Our values are a work in progress

Professor Kishore Mahbubani's opinion on societal resilience and the values gap strikes a chord ("Display the values we claim to have"; last Saturday).

The positive values of family, responsibility, friendship, happiness, health, being caring, and honesty would undoubtedly enhance our resilience, but these are as much universal values as they are the aspiration of Singaporeans.

So, too, are the negative values of kiasu-ism, kiasi-ism and the 5Cs of materialism, albeit expressed in colloquial terms.

While the wholehearted embrace of these negative values can have detrimental effects on the resilience - and ultimately, survival - of our society, we also have to accept that these values themselves come from a survival instinct of their own.

It would be a little absolutist to paint someone who demonstrates traits we don't approve of as having the "wrong values". It may also be overly simplistic to see our values as a zero-sum game.

Someone who demonstrates kiasu (afraid to lose) or kiasi (afraid to die) traits can also be a caring, responsible and honest person.

Instead of black and white, right and wrong, perhaps our Singaporean values - our personal values and behaviours - need to be viewed in context.

Regardless of whether these values represent different poles on a scale, or a pool of possible contextual responses, our values are a work in progress.

Even if we accept that some values are undesirable, sweeping societal changes do not happen overnight. Instead, like habits, they are taught and caught by the words and deeds of our family members, neighbours, teachers, leaders and peers, over a period of time.

The fact that we aspire to such virtues, as evidenced by the National Values Assessment and in the Singapore Kindness Movement's own Graciousness Index, shows that the gap between our present truth and our intended destination is not insurmountable.

We have a destination in mind, and as Prof Mahbubani noted, the Golden Rule is a helpful guide on our journey to a brighter, kinder and more gracious future.

This is a destination we are always journeying towards, always arriving but never fully arrived at.

But as long as we continue to make meaningful progress towards embracing the positive values we claim to admire, our next 50 years will not be quite as perilous as might be imagined.

William Wan (Dr)

General Secretary

Singapore Kindness Movement

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2015, with the headline 'Our values are a work in progress'. Print Edition | Subscribe