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Singapore's "special diversity" is an "awesome strength", says NMP. Donaldson Tan.

Academic talks sensibility in Parliament

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Donaldson Tan

While the public debate on “highfalutin ideas” of democracy, justice and equality rages on, there are other noteworthy aspects of the National Pledge that deserve to be on the pedestal. Nominated MP and sociologist Associate Professor Paulin Tay Straughan stressed the aspect of “One United People” during the Parliamentary Debate on Nation-Building Tenets.

“I think to advise that we must think of this special diversity we enjoy in Singapore as an awesome strength. It is with the collective contribution of such diverse groups that makes Singapore unique, strong and stable, so the challenge ahead is on engaging these diverse groups, to showcase their unique contribution to nation-building and yet at the same time, focus their heart on one nation,” reminded Associate Professor Tay.

Overtly emphasising “regardless of race, language or religion” leads to the misconception that no race, language or religion should be promoted. This is erroneous as it would suggest that the National Pledge encourages Singaporeans to completely stay away from propagating cultural practises and values entrenched in their individual identity. What this tenet actually calls for is Singaporeans to stop discriminating against each other so as to achieve national unity.

“One United People” encompasses the sense of rootedness and commitment to the nation. The challenge Singapore faces in promoting “One United People” is two-fold:

  1. How to encourage diversity as Singapore strives forward as one nation?
  2. How to grow active stakeholders among all groups?

By setting goals achievable only by a few, masses will be inevitably marginalised and alienated. The criterias of achievement thus have to be broadened. On this, Professor Tay shared her observation as a mother. Her son attends Fairfield Methodist School.

“Fairfield has a traditional prize-giving ceremony which honours top students who achieve  academically, but one year, when Elaine Lim was principal, we were invited to a second awards ceremony, one that recognises CCA achievements. At that ceremony, students who excelled in their CCAs were given awards, and Elaine had broadened the definition of excellence to include achievements at various levels. Each time she named a group, she invited the students involved to stand. By the time she was done, almost the entire study body was on their feet. The applause was thunderous. I recall her telling her students that they must be so proud of themselves because each of those standing had contributed significantly to Fairfield's achievements.”

It is hard to expect anyone would be able to identify strongly with an entity if they perceive themselves to be on the fringe. In particular, the community should play an active role in engaging and nurturing youths to be active citizens, so that they can be depended on to lead Singapore one day. This also applies at the level of the Nation where the Government has to play an active role in assisting and engaging underprivileged groups so that these groups do not perceive themselves to be on the fringe.

A key facilitator in such engagement lies in the social ties between a person and his family, friends and community. “I feel a strong attachment to my school community. I was not the top student, but at that time, we were not so fixated on grades,” said Associate Professor Tay.  “Instead, I found a niche for myself in Sports and enjoyed the limelight there. I was not too good in Sports but back then, it was not too difficult to get into a school team. CCA was great fun and you didn't have to be good to get into the CCA. You just have to like it.”

This corresponds to the second highest level of need in the Maslow's Hierarchy of needs known as esteem. All humans have a need to be respected, to have self-esteem, self-respect. Esteem presents the normal human desire to be accepted and valued by others. People need to engage themselves to gain recognition and have an activity or activities that give the person a sense of contribution, to feel accepted and self-valued. Deprivation of these needs can lead to an inferiority complex, weakness and helplessness.

The family unit also plays a role in promoting a sense of belonging. Parents have long term goals because they try to pro-actively prepare the way for their children. As such, they value stability and tend to be geographically less mobile, thus they grow roots to where they are situated. Much work is needed to facilitate family formation and raise the status of marriage in the face of contesting demands on Singaporeans. As more women enter the labour force and dual-income families dominate household structures, work-life balance becomes a critical concern.

The aim of promoting work-life balance at the workplace is to allow a person to engage his family adequately. Family can be a source of motivation for individuals whether one takes up the role of the child or the parent. If work-life balance is not properly managed, it leads to a dysfunctional family. Children of dysfunctional families have difficulty forming healthy relationship with others. This not only propagates the disconnect between the child and the parent, but also the disconnect between the child and his environment.

Employers and managers should adopt a long-term perspective on human resource investment. In particular, working mothers who have arrived at a status of influence in the workplace have an important role in shifting the norms at the workplace.  Associate Professor Tay urged working mothers to promote flexibility and trust at the workplace. “We must give this flexibility and trust to our employees and supervisors,” she said, “Help them raise their  children well, and when their children become independent, mothers will be free to primarily focus on work demands. We will be loyal and more reliable employees.”

Confucius once said, “When knowledge was complete, their [the illustrious ancients'] thoughts became sincere. When their thoughts were sincere, their souls became perfect. When their souls were perfect, their own selves became cultivated. When their selves were cultivated, their families became regulated. When their families were regulated, their states came to be put into proper order. When their states were in proper order, then the whole world became peaceful and happy.” It is not hard to see where Associate Professor Tay's wisdom comes from.

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