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Learn from other countries to build a gracious society, says Tan Kin Lian.

Important to build a gracious society

Tan Kin Lian

We may have to re-think some of the policies that have shaped Singapore successfully in past years, but have become disadvantageous today.

Liu I-Chun wrote a letter that was published in the Today paper recently. It was titled, “I will miss this home.” The sub-title said, “In Taipei, hospitality and kindness abound, making it an extremely liveable city”.

Here’s what she wrote in her letter:

I am an expatriate who has been living in Taipei for the past three years, and have grown to like this place

Cultural vibrancy, a convenient public transport system and excellent healthcare system aside, it is the hospitality of the Taiwanese people that I will dearly miss when I leave this city.

People automatically give up their seats on buses and trains to the infirmed and the elderly …..

Shopping is such a pleasant experience in Taiwan. Sales staff often go out of their way to meet the needs of customers …..

I am also full of praise for the healthcare system. Patients are treated with respect, patience and empathy. Nurses often offer words of encouragement and ask how the patients are doing when they undergo uncomfortable or painful procedures.

This hospitality extends to food stall owners as well. I have been treated to off-the-menu special dishes and free up-sized orders. Such generosity actually comes from owners who are barely able to keep their businesses afloat.

The Taiwanese have taught me much with their graciousness, kindness and generosity.

My recent visit

My daughter has been working in Taipei for the past year. She is enjoying her work and life in Taipei and has a similar liking for this city.

At the turn of 2008, I spent a few days in Taipei with her. I personally experienced much of what is said by I-Chun during my short stay. I liked the excellent taxi service and mass transit system. I enjoyed the courteous and helpful service of the sales staff in the shops and the friendliness of the people.

My recent experience is in sharp contrast with my first visit to Taiwan more than 30 years ago. At that time, Taiwan was under martial law. People were fearful. I was told to be careful about robbers and crime.

What has caused this big change in the people of Taiwan since then?

A democratic and free society

The people of Taiwan have enjoyed true democracy and freedom for the past twenty years, after the lifting of martial law. More importantly, the people feel that they have a voice in shaping their future, the freedom to choose their leaders and to hold them accountable.

Although the economy of Taiwan went through a difficult patch in recent years, the people are still optimistic and happy with their situation.

Our local media likes to highlight the rowdy behaviour of the politicians in the legislative assembly in Taiwan or their unusual practices in attracting people to attend election rallies during election periods, to show what being democratic or living in a democracy will do. The Taiwanese people seem to find these types of behaviour to be quite acceptable and a true reflection of a free society.

Our neighbouring countries

In Jakarta, I watched a television program with three actors mimicking President Yudhoyono, Vice President Kalla and former President Gus Dur. The audience included many young undergraduates in their college uniforms. They enjoyed the humour thoroughly. My friend said that this weekly program is very popular with the people. It made the political leaders quite like ordinary people, which they really are.

I asked a few friends how life today was, compared to the days under President Suharto. They said that people are generally happier and that they appreciated their freedom. This is in spite of the setback in the economy caused by the fluid political situation.

Another friend said that Malaysian businessmen are now more optimistic about the future of their country after the recent election setback of the ruling Barisan National. They believe that the Government will be more accountable to the people.

Lessons for Singapore

I hope that Singapore can learn from Taiwan and build a more gracious society. This was the goal set by Mr. Goh Chok Tong some years ago, when he was Prime Minister. This goal seemed to have been shelved in recent years. I hope that it can be re-launched, as it is worth pursuing.

If our people are happy and proud to be Singaporeans, they will be more generous, gracious and helpful, like the Taiwanese.

Perhaps, we should address some of the following issues:

1. Give our people a larger voice in shaping the future of our country. Make them feel that their voice really matters.

2. Make our people feel that it is a privilege, and not a burden, to be a Singaporean citizen. For example, we must address the disadvantages faced by our male citizens who have to perform national service. Let us help them more adequately to face the competition for jobs in our own country, to offset the disadvantages caused by this liability.

3. Help our people to enjoy life and living in Singapore. They should not have to work for long hours to pay for the high cost of living in Singapore, and still feel uncertain about their future.

4. Let us make public transport, healthcare, education, housing and other essentials affordable to ordinary people. We should put people first in providing these essential services and not treat them as opportunities for businesses to make profits and more profits.

5. Let us treat our citizens as people and not as mere digits.

If Singaporeans are happy with life here and more confident about the future, they will not be thinking of migrating to be second-class residents in other countries. They will want to make Singapore their home. They may be happy and confident to start a family and have more children.

We may have to re-think some of the policies that have shaped Singapore successfully in past years, but have become disadvantageous today.

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