Towards a Truly Compassionate Society

This article was first published in the bilingual column of Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore’s leading Chinese daily, on March 26, 2002. A post-article update follows immediately.

In recent weeks, the local media reported prominently the unedifying spectacles of a Singaporean money changer cheating hundreds of Chinese workers of their hard-earned savings here, a cruel Singaporean employer inflicting serious bodily harm on her Indonesian maid and a gruesome murder and robberies committed cowardly against elderly and disabled Singaporeans.

Against such depressing backdrops of the darker side of life in Singapore, the news report of the prestigious Raffles Girls’ School (RGS) placing the welfare of a student with learning disability above its academic excellence shone as a beacon worthy of emulation by others.

By allowing this student to sit the O-Level exam, the school stood to possibly forfeit its proud record of 100% passes. This humane and praiseworthy decision came as a surprise to many, especially those who view Singapore as a rigid rules-bound society, and that Singaporeans generally lack independent thinking and the conviction to question government policies and established norms, even if they disagree with them.

Like all generalisations, such sweeping one-sided caricaturing of Singaporeans may fit only a cross-section of its citizenry, but are definitely not representative of the younger generation, upon whom the nation’s future largely depends.

Being better educated and more civic-minded with higher expectations of life and more exposed to global influences, the younger Singaporeans are more vocal in wanting to transform the community into a more caring and compassionate one, and are willing to help make it a reality. Their impact is being felt. The government has opened up more channels of communication so that their views will be considered in policy matters.

Is the shinning example shown by RGS a mere flash in the pan, or is it the harbinger of a truly more caring and compassionate society, in which human kindnesses are valued no less than material success and scholastic achievements?

What are some of the attributes of a humane community, and how does Singapore measure up to them? Here are some examples. By any yardstick, we can be proud of our long-standing record of philanthropy for charities and education. This contributes significantly to the success of our public institutions.

Disadvantaged Singaporeans can always count on the generous and spontaneous assistance of their more fortunate fellow citizens in the darkest moments of their lives. Such generosity is frequently extended to foreign victims of natural calamities too.

Nowadays, more Singaporeans from all walks of life, including students, would volunteer their services to care for the less fortunate among us. Twenty years ago, such volunteers were largely expatriates resident here.

Civic consciousness is on the rise too. Motorists in distress or victims of traffic accidents can expect instant help from others. This is true also of victims of crimes, with their rescuers often putting their own safety in jeopardy.
But a truly compassionate society transcends beyond philanthropy, helping the handicapped, being public-spirited or kind to others.

Singapore is a highly paper qualification-oriented country, and nothing succeeds here like success. The world-renowned academic failures like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, both college dropouts, might not have found fame as computer geniuses, had they been raised locally.

As an illustration, when some of us were appointed to government committees some years ago, we were required to furnish our educational credentials, including subjects and grades from O-Level onwards, as though we were applying for Government jobs where academic achievements more than any other factors were of paramount importance.

In other words, our culture abhors failures and glorifies achievements. Sadly, many late developers and worthy failures were often denied a second chance to redeem themselves, whether in business or employment.
This would stifle initiative, creativity, entrepreneurship and overlook other qualities for success, and ultimately deprive these hapless people an opportunity to attain their chosen goals in life.

Fortunately, there is now a belated recognition that “failure is the mother of success”, and that it should not be held against talented people. Instead, they should be given every encouragement and financial assistance to help them succeed and make their contributions to society.

Notwithstanding that our social services are now better than ever before, by First World standard, we need to set aside more resources to provide enhanced public facilities and amenities and more specialised schools and vocational training for our disabled people, so that they can lead a life more approximating that of their able-bodied brethren.

Likewise, we should extend a firmer hand of friendship and encouragement to them, not just sympathies and avoidance, in order that they would have a rightful place here.

Our employers, both public and private, can and should adopt a more flexible approach towards the handicapped and those with criminal records seeking employment, rather than rejecting them out of preconceived prejudices without first examining closely their proven abilities and antecedents for mitigating factors in their favour.

Take the case of Professor John Nash, who, despite being stricken with severe schizophrenia, was allowed to teach at America’s world-renowned Princeton University because of his mathematical prowess and who eventually won a Nobel Price for economics in 1994. Now 75, he still teaches there. His story is told poignantly in the film, A Beautiful Mind, now showing in our local cinemas.

The day the likes of John Nash, or those with other mental ailments, are allowed to teach in our educational establishments because of their other merits, will, in my view, be the day that we can proclaim proudly that Singapore is truly a caring and compassionate nation.

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Post Lianhe Zaobao article update

In my considered view, one of the most significant post 2002 developments in Singapore’s social scene is the growing number of volunteers, especially the younger ones, who would devote their weekends, public or school holidays to helping the poor and needy in various charity homes in order to bring more light and comfort into the winters of their lives. Some would even do so to the needy folks in the poverty-stricken rural villages or towns in our neighbouring countries. In a visit with our two Singapore-based grandchildren to the home for the multiple deformed for both young and old not long ago, it was a most moving sight to see a group of high school students of different races bringing light food items to the inmates, some had been there for decades, and keeping them company for hours. The joy shown on the faces of these inmates were obvious for all to see when these students held their skinny hands or wiped their faces after eating their favourite chocolates and pastries. These are highly praiseworthy acts of human kindness in their pure form, even more praiseworthy than acts of philanthropy which have always been an important component in Singapore’s charitable scene and will continue to be so in future.

It has also become increasingly a common sight to see young people, especially students, spending their weekends and school vacations to visit lonely old folks in their austere and tiny homes in order to bring them food, tidying up their rundown abodes and to warm up their spirits by keeping company with them and extending to them the badly needed assistance. Many of these desperate souls were simply neglected or even abandoned by their own family members.

My wife and I can recall fondly how we instilled the importance of being caring and compassionate to our two Singapore-based grandson and granddaughter from a very young age of about three by bringing them annually to visit old age homes and homes for physically or mentally handicapped young and old where they would donate their piggy-bank savings and Lunar New Year “Red Packet” money to these homes, with us topping them up when necessary. I would like to share with you a couple of interesting anecdotes of these visits. In an old age home, my older grandson remarked: “So everyone will grow old one day and me too?” On another occasion when we brought him and his younger sister to visit a home for terminally ill children, he seriously asked the volunteer teacher in charge: “Will my sister and I be infected by these kids if we mix with them?” When the teacher lovingly assured him that this would not happen, my six-year old grandson then cheerfully joined these kids for a drawing lesson and painted a very nice picture, which their parents proudly displayed on a wall in their house.

Most of the compassionate deeds of Singaporeans mentioned in the article above have been further enhanced in the past decade and this is most gratifying. For instance, more and more Singaporeans are now giving to charities but the total annual collections are still below those of the rich Western countries and Japan in terms of a percentage of our GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Another healthy development is that Singaporeans are now more willing to accept those talented among us who failed in their initial business ventures or employment and would often afford them a second chance to prove themselves and some would even support them with funds needed to help bring their projects to fruition. A further change in the employer’s mindset is that the enlightened among them are now more amenable to employing those with past criminal records in certain jobs but, I believe, most would still not be prepared to accept them in positions with financial responsibilities yet.

The Singapore International Foundation (SIF), like the US Peace Corps before it, was established in 1991 in order to help the less developed parts of Asian countries and to make a difference to the lives of the folks in those communities. The SIF volunteers who come from various walks of life will share their professional skills, life experiences and resources aimed at uplifting their living conditions where they are much-needed. Their untiring efforts have been much appreciated by the recipient communities and their activities have since been further expanded. These have also generated much goodwill between Singapore and the countries concerned.

However, on the debit side, some of the less edifying side of the Singaporean character traits have also become more evident in the last decade. Here are some examples.

The inhumane treatment meted out to our foreign domestic maids by some employers have continued unabated. Many have been subjected to excessive long working hours, being deprived of their statutory days off and some of them are given insufficient food for their sustenance, and some are owed their wages over a prolonged period. To top it all, some are even cruelly and  physically ill treated. Those who could no longer bear it had, perforce, to run away  from their employers’ homes without their passports and personal belongings in order to seek shelter in their own country’s Singapore embassies. These inhumane employers were often prosecuted where justified and what they did to their maids then came under the public glare and most were rightfully punished by law. This spectacle is also reflected in their cruel fate with numerous erring employers in Hong Kong  too.

Singaporeans’ less than hospitable reception of the tens of thousands of foreign construction workers is also much condemned by the right thinking fellow citizens. They are more often than not treated with contempt or scorn, making them social pariahs, not realising that without them Singapore’s construction industry would come to a grinding halt and our national economy will be adversely affected as no Singaporeans would want to do these “dirty jobs” with low pay and long working hours.

There was a chorus of protest when a block of Public Housing Board flats was to be set aside to house the foreign workers and many Singaporeans voiced their displeasure in press columns or social media for fear that they would turn their neighbourhood into a foreign ghetto and with it crimes will rise, thereby bringing down their own property values.

To counterbalance these,not long ago, a young child managed to climb out of the first floor kitchen window of her parents’ home and was tangling from the window sill fighting for her life. This was witnessed by a small crowd  from below, urging the child to hang on as help would be coming shortly. A foreign worker among them took swift and brave action by climbing up a long water pipe near the window and leaping onto the parapet beneath the child and managed to pull her up above the window level and safely rescued her in the nick of time. This won the loud cheer and admiration of the crowd below. The rescue scene was captured on a video recording which went viral on the Facebook and fully published in the newspapers. This public-spirited and compassionate act won this foreign worker high commendation from the police and raised the standing of foreign workers here.

Despite some efforts by the Government and the charity sector to better cater to young children with mental  disabilities such as those inflicted with autism and other forms of intellectual subnormality, our specialised and vocational schools serving their needs, though improving, are still not as good compared with similar institutions in countries like United States and Australia. I am told of a couple of cases of Singaporean parents with such children migrating there for the long term well-being of their children so inflicted.

It is a well-known fact that Singapore is an aging society and, by 2030, one out of five Singaporeans will be aged 65 and above. In view of this, and as dementia will quicken its pace from now onwards, urgent action is needed to tackle this enormous problem now. The Government is, of course, fully aware of this and are formulating plans to meet this eventuality. In my view, more additional dementia homes, like the pioneering Apex Harmony Lodge, must be built in good time and others can be set up in existing hospitals urgently with well trained healthcare staff to serve the patients’ particular needs.

It is most unfortunate that there is still a great deal of social stigma and avoidance of people with mental ailments meted out by the Singapore public, as well as in other more advanced Countries like the United States, in Europe and Japan too. It is no easy task to change the mindsets of people everywhere. We can only hope that public sympathies and helping hands extended to these victims can help to bring more human warmth and sunlight into their remaining years. In the longer term, it is highly possible that medical science and innovative technology might eventually find a cure to this terrifying human affliction.

Finally, I am doubtful if our tertiary institutions at this point in time would allow the likes of Professor John Nash of Princeton University, with severe mental conditions, to teach in our universities as a precedent for others in similar medical conditions to follow. The public opinion too might not support their medical stability and fitness to do so. Given another decade or so this should be possible with indisputable authoritative medical evidence that they pose no danger to the universities and the students there. I believe this may well happen in the not too distant future with continuing advancement in the medical science and change of mindset of our people to keep abreast with the most enlightened societies.

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Lam Pin Foo

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