Singapore's biggest blessing: Safety

Trust in public institutions like the police is not a given and needs to be nurtured. Will the blogosphere choose cynicism, or seek common ground to protect public institutions?

As Singapore undergoes its mighty, irresistible metamorphosis over this coming decade, it is vital for it to ensure that it does not lose some painfully acquired blessings in the process.

In my previous column For The Straits Times, I had asked readers to share their views on my thoughts about Singapore's metamorphosis. I had said the soul of Singapore is being redefined, and that Singaporean society can either emerge as a happy butterfly, flitting around in a garden city, or as a lonely frog, croaking away unhappily in a little well.

I am grateful for the over 50 readers who responded and for their comments. They have helped shape my thinking for this column, and provided food for thought for future ones.

One of the biggest blessings Singapore has is that it is one of the safest cities in the world.

The level of safety we enjoy is a true miracle. Switzerland enjoys the same level of public safety. But it is surrounded by Europe. When you cross the border out of Switzerland, you continue to experience the same level of safety. But when you cross out of the border of Singapore, you may not. In short, we have to work extremely hard to preserve this cocoon of extraordinary public safety.

Some of it is clearly due to the very successful Singapore Police Force (SPF) we have. But the SPF is only one unit within an ecosystem of excellent public institutions delivering this high level of safety. The social trust that Singaporeans and Singapore residents have in this ecosystem is one key reason why our city is safe.

Worrying cynicism

THIS is why I am extremely worried about the cynicism that the Singaporean blogosphere is developing towards these public institutions. Over time this cynicism could act like an acid that erodes the valuable social trust accumulated. Yes, let me concede that some of the online criticisms are justified. For example, the escape of Mas Salamat Kastari was a major failure.

Against this backdrop, I watched carefully the reaction of the blogosphere to the Shane Todd affair. Dr Todd, 31, an American researcher, was found hanged in his apartment here last June after he quit the Institute of Microelectronics (IME) which is part of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

We will have to await the outcome of the coroner's inquiry to find out what really happened.

This is why I was appalled that US Senator Max Baucus jumped the gun and tried to pressure Singapore by forcing Singapore to give the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) oversight of the case before the Coroner's Court had completed its inquiry.

This goes against all international laws and norms. The United States would never allow a foreign police force to oversee an FBI investigation. Nor would it allow any foreign intervention into its judicial inquiry process.

What makes this even more absurd is that any objective investigation will show that the SPF is at least as competent, if not more competent, than the FBI.

Why do I say this? Having lived in the US for over 10 years, I have observed that while Singapore has moved from Third World to First World in its public institutions, many of America's public institutions are going in the opposite direction.

The best minds in America do not go into lifetime public service careers. The best minds in Singapore do. This is why the trust and confidence in Singapore's public institutions remain high overall.

Kudos to blogosphere

I WAS therefore heartened to see that the Singapore blogosphere did not unthinkingly support the American position. Some of the more popular blogs were pretty hostile to the idea of the FBI interfering in a domestic investigation. This has given me some hope that we can try and find some middle ground between the mainstream media and the blogosphere.

In this middle ground, we should reach clear agreement that some of Singapore's painfully developed public institutions should be protected and strengthened, like the SPF.

If we don't develop this middle ground and if a significant percentage of Singaporeans begin to demonstrate a lack of trust in our public institutions, trouble may begin brewing around the corner. This lack of trust can suddenly manifest itself in different ways.

Let me suggest one hypothetical scenario.

We have had quite a few MRT breakdowns in recent years. Thousands of people were inconvenienced. Fortunately, each incident passed peacefully. The peaceful outcomes reflected the high level of trust that Singaporeans have in their public institutions. They saw each incident as an aberration - not indicating the emergence of a new pattern of decline. But this perception could well change if MRT disruptions persist.

Clearly, the public standing of train operator SMRT has been declining. When I served as Singapore's Ambassador to the United Nations from 1984 to 1989, my American counterpart was the legendary Ambassador Vernon Walters. His hobby was to visit and investigate every MRT system in the world. He proudly told me that having done so, he could confidently say the Singapore MRT system was the best in the world.

I asked why. He said it was the only MRT system in the world that had been built ahead of schedule, below cost and functioned smoothly.

Clearly this is no longer the case. The big question is: what went wrong? Was it a mistake to emphasise the short-term private sector profits rather than the long-term public good that the SMRT is supposed to provide?

All this brings me to the hypothetical scenario. If we have another major MRT breakdown, combined with declining trust in public institutions, we may have the perfect combination for a riot or two. We have been free from riots for almost 40 years. The reasons were simple: rising living standards and rising trust in public institutions. But if this trust becomes a declining commodity and if a major public service performs badly, it would be unwise to expect the same level of social harmony.

In short, it would be a mistake to take our high level of public safety for granted. It is the result of a very complex ecosystem of public institutions that still enjoys a high level of trust among Singaporeans.

However, if the blogosphere and the mainstream media cannot agree on a core consensus of preserving and supporting key public institutions, we could end up with a messier Singapore, becoming an unhappy frog rather than a happy butterfly.

To read Prof Mahbubani's previous column, click here.

The writer is Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

By Invitation features expert views from opinion leaders in Singapore and the region.

Colum was first published on April 13, 2013.


Below are some reader's responses to Mr Kishore's article.

Having lived both in and outside Singapore for the last 20 years, that is, about half of my life, I agree that we Singaporeans should take pride in and treasure the high standard of public safety we have. I find it disturbing that many Singaporeans take all this for granted. The Government has made mistakes but let's face it: Who does not?

From Hong Kong to Thailand to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Taiwan and even the United States, from my observations while living in these places, I do feel that we are very fortunate to have dedicated leaders and public servants.

Sure, some decisions may be unpopular but the question to ask is: Is it the majority and/or those in need who benefit? Corruption in some degree is evident in the countries that I have lived in. Most of my friends from these countries are envious of the living standard that we Singaporeans have. Also, Singapore did not happen overnight so if we do not help to protect it, then we may succumb to pressure from external powers. I want to return home to a safe abode.
Tan Kim Hock, Paul


Having lived in the United States and travelled widely, I fully agree with Prof Mahbubani's view that Singaporeans should support their public institutions which, in my opinion, delivering some of the best services from utilities to roadworks. I even daresay our services are far ahead of those in many first world countries.

The unfortunate breakdowns in the MRT service have upset many thousands. Some have argued, for instance, that the SMRT's focus these last 10 years was to commercialise its assets, leaving little focus and resources on servicing and upgrading its equipment. I too wonder if institutions such as train operators who have a monopoly (for this service) should be allowed to be public companies? This should be debated so as to find the correct balance between public service and corporate profit.
EM Nash Benjamin


Singaporeans are generally supportive of public institutions. That does not mean that people should blindly accept the status quo. In the few cases highlighted, eg Mas Selamat escape, MRT breakdown, it demonstrates flaws and weaknesses in the public institutions.

Singaporeans places value in meritocracy, hard work, humility, pragmatism. The online criticism is amplified when the public institutions cannot humbly take criticisms, do not acknowledge their shortcomings/ take corrective action, and conducts itself based on outdated beliefs of the old.

As a result of the achievements of the public institutions, there is a tendency to rest on their laurels and stick to the old formula. However, some of the beliefs of the old days may not be useful/ relevant. For example, the assumption that the public sector has the best talent needs to be challenged. That may be true in the past, but the advantage is fast eroding and probably is not true anymore or will not be true at some stage.

How do the public institutions arrive at this assumption? Do they continue to track this? How is talent measured? How will these institutions be governed if this assumption is no longer true?

Even if the assumption is true, is this a useful belief? It naturally results in a top down style that is less receptive to outside ideas and criticisms. It also channels alternative suggestions into dissenting voices in cyberspace, as they are not harnessed or constructively addressed.

These feelings of unhappiness are exacerbated by the high salaries drawn by leaders of public institutions, which strips away their moral authority to lead. Leadership becomes transactional.

The faster the public institutions rid themselves of such limiting beliefs, and sincerely embrace the collective wisdom and feedback of the public, the stronger the support it will receive from Singaporeans.
Tan Shao Ming


Prof Mahbubani's call for the finding of common ground between the blogosphere and the mainstream media is a welcome one. He correctly points out that cynicism in Singapore's blogosphere, if not effectively addressed, can take the place of constructive criticism and lead to unsubstantiated criticism.

However, what he fails to point out is that compromise is a two way street. The objectivity of the mainstream media in Singapore is doubted by many Singaporeans. This is why the "cynical" blogosphere has been able to gain an audience. Singaporeans want an objective analysis of the local happenings around them, and if the mainstream media cannot provide that, then they will look to other sources such as "'cynical" blogs.

A more effective way to counter cynicism is to allow for more transparency among public institutions. Singaporeans, like others worldwide, are prone to speculation in the face of a lack of information. If speculation is allowed to ferment, it will eventually be "allowed" to become the truth, whether substantiated or not, because there is nothing available to refute it. When there is transparency, there will be less reason for cynicism, which will lose its credibility to the immovable rocks of reason and logic. Improved trust, which is tantamount to a public institution's credibility among the very people that it seeks to serve, will be a foreseeable outcome.

I feel that if transparency and compromise are used together, the issue over the effectiveness of our public institutions can be put to rest, and that we will be finally able to move ahead to face the challenges the world has for us.
Ong Xing Kai Luke


I read the article - "Singapore's Biggest Blessing - Safety" - by Kishore Mahbubani on 13th Apr. Regarding the problems Singapore is facing these days, namely MRT problems, I would like to provide my comments and views on the matter. I have been working as an engineer for over 35 years in the Oil and Gas Industry and in my opinion an organization like SMRT needs a strong personality with a background in maintenance engineering at the top.

I think we went astray some where along the line. This must have happened at least 10 years back as the tracks were bound to develop problems with time.
R. Sivakumar


While I generally agree with the idea that we need to support our public institutions, one must be careful in recognizing that not all public institutions perform to the expectations of the public they serve. Therein lies the rub. Blind faith in supporting every public institution is not only concerning but may not lead to any improvement of an underperforming public institution. Accountability to the public must remain one of the key performance indicators of a public institution.

I submit that there is nothing wrong with being dissatisfied with a particular public institution as long as that dissatisfaction is constructive. Non-constructive criticism is a waste of time. Telling a man short in stature to grow taller - makes no sense at all. Apart from using platform shoes, there is very little more he can do to improve his situation. To borrow a phrase that is a core value of the company I work in - we must be "constructively dissatisfied". Only by being so, can we hope to always challenge ourselves and in this case the public institutions that serve us to continually better themselves.

I believe we have public institutions that are world class and there are some that can be improved. From my personal encounters, I have found the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) and the Immigration & Checkpoint Authority (ICA) to be excellent. I am sure there will be detractors to my opinion on this but with every encounter I have had with them; my experience with them have been a positive. Their front line officers were professional, courteous, and more important willing to listen and try to help me. Although in some instances, I knew I was at fault - at no time during our discussions with me did they focus on blame but instead on how to address the situation with a workable solution. I left each encounter not only satisfied but visibly impressed by these public institutions.

From a corporate perspective, I am very impressed with the work of the Economic Development Board of Singapore (EDB). While some Singaporeans may not have encounters with this public institutions, many Singaporeans today have a job because of their efforts in bringing foreign investors to Singapore. They are also instrumental in shaping the changing face of Singapore's economic and business landscape with the aim of protecting if not enhancing Singapore's competitiveness across this region. Singapore's transformation from low tech manufacturing to high tech manufacturing to aerospace and biomedical engineering did not happen by chance. Yes, it was the vision of our leaders who foresaw that we could continue to compete with our neighbors by being a low tech manufacturing base, but it was organizations like the EDB, IRAS, and yes even the ICA (and several other public institutions) that pooled together to come up with a cogent plan to make these transformations a reality for all of us. Foreign investors won't invest in a country rife with corruption, a state of lawlessness, political instability, and where the legal system is in shambles. There are many public institutions in Singapore responsible for all these areas - from our men in blue (SPF) to the Judiciary, and while there may be occasional lapses by and large, on my scorecard - I rate them as better than average. I have lived abroad in developing countries and travel extensively over the last 20 years across Asia. I sometimes feel we take our public institutions for granted. But they are significantly better than some of the public institutions I have seen in some countries. I guess it all comes down to what are you comparing our public institutions with - your own personal experiences with them (which can be biased) or against similar organizations in other countries.

In either case, at the end of the day, no one can fault us by remaining "constructively dissatisfied". We can always do better. And if we are not exactly there yet, it won't be for lack of trying. By the way - we probably will never get there; as the concept of being "constructively dissatisfied" means there is always that next hill to climb.
Matthew Ong


I read with great interest Mr Kishore's article "Singapore's Biggest Blessing: Safety" on Sunday, 13th April. Though I agree wholeheartedly with him that the key to our sense of security is social trust in our public institutions and that this must not be undermined by cynicism, I am more pessimistic than him for two reasons.

Firstly, I believe that the online cynicism towards our public institutions in the Singaporean blogosphere is but only the tip of the iceberg. Those who post their cynical comments are the vocal and English-educated minority, who care enough to voice their critical views or just want to vent their frustrations. How about the silent majority, especially the lower income group? Their views are not "heard" online, but they may be equally, if not more cynical and critical towards our public institutions.
Certainly, some of their criticisms are rational and justified. But some are baseless and irrational, hinged upon their cynical belief that "gahmen only want to make more money, where got know problems of the poor?" I refer to two recent cases of doubt cast upon the integrity of our public institutions.

The Singapore Police Force (SPF) investigating officers were accused of police brutality and coercion in the interrogations of SMRT bus drivers from China who instigated the others to go on strike. The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) investigating officer-in-charge was accused of intimidation and humiliation by NUS Law professor Tey Tsun Hang. Though both institutions were vindicated eventually, the seeds of doubt have been sown irrevocably.

Supporters will accept that without concrete proof, no social injustice has been done and the accusers were just trying to find legal loopholes to wriggle out of their conundrum. Detractors, however, will just take the cynical stance that "you can't win against the gahmen" and even question the independence of the Singapore judiciary. More must be done to collect and correct their warped views, which if unchecked, will erode public trust in our public institutions. We must also guard against complacency and too much trust in our public institutions as shown in the Mas Selamat fiasco. Any aspersion cast on the integrity of our public institutions, whether online or offline, must be thoroughly investigated and its processes and findings made transparent.

Secondly, whilst I agree that the best minds in Singapore go into public service careers to ensure its high quality, more must be done to correct the elitist mindsets of scholars and help them connect with the ground sentiments of the grassroots. This is to ensure that they do not implement policies that look good on paper, but are out of touch with the reality.
Abrupt U-turns in government policies must be avoided as this shows that they have not been properly conceived and their outcomes suitably anticipated. There is a need to do pilot studies and surveys before implementing the policies. One questions why this was not done before the White Paper on Population, and the recent MAS policies on cars.

The public needs to know that their leaders, public servants and especially the government, truly understand their concerns from their heart, and not just in their heads. Only then can social trust be repaired, rebuilt and enhanced.
Christine Lim


It is indeed true that a Goverment must be of the people, for the people and by the people. This very excerpt by Abraham Lincoln, it is indeed necessary for the citizens of Singapore to support the institutional pillars which support society. Singapore institutions were mostly devised by the British and subsequently the British East India company to facilitate processes both of trade and development in this region. Here I refer to the East India company because of its influence in the region and its imprint left on systems, such as the common law, judicial systems, and public service officers.

Although the company is long gone, and Singapore has miraculously upgraded itself both economically and development wise , as needs and wants become more complex and increase in magnitude, we need citizens to actively participate in articulating their demands and help authorities to devise pragmatic and sustainable ways to achieve them. Citizen involvement should not only be to voice demands but also support the institutions to facilitate real progress as institutions still continue to be pillars in our society.
Some institutions like the Immigration department, Transport, and Housing can proactively involve citizens to ascertain objectives and goals. In doing this, they should also keep in mind, the world's political, economic and societal environments, keeping emotions to a minimum (although they can never been negated completely from the equation).

Like organizations, where just coming up with a problem isn't recommended but solutions are welcome, a similar strategy can be effectively used at the grassroots level. All citizens, positively contributing to achieve social goals and targets is much more effective and efficient than a handful of officials from various divisions delegating the work. If everyone can imbibe the quality of service they would like to achieve and internalize it, then the commitment level goes up and the chances of achieving these goals increases.
Swagat Banerjee


Can S'pore lead the world to the age of wisdom?

I have been living in Singapore for the past two decades; as a permanent resident from 1992 to 2002 and as a naturalized Singapore citizen thereafter. I am married to a native Singaporean and have two children who are native Singaporeans too.
I am not at all concerned of what race or religion people belong to because it doesn't matter at all, but for the benefit of the reader, let me mention that we are Indian muslims. My wife, as well as my children, have learned Chinese as their second language. I feel proud when I hear Chinese academic personnel at admission counters etc, looking at our children's grade cards, and remarking to them in appreciation "Your chinese language must be better than mine ?"

I was apprehensive when my wife discussed the option of enrolling our children for Chinese second language classes more than two decades ago. But I wholeheartedly supported the move right from the day they were enrolled. We shouldn't worry whether our decision is right or wrong. Instead, we should make firm decisions and make them right.

Both my children are following their passions. My daughter is pursuing an honours degree programme, while my son is already enrolled as a government scholar. All my employers for the past two decades had been Chinese, I have worked with people of all nationalities in Singapore and I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with anybody with regard to race, religion and nationality. In fact, I look at all human interaction as an opportunity for spiritual experience.

Acceptance of the simple but profound fact that "life is difficult", and my genuine love for self, my dear ones and fellow creatures on this earth, have forced me to draw inspiration from dissatisfaction and to instill within me the self discipline to take responsibility for my life, delay gratifications, dedicate to truth and to do the balancing act whenever necessary. I have experienced from my own life that whole hearted and unconditional acceptance of the fact that "life is difficult" does not only make our life less difficult. It also leads us to the next modalities of awakened or inspired action: "enjoyment" and "enthusiasm".

I wholeheartedly support Kishore Mahbubani's call for Singapore citizens to uphold its public institutions. A brief sharing of my own individual experiece as above is relevant on a collective level as well. It is my resolve to cooperate wholeheartedly with my dear ones, regardless of their differences, that has enabled me to experience the peace of mind I have now. The cooperation of all stakeholders is essential for the continued peace and happiness of every Singapore citizen. As the saying goes "Every adversity has in it the seed of an equivalent or greater benefit". Can Singapore go for the greater benefit from the adversities Kishore as well as the blogosphere has been highlighting? Needless to say, we have to support all our public institutions because each of them has a definite purpose. My mention of only few public institutions below in no way imply that others are not important.

We all agree with Kishore that Singapore is undergoing a mighty metamorphosis. It is indeed great news if the transformation is really taking place in the spiritual sphere as pointed out by Kishore in "Singapore: Butterfly or frog ?"

The human race has evolved through various ages; stone age, agricultural age, Industrial age to the current information or knowledge worker age. It is critical for the dignified living and survival of humanity and other species on earth that the next age should be the age of wisdom.

Every individual in this planet should internalize the words of Mahatma Gandhi "You be the change you are expecting of the people". We should all have the humility and courage to get integrated with the universal principles of life and thereby attain "Integrity of character". This implies that we as individuals, families, nation, and global citizen attain a consciousness or self discipline in which "doing the right thing even if we like not to or not doing the wrong thing even if we like to" becomes internalised. Such a shift in consciousness will lead to an "abundance mentality" as well as wisdom.

In line with our nation's resolve to excel in all fields, can we have a vision to make Singapore a world class centre to bring together humanity as one family to lead the world from the current information/knowledge worker age to the "Age of Wisdom" by impregnating values and principles into whatever we do?

Can Singapore lead the world to the age of wisdom?

Our mental (IQ), physical (PQ),emotional (EQ) and adversity (AQ) quotients or intelligences alone are inadequate to solve the major challenges facing us. It is urgent that we realize that all the above intelligences need to be guided by our conscience or spiritual intelligence (SQ) so as to sustain and continue the growth humankind has achieved so far.

We must urgently ramp up world's perspective on creativity, curiosity, appreciation of beauty and excellence etc. All these revolve around the state of consciousness of the individual as well as society. Making a shift in the state of consciousness will make positive impact in all vital areas of life such as self improvement, relationships, communications, and leadership, because it involves maximizing human potential through the whole person - mind, body, heart and spirit.

Singapore's Ministry of Education is implementing character education for children in Schools. Can we also take the initiative for character education of grownups through organizations like Universities, Temples, Churches, Mosques, the Singapore International Foundation (SIF), and Inter Religious Organizations (IROs)?

It is worthwhile promoting the "Learn, Earn, Return" philosophy of living a happy and meaningful life at an individual, national and global level. When the amount of money people have crosses a certain threshold (which is not very high) more money produces virtually no increase in life satisfaction. But money can buy happiness - if you give it to help someone else. Is this concept not applicable at a national and global level, as well?

We need to integrate the various public, private and people sectors so as to build a gracious society. Singapore has the right mix of leadership, talent, attitude, knowledge and skill to lead the whole world from the "Knowledge Age" to the "Age of Wisdom". Organizations such as universities, schools, temples, churches, mosques, SIF, and IROs can be the platforms.

To achieve this, these organizations need to be run by the so called "Type 5 leaders", whose attributes include a paradoxical combination of extreme personal humility and intense professionalism to get the right decisions carried out regardless of whether the decision is a majority or minority one. This intense professional will comes from their genuine love for humanity and other species on this earth. Genuine love is defined as the will to extend one's self for nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth.
It is heartening to note that the government has taken initiatives for change as is evident from the many inclusive steps underway. This includes our Prime Minister's ongoing conversation with the people. It is worth mentioning the courageous actions our PM has taken following the Michael Palmer saga, including the decision to go for a bye election promptly. I have great respect and admiration for our PM's father as well as our founding father Mr Lee Kuan Yew for his extraordinary vision and professional will.
Our government's firm and continuous resolve to stamp out corruption is evident from past cases as well as recent probes by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau on top civil servants, and National University of Singapore professors. These are moves in the right direction. Needless to say, the CPIB is also an instituition to be supported by all Singaporeans.
It is the right time to put forward a vision to lead the world to the "Age of wisdom".
Althaf Hussain

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