Singapore's journey towards a collective consciousness

It has been almost four years since I started writing regularly in The Sunday Times, and my pieces have now been compiled in a book that will be in the bookshops later this week.

Re-reading my first column made me recall why I picked up my writing pen again after I stepped down as editor of The Straits Times in 2012.

When I wrote "The trouble with $2,200 bikes and $600 chairs" about public unhappiness over the way the National Parks Board had bought expensive bicycles for its staff, I received a flood of e-mails from readers.

One in particular made a deep impression. The person wrote: "I am often baffled when confronted by the statistics and rationalisation presented by government spokespersons. I don't have the intellectual capacity or verbal skill to argue against them... but in my heart, I know it is not right. So too do the many Singaporeans out there. Most of us do not have the words sometimes but we know in our gut when we feel something is not quite right.

"So it is so important for someone with the ability to say it for us. So we can say: 'Aha, that's what I feel. That's what I meant too'."

I believe that as we enter an uncertain future, it is even more important to engage Singaporeans in discussion and debate so they understand the issues better.

She might have over-generalised somewhat the failings of authority, but her provocative words made me restart my writing career, and I have since kept up on a range of topics, including politics, the economy, society and transport.

Indeed it has been a fertile time for commentators, especially after the watershed General Election 2011, and as the country enters the post-Lee Kuan Yew era.

There is anticipation of change to a more rounded society where the politics is more forgiving, but there is also concern over where it is heading.

My writings reflect this mixture of hope and anxiety.

The overriding hope of most Singaporeans is that the country continues to have abundant opportunities for everyone and where all are respected as members of the community regardless of race, language or religion.

But they also want to be able to achieve this in a society that encourages more active participation of its people in civic life with a greater diversity of views, and with a government more willing to accept that it does not always have all the answers.

The anxiety is an old saw, given Singapore's small size and limited resources, but it has a fresh edge now that the country is entering a new phase in its development.

Do the old formulae for growing the economy still work? Can the country make a successful transition to more pluralistic politics? Will it continue to be a place where lives get better for every succeeding generation?

These questions have prompted me to write many of my pieces.

In my discussions with many people, I find a growing number who are concerned about where Singapore is heading.

Last week, a former colleague who travels regularly in the course of his work said he worried over whether Singaporeans were exposed enough to the harsh realities of living in a rapidly changing world.

Technological changes which threaten jobs, geopolitical shifts which threaten peace - they can upend the stability that has underpinned this country's progress over the last 50 years.

Singapore cannot prevent any of these disruptive changes from happening and affecting its people.

But Singapore's leaders, my friend noted, tend to sugar-coat these issues, over-protecting the people, and preferring to dwell on the country's success instead of its weaknesses and the difficulties ahead.

Last week, the straight-talking diplomat Bilahari Kausikan also spoke about these challenges, and his remarks are worth quoting at length: "Small states are vulnerable. The margin for error is narrow. The government's role is essential. Thanks to what was achieved over the last 50 years, the threat is no longer that we will disappear as a sovereign and independent country, although that can never be entirely discounted. The threat is now more insidious. The danger is that our autonomy could be compromised even though we remain formally independent and sovereign... if we are clumsy in our external relationships or mishandle our domestic politics, the freedom to decide our own destiny could be severely circumscribed."

I believe that as we enter an uncertain future, it is even more important to engage Singaporeans in discussion and debate so they understand the issues better.

Mr Kausikan lamented the lack of understanding among many people of the fundamental realities that circumscribe the options available to a small state like Singapore.

But getting greater understanding requires more debate and discussion, not less.

A good starting point is to err on the side of greater openness and tolerance for differing views, not more intolerance and heavy-handedness towards dissent.

A recurring theme in my writings has been the need for Singapore to strengthen its social culture, one where there is a strong sense of belonging to the community and respect for one another regardless of the jobs we do, the wealth we possess or the views we hold.

Societies that have these qualities in abundance have strong and resilient peoples - Japanese, Israelis, Northern Europeans, to name a few - who are able to bounce back from setbacks.

They have a healthy respect for one another's views but they also demand high standards of social behaviour and are not afraid to point out one another's shortcomings.

That's how, individually, they accomplish much in whatever they do, and, collectively, their societies attain high levels of development and civic consciousness.

Singapore has some way to go in this regard, but I fear there isn't enough appreciation of this point.

Because the people have achieved so much in so short a time, too many believe they have arrived, and that there is not much to learn from others.

Much of my writing is but a feeble attempt to correct this mindset.

• Han Fook Kwang's new book, Singapore In Transition: Hope, Anxiety And Question Marks, will be available in bookshops from June 10.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 05, 2016, with the headline 'Singapore's journey towards a collective consciousness'. Subscribe