Why so ungracious?
We can still revive the kampung spirit
This is one of five commentaries recently published in The Straits Times in a package about Singapore's sudden outbreak of ungraciousness. The five articles were written by: Singapore Kindness Movement general secretary William Wan, sociologist Daniel Goh, Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam, entrepreneur and blogger Adrianna Tan and Straits Times journalist Feng Zengkun.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech at the National Day Rally has certainly jump-started our national conversation. Amid the many positive things he said regarding the state of our Republic, he also served a timely reminder to all of us that certain anti-social behaviours are antithetical to nation-building, especially our unfriendly conduct towards new immigrants and foreigners.
Not surprisingly, both the traditional and social media have vigorously latched onto this last point. PM’s point is that because social media is global, he is worried that this anti-foreigner sentiment taints our reputation as a people. But for some people, their reaction is simple: “We didn’t cause this.”
Regardless of whether such feeling is right or wrong, the fact is, it exists. The current xenophobia is by and large a direct result of the Government’s immigration policies. These policies might have been vital for our long-term economic sustainability; nonetheless, they generated strong anti-foreigner sentiments, the likes of which we have not seen before.
PM rightly points out new and old Singaporeans have to find a way to live in harmony for the sake of our common future. This implies a “give and take” attitude. If there is going to be assimilation, it has to be a two-way street. It is a didacticism resulting, over time, in a synthesis of culture – an evolving national identity with fresh input from new immigrants.
After all, if the thousand or so Orang Asal who were living in 19th century Singapore were to forcefully and successfully reject the colonial British and migrant Chinese moving to the island, we would not have the Singaporean identity today. Similarly, the United States would not be the world power today if it had not embraced immigration and Australia’s vibrant cities would still be sparsely populated deserts.
Even so, we need to do more than just simply brush off xenophobia and condemn it as something intolerable in a civilised society. It is here, and it cannot be cured or wished away by a National Day Rally or a newspaper column. The first step to harmony is recognising that the feelings of the native population are legitimate, even if these are unreasonable or misplaced. They cannot help feeling the way they do because for many generations now, this has been their home. The process of change is threatening their comfort zone and is difficult for most to manage.
There is much for the Government to fine-tune by way of policymaking, but it is not the only one that needs to think about what needs to be done. As unpopular as this may sound to us, our Government’s priority is not to coddle its citizens but to create a Singapore that is sustainable for future generations.
Businesses need to reflect on hiring policies and focus on getting the right people for the job, not merely the cheapest ones. Media, traditional and social, should evaluate the impact of stories that edify or vilify communities by nationality. News media, in particular, should play its part in nation-building, but in properly educating us on what affects our lives, rather than just what sells newspapers or gets ratings.
The other signs of lack of grace in our society may be less dramatic but not any less serious. PM pointed out that these problems are not new and they are perpetrated by a minority. His concern is that we appear to be “getting less patient, less tolerant, less willing to compromise in order to get along”.
Unlike the immigration issue, we have become victims of our own successes in these cases. Our chase to be No. 1 has made it difficult for us to compromise, or to be tolerant, or to be patient. For some, superficially at least, being competitive and not being self-centred at the same time is a contradiction.
One of the symptoms of our excessive drive to be No. 1 is the way we pressure our children to succeed at a very young age. It is good to hear the PM advising us to let our children enjoy their childhood. How we teach them sets the tone of our society for the future generation, and more importance should be placed on building a strong and kind character in them than getting straight As.
Despite our anger and frustrations, despite our fears, rational or otherwise, we should not forget we are inherently a good and kind people. Our drive to be economically successful should not prevent us from doing the right thing for the right reason – whether it is giving up our seat to someone who needs it more, or helping someone up when he trips.
Kindness and graciousness are critical to our social fabric. “Do to others as you want others to do to you” is taught by all religions and is still good advice. The ability to revive the “kampung spirit” resides in each one of us.
The author is the general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement. This article was first published in The Straits Times. (Copyright 2012)
- "What lies beneath online vitriol" by Non-Constutency MP Gerald Giam
- "It's time to be gracious to ourselves" by entrepreneur and blogger Adrianna Tan
- "Anti-social behaviour a symptom, not disease" by journalist Feng Zengkun
- "Lessons in tales about life, living together" by sociologist Daniel Goh
Also on Singapolitics: "A small island can have a big heart" - about a post on graciousness by Senior Minister of State Lawrence Wong