Governing Singapore: A New Paradigm Towards Social and Economic Rebalancing

I would like to chime in a bit here about the Keep Singapore Clean Movement. Mr Liak Teng Lit, chairman of the Public Hygiene Council, which is spearheading the movement, had been very candid about his thoughts on how to keep Singapore clean. Before I go on, I would like to say that I appreciate his style – straight talking, says what needs to be said and says it in a hard-hitting manner. He is bold in wanting to do what needs to be done and it is impressive.

Mr Liak had suggested shaming those who litter so that they would be less likely to do so. What Mr Liak is proposing is to use a recent approach that has taken to storm, or Stomp, recently. Do you notice that people are less likely to sit on the reserved seats on the trains now? This is mainly due to the recent uploading of photographs and videos of people who had argued over reserved seats, the most common one which was the ‘Ah Lian vs sword-wielding auntie’ one. Even though it was an organic process where we learnt to ‘seemingly’ become gracious, what was at work here was this – because we are afraid of being embarrassed, we decide not to even take the seat, lest we cannot pretend to sleep fast enough and get caught out, or lest we face with another sword-wielding auntie again. To be fair, sword-wielding auntie helped many elderly people and pregnant ladies now get seats on the trains which they so truly need.

And Mr Liak knows this. If you can’t beat them, join them. Singaporeans are fearful. We are scared. Case in point – being kiasu, because we are scared to lose. And that’s why we can’t even lose that precious seat on the train or lose our precious sleep. And we are scared to lose face – the tag team duo of Singaporeans’ nightmare. And that is what Mr Liak is proposing. If Singaporeans are scared to lose face, we make them lose face. If they lose face, they won’t do something. They won’t sit on train seats and pretend to sleep. They won’t litter because their face will be plastered all over.

One question – is this the best way to do it? If you shame someone for doing something, they are more likely not to do it – in front of you, but the defiant nature within us, as an outward expression of our self-centred ego, will find a way to express it in secretive ways. If we are shamed for littering, we will find a way to litter in secret, or to get back at people for shaming us, somehow. The question then is, will people internalise the understanding why they shouldn’t litter because they should be socially aware and respectful? When people are shamed, will it result in other less desirable social behaviours? We might cure one social ill but we might create another.

See, the basis of why people litter is similar to other social occurrences – why we use tissue paper to ‘chope’ seats, why we don’t give up seats on the train, and why we drive recklessly on the roads. We have to look at this from a broad structural point of view. Just looking at a specific social ill, without understanding the broad frameworks and how people think in general, will prevent us from resolving the issue at its core and it’s roots.

Singaporeans are self-centred? Why? We’ve learnt to be self-centred, to think for ourselves and to think for our needs. We’ve learnt to focus on making money, for ourselves, and to focus on how to do things to sustain our own needs – how to step over others to do well in school, get the job we want and be promoted. It’s all about us. Where did this come from?

To be fair, humans are generally self-centred, this a by-product of living in bodies which do not confer to us a level of awareness beyond the physicality of who we are. And thus we are self-centred. But beyond human nature, is there any way else we can explain this? Yes – government intervention.

The reason why Singaporeans are self-centred is because of policies centred around economic viability. Policies in schools and the workplace are geared towards us competing with each other to strive and do better than the other. In this capitalistic framework, it’s all about every man for himself as he strive in a meritocratic society, where if he does well enough, he will get to the top. And we’ve learnt to think that I cannot do well enough if others are seemingly doing just as well. I need to do better than them, by preventing them from getting the opportunities that I will otherwise not be able to get. Our economic principles have thus guided our social policies, and influenced our social behaviours.

This is not new. We know this. But is developing the social identities of people according to economic principles the best way to do things? There is a price to pay. And this is why the government had caught themselves in a corner where people do not have the care, to care enough to understand their policies and strategic directions, and which is why the government is forced to talk about values, such as compassion and care for one another in such a big way this year.

At some point, if you create a pool of people who has only money in their minds, they will be very calculative with you. And when that happens, it’s not about trust or pride that a person has to the country and the government but what can you give to me as an individual? This is not useful when you are trying to govern a country and when you are trying to equalise the distribution of wealth. You cannot keep giving – you can if you are forever rich, but not when there are economic uncertainties.

Only now can the government see it so much more clearly.

If you can understand this, you can then understand that we cannot look at the social ills of society in silo ways. The reason why people litter and drive without a care for others is this – I care only for myself and my right of way. I care only about what I do. If I get to where I want to go or what I want to do, that’s all that matters. And that’s why we complain. And that’s why we want the government not to situate a nursing home in MY backyard. It’s all about me.

This mentality is an accentuating of the human-natured self-centredness, coupled with governmental policies geared towards bringing that out, at the expanse of a respect and care for others around you – all good if Singapore is truly just a company. But unfortunately for the government, Singapore is not.

So, if you really want Singaporeans to start taking care of their environment, to start giving up their seats and to stop respecting each other on the roads, you need to change something. You need to give them time to think about their beings. You need to let them understand that they cannot be only thinking about themselves. This means that their economic survival shouldn’t mean everything. This means that they have more time to do what they want to do, and have more time to empathise with the thoughts and actions of others.

Will the government do this? On one hand, what the government should preferably do – delink social policies from economic principles – is something that’s contrary to the long term economic growth prospects of the country. If you do not have a people who are geared towards being self-centred and singlely-focused towards making money, you will have people who are not economically committed to the financial growth.

And this is the question we’ve been asking – can we slow down growth at the expanse of respecting social needs. But this is not the right question. The question should be how can we bring out help people to grow socially, such that they would find the passion and self-belief in themselves to be committed in what they do, so that they will be committed towards contributing to the country’s growth?

What this means is this – we’ve long used an olden principle of governance where the control and evoking of fear among people is seen as more likely to create a homogenous population which will single-mindedly work towards your goals. But you cannot do this in a knowledge economy. You cannot do this when you are intertwined with the world, when the world needs not just your people, but their brains as well. You cannot do this in a new economy where people’s rights are being given new airing everywhere in the developed world. You simply cannot. And so the government knows on a broad level, it has to change.

But with this broad understanding, the government has to start understanding the implications their olden policies has on the ground. No matter how much money you throw towards encouraging Singaporeans not to litter or to give up their seats, it will go to waste if people do not internalise why they have to. The government had tried comparing being nice to their personal time. There was a campaign about how if you go on Facebook, it might take 15 minutes but if you give up your seat, it will take a few seconds – to encourage others to be socially gracious. This still panders to people’s self-centred needs and gets them to think about their own needs. Now, Mr Liak is proposing to shame people. I understand where he’s coming from because recent shaming events has brought results. But again, will people internalise their learning? If they won’t, we are only going to create other social ills.

At some point, the government has to be aware of how their past actions has current implications on social ills. The right thing for the government to do is to delink the developmental goals of our social and emotional beings away from economic principles and to give our overall social policies a careful rethink.

Of course, the government is worried about how the economy will be impacted. But some other countries – such as the Nordic countries, and perhaps, South Korea and Taiwan, have shown that a thinking population will not adversely affect the economy.

Also, the government has to remember that as much as Singapore needs to have a strong focus on the economy, there are people here – at least 3.5 million people who have a permanent connection to this country who cannot just pack and go and which the country needs to rely on, as much as they need to rely on the country.

The government has to reinvent how it wants to take the country forward, by rethinking the principles of governance and rebalancing the needs of the economy, with social well-being and not only that, but to find a new paradigm which the both can work for the benefit of each other, and not one for the other.


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