Singapore— Veteran diplomat Tommy Koh caused quite a stir last week when he called Singapore a First World country with Third World people at the Singapore Bicentennial Conference, which was organised by the Institute of Policy Studies.
The controversial remark made headlines, along with other comments from Professor Koh, who did not hold back in expressing his opinion on the behavior of many Singaporeans. He said that many in Singapore “don’t give a damn for the environment when they should.”
He explained, however, that his position is “more critical of Singaporeans than of the government.” As another example, he pointed to how Singaporeans drive. “Many of our people are selfish and unkind. Just look at the way they drive.”
The Straits Times (ST) gathered reactions to Professor Koh’s remarks from various public figures, among them being Professor Kishore Mahbubani, the former dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
He’s quoted as saying, “I think that’s a fair way of describing it.”
Moreover, he pointed out that Singapore’s transition from Third World to First World should be matched by a corresponding inward change in terms of moral responsibility, wherein there is still a way to go.
“Singaporeans should celebrate the fact that their country has gone from Third World to First World. But they should deeply reflect on what this means in terms of their moral responsibilities.”
Paulin Straughan, a sociologist from Singapore Management University, seemed to agree to this, saying, “We can’t really have a First World Country with Third World behaviour. It’s the community that defines the country.”
The public figures quoted by ST also looked at the roots of why Singaporeans behave the way they do.
Tan Ern Ser, a sociologist from the National University of Singapore, posited that this may be due to focusing on individual comfort and success, saying, “I believe it’s because we have been socialised to be more focused on ‘I, me, and myself’, and our own family, rather than the larger community and society.”
Meanwhile, according to Professor Straughan, it is not uncommon for people who live in big cities to regard others as a mass of “faceless” beings rather than individual human beings. She said, “It’s easy to criticise a faceless entity.”
Her point was echoed by Liak Teng Lit, the former chairman of the National Environment Agency, who said that agrarian communities, in contrast, are more community-minded than in individualistic urban settings.
“In a city, you begin to professionalise and monetise almost every role. Cleaning is a cleaner’s job. I make a mess, somebody cleans it. I pay the guy to do it.”
Solutions to the problem of Singaporeans’ “Third World” behavior could come from self-reflection concerning what it means to be a Singaporean, according to Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong.
She said, “We must go beyond thinking of us coming together to be Singapore in a physical or material sense.”
Professor Mahbubani agreed with this, saying “If you don’t inject an ethical dimension into it, it really is an empty society. It’s not just about material goods.”
William Wan, the general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement emphasized the need to grow to be more concerned with others’ needs.
“When we are other-centred, we become thoughtful, and start to think of others before ourselves. In turn, this will impact the way we treat others and public property positively.” / TISG
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