I had the privilege to address more than 200 community leaders last Sunday. These are the people who volunteer their time and energy in the various grassroots organisations to serve the community, maintain social harmony, and build relationships and understanding among Singaporeans.
I started off by saying that if we were to look at an atlas of the world, Singapore fits quite nicely within the letter “o” of the name of our country. This smallness, if it were not to be an insurmountable impediment to the success and survival of Singapore, and therefore the hopes and aspirations of Singaporeans, must translate into certain ways of thinking and of working together. I quoted Lord Parlmeston, an English statesman of the 19th century, who had said: “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”
I outlined what I felt were the three big challenges the world faces and which Singapore cannot avoid:
- lack of leadership
- lack of ideas
- the rise of relativist secularism
On the lack of leadership: I take as my starting point the definition of leadership as “making things happen which on their own would not happen.” So the leader has to make things happen. But obviously this definition is not adequate, in that the head of the mafia, for example, would still qualify as a leader, despite the criminal activities associated with the mafia. So we need to improve the definition by saying “leadership is making good things happen which on their own would not happen.” But the moment we insert the word “good”, we have entered into the moral and ethical dimension, as we then need to also decide what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong. So in leading people, we cannot run away from making moral judgments of whether the goals and results of our leadership are good and right for the people we are leading and serving.
On the lack of ideas: I said that, in my mind, the greatest danger for our future is when our young, who would be taking up the mantle of leadership in years to come, do not think for ourselves, but instead simply “follow the crowd” or take on the views of people elsewhere without thinking for ourselves as to whether that is the best way to think and to behave which would be beneficial for our long-term well-being. In today’s world of the social media, it is so easy to just follow whatever we feel comfortable with, rather than to challenge what we read, dig into the data to check for accuracy and truthfulness, and reason things out for ourselves to come to our own convictions. This way we will not simply fall prey to the loudest voices or the urgings of those who do not have our best interests in mind.
And on the rise of relativist secularism: This is where there are no stable standards in values and beliefs to guide our decisions and behaviours as we make our way into the future. Instead, people justify their actions on a relative basis. “I am OK if I lie, so long as the lies I tell are smaller than the lies other people tell.” Bad behaviours and poor ideas are justified by quoting others with even worse behaviours or poorer ideas. Contrast this to why Singapore has been able to attract so many large investments where investors will need years to recover their money. They do so because they see Singaporeans as people whose word is our honour: people who will deliver on our promises, who are reliable, who will work hard, and who are trustworthy, a people who will deliver despite unexpected difficulties and much effort.