Like everyone else during these semi-lockdown days, I paused recently to ask myself what is it about Singapore that attracted me when I first came to live here in 1979, and does it still rate high on the list of reasons that I want to stay. ‘Quality of life’ is an obvious catch-all answer. Order and system, an equally good reason. And I could go on to cite many other attributes such as greenness, kindness of the people, challenging opportunity without debilitating competitive battle – in fact there are lots of valid and lasting answers to the question.
But if I have to choose one supreme reason, other than the obvious one of having a Singaporean wife, it would be politeness. This may surprise some people. Singaporeans do not often get congratulated for their politeness. They are sometimes seen as pushy. Well, they had to be to transform what they were left at independence in 1965 into what they have today. You cannot achieve that by dawdling. I’ve even heard them referred to as greedy. I prefer to call it aspirational. Yes, they have ambitions for themselves and for their country and thank goodness for that. Lack of aspiration holds back so many in their careers, wherever they are.
So what is this politeness I relish so much? It is decent behaviour towards others, understanding their sensitivities and making communication and engagement smoother than it might otherwise be. The United States is often quoted as the country of aspirations. My great grandparents went there from Germany over 100 years ago with the intention of building their dreams – and did so, magnificently. But America has become divided and rough in the process. It seems to believe that if competition is good, excessive competition will be extra good. Unfortunately, not true.
Societies, like individuals, progress and develop. No one place can remain as it is for long. New generations are taught, create, find and adopt different standards. They should not be expected to learn and accept everything they are taught as gospel for life. They have the urge to invent, too. And, yes, there is a big ‘BUT’ to that statement. The fundamentals of civilisation were embodied in several creeds, beliefs and philosophies. Some of those were substitutes for scientific knowledge that we lacked then but have – and are increasingly acquiring – now.
‘Treating other people decently’ is a good summary of the fundamentals. It has to be defined more clearly than that for many people – at least, we think it does. So we have laws, monumental libraries of them, mounting like a staircase to heaven. Only heaven is not at the top of a law pile. Only clouds are, and not the storage kind either. Muddle, confusion and misunderstanding are found at the crest of a legal hill, when the only relevant question is What treats others decently?
Human beings have many contradictions. Thank God they do. How boring would be our existence if everything was totally, robotically logical. So we make wrong decisions, treat others badly at times, learn – or not – from our mistakes and continue the search for what we know we can never totally achieve but what we aim to get closer to. As long as we know the destination, and work cheerfully and diligently on the journey we are doing our best.
We do not want a perfect world, we want an improving one. In many ways we see that happening. We are learning at an unprecedented rate who we are and how we work. We are measuring everything we can, as well as a few things we can’t. Measurement is our best guide to progress and to what we still need to discover. But are we forgetting the fundamentals of treating others decently? If we do, we will lose our direction and our species. We very nearly lost both over our treatment of the climate, which is just a cipher for treatment of others.
Does Singapore fulfil all these lofty aspirations? Of course not. Nowhere does. But it still regards politeness as a fundamental worth preserving. It still believes that – however pragmatically it must sometimes be applied – treatment of others is at the core of its values.
Long may its laws, customs and practices keep in sight this simple rule of care.
And may that always be manifest by its perseverance with politeness.