By Li Xueying
Environmental consciousness among Singaporeans will come about very quickly when they realise how they will be in trouble when changes in the climate take place.
But attaining a gracious society will take more time, said Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew on Monday at a dialogue marking the 40th anniversary of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas).
In fact, he believes it will not happen in his lifetime.
"I will not see it, maybe you will live long enough to see it; I wish you well," he told 48-year-old economics academic Euston Quah to laughter from the audience of diplomats, academics and government leaders.
Dr Quah had asked a question about Singapore's progress in terms of social graces and environmental consciousness just as the country succeeds economically.
The issue he raised was among a host of subjects brought up by the audience, from the situation in Myanmar to the rise of China and India.
In his reply, Mr Lee said a gracious society will not happen so fast. "I think it will take more time to develop and mature culturally as a people."
Even the British, he said, were "sitting at a very high level over an empire for nearly 150 years before they developed their culture and then being invaded by football hooligans and foreigners who are now joining them and coarsening their society".
"So it's very difficult to get a rough society onto a cultivated plane and it's very easy to bring it down," he concluded.
Environmental consciousness, on the other hand, will come very quickly "when something happens and they say, you do that, your whole environment changes and you are in trouble".
On the other hand, the idea of a gracious society - "where people are considerate to one another, where you don't make more noise to upset your neighbour than you need to, where you tell the other motorist, please have the right of way" - was "harder to come by", said Mr Lee.
"It will take time, but I hope it will come with cultivated living over a long period of time."
Mr Lee recalled how, 45 years ago, Singaporeans wanted to take their chickens with them when they were resettled from kampungs into high-rise flats.
"So it took some time to get them adjusted. A more cultivated way of life takes a very long time," he said.