To get our politics right, get the people sector right

To get our politics right, get the people sector right
An aerial view of Singapore.

SINGAPORE - Two weeks ago I was in a room with people whose work is critical to Singapore's well-being.

No, they were not political leaders dealing with important national issues. Nor were they captains of industry whose million-dollar decisions might make a difference to the economy.

They were attending the annual members conference of the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), which is an umbrella body of more than 400 organisations helping the less fortunate in Singapore.

I was there as a guest speaker to tell them that, though they have not figured much in the recent soul-searching in the country, they hold the answers to many of the questions being raised.

My message that day, to put it bluntly, was this: If Singapore doesn't get its people sector right - that's the sector they are in - it won't get its politics right.

After 48 years as an independent nation, it is time we give this sector the recognition it deserves instead of treating it as a minor appendage to the public and the private sectors.

Why do I think the people sector is so important?

I believe a large part of the problem the country faces at this stage is that there isn't as strong a sense of community as there ought to be.

When a people do not believe enough that they belong to one community with an identity they are proud of, they will pull in different directions, they won't look after one another, and they will tend to behave as selfish individuals.

Sociologists have a term for this - social capital.

Singapore has a serious shortage of this, and it shows up in at least three areas - in volunteerism, donations to charities and membership of civil-society organisations.

In volunteerism - which means actively doing more to help fellow citizens - Singapore ranks so poorly according to an international survey by the World Giving Index, it is downright embarrassing.

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