Getting to the future with honour

Last year, Singapore celebrated 50 years of independence. We had risen from Third World to First in economic terms.

But Madam Halimah Yacob, Speaker of Parliament, said at the launch of the Honour International Symposium recently that Singapore 50 years from now will have to be defined much more in social terms than economic ones. "Economic vibrancy is important, but life has to be more than economics and countries have to be more than GDP," she asserted.

WILL SINGAPORE FALL?

Sir John Bagot Glubb, a British soldier, scholar and author, wrote an essay entitled The Fate Of Empires And Search For Survival (William Blackwood and Sons, 1978).

Glubb analysed nations as rising through the Ages of Pioneers, Conquests, Commerce and Affluence, and falling thereafter through the Ages of Intellect, Decadence and Decline. Each stage has its own characteristics:

  • Age of Pioneers, a period of amazing initiative, enterprise, courage and hardihood.
  • Age of Conquests, where the principal objects are glory and honour for the nation.
  • Age of Commerce, when values start shifting from the self-sacrifice of the initial pioneers to self-interest, the acquisition of wealth taking precedence over everything else.
  • Age of Affluence, where money replaces honour and adventure as the objective of the best young men.
  • Age of Intellect, when business people who had made their wealth seek the praise of others by supporting art, music and literature, and institutions of higher education.
  • Age of Decadence, which comes about due to an extended period of wealth and power, selfishness, love of money and loss of a sense of duty.

Glubb came to his conclusions by studying 11 empires over 3,000 years.

Interestingly, every nation lasted only about 250 years. The commonality of stages in the rise and fall of nations is often missed because history has tended to be studied in a manner confined just to particular nations within particular timeframes, rather than in a panoramic view of the course of mankind. Glubb gave many examples to back up his analyses of nations rising and falling.

Nations decline not because their people do not have a conscience, but because of a weakening sense of duty and an increase in selfishness and the desire for wealth and ease.

Glubb says the Age of Decadence is marked by defensiveness, pessimism, materialism, frivolity, an influx of foreigners, the welfare state and weakening of religion. Foreigners are attracted by the wealth of the nation. But their increase tends to weaken the feeling of solidarity and comradeship in the nation.

Glubb notes that the decline of a nation is often preceded by a tendency for philanthropy and sympathy, exemplified by the welfare state. The impression that it will always be automatically rich causes the declining empire to spend lavishly on its own benevolence.

We can see incipient signs in Singapore of five of the characteristics of the Age of Decadence - namely, defensiveness, pessimism, materialism, frivolity and influx of foreigners.

Of small nations, Glubb wrote, "…decadence is the outcome of too long a period of wealth and power. If the small country has not shared in the wealth and power, it will not share in the decadence."

Will Singapore fall?

The answer lies in making the right choices today.

SINGAPORE 50 YEARS FROM NOW

Suppose you were asked to describe the Singapore you would like to see in 50 years. Here is our list of what we consider would be a good future for the generations to come, a Singapore doing well economically and also a worthy First World society:

  • A Singapore that keeps succeeding economically despite its smallness.
  • Racial, religious and community unity in diversity and synergy in plurality.
  • A gracious society.
  • Children proud of their parents.
  • Citizens proud of their country.

It is where the elderly and the disabled, the invisible people and the forgotten people, can each have their place in a society where those who have reached the top actively show care and concern for those lower down.

At the heart of this list is "a gracious society", the result of people showing concern and consideration for one another, not for the praise of others but because it is the right and good thing to do.

WORTHY OF EMULATION?

Singapore's A-advantage Consulting conducted a 2015 survey of national values in conjunction with the Barrett Values Centre of the United Kingdom. Two thousand Singapore residents were asked to choose, from a common list of social attributes, what they felt would:

  • best reflect who they were;
  • best reflect the current Singapore society; and
  • best reflect the Singapore society they desired to be part of.

The top 10 choices in personal values were family, responsibility, friendship, happiness, health, caring, honesty, compassion, positive attitude and respect.

The top 10 characteristics they perceived of society today were kiasu (afraid to lose), competitive, materialistic, self-centred, kiasi (afraid to die), blame, security, educational opportunities, effective healthcare and peace.

This second list is surprising in that the first six items reflect a Singapore diametrically opposite to what people said they believed of themselves.

But it has been explained that the second list was indeed reflecting the first list, lived out selfishly. A person seeking the greatest advantage for his family would ignore the sensitivities of others, and would indeed be seen to be kiasu, competitive and self-centred.

Does "a kiasu nation" fit with the idea of "a gracious society"?

Is there a First World society today worthy of Singapore's emulation? As Singapore is a city-state, would our benchmark possibly be New York, London, Tokyo or Shanghai?

Certainly "a gracious society" should be a critical part of the Singapore we wish for.

We start by establishing a culture of honour, moving deliberately from me-centredness to other-centredness, intent on enhancing the collective long-term well-being of both current and future generations of Singaporeans.

We have to be a people who honour our word, so that there may be no doubt about our individual trustworthiness, and who honour each other, so that there may be no doubt about our consideration for others. Care and concern, trust and respect have to define who we are.

Getting to the future will demand self-responsibility, personal initiative and active involvement in creating the society we want. May we all choose wisely today the kind of people we want to be, and the kind of society we want to build.

Neither Glubb nor A-advantage Consulting can make us feel optimistic about getting there. But 50 years is enough time for our children and grandchildren to make a worthy First World society - provided, with them, we start now.


  • Lim Siong Guan was head of the Singapore Civil Service from 1999 to 2005. Joanne H. Lim, his daughter, is founder and creative director at The Right Perspective.
    They are co-authors of two books: The Leader, The Teacher & You (Imperial College Press, 2014) and Winning With Honour (Imperial College Press, 2016).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2016, with the headline 'Getting to the future with honour'. Print Edition | Subscribe