies consider themselves accountable to not only shareholders but to wider society, where they care for the environment and employees, and champion gender equality and diversity, he said.

He added that he had many ideas for Singaporeans, which he will write about in his next few columns for The Straits Times.

*  Five tests that Singaporeans must pass to be a truly First World people
Singaporeans live in a First World city but have some very bad habits. To be a First World people, let's stop littering, be considerate and remember our basic manners.
By Tommy Koh, Published The Straits Times, 21 Dec 2019

At the Institute of Policy Studies' Singapore Bicentennial Conference on Oct 1, I made the comment that Singapore is a First World country with a Third World people.

What I meant was that Singapore has many first-rate aspects such as a dynamic economy and excellent quality of life, but that some of our habits as a people did not match those standards.

But on reflection, I should not have used the term, Third World. Several of my friends have pointed out to me that the peoples of some poor countries are kind, gracious and civic-minded. They are right. Indeed, I have friends from across the world, including many from less-developed or Third World countries.

In this essay, I wish to focus on what Singaporeans must do in order to qualify as a First World people. They must pass the following tests.


The first test for Singaporeans to pass is to stop littering. First World people such as the Japanese, South Koreans and Taiwanese do not litter.

In fact, they will pick up litter and dispose of it. They will also confront litterbugs and put peer pressure on them to pick up the litter.

Singapore used to be a dirty and smelly city. When the People's Action Party came to power in 1959, one of the first things it did was to campaign for a clean Singapore. Nine campaigns were held in the 1960s, three in the 1970s and four in the 1980s to mobilise public opinion and alter the behaviour of Singaporeans towards their environment.

As a result of the campaigns, Singapore has become known throughout the world as a clean city. However, in recent years, more and more Singaporeans have reverted to their old habit. When I look around Singapore today, I see trash everywhere.

Mr Liak Teng Lit, former chairman of the Public Hygiene Council (PHC), which leads the Keep Singapore Clean Movement, was right when he said that Singapore is not a clean city. It is a cleaned city. That is an observation current PHC chairman Edward D'Silva agrees with.

Mr Liak once compared Singapore unfavourably with Taipei. Singapore, with a population of five million, has 70,000 cleaners. Taipei city, with a population of about 2.7 million, has about 5,000 cleaners. In Taiwan, all the schools are cleaned by their students and not by professional cleaners.

We should consider adopting this practice.

Next April 26 is a chance for Singaporeans to clean up their own estates, as town councils have agreed to give cleaners a day off on that day. Instead, it will be residents who will have to clean up their own estates themselves.

The CleanSG Day initiative aims to show "the bulk of heartland residents in Housing and Development Board flats" what happens when litter in public areas is not cleared and to encourage them to keep their estates clean. I urge Singaporeans to embrace the initiative and to step up to keep their estates clean on that day, and to continue the practice every day after that.


The second test is to have public toilets that are as clean as those in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Singapore's public toilets used to be filthy. The situation has changed for the better because of the joint efforts of a non-governmental organisation and the Government.

There is a remarkable Singaporean called Jack Sim, who founded the Restroom Association (Singapore) and the World Toilet Organisation. With his charisma and missionary zeal, he has made a huge impact on Singapore and the world. It was due to his suggestion that Singapore managed to convince the United Nations to designate Nov 19 as World Toilet Day.

The Restroom Association (Singapore) and the National Environment Agency (NEA) have campaigned for clean public toilets in Singapore. They award three stars to public toilets that meet their minimum standard. The best public toilets, such as those at Changi Airport and Jewel, are given the maximum of six stars.

About 70 per cent of the public toilets in Singapore have been given stars. But the remaining 30 per cent, found in markets, hawker centres, coffee shops and even some restaurants, are still very Third World. A First World people should know how to keep their public toilets clean.


The third test is the test of civic-mindedness and good manners. What are some basic good habits Singaporeans have forsaken? I think many Singaporeans have forgotten how to say "Please" and "Thank you".

When a lift or train door opens, some Singaporeans rush in without waiting for those inside the lift or train to make their exit first. When riding on an escalator, some Singaporeans do not conform to the rule of standing on the left side of the escalator to allow those in a hurry to move pass them.

On the trains, some young Singaporeans choose to ignore the priority seating sign and instead sit on seats that are reserved for people with disabilities, the elderly and pregnant women. This lack of civic-mindedness is deplorable.

In the hawker centres, many Singaporeans refuse to comply with the request to deposit their trays, plates and bowls in the designated areas after their meals. Many also fail to clean up their tables after their meals.

I also object to the behaviour of some Singaporeans who talk loudly on their mobile phones in restaurants and movie theatres. Some Singaporeans even do not refrain from talking during concerts. In First World countries, people do not commit such inconsiderate behaviour.

A First World people should be active volunteers and generous philanthropists. Due to the leadership of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, we are making progress in both areas, but we could do better.


The fourth test is the test of cultural literacy. A First World people is a cultured people. A cultured people should be gracious and kind. A cultured people should treat those who serve them with courtesy and appreciation.

A cultured people should have an appreciation of culture and the arts.

They should read books and show respect for our poets and writers.

They should listen to music, visit our museums and take an interest in our history and heritage.

In recent years, many Singaporeans have shown an interest in our heritage and culture. This trend is very encouraging.


The fifth test is our attitude towards nature and the environment.

A First World people should love nature and care for the environment. They should know, for example, that climate change poses an existential threat to Singapore and the world.

I think the Singapore Government gets it but I am not sure whether the people do. Many Singaporeans do not understand that most of the energy we consume is produced by power plants using natural gas and that carbon dioxide is emitted in the process. They may not understand that the more energy they use, the more carbon dioxide they are contributing to the atmosphere.

I do not understand why so many Singaporeans insist on setting the thermostats in offices, hotels, restaurants and clubs at 18 deg C, when our comfort level is 23 deg C and the NEA has recommended that we set thermostats at 25 deg C.

Singaporeans waste a lot of energy by over-conditioning their premises. In this way, they are contributing to climate change. I wage a daily struggle with hotels, restaurants and clubs to persuade them to reset their thermostats to 23 deg C. We need the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) and the NEA to do more on energy saving and efficiency.

Singaporeans show the same irresponsible attitude towards food and water. Wastage is high. Food waste has risen 40 per cent over the past years, from 568,000 tonnes disposed of by households and the food industry in 2008 to around 809,800 tonnes in 2017.

Another distressing habit is for patrons to ask for more water at the end of a meal and for wait staff to fill the glasses to the brim. Many patrons end up taking a few sips of the water and wasting the rest. I see many tables with full glasses of water when patrons leave.

There is so much precious water wasted every day in most restaurants and hotels this way. I strongly support the campaign by the MEWR to make Singapore a zero-waste society. I urge Singapore to have the courage to ban bottled water. Bottled water is qualitatively no better than our tap water and it does a lot of harm to the environment.


At the risk of making myself the most unpopular man in Singapore, I stand by my comment that Singaporeans are not a First World people.

I hope that we will pass the five tests I have posed. Only then can we say that Singaporeans are a First World people.

Professor Tommy Koh is rector of Tembusu College, National University of Singapore.

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