This article was first published in The Straits Times (September 2012), and is republished in ST's Singapolitics here. It was published with the title, "Lessons in tales about life, living together", as one of five commentaries on Prime Minister Lee's National Day Rally Speech comments on Singaporeans becoming more ungracious.
Once in a while, society will launch itself into a moral panic, so as to know that it is actually doing fine, that its norms and values are still intact.
Usually, this happens when society experiences a severe economic or political crisis, or a disaster that shakes the reassurance out of its grinding everyday life.
It would seem Singapore is in the throes of a moral panic.
Last Sunday, just as soon as the Prime Minister proudly praised us all for having built a big-hearted harmonious society, he poured out a torrent of troubling signs. Singaporeans are becoming ugly and selfish, losing our kampung spirit, growing intolerant of both each other and immigrants alike.
If an acronym could sum up the examples the Prime Minister gave, it would be “Nimby” – not park in the public road that is my backyard, not put your potted plants in the common corridor that is my backyard, not put your nursing home in the open field that is my backyard, not behave in a foreign manner while in the country that is my backyard. The Prime Minister admonishes. We need to be more gracious lest we become a small-minded people on a small island.
I believe that there is always scope for us, individually and collectively, to improve on our graciousness, and the Prime Minister has quite succinctly described the maxim by which we should try to live our social life.
However, I am quite concerned about the warning bells of moral panic that the Prime Minister has rung.
Ungraciousness has always existed in different forms. To try to wipe it out is simply utopian.
Ironically, the incidents the Prime Minister cited evoked some nostalgic memories I have of Nimby quarrels I witnessed growing up – my grandma quarrelling with neighbours over durians dropped between their kampung houses; my nanny with neighbours over the use of the lift at my HDB block that did not stop on every floor; my dad with our upstairs neighbour in the condominium about dripping air-con fluids, over which they end up as good friends.
I have been taking public transport for over 30 years. When I was a young schoolboy, I took pride in giving up my bus seat to senior citizens, as we were taught to, in civic education. People around me used to treat this with surprise and exception. They would explain it away. “Oh, he is from a good school and a Catholic school.” “Ah, he is young and idealistic, wait until he grows up.”
But today, as I travel by train between Punggol and Kent Ridge, it is the other way round. Stares may be given and requests made sometimes by daring citizens, to get young people to give up their seats to senior citizens or to give up reserved seats. I have seen foreigners, speaking in unfamiliar tongues, give up their seats to Singaporeans who then respond appreciatively in Singlish, and vice versa.
No doubt there are little annoyances, for example, people brushing against me in the rush for trains or forgetting to stand to the left on escalators. I am guilty of it myself when I forget, in my work-burdened daze, to be gracious.
Perhaps the Prime Minister is pre-empting an anti-foreigner moral panic that is threatening because of looming economic or political crisis. Perhaps he is alerting us to a moral panic so that we would look hard at ourselves, to set the moral tone for the national conversation.
Whatever it is, moral panics in history are seldom pretty. They often result in witch-hunts and blame games that undermine social trust and encourage fear, thus producing the conditions for further moral panics.
It is the Prime Minister's place and duty to warn us of our shortcomings. While we should take the warnings seriously, we should also beware of getting into a frenzy either way, panicking about the moral decay of our society or panicking about foreigners undermining our moral foundations.
I do not think that Singaporeans are losing their graciousness, nor are immigrants tearing our social fabric to shreds. Let’s not flog ourselves silly over our imperfections or pick on those of our guests.
I prefer to look at reports of ugly incidents of what seems to be Nimby not as evidence of a trend, but instead as stories we are telling ourselves as a society.
They are fables written, shared and discussed through social media, just like how the storytellers of old would go viral with their morality tales, enrapturing audiences squatting in the candlelight, learning about life and how to live together.
Why tell these social fables of animal spirits, of people fighting over seats, parking lots, and flowerpots now? So that we can sort through this mess together and figure out how to manage this shared backyard that is our neighbourhood, town, city, and country.
the persistently political pine stays green in the winter of the patriarch ... while, one by one, the gentlemen fall prey to the corruption of power and patronage
s/pores new directions in singapore studies