Keeping the Singapore Dream alive

Keeping the Singapore Dream alive

IN THE last two weeks, the unprecedented and spontaneous outpouring of grief and gratitude at the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew has been a national catharsis. We have learnt that even in his passing, Mr Lee's final contribution was to bring all of us together in ways never done before, to realise that in our grieving, we rediscover our common identity.

But is it possible to more specifically define our identity, besides knowing that we have one? I jotted down a few sentences and asked some friends to identify the country which I described as follows:

We are an immigrant society, and therefore persistence and resilience are the hallmarks of our identity. We've been open to the world, but in recent years have turned more inwards and even somewhat hostile towards foreigners. We take pride in our egalitarian ethos, even though income inequality is worsening.

We squabble among ourselves, but to foreigners we close ranks. We have a can-do attitude which can be perceived as being arrogantly proud of our exceptionalism. We tout our meritocracy as a core value even though it is starting to fray. Above all, we love to celebrate ourselves and our achievements, and how the best is yet to be.

Who are we?

THE Singaporeans I asked unanimously said, of course that's us, Singaporeans.

Interestingly, another group I asked replied: Of course, you're describing our USA and the values behind our American Dream.

So here you have two countries, worlds apart almost in every possible way, from population and geographic size to historical origins; from political and social culture to current and future challenges; and yet the American Dream and the Singapore Dream are almost interchangeable.

Upon reflection, that is not so strange. After all, once you strip a dream of its specific cultural context, many societies aspire to largely the same things in life.

The common element between the American and Singapore dreams is simply that both societies are audacious, brash and young enough to believe that whoever you are, and wherever you come from, this is your land of opportunity. This is where you can achieve your personal and family dreams, and pursue a life of meaning and purpose.

But this is more the immigrant's dream of Singapore than the Singaporean's dream, simply because many citizens do not now feel that they can achieve anything if only they just tried. Yet it is crucial to Singapore's continuing survival and well-being to maintain, nurture and polish this dream, both in terms of keeping its borders open to the outside world, as well as maintaining social mobility within.

So, in tackling this final lecture, I want to ask a simple question: How do we maintain the Singapore Dream as a meaningful, purposeful aspiration for all Singaporeans for the next 50 years? What are the most critical things we must do to overcome future or already emerging challenges to this dream?

After some deliberation, I've consolidated the various challenges and must-dos into three major, overarching tasks. They are:

First, to strengthen the cohesive diversity which underpins our identity, against a climate of increasingly narrow rigidity;

Second, to improve social mobility and a culture of egalitarianism, in the midst of a fraying meritocracy and worsening income inequality; and

Third, to build a collaborative governance style and an information-rich civil society.

Let me now deal with each of these.

Cohesive diversity

FIRST, strengthening cohesive diversity. Our immigrant origins have created mechanisms for harmonious racial and religious cohabitation, but the traditional fault lines, which were successfully held together, are facing unfamiliar, non-traditional pressures which may result in new cracks.

There is increasingly vocal social diversity from people of different LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) affiliations, or alternative family norms such as single or unmarried parents, or same-sex couples. In addition, there is intra-ethnic diversity from immigrants or foreign workers who may belong to the same race as defined by our traditional CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) categories - but hardly identify or socialise with each other. For example, new residents from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong all form their own cliques which also largely exclude Chinese Singaporeans.

The same is true or even more fragmented for South Asians, whether foreign workers or new citizens.

At another level, the HDB heartland world-view, with its kopitiam and roti-prata stalls, is being assailed by the slick and slightly intimidating globalisation represented by Marina Bay Sands and the billionaires' cove in Sentosa. In other words, race and class and a consensus on social issues are becoming increasingly complex and intertwined in Singapore.

The average Singaporean is anxious and confused by this onslaught of what is becoming a divisive diversity.

That anxiety - what social psychologists call cognitive dissonance when reality increasingly diverges from our expectations - arises when the traditional racial lens of CMIO or the traditional norms of heterosexual orientation no longer seem adequate to describe a rapidly changing Singapore society.

One way to resolve cognitive dissonance is to abandon our stereotyped presumptions and expectations and simply treat people as individuals and not categories. We should consciously blur or even abolish the CMIO model's simplistically rigid racial categories, and welcome the multiple identities and more complex sub-ethnicities which are increasingly the real Singapore of today.

The CMIO model, created out of necessity in the aftermath of a racially charged road to independence, has helped to create common ground between those of different tongues and dialects, but it also has the effect of oversimplifying the diversity that is our social mix.

How we define people often shapes how they behave, so the less we pigeonhole people, the more chances we have for a cohesive diversity. Just thinking about a post-CMIO model already seeds a future paradigm shift.

Under a post-CMIO model, people will have more time and space to replace old stereotypes with more nuanced complexities, reflected in more varieties of socio-ethnic identities. This is a strategic imperative not just for enriching the Singapore identity, but also to continually attract the world's best talent and make this island, in the words of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, "the best city to live, work and play".

Another way to strengthen cohesive diversity is for the majority race in Singapore to consciously overcome what one insightful non-Chinese blogger has called the mindset of Chinese Privilege, which is the attitude of a majority race towards minorities where it does not see itself as racist but acts on assumptions which are based on privileges which only it can have as the majority race. It can manifest itself in small ways, such as speaking in the majority-race language even when foreigners are part of the gathering, or making jokes which are racial slurs but justifying them because they are light-hearted and not malicious.

A final building block for cohesive diversity is recognition of the marginalised people whom my research assistant Andrew Yeo compared to composer Claude Debussy's famous dictum that "music is the space between the notes", meaning that there is equal importance in what is unseen or unheard.

It is the voices of the foreign worker, the single mum, and the many other silent spaces between our national notes which make our Singapore song complete and more interesting.

Even though they are neither citizens nor permanent residents, the 1.5 million "permanently transient" semi-skilled foreign workers and domestic helpers cannot be an invisible community overlaying the visible Singapore, with uneasy points of contact which can become flashpoints.

A society measured by the height of its skyscrapers and size of its shopping malls is, in my view, the ultimate Dubai-style dystopia; far better that we measure ourselves by how we treat the marginalised and voiceless in our midst.

As the cacophony of strident voices increases in the future and the people in the silent spaces between the notes struggle to even make a small sound, we should not be worried, and should perhaps even pause to listen.

It is just a new Singapore song in the making, not commissioned for a famous performer to sing, but created by the people themselves, from the ground up.

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