Singapore must set own benchmarks for progress

I agree with Professor Tommy Koh that Singapore must remain modest despite our many socio-economic achievements (Is Singapore a small country?; Aug 5).

Unfortunately, much of the nation-building conversation in recent years seems to have devolved into merely taking satisfaction from favourable rankings and statistics - in essence, resting on our proverbial laurels.

Past rallying cries to stand up for a better Singapore have faded away, replaced by a somewhat vapid and self-affirming narrative that we have already reached "world class" or "world-leading" status in various aspects by "punching above our weight".

While it is justified to celebrate and take some measure of pride in our nation's accomplishments, it becomes insidiously counterproductive when done in excess.

There can be no progress if we do not constantly examine ourselves through a self-critical lens and identify areas in which we are deficient or can improve further. Contentedness is the precursor to stagnation.

Indeed, while Singapore has succeeded in attaining a high material standard of living, we lag behind in several crucial qualitative areas.

Income inequality is an issue Singapore has been grappling with, while a surge in the cost of living has produced general unhappiness.

Institutional support for culture and the arts has also been singled out as lacking, with ramifications for the broader debate on Singapore's national identity, or lack thereof.

Hence, we must look beyond the global rankings, and begin establishing our own yardsticks for what we want Singapore to become.

These should not be based on fanciful notions of surpassing other countries in specific metrics, but, rather, reflect the needs and aspirations of our citizens.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2017, with the headline 'Singapore must set own benchmarks for progress'. Print Edition | Subscribe