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Remaking Singapore



A Personal View

by Kenneth Lyen

A crisis or a setback forces us to analyse our current problems, to re-examine our goals, and to make new plans for the future. It is therefore timely that committees for the remaking of Singapore have been set up.

The paradox is that on paper, Singapore should be a utopia. Compared to most cities in the world, it has one of the best public housing, it has an efficient health service, universal education, relatively low unemployment even during a recession, excellent transport and telecommunications, and most important it has a government and civil service free from corruption.

And yet something important is missing. You sense it when you observe that silence follows an invitation for audiences to ask questions after a lecture, the poor attendance of art exhibitions and concerts, lukewarm applause after plays, and the lack of lively debate in parliament.

What is missing in Singapore is passion. After decades of an educational system that is based on a teacher-centric system where students only talk when asked to, and a paternalistic government that does all the thinking for its populace, most Singaporeans have become somewhat docile and do not challenge authority. Singapore is a clean and efficient city, but it has no soul. Well, almost none.

The present economic crisis has uncovered this fundamental weakness in our society. We find that we do not have the flexibility of mindset to adapt to adversity, we do not have a suitcase of innovations to power the next great leap forward, we do not have the street smarts to avoid investing in international businesses doomed to failure.

The solution has to be multifactorial. Families must play a pivotal role. What I would like to see is a nuclear family that has a loving and non-threatening environment, in which the seeds of creative thinking and challenging authority should be fostered rather than suppressed. Working mothers should be given more time to be with their children, and more opportunities for family activities are available.

Education needs a radical revamp. I would envisage schools where teachers love teaching, where diversity is tolerated, and where it is realised that examinations are not an end in itself. Small class sizes with individualised teaching methods at the student’s own pace of learning, with a syllabus that does not overload, and a balanced diet of mathematics, science, languages, national and civic education, computing skills, art, music, drama, sports, and other subjects that the child can elect to study. Practical skills are extremely important, and children should be encouraged to build their own electronic gadgets, assemble their own radios and computers, and make their own bioscience and chemical discoveries.

Too few Singapore children read for leisure, and this habit needs to be cultivated further. Words are the tools of thought, and the ability to express one’s thoughts is vital for critical thinking. Hence the need for children to write more essays, stories, poems, and plays. Students should be encouraged to question everything, and to challenge established ideas. Wherever possible, they should not be spoonfed answers, but encouraged to work out solutions for themselves. Curiosity and the passion for learning, must be amplified and not stifled.

Special education must not be forgotten. I would like to see far greater integration of the disabled in society, and this requires restructuring our present schools together with public education.

Art is an important facet of developing one’s aesthetic and emotional sensitivities. It gives Singapore the soul that is currently at low ebb. Unfortunately bureaucracies are least well equipped to nurture the arts. By their very nature, the arts are creative. Recognition of this is difficult at the best of times, and hence there needs to be support for a considerable variety in the arts. Government can best help by sponsoring or subsidising performances and performance spaces, exhibitions, publicity, and championing our arts overseas. I would be quite bold to say that now is the time to lift censorship for the performing arts, music, videos, and publications. The onus should be on the producers to inform the public whether or not it is suitable for young children, and what sort of potentially offensive materials might be contained. If the material is offensive, it is not the government’s role to police the arts, but rather it should be left to the public to voice their opinions.

The problem of a rapidly aging society is currently being looked into. I would like to see the elderly given opportunities to earn a living by being given work with the necessary retraining. They may need specialised accommodation, a barrier-free environment, and ample leisure activities, so that they can enjoy a full life. Youths should be encouraged to visit the elderly and to interact meaningfully with them.

Finally, we must not throw out the baby with the bath water. Singapore has achieved a staggering amount since its independence in 1965. We should not take for granted the achievements of racial harmony, a free and safe environment, a relatively low incidence of drug-taking, good cheap food, fine public housing, universal education, almost full employment, and good government. I am already proud to be a Singaporean. But it would make me prouder to say that Singapore is a city-state whose populace is characterised not only by integrity, but also by civility, caring, appreciation of the arts and a passion for life.