5 December, 2023


Can We Treat Each Other Better? 

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

When we look around us, it should be apparent that in those countries, which are generally labelled as “developed”, there is a distinct feeling that they treat one another better than those like us, who fall into the class of the “developing” or “under developed”. We are constantly reminded that we should model ourselves in the way that Singapore has done. It is ironic that Lee Kwan Yu, in an early visit declared that Singapore should consider Ceylon as a role model. See where we stand now – the tables have turned! For a proper insight, two books by LKY should be required reading for all. These are “The Singapore Story” and “From Third World to First”. These are almost an Autobiographies and show the importance of objectivity, integrity, commonsense, decency, pragmatism and hard work. Just download “The Singapore Cabinet” for a glimpse of a current meritocracy. Many would be qualified enough to adorn the faculty of almost any top-rate University anywhere in the World. The NUS (National University of Singapore ranks among the best – rubbing shoulders with Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Oxford and Cambridge.

Because of our stated aim is to become like Singapore (even to rival it) I choose to dwell in slight detail on a few requisites to reach such a goal. I was struck by the recognition by LKY, a product of the London School of Economics (LSE), who set about “greening” the City and thereby enhancing its “livability”. He reasoned (correctly) that Singapore being a Tropical island and within the Monsoon Zone, its soil would be impoverished and subject to leaching and thus acidification. Therefore, heavy liming would be the first step in rectifying this. To answer the question, “what should we plant”? He sent a team of scientists to scour the World to identify the best trees and shrubs to help develop a “Garden City”. Aesthetics and layout were paramount. The result is there for all to see. The humility and wisdom to be guided by persons who know the subject best, is paramount. The arrogance of persons who use “I” instead of “We” should cease. “I won the War” or “I will do it” are manifestations of a serious inferiority complex. 

LKY saw that the Chinese by habit, spat everywhere. Chewing tobacco, gum and smoking in public were wisely prohibited, especially on the metro, where not uncommonly, spent chewing gum was stuck under the seats. Result – further banning. Some complain that Singapore is a Police State or a dictatorship. But it has worked – to provide its inhabitants with an orderly, efficient and safe community. When Singapore was virtually expelled from Malaysia, due to a latent fear of Chinese influence, which in turn fueled preferential treatment to the “Bhumiputhras” in Malaysia (as in the claimed in the uncritical era of “The Common Man”) The more shrewd Singaporeans realized that the best way to meet internal fears, was to avoid any feelings of partiality or bias, and set in place, Laws which applied to all. English was the language of education, administration and commerce (simply because language was essentially a means of effective communication, providing access to reservoirs of knowledge and devoid of emotional overtones, thereby cleverly avoiding any attempt to impose Mandarin, or Indian languages). All Singaporeans speak English and are comfortable and employable in a great part of the World. We must realize what controversy, costs of conflict, and virtual isolation has done to us.  Isolationism is fatal in a World, where progress in technological and scientific spheres is very rapid and lost time is truly irrecoverable. It is more than likely that succeeding generations will curse us for crippling them intellectually.

It is said that the character of a nation reflects in the way they drive their cars. How do we shape up with continuous and annoying horns being blown, Three-wheeler drivers who weave in and out of lanes, pedestrians and cyclists all over, malfunctioning traffic lights, scant regard for traffic rules, non-observance of give way to traffic on your right, thoughtless parking and general incivility towards other users. Poor marks on this account.

Words like “please, thank you and excuse me” are not in most vocabularies, equals are “machang”, elders are “uncles”. Few address seniors as “sir” or “madam”. In most cultures, people greet each other with a “Good Morning” and part with a “Cheerio” or “Take care”. We have the most beautiful “Ayubowan” – may you live long – but seldom use it. It says that you need several dozen facial muscles to frown, but very few to smile. Many in authority seem not to bother. Good cheer is infectious and adversity easier to bear when shared. There is much truth in the definition of a diplomat as “He is one who can tell someone to go to hell in such a nice manner, that he looks forward to the journey”. Let us all endeavor to be diplomats, although we wish such unfortunate occasions where immunity need to be invoked, will not arise. Presently, 90% or more time of bureaucrats accounts for policing, regulating, controlling activities and preventing misuse, and perhaps 10 -15% on really productive work. It is probable that in the more advanced countries, the ratio is reversed. Their procedures are designed for convenience of their clientele – the people whose convenience is a primary consideration. Anyone who betrays that trust, invites the full force of the Law, and nothing of pedigree or interference will prevent this. We treat everyone as a rogue, thus erecting barriers that amount to persecution, of those who seek to get something useful done. On the rare occasions when criminal behavior is detected, the culprit escapes by paying a “something” or by political interference by the high and mighty. Innocents are harassed and crooks escape. Can this lead possibly to progress and “better governance”? I think not. For example, if four different arms of the administration, all require “originals “of a document for their files, what does one do? It is only a matter of time, before a visa application has a cage which asks “Have you ever successfully committed suicide”?

The answer might be to cater to the convenience of the people, to wear a smile and greet the person (As airhostess, do to those boarding a flight). Thai Airways excels, – greeting passengers with a smile, hands folded in salute, lightly bowing, and with a “Sawadee kap”. Even the most ill- tempered will be captivated! Should we not emulate such charming ways? Not jump queues, to offer a chair or hold open a door for an elder, to not litter, to not blare our horns, to appreciate a cop directing traffic in pelting rain and so many other gestures at no cost. Many would find that such courtesies are infectious and smiles would replace frowns and even when disasters visit us, to find that a burden shared equally, is less burdensome. Politicians who race past huge traffic jams, with their entourages when gloved hands imperiously wave people away from their privileged cargo, may do well to remember that it is public money that sustains them. Decent behavior has no cost, but huge benefits. We could then truly be “a land like no other”.    

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Dr Upatissa Pethiyagoda’s question {“Can We Treat Each Other Better?”}
    Upatissa is expressing angst sincerely and evenhandedly.
    Are we treating each other better?
    Not with the language/religion-divide in tact. SLPP has openly said that the ‘divide’ must be kept ‘As is Where is’.

  • 1

    I would invite the author to make a visit to the USA and see how politics is done there!! We maybe underdeveloped in many areas but our politics and the US politics are very similar!! Dog eat dog!!!

  • 0

    Dr. Pethiyagoda your discussion should be based on lot of readings. It looks your’s is very superficial. You can not exclude the Sri lankan colonial background and it’s hang over effect. USA was working in Srilanka even before 1948. You cannot forget the fact that Sri lanka is important because of location in the Geo-politcal map. Since 1978, Sri lanka was moving towards the self-destruction. Now, it is at the top. and the geo-political or international problems in the regions are picking up. I am wondering that it is not a coincidence Shangri La hotel owned by china was attacked and the Singaporean Security dialogue was named SHANGRILA DIALOGUE. Some one who attended that came to Sri lanka also to brief and what media w=told us was he came to give us some money for De-mining. Paksithan, Maldive Islands, India, Sri lanka are in the same list. so, they do not allow Sri lanka to become a Decent society unless we obey them. Parliament is for that. I hear they influence Arjuna Ranatunga who is the minister for ports. Now, we hear even top officials are working for foreign powers and they all want to destroy Sri lanka for some one else’s benefit. Mangala Samraweera and some others working in the very open

  • 0

    Jd, even long before we guys were showing our inability to run a united country and never ever wanted to treat all as one people. The myths and distorted history and ill informed clergy with brainwashed Sinhala Buddhist beliefs, selfish greedy racist leaders all led to this mess. I am talking of early fifties. Then we did not have this kind of power game from powerful nations. You guys missed the bus owing to bogus, misunderstood nationalism. Now what you say is an excuse. It is an insult for lee kwan Yu if we guys mention his name. We will not get such a leader even another 2500:years. We can only have MR, MY3, Gotta, Weeramonkey, Gamon-pulle, Mervin, to name a few. So please refrain from mentioning the name Lee Kwan Yu, it is an act against humanity. Lee Kwan Yu said “One people, one nation”. What do you guys scream, Only people, only nation, others are migrants. What a shame.

  • 0

    Dr Pethiyagoda has done the necessary research for this article. Research before writing always helps with providing accurate details. I have personal experience with Singapore including living there for while.
    Singapore government always emphasised on following rule of law without any waiver. Punishment for breaking the law is harsh. The law was strictly applied to everyone. This enabled the country to eradicate corruption entirely. Singapore government and ministers worked hard to provide people’s needs. A government minister was selected based on his record and had to perform to remain minister.
    The other most important action of the government was the active promotion of racial tolerance. Like Sri Lanka, Singapore’s majority community is about 75% Chinese. Racial tolerance is taught in Singapore from Kindergarten. Kindergarten children learn the social tolerance Pledge in their mother tongue( Mandarin, Malay and Tamil) which is translated from the original English. This education rather than punishment creates the social harmony we see in Singapore. Incidentally the second most powerful minister under Mr Lee Quan Yu was a Sri Lankan. Now under Mr Lee Hsien Loong a Sri Lankan is the second most powerful minister.
    Today Singapore has a very high standard of living in every sense, right at the top. Singapore’s economic pie is growing steadily and is being shared by all its citizens.
    The moral of Singapore story is that, racial and ethnic tolerance, corruption free open government whose ministers are under pressure to perform and strict adherence to rule of law without fear or favour, will make your country great and all the citizens of that country can benefit from that.

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