So, you want a gracious society? Hear what the former Head of Civil Service has to say

By October 16, 2017Current

TL;DR – Don’t rely on the government.

Mr Lim Siong Guan, former Head of Civil Service, recently delivered his second lecture in his IPS-Nathan Lecture series. In his second lecture, he addressed the question of what sort of Singapore do we want in the next 50 years.

He revealed that participants in various dialogue sessions and workshops he was involved in hoped to see Singapore develop in to a gracious society by SG100.

What is a gracious society?

It’s is a society where people are doing the right things even when no one is looking. It is about the countless little interactions between neighbours and everyone else we mix with or have to work with every day of the week. It is a society where Singaporeans look beyond our own immediate needs, and actually notice others and their needs. It is a society where people reach out to help others in trouble.

Why is it important for us to be a gracious society?

He pointed out that the extent to which citizens get along with others independently drives both economic growth and well-being. That’s why graciousness can be considered as the “hidden wealth” of a nation. He said:

“A Gracious Society, because of its spirit of other-centredness, can help to induce better relationships among people and the different sectors of society, including organisations and the government.  There is scope for the public sector to exercise greater sensitivity towards the people in its communications.  Similarly, there can be greater attention to employee engagement in businesses and organisations, better service to customers, and greater instinctive concern for issues like income and socioeconomic divides… 

A Gracious Society is one where people feel good because others care, where we flourish together because we each can be the best we can be by helping ourselves, and helping one another”

More importantly, Mr Lim explained that a gracious society is what will prevent the social degradation and national decay he spoke about in his first lecture.

But, why aren’t we a gracious society yet?

Mr Lim suggested that we aren’t a gracious society yet because our personal values drive us to become ungracious. He referred to a survey of National Values that was conducted from March to June 2015, by aAdvantage Consulting, a consulting firm in Singapore, together with the Barrett Values Centre of the UK.

The survey found respondents in Singapore picked family as representing what they considered to be the most important for themselves personally. In contrast, respondents said that the top values and behaviours they saw in other Singaporeans included things like being kiasu, competitive, materialistic, self-centered, kiasi.

kiasu: Originates from Singapore, Chinese Hokkien dialect. Means ‘afraid to lose out’, ‘competitive to the point of doing anything just to win’, ‘cannot bear to lose’.

kiasi: Originates from Singapore, Chinese Hokkien dialect. Means ‘afraid of getting into trouble’. Literal translation means ‘afraid of dying’.

Mr Lim suggested that the reason for this apparent incongruence as follows:

“The most important value for the individual is “family”, so because my family is the most important, I would cut queues for the sake of my family, I would argue with my daughter’s teacher because my family is most important, and so forth.  Others may see my behaviour as kiasu, whereas all I was doing was living out my belief that family—my family—is most important to me.”

So we aren’t a gracious society yet because we have placed our own needs and the needs of our own families above above that of others.

So, what can we do about it?

It’s easy to push the responsibility on the government. Unfortunately, that would be wrong. Mr Lim said:

“The most critical observation we have to make about Gracious Society or Kampung Spirit is that it reflects the state of relations among individual citizens.  In other words, this is not an outcome the government can produce.  The government can encourage and facilitate, but Gracious Society is something we the citizens have to produce.”

So who should bear the responsibility?

Mr Lim brought up the Chinese saying 三岁定终身, which means, “At the age of three you can know what one will be like for the rest of his life”, and the Jesuit saying “Give me a child till seven and I will give you the man.”

That’s why Mr Lim thinks that parents should bear the responsibility of develop Singapore into a gracious society. He said:

” The point simply is that parents and the family have the most fundamental of responsibilities in guiding and shaping the child before they get to kindergarten or school.  I am speaking here of values and attitudes, which are more caught by example than taught by instruction in our youth.”

And it’s something we have to start now. Why? Mr Lim explained:

“We can only get there if we think in terms of a change that happens over a generation—and because it is a long-term outcome, it requires conviction, tenacity, and action now.”

Parents, we hope you are listening

For those amongst us who are parents, we hope you will heed Mr Lim’s call to nurture graciousness into your children. Don’t wait for the government to do something.

Start with our own families. Start now.

If we all do that, then we have a decent shot at having “a First World Society that our Fourth Generation will be proud of”.

In the meantime, read the transcript here or watch the video,



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Jake Koh

Author Jake Koh

Recovering sushi addict, I'm a man of mystery and power, whose power is exceeded only by his mystery.

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