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Let's aim to be competitive, yet gracious

Japan has consistently been at the forefront of many things. It appears to have strategies, plans and structures to tackle issues such as eldercare and other pressing issues. It is innovative and clearly reinvents itself time and again. As the first Asian nation to have attained First World status, it can serve as a model for us to draw inspiration from. 

Japanese culture is well known for its expectations of gracious social behaviour and etiquette. These norms are very important to the Japanese, and they never fail to surprise and delight visitors.

Having recently returned from a trip to Japan, I was amazed by the politeness that followed me throughout my travels - from the railway ticket inspector who bows respectfully to the passengers every time he passes through our train cabin to the earnest young waiter who ran after me to return the change I had absent-mindedly forgotten. 

Their politeness also extends to a deep sense of humility in the face of praise and accomplishment. I happened to watch a Japanese "game show" which pitted two teams of engineers against each other to see who could produce a better product. The winners, master craftsmen who have spent their lifetimes perfecting their art, spared only the briefest of moments for celebration. And even that was carried out with restraint and moderation, before returning the collective attention to the task at hand.

To outsiders, this humility can sometimes be perceived as being fake. After all, who cannot help swelling with pride on a job well done? If there were ever a true test of graciousness, it would be in the magnanimous way the victors treat those who have been defeated. Do they show consideration and restraint in victory, even though it would have been well within "normal" celebratory behaviour we regularly see in other fields of competition to do otherwise?

With its deeply rooted cultural values and virtues that emphasise modesty and humility, Japan made me ponder how a progressive nation can continue to create a gracious society in this globally competitive environment.

Japanese salarymen on their way to work in Tokyo. While Japan has achieved many things, including being the first Asian nation to attain First World status, its people remain kind and gracious. Its case shows that being competitive is not incompatibl
Japanese salarymen on their way to work in Tokyo. While Japan has achieved many things, including being the first Asian nation to attain First World status, its people remain kind and gracious. Its case shows that being competitive is not incompatible with being gracious, says the writer, and Singapore can learn from Japan on this as it climbs the ladder of economic success. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Can Singapore take a leaf out of Japan's book towards fostering a community of kindness and humility? Is it possible to transpose lessons from that fairly homogenous society to our cosmopolitan city-state with the additional variable of a sizeable number of new residents and foreign workers?

Singapore and Japan do share many similarities. We are both grappling with the challenges posed by an ageing population and the constant struggle to improve our standards of capabilities, productivity and even happiness. So long as there is uncertainty and volatility in the world, our national narrative will continue to be dominated by the need to draw comparisons with others and further improve our competitiveness. After all, we are but a vulnerable little red dot in an increasingly volatile and uncertain world.

But wouldn't things be worse if we became a country full of unkind and arrogant people? Rajeev Peshawaria, who contributed an article to Forbes, "The Arrogance of Growth", published in 2012, cautioned that growth in Asian arrogance has outstripped the growth in Asian economies and that it is from this overweening pride that the risk of fall will come. 

As Singapore perseveres to climb the ladder of economic success, are we also falling down the slippery slope of being a country of uncompassionate people who have "no time" or "find it a chore" to attend to the needs of the less privileged?

In today's competitive environment, some may think that there is no place for kindness in the ecosystem. Some think kindness is the sign of a pushover, someone easily exploited, who would simply give in or give up without a fight.

Nothing can be further from the truth. Kindness is not softness. Being competitive is not incompatible with being kind and gracious.

Wholesome competition is a pleasure to experience when both parties respect each other and can accept both outcomes of being either a joyful victor or a gracious loser, just like the Japanese teams of master craftsmen and young high-tech engineers. Both teams, comprising experts in their own right, benefited from the knowledge exchange and skill sets demonstrated during the competition. Ultimately, the match is considered a win-win in self-betterment.

Can Singapore take a leaf out of Japan's book towards fostering a community of kindness and humility?

Is it possible to transpose lessons from that fairly homogenous society to our cosmopolitan city-state with the additional variable of a sizeable number of new residents and foreign workers?

I admit that keeping my competitive side in check can be hard at times and that the desire to win has, on several occasions, caused friends to decline playing a game of Scrabble with me. As a young adult, I played Scrabble with a lawyer who somehow managed to win game after game by coming up with words that nobody had heard of before. My friends dared me to play a game with him. My competitive spirt compelled me to show him he was not that superior after all, so imagine my great disappointment, when it turned out that he had been cheating at the games. It was then that I understood how the desire to win at all cost can be so compelling, and so wrong.

As I grow older, the competitiveness in me shows no sign of abating. That streak emerged in me when playing with my children and grandchildren, so much so that I often found my family ganging up against me to stop me from winning! On more than one occasion, a member of the family would often set the next person up to get a triple word score - and I found myself feeling quietly upset because of my competitive spirit. But at the end of the day, we had a good laugh at our petty squabbles over Scrabble. After all, it is only a game. Graciousness trumped competitiveness as a value to live by.

Like Japan, we in Singapore must be competitive as individuals and as a society, to be viable as a nation. But we can learn a thing or two from the Japanese people, who have managed to achieve so much and yet still remain kind and gracious, humble and rooted. Maybe some day, when asked to describe a Singaporean, others will cite that we are a nation of kind, well-rounded individuals who are competitive and yet gracious.

  • The writer is General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2016, with the headline 'Let's aim to be competitive, yet gracious'. Print Edition | Subscribe