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The 4Rs our Singapore Conversation needs

Updated On: Mar 22, 2013

In the midst of our Singapore Conversation, the debates on the Population White Paper and now the Committee of Supply debates, I would like to raise a few points that I feel have not been sufficiently discussed. This is especially critical at a time when we are talking so much about social cohesion and building an inclusive society, and also reviewing our education policy to move away from a focus on grades to greater emphasis on values and character-building.

First, much of the discourse still conveys the perception that we are mere economic digits or instruments in this whole “planning” exercise of creating a dynamic Singapore.

I cringe every time I hear statements that foreign workers are here only to serve the needs of Singaporeans and our society, and that they will be the first to go if there is an economic downturn. While it is of course true that many of the workers are here for economic reasons, and are in a contractual relationship that hinges on work and employment, the discourse on the “dispensability” of these workers demeans human dignity and reflects the cold, calculating nature of our society.

This kind of discourse in some way contributes to why some employers have no qualms paying low wages and behaving in an exploitative manner. The stories we hear of bad living conditions, unpaid wages, disregard for the safety of workers and maids, and so on, reflects the discourse that treat workers as dispensable economic commodities rather than individuals.

We need change this discourse and treat everyone as a human being deserving of Respect – the first “R” – and know that just as we Singaporeans have hopes and dreams, so do these workers.

Together with the respect for individuals, we also need to inculcate a genuine respect for work, and rethink remuneration related to work. I often wonder why a young banker taking risks with other people’s money should be paid 100 times more than a construction worker labouring under the hot sun, risking his life to build our flats and MRT lines.

Closely related to this issue of Respect are the other two Rs, rights and responsibilities.

We hear increasingly Singaporeans demanding that as citizens they have “every right to expect privileges”. We have moved on from the stage where the Government saw itself as our guardian, responsible for our well-being and hence having also the authority to dispense “rights”; to now facing an increasingly assertive citizenry starting to demand what they see as their rights.


Singaporeans are negotiating a new social compact, which is a good thing. In this negotiation, however, we have to be mindful of not only the three basic Rs – of respect for differences in views, and ensuring a good balance of rights and responsibilities between government and citizens – we also need a dose of realism, in rethinking the roles of Government and citizens.

The Government should not over-promise. Recently, Law and Foreign Minister K Shanmugam said that beyond meeting the basic needs of its citizens, the Government should also strive to fulfil the aspirations of its citizens.

I think it is enough that the Government focus its efforts on providing decent housing, good education, affordable health care and reliable public transport; ensuring a safe and clean environment for all Singaporeans; taking extra care to provide for the weak and disadvantaged; and providing an enabling environment for business, innovation and entrepreneurship. It is already a lot to ask of the Government.

As our society become more diverse, the aspirations of citizens would become more varied, and it is more important that society accepts and nurtures these different aspirations. The Government can help to engender an open, nurturing environment, but not go overboard in shaping and fulfilling the aspirations of its citizens.


Part of the problems we are facing now is maybe the fact that too many Singaporeans are trying to live up to other people’s aspirations. The Government wants Singapore to become a global city, and its citizens hence need to pursue those aspirations that will make Singapore a global city.

But what if there are Singaporeans who seek contentment and happiness in a kampong? I use to joke with my colleagues that if I re-orientate my heart and mind to see myself as a cosmopolitan, global citizen, I can be very happy living in Singapore because I feel that the whole world has come to me.

However, if I think of myself as a born and bred local, I feel nostalgia for Singlish and for the places I grew up with, and feel disoriented with the fast pace of change in the peoples and places around me.

So as we enter the second phase of the Singapore Conversation, I hope Singaporeans will confront squarely some of these issues – a realistic look at ourselves and our society now and where we want to go from here.

Government policy mistakes have certainly contributed to several of our woes now, but we also need to look at ourselves as agents of change and not just passive consumers of a lifestyle and values that we did not choose.

Dr. Yeo Lay Hwee is a Senior Research Fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Director of the EU Centre.

This is one of several personal essays exploring the evolving engagement between citizens and Government.