Commentary: Has COVID-19 made us more selfish? Let’s reverse that this National Day
Singapore’s story of material success might have led to its citizens growing more self-centred. As we commemorate the country’s 57th year of independence, it’s time to renew the principles that bind us together, says Singapore Kindness Movement’s William Wan.
SINGAPORE: I recently visited Penang with my family, who flew in from Canada. I last saw them in person two years ago, before the pandemic began.
Even though we kept in touch over video calls, there is something special about spending time with loved ones in the flesh.
That’s something that Singapore residents are rediscovering as COVID-19 restrictions relax. Overseas travel is in full swing with people going on long-postponed holidays or reconnecting with family abroad. Back home, live music venues are buzzing, and our roads and malls are jam-packed with people again.
In the past month, my Facebook and Instagram feeds have been filled with posts of friends enjoying the National Day Parade rehearsals at the Floating Platform at Marina Bay. Amid the pomp and spectacle, there is a sense of joy and relief that things are going back to normal again.
But are they? Or has life changed us in subtle ways over the pandemic that no amount of travel or revelry can reverse?
When I was asked about my thoughts on Singapore’s social compact, I considered how far we’ve come from a small trading port struggling with its identity in the 1960s. As we herald the next generation of Singaporeans and their leaders, it is an opportune time to review and renew the principles that bind us together.
Call it my three birthday wishes that I have for us as a nation, as Singapore celebrates its 57th year of independence.
1. LET’S SHARE WHAT WE HAVE
In the 50s, I grew up in a kampung in the Bartley area. We had no running water and had to draw it from a communal well.
In the morning, residents would gather around the well to brush their teeth and take their share of the water. The first person who drew for himself also drew for the rest of us. We did not squabble over it. It was a precious resource that no one dared pollute or misuse.
This story shows how post-war Singapore was poor but relatively harmonious. We did not have much but took care of each other.
This is not to romanticise the Singapore I grew up in. No doubt, there were challenges back then too. But my story is an account of the “kampung spirit” – mutual aid exchanged freely and graciously.
Since then, we have effectively gone from Third World to First in a span of a generation, which has come at some cost to our kampung spirit.
This was laid bare at the start of the pandemic, when people responded with much self-centredness, such as hoarding groceries and toilet paper out of fear of scarcity.
But as we progressed deeper into the pandemic, many individuals stepped up for others. Over these two years, the Internet abounded with stories of how our heroic frontliners and volunteers went the extra mile.
For instance, in May, early childhood educator Ms Huda organised a trip for her class to Punggol Fire Station. She was so touched by the kindness of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) personnel towards one of her young students with special needs that she wrote in to thank the firefighters.
This would have been a sweet story alone but what happened next took it to the next level.
The SCDF personnel not only responded to her message, but organised a special visit to little Isaac Tan’s home to cheer him up after a surgery. The joy of the little boy, who has Noonan Syndrome, was infectious and a video clip of him hugging the smiling firefighters went viral on TikTok.
Stories like this show how we don’t have to make grand gestures to touch someone’s life. Simply taking time to connect with someone could make their day, or even form an unforgettable memory.
2. LET’S LEARN TO APPRECIATE OUR DIFFERENCES
Besides sharing our resources and time with each other, we cannot allow those who feel sidelined by society to continue feeling that way.
In a survey conducted by CNA and the Institute of the Policy Studies, more than half of respondents (56.2 per cent) believe racism is an important problem, up from 46.3 per cent in a previous 2016 survey.
Even with rising awareness, incidents of casual racism such as name-calling and snide remarks still permeate our society. Minority groups say they have to adjust their behaviour and expectations according to the majority – who are often oblivious to their discomfort.
This lack of awareness isn’t limited to older folks either. Just a few weeks ago on Racial Harmony Day, a junior college student dressed up in traditional Arab attire and mimed mock executions on students with black bags over their heads, prompting police investigations.
Racial harmony, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently wrote in a Facebook post, is still a work in progress. He said: “Our racial harmony is not perfect, and we are still learning and growing as a nation. As long as we do not take this peace for granted and work together to protect our common space, we will get there.”
Grassroots groups and campaigns have striven to enlarge the space for open and frank dialogue. When racially charged incidents are uploaded to social media, they immediately trigger reactions and comments. For instance, the viral clip of the polytechnic lecturer making racist remarks to an interracial couple sparked soul-searching of our assumptions about racial harmony.
It also provided people an opportunity to voice their own stories. Mr Sharvesh Leatchmanan, co-founder and editor of Minority Voices, which serves as platform for minorities to share their experiences of discrimination, said he received more than a hundred submissions after that viral incident.
3. LET’S TAKE OWNERSHIP OF OUR COMMUNITY
Besides creating space for dialogue, we can strengthen our community by taking ownership of it. By doing so, we would feel more inclined to help the needy and vulnerable.
One notable movement that was founded during the pandemic is Hey, You Got Mail!, which collects donations from members of the public to send cards to people they care about and seniors in nursing homes.
The founders, who are in their early 20s, wanted to reach out to senior citizens amid the social isolation of the pandemic. From writing cards for seniors, they have moved into weekly volunteer outreach sessions.
These young people don’t have much resources but have leveraged social media and their own enthusiasm to support the lonely and infirm elderly in Singapore.
REFRESHING OUR SOCIAL COMPACT
The Singapore story is one of material success. But in my view, the rapid progress we have made in material comfort has led to a loss of other-centredness, as many of us focus on our own financial security and prosperity.
When that happens, our world view shrinks. We look at things in a quid pro quo. “What’s in it for me?” we tend to ask.
As we celebrate Singapore’s 57th birthday, let’s not forget our community roots. Our social compact has always been about our connections with each other. Without it, we’re only insulated individuals driven by self-centered ambitions.
My wish for Singapore and Singaporeans this National Day is to refresh our social compact: To reaffirm our shared values of ownership, appreciation and mutual aid.
Dr William Wan is the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.