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Honour in Singapore – Defining honour, for what purpose?

"Honour in Singapore" is a mini series by TOC following the recent formation of the Honour (Singapore) non-profit organisation, made up of distinguished individuals closely related to the government and a far-right Christian group. The series will explore some of their profiles, and bring to light what the group meant by "promoting a culture of honour and honouring" in Singapore.

By Howard Lee
Adapted from an original article by Jentrified Citizen

When Honour (Singapore) first announced that it wished to uphold the value of honour and honouring, which its leaders felt were important to Singapore’s future, it would have seemed like a totally foreign idea to most Singaporeans.

Singapore was founded on resilience, pragmatism, fortitude, dedication. Some might even venture “meritocracy” into the mix, and there has been a recent desire for “heritage” to be included as well. But “honour” is indeed an odd fit, and would not have usually entered our national conscience as something defines Singapore, let alone something that needs to be actively pursued.

On the surface, it sounds almost beguiling that this group of high-flyers should claim that they are out to promote honour as part of our country's celebration of 50 years of independence. Why honour, and why now? In fact, how honourable are the intentions of this organisation?

Several troubling questions came to mind after reading the group’s website and the speeches made at the launch event. Is the PAP-led government leveraging a group of powerful individuals, all intricately connected to the government, to frame and soft-sell a political agenda through mass indoctrination? Are the “community and educational projects” by this group a way of re-programming an increasingly critical populace into unwitting obedience? What kind of values and messages will they try to inculcate in the masses in the guise of honour?

Is this another initiative by the government to try to "educate" us to behave in a way they deem honourable?

As novelist George Orwell had illustrated in his books Animal Farm and 1984, the use of language and not physical force is the more powerful tool in the manipulation and control of minds. A group working in the name of "honour" certainly sounds more persuasive than the Government commanding us to behave and to obey. And few, especially young students, would question the legitimacy of packaged educational initiatives cast in the name of honour.

The first line of Honour (Singapore)’s press release gives another strong hint as to the purpose of this group. It opened starkly in typical PAP-government fashion with: "Strident voices, an undertone of pessimism, and the view that one wins only when another loses are growing more evident in Singapore".

Placed right at the opening, this line deliberately sets an ominous tone to imply our country is at risk and that there is a need for a group like Honour (Singapore) to save the day. It also implicitly suggests that we the citizens are honour-bound to do our part to protect our country by following its mission.

For more clues on the government's involvement in this group, read Heng Swee Kiat's speech made at the launch where he stressed that "we must strive for a deeper understanding and appreciation for what has made Singapore successful so far, and what would help us to succeed in the coming years.

In particular, we must reflect on the values that have underpinned our success" such as by honouring our past and our pioneers "who built the foundation to give us opportunities we have today".

Heng's second point was about 'Honouring Our Word". Here he emphasised that "we are a people and a government whose word can be trusted...and ensure the predictability in policies which will make others feel safe for decades to come".

The clincher within this paragraph was when he said "most fundamentally, we are a people whose word is our Honour, we are a people you can trust". Tellingly enough, Heng lumped both the people and the government into one “we”, although the definition of this “we” is always almost set by those who command the narrative: The government, our brethren, whom we must trust.

Heng also made a third point about "Honouring One Another". Here, he raised alarm bells by citing how differences and fault lines had led to World War One and the Ukraine war. He then launched into a spiel about how we should avoid such fault lines by honouring one another and working together for the "greater good".

The Honour (Singapore) website was more direct about how it would use honour as an "Enabler for Constructive, Respectful Debate". It stated: "As we look into the future, we can also expect an increasing desire by citizens to speak out on a widening array of national issues, and to be able to act on their own initiatives but with government support. In order to maintain peace, harmony, and stability even in such times of debate and individual actions, there must be a national consensus that all things are done with a view to enhance the well-being of the nation. To achieve this, there must be a strong vein of honour and mutual respect between individuals even when there may be sharp differences in views over particular issues."

Strident voices. Respect for those who built the foundation to give us opportunities. Building trust. World in chaos. The need to pull together. The desire for speaking out tempered by a national consensus. Mutual respect in spite of differences.

Does the narrative sound familiar?

Honour, as we know it and in precisely the same terms used by Honour (Singapore), is a very powerful word, and in this case its usage connotes an exercise of power. Who holds that power, and for what purpose is it exercised?

In the coming months and years there will be a lot of "noise" in Singapore about honour and honouring. We will do well to prepare for it by remembering, and telling our children, that true honour is about knowing and having the integrity to do what is morally right. We must never hush our conscience and let others, especially an elite group with as yet unclear intentions, dictate to us who, what and how we should honour.

“Act well your part, there all the honour lies.” - Alexander Pope, English poet

Top image - Honour (Singapore) website

The “Honour in Singapore” series includes:

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