Antisocial behaviour is a symptom, not a disease
Cracks in Singapore's graciousness have been in the spotlight recently, but they may only be signs of more troubling divisions in the country.
Recently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spent several minutes of his National Day Rally speech discussing the rising trend of bad behaviour.
Over the past year, Singaporeans have hit out at foreigners and their neighbours with seemingly increasing frequency and viciousness. Self-centredness has also been on flagrant display, with cases of "Nimbyism" - shorthand for the not-in-my-backyard syndrome - on the rise here. The incidents prompted PM Lee to note that "Singaporeans seem to be getting less patient, less tolerant and less willing to compromise in order to get along".
This selfishness and rancour towards each other and foreigners speak poorly of Singaporeans and could damage the country, he said.
He explained: "It reflects badly on us and damages our reputation. People think that Singapore is anti-foreigner and xenophobic."
Let's be clear. Nimbyism and xenophobia are stains on the character of the country. As PM Lee urged, Singaporeans should strive to be more gracious, kind-hearted and respectful towards each other and others.
But anti-social behaviour is usually a symptom and not the disease itself. It often signals deeper, underlying fears and problems in the country. Behind a xenophobic attitude, for example, could be someone afraid of losing his job, or someone who is tired of waiting for three buses before being able to board one.
The naked self-interest in the Nimby cases also suggests a pessimistic view of Singapore as a dog-eat-dog society, where each person has to look out for his best interest at the expense of other people.
These are fundamental worries and disagreements about the goals and future of the country, and they need to be aired and discussed. Unless they are resolved or addressed, calls for a more gracious and harmonious society are likely to go unanswered.
More crucially, some thought should also be given to why the culprits chose to lash out at foreigners or at their neighbours, instead of trying to change the policies.
PM Lee alluded to this in his speech. Referring to the government's immigration policy, he acknowledged that the influx of foreigners over the years has caused "real problems".
He said: "I think it's fair enough for people to express concerns or to disagree with our immigration trends or to oppose our immigration policies. That's part of the democratic debate. But I'm worried by some of the nasty views which are expressed, especially online, and especially anonymously."
Since the first few cases of xenophobia and Nimbyism, the government and a battalion of community leaders have called for more healthy debate and less vitriol, but the trend continued. This suggests that a segment of Singaporeans have walked away from the communal table, and feel there is no point in discussion or lobbying the authorities to try and change things. This is worrisome. If left unchecked, such fatalism is more insidious and destructive to Singapore's future than disagreements over policy.
Distrust loosens the bonds between the people, their government and the country, and cynicism makes discussion and compromise all but impossible. This trust gap between the government and the people needs to be managed, and new ways found to bridge it.
The government seems to recognise this. It has promised a more consultative approach in formulating policies in future, and Education Minister Heng Swee Keat will chair a committee to review current policies, with input from the people.
In his speech, PM Lee asked: "What sort of people do we want to be?", and he listed generosity, decency, a warm heart and an open mind as aspirational qualities for Singaporeans. To these, I would add: scepticism over cynicism, passion over resignation, and principled but not personal disagreement.
This road forward is likely to be more difficult and messy, and some disappointment is inevitable, but it will take us and Singapore to a better place.