Tan Kin Lian on what it takes to build a robust society.

Singaporeans need to overcome negative traits

Tan Kin Lian / Columnist

I received an e-mail from a young person aged 27. I extract a few paragraphs from his e-mail below:

Hi Mr Tan,
….  It pains me to see how incompetent the current government is. It’s no joke: whenever you seek help or answers, you are pushed into a chain of merry go rounds whereby each recipient declares that someone else is responsible.
…. Look at the recent current affairs. Which agency or leader have ever declared “yes, it’s our mistake. we will do whatever we can to learn and not repeat them” ?
…. Every single one starts by declaring “it’s not my fault. Everyone else is to blame” and then finds a scapegoat. If not, then they say, “Everyone went in with their eyes open”.
  For me, I am waiting for a new dawn in Singapore Government. Failing which, I’m setting my sights on New Zealand. I heard the grass there is not only greener, but a lot less hectic.”

Singaporean traits

I have personally observed the following traits among Singaporeans over the past many years:

a)         Unwilling to take personal responsibility. “It’s not my responsibility”. They are always ready to pass the buck to somebody else. Before taking any task, they want to have their responsibility clearly defined.
b)         Unwilling to admit a mistake. There is a fear of making a mistake and paying a heavy price for it, such as losing their job. They learn how to handle it – by passing the blame to somebody else!

How did it happen?

How did Singaporeans get these two traits? I believe that it is due to our education system. They strive to be the top in the class, so that they can qualify for a scholarship. To be top, they must have 100% marks. They cannot make any mistake. If they admit to a mistake, they will lose marks. So, they learn how to avoid admitting a mistake, by pushing the blame to somebody else.

The top scholars never make any mistake. Later, they become the head of our civil service, political leadership and business establishments. The colleagues who work for them learn from their leadership style and behaviour.  After a few years, this becomes part of the Singapore culture.

Bad Policy Decisions

Many major decisions in Singapore are made by a small group of people who discuss the issues in secret (fearing a leak of information).  To make matters worse, it is quite widely believed in Singapore that many key decisions are really taken by a few top people, or maybe by one person. The people involved in the detailed planning try to second-guess the views of the top people, and will formulate proposals and plans that are acceptable to the top people.

This approach has led to many bad policy decisions being taken.  These bad decisions continue a long time, because of the fear of admitting a mistake. Some examples are our public transport and education systems.

Our public transport system has now become quite expensive and does not provide the standard of comfort and convenience that is possible. Our education system produces students with good marks, but lacks the moral values and practical common sense (i.e. street-smart).

Educate Values

To make a change, we have to strengthen the education on values. I like to share the four key values that are important to me:

a)         Honesty

b)         Fairness

c)         Public interest

d)         Courage

Honesty. We have to be honest as part of our character. This goes beyond business dealings. We have to be honest in expressing our views and beliefs. We cannot just follow the views of people in power because it is “safe” to do so. If we make a mistake, it is honest to admit it, rather than to push the blame to somebody else.

Fairness. We have to be fair to other people. We cannot take advantage of their ignorance (and profit at their expense) or weakness (and exploit them). We have to give them a fair deal. It will lead to more harmonious relationships and a better society. We cannot cheat others and say that “they should open their eyes” or that “it is a free market”.

Public Interest.  We should be prepared to work for the public interest – provided that our basic requirements have been met.  We should look for leaders who are prepared to put the interest of the general public above their personal interests. They can make an important contribution to improve the lives of the people. This will be better than monetary rewards.

Courage. We need people who are wise to know right from wrong and have the courage to take action to put things right. Many Singaporeans are fearful of the consequences of taking a different view from the people in power. They dare not speak up, for fear of jeopardising their current status. They only speak anonymously or in the coffee shops. This has to be changed.


We want to build an innovative society in Singapore. Innovation requires the willingness to try many different approaches, to make mistakes and learn from them, to take input from as many people as possible.

The input comes not only from theory but from practical experience. We have to talk to the ordinary people who face the practical issues everyday.

Change for the better

I hope that we can change the negative traits in the Singapore character and have people who are able to know what is right (from wrong) and are willing to stand up for what is right. This will produce a more robust people and society.