Things do not change; we change
Farah Aida examines social change in Singapore
By Farah Aida
Change is the only constant in life. This constant is the cause rather than the effect that sets things in motion. By ‘things’ I mean, systems, structures, situations and circumstances that define our existence in any civilized society. The essence of these ‘things’ does not change because they shape the basic structure from which such a society may grow and flourish. However their forms or features may differ just as human faces may look different depending on an individual’s ethnicity. These days, under the skilled hands of a plastic surgeon, the features of a human face can also change. The fact that we are now scientifically capable of altering the forms of our faces to match our outfits indicates that we effect changes on things because our attitudes, needs, mindsets and expectations have and will continually undergo ‘extreme makeovers’.
As Singaporeans, we too have not been spared although it is generally believed that the patriarchal style of government instilled in our early days of Independence may have cultivated a society that seemed to change only when things change. Supporters of this viewpoint may cite the population control measures introduced in the late 60s and early 70s, which included the 1968 “Keep Your Family Small” campaign, voluntary sterilisation in 1969 and the “Stop At Two” campaign of 1971 as obvious illustrations of this perspective. So successful were these measures that our population steadily declined every year since 1975.
However, it is presumptuous to assume that government policies alone resulted in the plummeting birth rates. According to sociologists Rajakru and Yap, “modern attitudes to working life,... late marriage and single living,... made these policies... highly effective.” These considerations should not be disregarded especially when it is clear that the changes in our attitudes and expectations have made the policies of that time successful. This is in direct contrast to the intense criticism and “great public outcry” that arose with regard to measures in the 1980s to promote selective procreation based on education, economic levels and inadvertently ethnic class. Singaporeans then disagreed with the rationale behind such policies and refused to alter their mindsets to accept such a change. Consequently those measures were dissolved.
Despite our seemingly non-confrontational demeanor, we still hold our destiny in our hands. When external change occurs it is because we have made internal changes first. In 2001 Dr Kenneth Tan from the National University of Singapore wrote an article, ‘“Civic Society” And The “New Economy” In Patriarchal Singapore’, that discussed the existence of universal gender stereotypes in Singapore society; the man is regarded as the provider and protector whilst the woman is the biological producer. However just three years later, changes are already taking place. The Prime Minister’s Office released the following statement on August 25, 2004:
This media release echoes the words of incumbent Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech when he said, “...we can't stand still because... our people are changing and... so must the way we govern Singapore.”
However, skeptics may say that the government, of any nation, looks into the interests of the party in power first before proceeding to address the concerns of its people. I concede that there are measures at the national level that may be unappealing, unrealistic and even disadvantageous to the individual but ultimately a self-governing system like ours must concern itself firstly with the survival of the nation before looking into the interests of individuals. In this respect, changes in the people’s expectations will cause changes in governing styles although the essence of government remains the same.
Having said this, there is however an area in which times have changed but Singaporeans have not. Although we have gained developed nation status and are supposedly more educated and affluent than our forefathers, we have deteriorated in our social graces. The then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s National Day Rally speech in 2001 gave mention to Singaporeans’ complacency and lack of social graces “at home and in other countries.” In this respect the forms of our human nature have not evolved to complement our economic achievements. We still hold some of the negative immigrant mentality, such as the ‘kiasu’ trait that was probably necessary in a fledgling state, but which has no place in the first world nation we presently reside in. It was William James who said, “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.” We must therefore make a conscious effort to shed the ‘me-first’ mindset in exchange for a kinder, civil and community-conscious attitude lest our efforts at qualitative progress remain at best, mediocre.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 2 Jan 2005