Singapore may have much of the best ‘hard infrastructure’ in the world – highways, fibre broadband networks, airport – but our ‘soft infrastructure’ – social attitudes, national identity and values – are where most of our problems lie. To me, tangible and intangible have always been a false dichotomy, because they are inextricably bound and synergistic with each other. For instance, if we had a stronger national identity and sense of shared ideals, fewer of our best and brightest Singaporeans would emigrate and we would have more talent in Singapore to boost our GDP. If we were more considerate and gracious as a people, we would clear our own trays at food courts which would mean fewer cleaners needed, savings in business costs and possibly lower prices for our food.
The following interview with a brilliant naturalised Singaporean with great dedication to Singapore is a must-read for all Singaporeans. Our success has bred a sense of entitlement and other emotional immaturities in us. But the world doesn’t stand still and the competition is always evolving; if we do not wake up and smell the coffee, we may be headed for big trouble as a nation.
From “overfussiness” and complacency to an inability to accept criticism, many things about Singaporeans’ attitudes to work irk Mr Victor Mills. The Northern Ireland-born Singapore citizen, 55, who took over as chief executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) last June, speaks his mind in the Supper Club interview.
By Walter Sim
Q: What was your first impression of Singapore when you arrived 30 years ago?
When I graduated (with a master’s in East European Political Science from the University of London), it was during a major recession and there were no jobs.
So I joined an international bank and was first posted to Hong Kong, and then Singapore in 1985.
What really impressed me about Singapore was that it preached good race relations – and actually had them.
This was different when compared to Northern Ireland (which had a lot of political violence at the time due to the Protestant and Catholic conflict) and it was the first thing that struck me about Singapore.
What also struck me, which we have since lost, is that Singapore was much more egalitarian and relaxed back then.
People didn’t wear suits. They certainly didn’t wear ties – even the Government or businessmen. Anybody could talk to anybody.
Q: How have things changed?
We’re now going through a period I saw in Hong Kong in the 1980s.
The level of materialism – what you wear, where you live, what you drive, what you wear on your wrist – has become a key determinant of the value of human life. This is absolute nonsense.
But it’s the unintended consequence of the fantastic economic success which we have enjoyed. In our headlong rush for more money, a lot of values seem to have been lost.
The ability to communicate with anybody else is less evident, and people now, generally, want to interact only with people of their own perceived social group.
So we’re now a more stratified and polarised society, which is why you hear people longing for the return of the kampung spirit.
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