Commentary: COVID-19 has shown that we can be gracious. How do we make it last?
We have come a long way in changing perceptions and behaviours about graciousness but can we do more, says Dr William Wan.
SINGAPORE: Panic buying. Safe distancing. Working from home. Closure of schools and non-essential businesses. Singapore’s worst-ever recession since independence.
For years, we have talked about the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world - a combination of qualities that characterise the chaotic world we live in. If ever the phrase felt appropriate, it’s now in this time of COVID-19.
The volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of the pandemic has not only upended lives, but revealed ugly behaviour.
Consider the panic buying and hoarding when Singapore raised its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level to Orange in March. And since the circuit breaker started, we’ve seen disputes arising from individuals flouting the rules or being overwhelmed by stress.
COVID-19 has also shone a light on racist and xenophobic sentiments against foreign workers when clusters of cases broke out in dormitories across the island.
KINDNESS EMERGES IN UNEXPECTED WAYS
Yet at the same time, kindness has emerged within the chaos of COVID-19.
The support from Singaporeans for front-line workers was spontaneous, enthusiastic and sincere.
Equally inspiring is how friends, neighbours and families have grown closer by showing care and concern for one another.
We have seen residents placing hand sanitisers in lifts to share with neighbours, individuals donating their S$600 Solidarity Payments to those who need it more, and groups coming together to appreciate front-line workers and helping the vulnerable in society.
At the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM), we have seen ground-up movements (GUMs) actively promoting kindness in the grassroots.
For instance, Contribute.sg redistributes donated masks and sanitisers to healthcare and service staff, transport workers, home-bound patients and lower-income families.
Kampung Kakis was founded by a young COVID-19 survivor who had a first-hand view of how elderly patients suffered in isolation. She was inspired to start a neighbourhood buddy system that matches needy residents with neighbours to provide assistance and a support network.
EverydayheroesSG was set up to appreciate medical personnel and other frontline staff. One initiative involves recruiting volunteer drivers – known as Hero Drivers – to ferry healthcare professionals to and from work.
This rise in ground-up volunteer movements is consistent with SKM’s Graciousness Survey findings last year that more people, especially the young, are increasingly cognisant of their roles and responsibilities in building a gracious society.
We have come a long way in changing perceptions and behaviours about graciousness. But can we do more, especially in seeing this heightened graciousness become a permanent feature of our society long after COVID-19?
For one, as we learn to live in a world still reeling from COVID-19, we need to redefine VUCA.
A reimagining of the popular abbreviation of the risks in the world can be used to be a guiding reminder of how we should be as individuals and as a society in the “new normal”.
The current crisis is not just a health or economic crisis. It is also a psychological crisis. There is an assault on our mental, emotional and social well-being.
Institutions, both public and private, can help us with physical and economic needs. But to overcome the psychological challenges, we need to help ourselves. This is where the redefined VUCA would help.
Instead of being vulnerable we need to be vigilant – mindful of what is happening around us and responding correctly. Vigilance is practicing social responsibility and being careful – maintaining personal hygiene and keeping public spaces clean, wearing masks, and staying home – so that the virus can be contained.
Whereas uncertainty may become more of a norm and less exceptional, we need instead to be united – as a nation to overcome challenges thrown our way.
At the launch of the Overcome As One initiative, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said: “The COVID-19 outbreak is not just a test of our medical response system but is also a test of the character and values of our people. I am confident that we can emerge from this outbreak stronger, united and more resilient as one people."
COVID-19 has shown us that the world is indeed complex and the challenges facing us are more intertwined than we like, where trade-offs, like restarting economies and containing the virus, are often a delicate balancing act.
In such a complex world, being compassionate – showing care and concern for each other at all times – comes in handy.
Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran has said that kindness and compassion are key to supporting the country's fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
When we internalise such values of other-centeredness and empathy, we become a kinder and stronger nation, willing to give our money and time to help others, including migrant workers and lower-income households.
Lastly, in an ambiguous world, being adaptable – in approaching work, studies and parenting – will be an important life skill.
We need to learn from past lessons to deal with future challenges. This allows us to thrive in the “new normal” where working and studying from home, and the new ways in which we learn, seek medical treatment and consume entertainment, become a permanent feature of our lives.
A redefined VUCA – being vigilant, united, compassionate and adaptable – is an acronym that can guide us if we internalise it in our values, thoughts, processes and education.
ARE PUBLIC CAMPAIGNS STILL NECESSARY?
Besides ground-up initiatives and a new acronym to help guide us, what more can be done on a macro-level? After all, as a society, we have been used to heeding top-down signals on desirable societal outcomes.
In the past, before the Internet, public campaigns, largely conducted via radio and television, were used to encourage positive social behaviour.
Many older Singaporeans would remember the Keep Singapore Clean and Tree Planting campaigns in the 1960s and 70s, the National Courtesy Campaign with Singa the Courtesy Lion as well as the National Productivity Movement with Teamy the Productivity Bee in the 80s.
More recently, we had the Great Singapore Workout and the Speak Good English Movement in the 1990s.
Now with the Internet, where almost anything can go viral depending on the zeitgeist of the moment, such campaigns continue – like the Public Utilities Board’s (PUB) Make Every Drop Count water conservation campaign or the National Environment Agency’s (NEA) Keep Singapore Clean Movement – albeit with greater subtlety.
For 23 years, SKM has been advocating graciousness as well as a spirit of togetherness and neighbourliness among Singaporeans.
Our latest campaign, Be Greater, emphasises kindness – and not the usual measures of wealth, status, and power – as the yardstick of success.
It also challenges us to go beyond random acts of kindness, and instead consider our values as individuals and as a collective. Kindness should be second nature. It should be purposeful, and thus sustainable and infectious.
SKM adopted Singa as its official mascot in 2009.
This year, due to COVID-19, we celebrated our first-ever virtual Kindness Day SG. While maintaining a safe distance from one another, technology has made it possible for us to show kindness anywhere and at any time.
We launched “Virtually Everywhere” – where augmented reality filters can be activated by signing “Thank you”, “Hello” and “You’re Welcome” – to encourage Singaporeans to spread kindness on social media.
We also inducted 15 new GUMs into SKM’s Kindred Spirit Circle.
National campaigns of the past had used mascots as rallying points. But while Merli, Teamy, Sharity and other icons have lived on only in our memories, Singa has gone on working quietly behind the scenes.
The courtesy lion of the 1970s and 80s has grown into the kindness lion of today. That said, Singa has spent most of its time in schools, where it shares graciousness and compassion with our primary school children and pre-schoolers.
It also appears in the public as and when it is called upon to do so.
With Singapore transforming into a digital nation, campaigns need to adapt to the increasingly fragmented audience through different media. The “new normal” calls for a new way of campaigning.
Campaigns can no longer be just a television ad, a poster or a jingle. They have to be multifaceted to target different groups, such as gamification for students, social media engagement for working adults or animation for pre-schoolers, like SKM’s Singa and the Kindness Cubbies series.
Singa, of course, can be relied upon, yet again, to help bring us to another public goal – a gracious Singapore through another public campaign. But we must also look at such public campaigns to effect more permanent positive change as campaigns come and go.
In the new VUCA world, we should all also channel our inner Singa, through being vigilant, united, compassionate and adaptable, to spread kindness in a more intentional way.
This is the most effective way to entrench this surge of graciousness we have seen during COVID-19 as a permanent feature of our collective consciousness.
Dr William Wan is the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.