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Is Singapore a Gracious Society?

Organizing chairman Mr. Tan Seng Peng, BBM (L), guest of  honor, Dr Fatimah Lateef, Member of Parliament, Marine Parade GRC, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen., a very good morning to all of you.

I am glad to be given the opportunity to share my view on the topic “Is Singapore a gracious society?”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines gracious as “courteous, kind and pleasant”. Webster’s New World dictionary defines it as “having and showing kindness, courtesy, and charm”. I have also asked many of my friends what comes to their mind when someone mentions “a gracious society”. Based on the feedback, I have summarized a Gracious Society is one where members of its community possess and show Kindness, Courtesy, Consideration and deliver that with Charm.  I have highlighted these 4 characteristics that should define a gracious society because I will be coming back to them.

Is Singapore a Gracious Society?  The fact that we are here to discuss the topic and to desire for it is by itself significant. Countries that are embroiled in vicious wars or suffering from widespread poverty will have little time to talk about or desire for grace. Filling the stomach, getting proper shelter, and providing a basic education will occupy everyone’s mind before deliberating on graciousness. It is only after a society has met its basic needs and achieved a certain level of economic progress and mental maturity that its members can even afford the luxury of discussing the topic of whether the society is gracious and how to achieve it. This points should not be underrated. Furthermore,  that we have chosen to discuss this topic today means we  acknowledge the “graciousness” of our society as an area of concern, and we would  devote time and energy to finding ways of making our society more “gracious”  

Coming back to the topic of “Is Singapore A Gracious Society?” I want you to visualize 3 scenarios. Scenario 1: On an MRT coach, a senior citizen walks into a coach, but no one notices her and stands up to offer her a seat. Considering the coach as a microcosm of a society, it has failed the criteria of Graciousness, namely, Kindness, Courtesy, Consideration and Charm.  Scenario 2: a senior citizen walks into an MRT coach, and the person nearest to her stands up and gestures to her to take the seat. Here it met the first 3 criteria but lacks Charm\. Scenario 3, same senior citizen walks into the coach, but this time, the person nearest to her stands up, smiles to her and leads her to the seat. This will met all the Criteria of Kindness, Courtesy, Consideration and Charm.  Now, think about the rush hour of 5-8 PM, which scenarios are more likely to take place. Probably one 1 or maybe 2, agreed?  I have brought up these scenarios to drive at 2 points:  1) In a fast-paced and competitive society like Singapore we will inevitably sacrifice some level of grace in our day-to-day behaviors and conduct. This happens to all big cities, be it New York, Tokyo, Shanghai and Mumbai. 2) More importantly, because we are a fast-paced and competitive society, it is incumbent upon us to be mindful of the needs to watch our conduct and behaviors to act more graciously.  Under time and work pressure we often inadvertently sacrifice grace for efficiency therefore we have to make an extra and conscious effort to retain graciousness . Is it little wonder that in Singapore we have constant reminders for us to be gracious? There are posters telling us to be courteous, there are signboards reminding us to lower our voice while studying in the library.

This leads to my next points of the merits of these constant reminders and community campaigns and its relevance to graciousness. Some Singaporeans are irritated by this constant reminders and campaign and protest “why can’t you leave us alone” and “we will decide” and “we will know what is good for us”. Unfortunately we can’t escape from the fact that human nature is such that we need incentives and disincentives to entice us to behave in a certain way. Singapore has been mocked as a “Fine Society” because we are fined for littering, fined for smoking in certain public places and etc. Now, Singaporeans in general have already developed a culture of cleanliness, discipline and law abiding . I wonder if we would have internalized these set of behaviors if we had been left alone to decide do whatever we want to do. Some of us here who are old enough like me would remember that in the past there was always a spittoon underneath coffee tables. Customers would kick out the spittoon, spit into it, and then kick it back in. When the government prohibited spittoons in public eating places, there was a huge protest that that it was our habit and the government had no right to disallow us to spit. But in this day and age, would anyone of you walk into a coffee shop or restaurant with spittoon underneath the dining tables? How often do you see people spitting on the street? Over time we have internalized a set of neat and considerate behaviors which make our living environment more amiable.  A clean environment is an essential part of a gracious society.

Singaporeans have an impressive record in responding generously to calls for charity, an act of graciousness.  Talking to my friends, many said that Graciousness must come from the heart. I want to add that it must be done with the mind as well. Charity as a gracious act would be at its best if it is done with both heart and mind. When Tsunami hit Indonesia, many countries and their people donated generously to help our neighbors. The Singapore government very quickly realized that logistics in delivering the aids to the needed would be a bottleneck and quickly set up a helipad and constructed a new wharf to help receiving and delivering aids timely to the needed. We were vindicated and our effort appreciated as after one year some of the donated goods were still stuck in Jakarta airport. (There would have been more.) Our guest of honor Dr Fatimah co-led the visit to Myanmar during the recent hurricane to understand firsthand how we could provide effective assistance to the needy is another example of a gracious act with both mind and heart.

In the course of our daily life, we will continue to encounter ungracious behaviors. There would be examples of queue cutting, road rage, and indiscriminate littering. At the end of the day, no society can claim to be perfectly gracious. But as long as our society condemns these ungracious behaviors and we Singaporean are making a continuous and conscious effort to bring about a more amiable and wholesome lifestyle for ourselves and for those around us, we have taken a giant step towards achieving this goal of “Gracious Society”. Until we are there, let’s enjoy the journey of making Singapore a gracious society instead of getting too hung-up on the destination. Thank you.
 
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