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Made in Singapore

HOW TO CHANGE PUBLIC BEHAVIOUR: SOCIAL ENGINEERING IN SINGAPORE

The British magazine, The Economist, once famously described Singapore as a "nanny state" because its government continuously tried to persuade its people through various public campaigns to change and improve their personal and public habits. As usual, this label was offered without understanding the social history of Singapore and why its government had to launch these frequent public campaigns.

Firstly, many of the immigrants who migrated to Singapore from the rest of Southeast Asia, India and China were not aristocrats from rich, cultured, educated and sophisticated families and backgrounds.

Many were penniless rural peasants and farmers without education or culture fleeing poverty, war and oppression, in search of a better life and opportunities in Singapore. In fact, many of the new migrants now coming into Singapore from various Asian countries are also working people looking for jobs and opportunities, poor people from Bangladesh, the Philippines, China and India. But what happened in the 1930s to the 1960s was that the rural peasants migrating to Singapore were transformed into urban peasants. Thus, when they were moved into public housing and multi-storey flats, some insisted on moving their pigs and poultry from their kampongs and slums to brand-new, high-rise flats. They also kept their unhygienic public practices of spitting and urinating in lifts, and throwing rubbish out of windows and drains, thus polluting rivers and canals.

The British magazine therefore did not know this social history and why the Singapore government had to try to improve the public manners and behavior of an uncouth people, encourage them to be bilingual in English and their mother tongue, avoid hippy-like lifestyles, not take drugs, stop smoking, look out for terrorists, practice road courtesy, be family-minded. The state organised opportunities for singles to meet and date and urged graduate, career-minded women to start families. The government explained the importance of science and engineering education and warned about medical problems like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. It launched the "Speak Good English Campaign" and the "Learn Mandarin Campaign". It encouraged the population to create a clean and green Garden City through tree planting, anti-littering and recycling.

For Russians who remember their history and how Peter the Great tried to westernize his people though various changes in clothing, behaviour, beliefs and mentality, these examples of social engineering are familiar. However, Peter the Great was not the only leader who imposed wholesale changes upon his people; there were others like Ataturk who created modern Turkey by implementing sweeping changes, the reformers under the Meiji Emperor who brought immense westernisation to Japan, and the Chinese reformers under Sun Yat-sen, who urged the Chinese to discard their pigtails imposed upon them by the Manchus.

Nowadays, public campaigns have gone into schools they take the form of posters and gentle reminders on television and public transport. They are subtler and less intrusive. New citizens attend classes where they are taught how to blend into Singapore society by learning the dos and don'ts. But there are always new challenges to meet when it comes to mobilising the Singaporean people, such as on how to handle climate change, food insecurity, energy shortages and epidemic diseases like SARS (during the outbreak, by the way, Singaporeans responded very well to government messages on how to prevent the spread of infectious disease).

Every year, new generations of Singapore children come of age and need to be socialized all over again: be kind and courteous, love and protect the environment, don't waste water, conserve energy, practice racial and religious tolerance, respect foreign workers, welcome new citizens, etc. It is obvious that Singapore has become cleaner, greener and more gracious, although there are always recalcitrant who behave anti-socially.

The old public campaigns have resulted in a disciplined public that understands that such undertakings are well-intentioned, even though critics have questioned the soundness of some theories, like eugenics and social engineering. In many ways, the Lion City remains a developing country in the socio-cultural sense, and Singaporeans need to become as polite as the Japanese, as gracious as the Thais, as smiling as the Filipinos, as helpful as the New Zealanders and as kind as the Canadians.

By a certain Singaporean observer

 

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