Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Our Tradition To Serve

Singapore does not believe in a Welfare state. We have our wealthy people and our poor folks who need help. Like some other countries we have a widening income gap among our people. Some blame this on the effects of globalisation. Have we got the right balance with our wealth distribution policy? Different people have different views on this. Many, especially the old, feel that they have contributed to enlarge our national economic cake. They expect to have a fair share of the enlarged cake in their twilight years. Many of the poor and the old folks have difficulties trying to make ends meet with rising cost of living. At the same time they also have their dignity and pride to live with. They do not like to live on charity or hand outs. How then are we to help the poor and the less fortunate under these circumstances?

We need volunteers in many fields.

In the early days there were many volunteers for social and charitable services as well as “national” service to build up our infrastructure and country. These people have their own professions, careers and businesses to attend to but many stepped forward and served just the same. They differentiated their voluntary and honorary activities from their businesses and professions/occupations/careers. Many worked with passion, commitment and courage. It was a joy to work with these people compared to those who only work for personal gains. Those who work only for their money often find volunteer work a chore as there is no personal gain in sight. The genuine volunteers were not concerned about money, their positions or their promotion prospects. They just wanted to make their contributions. They made personal sacrifices and gave of their best until the projects are completed. Then they either leave or take on new projects. Many stayed on because they loved doing what they did. Human weaknesses of self interest, greed and power did not with their work. They make good leaders, good role models and set good examples for others to follow. It was a joy to work with such people.

Many are still doing voluntary services of various kinds and we need more of such people in our effluent society. How are we to continue to encourage more such people to step forward to serve? Some people are concerned that more and more people are asking for rewards before they start to serve in “national service” or even charitable organizations. Their actions imply that only “born losers” work for free in modern times. Our society views the value of these volunteer services to what it cost – Nothing - because it is free. How did this happen? This is a very disturbing trend which we must never allow to grow as it discourages people from volunteering. History has shown that countries prosper and become great through human sacrifices. These societies also do not forget the poor and the less fortunate, by helping them to add value to their lives. All societies need these special volunteers. Are our systems and practices strong enough to maintain and build on our culture and tradition on these matters?

When Singapore became a self governing country in 1959 and an independent nation in 1965, we had to pay for some of the neglects of the colonial government. We had:

1. a very small financial reserve
2. a poor education system ( especially in S & T, technical and craft courses)
3. a people ( mostly immigrants) with no experience in managing a country still suffering from the aftermath of the second World War II, the Japanese occupation and confrontation from Indonesia. Few had any strong loyalty to our new country.
4. A people with little or no knowledge of science or technical skills
(technology) essential for development.

We inherited a tiny island of 204 square miles, with a small population of slightly less than 2.0 million in 1959. Singapore has no natural resources to talk about. We did not even have our own water supply, the bulk of which has to come from a foreign country.

We had many of the problems that some of the developing countries are still facing today. We were blessed that we did not fight too much among ourselves. We gained our independence without any blood shed. These circumstances attracted many able and dedicated people to step forward and serve the country. Many became leaders, and role models in their own ways, for others to follow. They were not greedy or corrupt. Many worked with passion and for free in many fields for many years. Their passion kept them going willingly and happily in the various capacities they served. Our system rewards these people with public awards and honorary professional recognition etc. Singapore capitalized on this culture and tradition of our people, many of whom were prepared to sacrifice personal interests for the betterment of their fellowmen and their society. The order of the day was “We were in the same boat and we sink or swim together”. “Those with money will give money; those with strength will give strength.” It was tough going but wonderful to see so many people working together for so long and for a good cause – the survival of a nation and the betterment of the lives of its people.

Instead of wringing our hands in despair we settled down to do what we believed had to be done. From each his best was the spirit of the day. We rejoiced when the projects worked and we are still learning from the ones that didn’t.

Many volunteered at the sacrifice of their personal interests. They gave up opportunities to enrich themselves; provided the leadership and played role models for others to follow. I am privileged to have worked with many of these volunteers. The challenge now is how to continue to maintain our tradition to serve and improve on the spirit of voluntarism among our population in an affluent society? How do we provide examples for others to follow? Perhaps we should make a study of why people continue to provide free national, social and professional services when money has become such an important factor to many? This is a disturbing trend. Have we gone overboard in wealth creation and forgotten other just as important facts of life? Isn’t helping the less fortunate one of the mission of our being? Have we lost sight of this mission in life in our effort for rapid progress? There is nothing wrong with wealth generation as one of our goals. However treating it as our only mission in life/career including sacrificing time-tested and time-honoured values of our culture and our tradition will affect our future. This bothers many of us. We should have a hard look on where the balance should be. We should continue to attract more volunteers to serve our people with their hearts and not just their heads. It is not difficult to give in to human weaknesses. It is also not easy to discipline ourselves and others against temptations like greed and other acknowledged weaknesses. Nevertheless we must never give up trying to fight for what is good. Think of others too besides ourselves. This was how many of us were brought up with for the future of our country and the good of our fellowmen. Singapore needs more volunteers in these trying times than ever.

Lee Kum Tatt

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