Future Ahead

 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. 


PenguinsThere has been much public discourse in recent days about whether the National Library Board should have removed three books it deemed unsuitable for children.  

That many parents have said the decision on whether the books are suitable should be left to parents is a worthy statement, based on the assumption that all parents who send their young children to the library will be vetting every book their children would be reading.  

Would such an assumption be reasonable? It would probably be reasonable for the parents who have spoken up, but it would not be a reasonable assumption for the majority of parents in Singapore who could possibly be feeling that they are already doing the right thing simply by taking the trouble to take their children to the library once a week or every few days.  

So the public debate should principally be whether the National Library Board has the duty to exercise its judgment – because many parents assume they are actively doing it, and would hold them accountable for it – to ensure that books available in the library are age-appropriate, and the courage to admit and correct any wrong judgment they may have made, including withdrawing books they had cleared but on review feel they should not have cleared. 

All these arguments then lead to the question of how much children need to be shaped in their understanding and character, as opposed to being largely left to develop on their own.  

The Chinese have a saying that one can see the future simply by seeing how the child’s character is like at three years of age. And psychologists have said that by the time a child is four year old, much of his or her beliefs, attitudes and values are already formed for life: This is BEFORE the child turns up in school, which therefore places the responsibility squarely on parents to consciously and deliberately attend to their children’s development of character before they even get to kindergarten

We find the following in Plato’s “Republic”: 

“You know that the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken. . . shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those that we should wish them to have when they are grown up? 

“We cannot. . . . anything received into the mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales that the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts. . . . 

“Then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region, and insensibly draw the soul from the earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason. 

“There can be no nobler training than that.” 

Or as the Bible states even more succinctly in its book of Proverbs: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not turn from it.”

Open your hearts to Life

Life in your hands

I was shocked to learn during the course of this week that if a girl less than 16 years old were pregnant, she would not need to get her parent’s consent to abort the baby, but she must get her parent’s consent if she wants to carry the baby to full term or to subsequently put the baby out to adoption. I may have been told the facts of law wrongly, but if true, it is shocking for me to learn that the whole system is skewed towards aborting the baby. For the girl, to abort the baby would at least save her from any scolding at home! 

On a separate issue, I had the special opportunity to visit the charity known as Sanctuary House. Sanctuary House arranges for infants and children up to 16 years old to be put into foster homes. The foster parents take them in on a temporary basis, which may be for a few days, but in exceptional cases could go on to a few months or even years. These are children who need a sanctuary away from their own parents while their parents sort out the issues that trouble the parents.  

It was so heart-warming to learn that there are a fair number of families in Singapore willing to open their homes to these needful children. At the same time, however, it was somewhat disappointing to learn that a clear majority of these willing foster parents are expatriates, while the clear minority are Singaporeans. The cynical call this Asians opening their cheque books while Caucasians open their hearts. It may be an unfair characterization, but the facts of numbers cannot be denied. Perhaps we would get better with heart work as we mature as a country and a society; but then again, perhaps we wouldn’t.


Life & Death



My observation this week is somewhat sombre, yet my intent is to uplift.

I was attending the wake of a husband and a father of children below ten years of age. One wonders how to be helpful and not show indifference at such an event. Yet often the most one can come out with is to be quiet, to listen, to contemplate and to be still.

Dealing with death is very much a matter of perspective. The sadness is undeniable but oftentimes the relief may also be felt.

I have found the commentary by a Bishop Brent in answer to the question “What is Dying?” to be particularly helpful:

“A ship sails and I stand watching till she fades on the horizon and someone at my side says, ‘She is gone.’

‘Gone where?’

‘Gone from my sight, that is all; she is just as large as when I saw her. The diminished size, and total loss of sight is in me, not in her, and just at the moment when someone at my side says ‘She is gone,’ there are others who are watching her coming, and other voices take up a glad shout, ‘There she comes!’ and that is dying.”

Complement this with the words of Henry Scott Holland who was Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral:

”Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room.  I am I and you are you.  Whatever we were to each other, that we still are.

Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.

Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without effort, without the trace of a shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was; there is unbroken continuity. 

Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?  

I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner.  All is well.