The importance of kindness in building a more gracious and cohesive society
Speech by Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth & Second Minister for Law, at SKM’s Kindness Day Singapore Ground-Up Movements (GUMs) Induction Ceremony over Zoom
21 May 2021
Mr Koh Poh Tiong, Chairman, SKM Council,
Dr William Wan, General Secretary of SKM,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
- A very good evening to all of you. I see in the audience many people I recognise and I am very grateful for your attendance this evening.
- It has been a challenging period for all of us. Dr Wan outlined some of the challenges just now but, at the same time, we are very thankful that we are able to take these changes in our stride. This includes having to change the platform on which we meet this evening. I wish it could be in person, but nonetheless, I think we adapted very well to the new measures and are meeting here today.
- Meeting on this platform virtually across the screen does not take away the importance and significance of this occasion.
- The events of the past year have indeed shown us the importance of showing up for one another, extending understanding and compassion, to be united by a common purpose. It has been the ethos and philosophy of SKM, and today we celebrate that milestone again: Kindness Day.
Our context – an increasingly volatile global environment
- We all know we live in an increasingly volatile world. This is something we see almost every day when we pick up the newspapers or when we look at social media.
(a) I would say, society around us is fractured in many ways. All around us, developed societies are facing strife on many fronts.
(b) Societies are being pulled apart, fault-lines develop over social, cultural, racial, religious and economic differences. And these fault lines continue to deepen.
- Out there, there are also many bad actors who tend to accentuate these divides. They prey on these divides, and they feel an increasing polarisation, and sometimes social media encourages this as well.
- People are often encouraged to be at odds with each other. And increasingly, with the advent of social media and the widespread adoption of technology.
(a) This has either advertently or inadvertently driven divides with an unmatched velocity, powered by the Internet.
(b) and accentuated our differences – both the physical to the ideological. Social media algorithms play up sensational and salacious content.
- And all of this, over the past year, has been compounded by the overlay of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has continued to blight many countries, affecting large populations. Some around the world have suffered from COVID-19 in a far more treacherous and sad way than we have in Singapore, as they face second, third and fourth waves. And their own systems have been unable to cope.
(a) The downstream effect of dealing with COVID-19 can’t be underestimated. But I will say, in Singapore, neither should we take for granted the longer-term effect of social distancing. Social distancing is important in ensuring that transmission rates are kept down, to reduce the infections among the community. But with social distancing, it also affects livelihoods and societal bonds and relations.
- My worry is that as anxieties grow, not only from the pandemic but from the economic challenges, we turn inwards, and become more individualistic in our outlook and priority, to take on the approach where self comes first. Us before others, and me over community.
(a) We will also have individuals who become increasingly focused only on their own needs and interests – which will influence public discourse.
(b) We also know that highly-charged comments and self-centred sentiments, which go around in echo chambers of social media, are not entirely without cost.
- We have seen how inward-looking and sometimes disrespectful rhetoric can spillover into actual, physical acts of violence and intimidation –
(a) We have seen this happen repeatedly in many countries. Recently, there was sadly an alleged racist attack against another member of the Singaporean community as well.
- So, we have to be careful.
(a) During trying times like this, it is all the more important for us as a society to treat one another with kindness, empathy and respect. We must show empathy to the many out there, as Dr Wan mentioned earlier, the different frontline workers who have bravely continued to serve our community, let us not take that for granted.
(b) We must resist the temptation to turn inwards, the temptation to retreat into an individualistic, protectionist self, which we are seeing in other societies. Instead, we must continue to be a kind and gracious society, whether we are in circumstances where we are progressing economically or in our current situation where we have to tighten up, protect each other and tide the virus.
- We want to see our children and their children inherit a Singapore that remains united, cohesive and strong. On this, let me make a few observations.
Our values – the importance of kindness in an indifferent world
- The first is of course, about the value of kindness. I believe it is an underrated virtue in so many ways. It is often unnoticed, but absolutely critical for growth and maturity as a society.
- And as Dr. Wan says, kindness will get us through.
- In 1996, ESM Goh, who was then Prime Minister, spoke about how Singapore needed to complement our economic achievements with social, cultural and spiritual development.
(a) Only then would Singapore become a truly successful mature country with a developed economy and a gracious society.
(b) Building on the National Courtesy Campaign, the SKM was launched in 1997.
- SKM's work over these decades has been subtle, but I think, quite invaluable.
(a) It has reminded us that success is measured in what we give, rather than what we keep; what we contribute – put into the pot – rather than what we demand.
(b) It has demonstrated that we can all forge a cohesive, united Singapore through simple acts of graciousness and kindness. One small deed, one small gesture, a kind word one at a time. Big change can come with small steps.
- Indeed, kindness is really the appropriate response in a world that may seem sometimes very cold disconnected, cynical, maybe even chauvinistic.
(a) Sometimes with a lot more connection on a social media, and with 5G connection, faster connection doesn't mean more meaningful communication. And sometimes this can further entrench a sense of individualism.
- It's worth remembering that the word ‘kindness’ comes from the word ‘kin’. It's the same root word. To be kind to others, in essence, means to treat others as if they were family.
(a) In this regard, we should stand against racism, discrimination, xenophobia, and work together to prevent these sentiments from taking root in Singapore. And I'm very encouraged by individuals and groups who go about broadening the space for discourse and action.
(b) By pushing back against discrimination, welcoming others, we demonstrate the virtue of kindness in the truest sense of the word.
- When we look back at our society's response to the pandemic, I hope that we will also remember this period as one where we responded to the needs of others with kindness and care.
(a) And little by little bit by bit act by act, we build a truly kinder gracious open society.
Our responsibilities – to future generations of Singaporeans
- Let me leave you with an open question – what is the kind of Singapore society we want to leave our children?
(a) What is the environment we want them to grow up in – for our children and for generations to come?
(b) One marked by a growing, unfettered sense of individualism?
(c) Or one where people are united by duty to each other and to the common good?
- And if we want the latter, grace and kindness will be a key ingredient.
(a) How then do we make a change?
(b) As I said, step-by-step little by little.
(c) The steps you take today will go a long way towards creating that future environment.
- And I hope we can continue to be united by our shared conviction that together, we can make a tangible difference to the lives of others.
- This evening, we want to honour some of the groups and individuals who have embodied this.
(a) I am happy to witness your induction into SKM’s Kindred Spirit Circle of GUMs and Voices of Loving Kindness (VoLKs).
- All of you are doing good work to address issues that are important to Singapore and Singaporeans on a variety of very topical and relevant issues. To name just a few:
(a) ThisConnect raises awareness about mental health issues, done through a multi-disciplinary art exhibition. This is very timely, very topical. I think we need to speak a lot more about mental health issues.
(b) Penpals in the Community promotes intergenerational interaction by facilitating friendships with seniors via the exchange of physical letters and stories. Bridging the gap that sometimes exists between one generation and another.
(c) The Ironing Board is a podcast that fosters understanding and empathy by sharing personal stories and having open conversations on issues like bullying or single parenthood. Sometimes these issues – single parenthood struggles, bullying in schools or in workplace settings – are things which are kept private kept inside.
- And the more I think we are able to have a common understanding and a platform to discover these issues, to talk about them and share and empathise with each other, the more open we will be as a society, and the more likely it is that we will be able to combat these issues and eradicate them.
- All of these GUMs will make an important, tangible difference, and leave a marker for the kind of society we wish to see and build for our children and our children to enjoy.
- Making Singapore a place where we feel a strong sense of belonging, a sense of being cared for, is at the heart of what we do with MCCY.
(a) I'm very happy to say that SKM has played such a big part in shaping this, but we can really only achieve this through the collective effort of everyone.
- And I think governments and groups play a big part in that. So I'm very happy to celebrate Kindness Day today to honor the good work which has been done.
(a) But let's remind ourselves that kindness is a mindset and ethos by which we live. And this must be something that we do each day – every day.
(b) Thank you very much.
Last updated on 21 May 2021