The Straits Times says

Sifting for gold in national values

A survey on assessing national values has revealed an apparent disconnect between what Singaporeans view as their personal values and those which they attribute to society. Compassion, respect and a positive attitude to life define self-perceptions, but society is seen largely as being competitive, materialistic and afraid to lose out. To dismiss this attitude as being sanctimonious would be to mirror that holier-than-thou behaviour.

Perhaps there's a deeper logic in the human penchant for claiming the best qualities for oneself and seeing the worst in others. In a sense, this reflexive impulse shows that the normative bar - represented by altruistic values - has risen higher than it used to be when competitive materialism was considered a requisite for national success. Today, aspirational values have moved ahead of the survivalist instincts that continue to guide society at large. This is not so much a disconnect, then, as an effort to seek higher goals for everyone, beginning with oneself.

Such an attitude would do great credit to a nation's maturing destiny as it represents a start. Of course, the shorter the felt distance between what is and what ought to be, the sooner that distance can be overcome. Take the dismal living conditions of many foreign workers here. If the public attitude is that foreigners in blue-collar jobs deserve no better than whatever the market dictates, then it would take years to ameliorate their situation. The moral perspective changes dramatically when individual Singaporeans start to acknowledge foreign workers as a necessary part of Singapore's economic growth story and not tolerated merely as transient objects.

For Singapore to keep moving in this direction, more contexts in which people can live by aspirational values should be created. For example, official policies designed to promote care of the disadvantaged, multigenerational living, and awareness of the environment help to reinforce values rooted in connectedness. And employers' policies supporting flexi-work and childcare leave nurture family values. In the vanguard of the possible, civil society can push the boundaries of change in a range of areas, from gender and class to ethnicity.

But living up to aspirational values has to start with the individual. Rather than waiting for society to change and lamenting its slowness in doing so, everyone should heed the old adage: Be the change that you wish to see. It applies to everyone who wishes to see his or her aspirations amplified in the lives of others. Such an approach would stand in stark contrast with the me-first attitudes of the past. Of course, this trajectory will last only so long as material conditions underpin its rise. A Singapore that loses its economic vitality would not be able to sustain the higher- order values that come with progress.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 31, 2015, with the headline 'Sifting for gold in national values'. Print Edition | Subscribe