'No bowing, scraping'

SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on the importance of Singapore remaining an open, egalitarian society:

(We need) to uphold an ethos of openness and informality in our society. What do I mean?

We have to be an open, egalitarian society. You must not have rigid hierarchies or class distinctions. People must be able to interact comfortably up and down the social ladder; comfortably and self-confidently, without obsequious scraping and bowing.

You may be the prime minister, you may be a cleaner, you may be a teacher, you may be the student's parent. We are all Singaporeans together, we treat each other with respect. There is an informality, an easy camaraderie. You don't bow deeply. You don't touch your forehead. You don't, "Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full".

In Chinese, they say: (Chinese characters)

Sit level, equal, same standard.

The wealthy should not flaunt (their) wealth. Yes, you have been successful. Just keep a modest, low-key, unassuming approach. Nobody will think the less of you.

Your status is not marked by the car you drive, or the brand of clothes you wear. Nor should it be marked by the way you talk. I say that because in Britain that is an issue, and in the old days, the upper classes spoke one kind of English and the working classes spoke a different English, very different pronunciations, different terminology and... an Englishman is classified by the way he speaks, as Bernard Shaw said, and Singaporeans must not be like that.

You must feel a certain comfort with one another. So neither should you be ostentatious if you are successful, neither should you look down on others because of their physical appearance.

Recently, I read that somebody made a post on her blog poking fun at an older man who had a hole in his shirt. I think that's wrong because (wearing) an old or torn shirt doesn't mean he deserves less respect.

I wear shirts with holes all the time - not in Parliament - but my wife says: "It's got a hole in it." I tell her: "Only one. When it has three, I'll consider the matter."

No, these are not essential to who you are, what you stand for, what people should think of you. And you have to... it has to manifest in the way we interact with one another.

One day, I went for a walk at the Botanic Gardens at night, I wasn't watching where I walking, I bumped into somebody. I apologised, so he looked at me, he recognised me, he says, "Dui bu qi, zhong li, gang gang xia ban" (Sorry, Prime Minister, I just got off work), no embarrassment, no obsequiousness, no awkwardness.

"Dui bu qi," (Sorry) I said. "Dui bu qi, it's my fault."

He walked off, I walked off. I think that's something valuable.

But it's not possible for us to be a completely classless society; there's no such thing in the world.

Every society has a natural sorting, a natural pyramid, and those who are in positions of responsibility have to have due regard, and at the same time, if you are in a position of responsibility, you must remember that you have a duty to the rest of society. Your respect has to be earned, but a society without leaders who are respected, that's doomed to fail.

And we have to have that respect. A teacher is in a position of respect, of responsibility over his students, so is a principal. When a parent interacts with a teacher, you have to understand that.

A counter staff is in a position serving the public. When you interact with a counter staff, remember, she is serving you but you owe a responsibility to be respectful of her, to be courteous, to be reasonable.

And we have to have that kind of a society in order to be able to talk about openness, in order to be able to keep the channels and the flow of people moving up and not being closed off by glass ceilings or magic circles or the sense that you are born wrong or you speak wrong or you dress wrong, and ah, that one just doesn't fit. So that's how we keep ourselves open.

This article was first published on May 29, 2014.
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