SINGAPORE - Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam highlighted on Monday the important role of culture in building a good society, in a speech to more than 600 foreign service officers and members of the diplomatic corps at the annual S Rajaratnam Lecture.
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Read an excerpt of his speech here:
"Why social culture matters
"The Government is playing a more active role in redistribution. We began tilting our policies in favour of the lower income group in 2007, and have expanded support for the middle income group in the last few years.
"But the most important question - and this is the main theme of my speech - is not how much we redistribute, but how we do so.
"How do we best intervene? In particular, how do we do so in a way that preserves the social culture and norms that enable Singapore to be a fair society without reducing its vim and energy? It is in every citizen's interests, and certainly our lower income folk and elder's interests, that we retain a vibrant economy, capable of supporting important social needs.
"How do we intervene in a way that preserves a sense of pride that comes from standing on one's own feet, the desire to improve and work hard for a better living? How does Government encourage, rather than stifle, the community initiatives and civic culture that makes us a better society? And critically, how we do sustain a social and political consensus that enables us to look well ahead, to ensure that what we do today to preserve equity can be sustained financially so that a fair and just society defines our children's Singapore?
"Social culture - the values and norms, and especially the willingness of individuals to take responsibility for themselves and their families, and to support others - this social culture matters in building the good society.
"But history has also taught us how social culture is not immutable, and how it changes in response to policies themselves. Communism reshaped social values and norms, leaving a legacy that has lasted well after it collapsed as an economic system. Free-market capitalism breeds its own social ethos, as individuals look out for themselves. And the social-democratic model, which arose especially in Western Europe in response to both communism and fascism, and which sought to temper capitalism through a welfare state, has itself seen quiet and unintended changes in values and behaviour take place as initially modest social entitlements were expanded over the decades.
"Societies that were known for their industriousness have, in ways not anticipated in the original social-democratic vision, seen a steady erosion of the work ethic, increased dependence on state support, and weakening of community bonds.
"Those who count themselves as socially progressive have to be deeply concerned about social culture, not just conservatives. The invisible hand of social culture is at least as powerful as the invisible hand of the market. Policies to redistribute resources and level up the poor can hence only succeed and be sustained if they are designed to encourage a culture of personal responsibility - in the family, in education and at work - and if they promote collective responsibility among everyone, to improve the lives of others and the community we live in.
"I believe there is this space for active government policies that level up those who start with less, in a way that reinforces the values and ethos needed to sustain a dynamic and fair society, one that all citizens contribute to and can be proud of. There is space for this true progressivism.
"To illustrate, I will talk about four areas where policy has to be concerned about social culture, so that we can better our chances of sustaining a fair and inclusive society.