Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Curteous Singapore

The Institute of SE Asian Affairs, Singapore (ISEAS) held their 40th aniversary session in January and the the 9th January edition of the Times reported an interesting exchange during an event hosting MM Lee, the elder statesman of Singapore and a much respected figure of political life.

Here is a reply prompted by Dr. Euston Quah who asked about Singapore's progress in terms of social graces and environmental consciousness just as the country succeeds economically:

"I will not see it, maybe you will live long enough to see it; I wish you well.

I think it will take more time to develop and mature culturally as a people.

Even the British 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.

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.

The idea of a gracious society where people are considerate to one another, where you don't make more noise to upset your neighbour more than you need to, where you tell the other motorist, please have the right of way is harder to come by.

It will take time, but I hope it will come with cultivated living over a long period of time.

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 adjusted. A more cultivated way of life takes a very long time.

That's typical MM Lee thinking; drawing sweeping lines through history to connect the dots for the benefit of his audience. In this case, he could have chosen better dots. British football hooligans never invaded and were not a mass cultural movement but a criminal minority that should have been addressed more quickly by the football authorities by banning fans from away games and docking points from teams with violent supporters. How an Empire is relevant to domestic cultural attitudes eludes me.

More relevant are globalisation trends since the mid 20th century. Ever since we traded hats for baseball caps, the Queen's speech for Neighbours and the WI for GNO, the relaxing of social courtesies has been relentless. Peace and prosperity hasn't made opera the dominant music influence, instead it's Hip Hop.

It also entirely fails to distinguish between the hectic, surly lifestyle of modern super cities and more moderate semi-urban / rural communities. The Government has already floated a policy of immigration to grow Singapore's population by about 50% to 6.5m, making it the world's most densely populated city. Singapore has picked a tough point in history if it aspires to transform a curteous society into a courteous one.