Kind, but no sense of community

SINGAPORE - While Singaporeans can be compassionate, they lack a sense of community, said charity veteran Gerard Ee.

This, in turn, has created a culture where "everything is transactional", he told MyPaper in an interview earlier this month.

Three weeks ago, a BBC News Magazine article which claimed there was a "massive compassion deficit" in Singapore sparked a bout of national soul-searching, with citizens, politicians and even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong weighing in.

Mr Ee's take on this? "We are quite shy and don't always help, but if asked we would."

But the same Singaporean who would help his neighbour in an accident would get extremely annoyed if the same neighbour washed a car and the soapy water trickled into his compound, he said.

Whenever there's a tragedy, people here always seem to respond with donations, said Mr Ee. But when it comes to working together as a community, "somehow, that is missing".

"Everyone now just wants to 'chiong' and put 'me' first," he said, using the Hokkien slang word for working or playing hard.

Mr Ee, the son of the late philanthropist Ee Peng Liang, lamented that many Singaporeans have "lost (their) senses" and developed a transactional attitude to life.

"We don't even think about having children as a natural process of life. Now it's about: 'What incentives are you giving to me?'" he said, referring to the Baby Bonus.

He said some people had objected to the Public Transport Council's approving fare increases in January, citing increasing train breakdowns. Singaporeans "have to be realistic" that, as the rail system ages, more problems will crop up, said Mr Ee, who chairs the council. "Over time, people have to be less uptight and accept that, in life, there will be glitches," he said.

One problem is that many have "left community forming to the Government, when it's up to us to form the community".

Singaporeans "need to look out for one another more", he said, likening the nation to an army platoon competing with others in a race.

The best performing platoon would not be the one that reaches the finish line first, thanks to the stronger soldiers running ahead, rather "the one that runs together, with the strong helping the weak".

It is not just people, but also charities that need to be inclusive, added Mr Ee, who used to chair the National Kidney Foundation and is the chairman of Council for Third Age and Canossian School.

Many of them are stuck in an old model where they "scale down or help only those who are poor" - a mindset that stems from Singapore's early days when charities bore most of the burden in helping the needy.

Now that there is more government help for the poor, charities need to shift towards helping all who need the services, regardless of income level, with subsidies for the poor.

"Then, the starting point is designing a programme to optimise charities and help the maximum number of people," he said.

There have been attempts at self-innovation in the charity sector, but it is not happening fast enough to meet society's needs.

"We have really lost ground over the years... the non-governmental organisations and civil societies have to get up to speed," he said.

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