By 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”.