Time to change ingrained cultural assumptions

Associate Professor Teo You Yenn argued for an urgent need to shift public policy thinking from market orientation to basic human valuing (The economy as a means to an end, not an end in itself; Feb 23).

It is easy for policymakers to overlook implicit cultural assumptions, as they are so ingrained.

A common assumption among economists is the notion that "every boat has to float on its own bottom". Assoc Prof Teo alluded to this by citing its corollary: "The notion of a rising tide lifting all boats is metaphorically powerful; empirically, it has not worked out this way."

In an implicitly Asian society that inherited Confucian values, we tend to be less aware of how these culturally embedded values work in tandem with prevalent economic assumptions.

Among Confucius' most influential students was Mencius, who famously advised people "to sweep only the snow in front of their own doorstep but never to bother with the frost on the neighbour's roof".

I believe a large part of the prevalent attitude of being indifferent towards others and being centrally self-absorbed among a large segment of Singaporeans could be attributed to this emphasis by Mencius.

Coupled with a trader's mentality, it wouldn't be too far-fetched to say that our penchant for market orientation and individualistic preoccupation succinctly summarise our governing and pervasive societal ethos of a pragmatic people.

The increasing societal stratification we are experiencing seems to indicate that such values have run their course and can no longer sustain us in the long term. Nevertheless, they still persist in our thinking and doing as a people.

Change must come sooner rather than later. And this seems to be a critical opportunity for those who lead to set the pace.

Thomas Lee Hock Seng (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2018, with the headline 'Time to change ingrained cultural assumptions'. Print Edition | Subscribe