Sunday, 7 October 2012

What Bhutan can Teach Singapore

Oct 05, 2012

Let's talk about identity and values

By ang peng hwa for the straits times

I FIRST read in the news - when I was in Bhutan - that Singapore was going to have a "National Conversation" among ourselves to chart the future of our country.

I had been in Bhutan for a few days on a media policy project and had been given readings and briefings about the meaning of its Gross National Happiness (GNH). I had two immediate reactions: "Now we're talking" and "about time".

You see, in the course of uncovering the dimensions of Gross National Happiness, I learnt that GNH was not about replacing GNP and, despite its title, was not about happiness.

Instead, GNH is intended as a concept or philosophy to distinguish the Bhutanese from the Indians to their west and south and from the Chinese to the east and north.

As a small country of about 700,000 people - the size of three of our largest HDB estates - Bhutan can be easily subsumed by one of its two giant neighbours. It therefore needed an identity distinct from them. Hence Gross National Happiness.

GNH is so well known as Bhutan's intellectual gift to the rest of the world that when one thinks of a Bhutanese, one thinks of happiness. The Bhutanese have managed to carve out their own identity.

[Apparently, this "identity" was carved out by carving out those not defined as "Bhutanese" - by expelling the ethnic Nepalese, the Lhotshampa from Bhutan. If this is true, then "happiness is kicking out the unhappy, the outsiders, and having an exclusive club"?] 

In contrast, what comes to mind when one thinks of a Singaporean? Chicken rice? Chilli crab? Durian? Kiasu behaviour? Changi Airport? Singapore Airlines?

You see the problem?

That's why I reacted the way I did. We may be the more affluent and more populous city-state but we can learn from tiny Bhutan the value of having an identity in a globalised world.

Much of our National Conversation has already descended into "doing": What should we do when we have a declining birthrate? What should we do when we have a widening income gap? What should we do when our children face school examination pressures? What should we do when… ad finitum.

The lesson from Bhutan is that "being" must precede "doing". What we do depends on how we see ourselves.

[Well, that's one approach. Some may argue the opposite, that doing precedes being. A fresh medical school graduate is called a doctor. He is licensed to practice. So he does doctoring. At what point does he identify himself as a doctor? Not how he identifies himself to others, but how he identifies himself to himself in his own mind. It may be days, weeks, months and even years, before one day, he self-identifies as a doctor. After a long period of Doing, before he Becomes and  Be a doctor in his own mind.]

What is our distinctly Singapore identity? Once we have determined at least an outline of that, it is a much easier to determine what to do.

How important is the issue of identity? I think it can account for a number of issues being debated.

One's identity depends on one's memories.

Consider the interest in Singapore heritage: the closure of the Malayan Railway track here, the controversy over the construction of a road through Bukit Brown, the proliferation of recently published history books on our politics. The harking back illustrates the desire for a permanence of memory, which is essential for our identity.

Our response to foreign workers is, to my mind, also an indication of our desire for the Singapore identity.

[But is it a good "identity"? At this point xenophobia is a key characteristic of the SG Identity. But really, in-group preference is not really an identity. It is a default position for all groups. It takes effort to define our identity against our evolutionary imperatives.]

Many Singaporeans cannot abide the foreign service staff who cannot speak English or understand a smattering of Singlish. We want our foreign workers, talent and otherwise, to be more like Singaporeans.

Our political leaders have also, from time to time, talked about our "cultural ballast". That's our Singapore identity. And in fact, a Singapore identity will be much more stabilising than an imported cultural ballast.

So how do we identify the Singapore identity? For the purpose of the National Conversation, we should look at its manifestations in practice through our values, principles and actions. I suggest some tentative, abstract and high-level value statements. They will need to be operationalised through the National Conversation.

I suggest a few more questions to help uncover the Singapore identity.

How do we see ourselves?

How do others in the region, in Asia, in Europe, in America describe a Singaporean?

What upsets us? In the example of service staff, their inability to speak some English grates on us.

[I remember being very upset that in the inaugural F1 nightrace in Singapore in 2008, Nelson Piquet engineered a crash - on the orders of his team - to allow his Renault teammate to win the race. I was incensed that firstly it was "match-fixing" on an international-level event, it was carried out in Singapore, on OUR soil, and the masterminds behind the "match-fixing" were given a slap on the wrists, and Singapore's justice system was not even consulted. What? Was there a clause in multi-million dollar contract that effectively castrated our laws for this event?]

What do we pay money to avoid or to obtain that others may find puzzling?

I think we like to think of ourselves as competent, compassionate and people of integrity, just to begin with three descriptions.

Our public institutions are generally recognised as strong and well governed. Those who run them are often invited by other governments to establish similar institutions in their respective countries.

We have a strong sense of fairness. It explains our concern for those who are marginalised and less privileged. It explains our fund-raising efforts for the tsunami-hit areas of Indonesia and Japan.

And the desire for integrity is demonstrated through the prosecution of those deemed to have violated ethical and legal codes of governance.

We should also consider our physical limitations as part of our identity. We pay high prices for property and cars because we view ourselves as a city-state with a small land mass. Those migrants who wish to make Singapore their home have to live with the high probability that they will never own homes with even a handkerchief-size garden; they will, in fact, have to put up with curry aroma that wafts into their kitchens.

We have also spared no expenses in our anti-littering drive. We - not just the Government but private condominiums and offices too - have put litter bins everywhere. Observers have been puzzled, but in a flattering way, by such zeal.

In the area of education, the Government is willing and able to invest in education from primary schools to the Institute of Technical Education all the way to the universities. And parents, on their part, are prepared to pay hefty rates for their chidren's tuition.

Our legendary efficiency? There are many examples, from the hassle-free immigration lines at Changi Airport to the Government's e-portal for procurements, GeBiz.

There was an attempt by former prime minister Goh Chok Tong in the early 1990s to shape the Singapore identity when he developed a set of shared values and a set of family values.

The shared societal values are
(a) nation before community and society above self;
(b) family as the basic unit of society;
(c) community support and respect for the individual;
(d) consensus, not conflict, and
(e) racial and religious harmony.

The family values are
(a) love, care, and concern;
(b) mutual respect;
(c) filial responsibility;
(d) commitment, and
(e) communication.

These are good value statements and are in fact included in the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice, which I had a part in amending. The problem is that because it was top down, hardly anyone remembers that they even exist.

The National Conversation is our second chance to define the Singapore identity. We have the opportunity to develop a set of values and principles that we think form the Singapore identity. Such an identity is critical in a globalised world, where, because we are outnumbered, we are likely to be pushed to conform to those external pressures.

The Bhutanese are more socially advanced than us. They have worked out their notion of their identity. We have yet to work out ours, at least in a formal and systematic way.

A Singaporean can often pick out another Singaporean when travelling overseas. In that sense, we can intuitively tell the Singapore identity. It is time to work out what we know intuitively. It is time for that Conversation.

The writer is director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre, Nanyang Technological University, and president of the Singapore chapter of the Internet Society.

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