Shirt with holes and vision of egalitarian Singapore

SINGAPORE - A person wearing an old, torn shirt deserves as much respect as the next person, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as he smilingly related how he often wears shirts with holes himself.

He gave his personal experience to illustrate how people should not look down on others because of physical appearances, when he urged Singaporeans to uphold an ethos of openness and informality to keep pathways open for all in society.

Speaking in Parliament yesterday, he recalled reading about a hawker's assistant who was made fun of over a hole in his T-shirt.

A beauty queen had snapped a picture of him travelling on the MRT and posted it on Facebook in March with a sarcastic remark, sparking outrage among netizens who chided her for mocking him.

Mr Lee said: "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'."

In a society where there is an ethos of openness, this would not matter, he added.

Painting a picture of such a society, which he wants Singapore to be, he said it would be egalitarian, without rigid hierarchies or class distinctions. People would feel comfortable to interact "up and down the social ladder... without obsequious scraping and bowing".

They would treat one another with respect and easy camaraderie, whether one is a prime minister, a cleaner or a parent, he said. The rich will not flaunt wealth but adopt a "low-key and unassuming approach". Status should not be determined by the clothes people wear, cars people drive, and the way they talk, he said.

Relating an incident at the Botanic Gardens, Mr Lee said he bumped into a man by accident and apologised quickly. The man looked up, recognised the PM, apologised too and went on his way. There was "no embarrassment, no obsequiousness, no awkwardness. I think that's something valuable".

Still, it is not possible to be a completely classless society, he said. Every society had a natural sorting and pyramid, he noted, and "those who are in positions of responsibility have to have due regard". At the same time, they have to remember their duty to the rest of society, he added.

"Your respect has to be earned, but a society without leaders who are respected, that's doomed to fail," he said. But he noted Singapore was starting from a much stronger position today than at any other time in its history.

There are many people who feel Singapore has done well. He quoted from two letters from Europeans who had lived here in which they praised Singapore and its leaders, including former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

This article was first published on May 29, 2014.
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