An inclusive society – in 10 years?

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam said an “inclusive society is achievable in the next 10 years, and the community and its volunteers have a role to play.” (TODAY, 15 April 2012.)

No one can argue about his second point – that the community has a role to play in fostering such an inclusive society. One may even argue that the community’s role is the more important one. 

It is the first part of DPM Tharman’s remarks which is puzzling – that such a society is “achievable in the next 10 years.” Why should it take such a long time? Hasn’t the government been trying to achieve such inclusiveness for the longest time? In fact, at every Budget and every General Election, this was the underlying message which the People’s Action Party (PAP) had promised. Incidentally, DPM Tharman’s 10-year time frame parallels another 10-year plan – to increase income level by 30% over the next 10 years.

My first thought when I saw that TODAY headline was: The government again equals inclusiveness to economic progress. However, Mr Tharman explains that fostering an inclusive society is “not all about government schemes or about redistribution”, “it’s also about culture”.

I agree completely with the DPM. Which brings me to the point of this article.

Culture is not just about mindsets, which Mr Tharman seems to be saying. It is also about cherishing, preserving and recognising the value of certain things which makes us Singaporean.

As I mentioned in a previous article, these are heritage, identity, history, engagement, empowerment.

We cannot be an inclusive society by just saying a good word to one another, or to lend help whenever needed. These are charitable and courteous acts, for sure, and they are desirable, certainly. But they do not an inclusive society make.

Inclusiveness must go deeper, much deeper, than even these important things.

There must be a spirit of caring and recognition of the significance and importance of that which speaks to our soul – and the government, above anyone else, must take the lead in showing this.

For example, in recent times, many such things have been torn down, discarded, replaced by newer things which holds no affinity for us – the many (too many) shopping centres and entertainment centres, roads and buildings, artificial constructs which pander to the short-term economic purpose.

We see the death of arts enclaves, the demise of an icon (Rediffusion) as a result of “commercial decisions”, the eventual complete removal of historical cemeteries and buildings, culturally important practices – such as the speaking of dialects – are dissuaded, coerced into abandonment, even the teaching of literature is slowly being erased from our schools, etc.

How do we foster an inclusive society when the very stuff which would be the foundation for such a community are constantly and mercilessly, unthinkingly removed on a whim?

The government’s idea of inclusiveness seems to be based on two ideas:

1. Government will redistribute the economic pie to stave off inequality.

2. Members of our community are encouraged to be “nice” and “caring” toward each other.

If we achieve these two, we would be said to have become an “inclusive society”.

If these are our only yardsticks, then we would have installed an artificial inclusiveness.

At the risk of repeating myself, the government needs to stop and pause. Singapore has become a concrete jungle ten times over. While I welcome very much the soon-to-be-opened Gardens by the Bay, the biggest aquarium in the world at Resorts World, the new International Ferry Terminal, and so on, I would urge the government to consider that these do not necessarily help foster the inclusive society which it keeps talking about.

More often than not, it is the simpler things in life which does – the sound of dialects over the airwaves, the familiarity of a neighbourhood which we grew up in, honouring the departed who helped built this city, etc.

An inclusive society goes beyond caring for the needy, important as this is, or sharing the rewards of economic growth, desirable as this is too. It is about simpler things.

And we don’t have to wait 10 years to achieve this.

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One thought on “An inclusive society – in 10 years?

  1. “Our forefathers speak to us through what that endures.” – from a TV advert ages ago. How true.

    You get a very real feeling that to the govt culture and heritage boils down to only facade of selected old buildings/structures and perhaps tokenism in the
    form of selected museum pieces – very often the insides are missing. No software, no meat, little substances. There is also this almost mythical belief being pandered that the peranakan culture is a dominant culture here when locals are wiser about its actual status. No offence to fellow peranakan Singaporeans is meant by this. This myth seems to be so boldly propagated simply because one or a couple of the ‘founding fathers’ are among its more well known progenies. To my mind it is clear that the babas (local speak for the peranakans) forms only a modest segment of the local population. But they are more than proportionately represented in govt and public life due to said influence and even deliberate manipulation of the politicians concerned. No doubt about it that tribalism has indeed crept into virtually all spheres of private and public lives. If you do a mental head count you would know what I mean.

    Policies that led to the demise of the original Nanyang U was only possible because of this underlying factor. The Lee family is peranakan first and foremost and only hakka in name. Same reason too why for over 40 years Chinese dialects have been officially suppressed despite the desperately unsuccessful campaign to make Singaporeans speak and read Mandarin.

    I know this would sound controversial, but there is more than a grain of truth in this admittedly speculative conclusions.

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