SINGAPORE: William Wan is known for his work as General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, and his observations and criticisms of how “kind” Singaporeans really are, and what more they can do, have rarely gone unnoticed.
As a practising lawyer in the early 1970s, Wan pioneered pro bono work for those who could not afford a lawyer, well before more contemporary initiatives such as the Law Society’s own pro bono programme. His credentials are strong, but have his efforts to make Singapore a kinder place actually worked?
Wan went On the Record with 938LIVE’s Bharati Jagdish on this, tackling elitism and what it will take for public discourse to become more mature. They first spoke about his spirituality, how this differs from his religiosity and how it remains his driving force.
William Wan: I have always believed that the character of a person is far more important than the achievement of a person. In the same way, I think that the character of a nation is far more important that what we have achieved materially and in every other way. I think I am essentially a spiritually-inclined person. Some people may think I’m a religious person. I think that that may well be so. I have a religion. Many people have religions. But religiosity and spirituality could be distinguished a little bit. Spirituality goes to the very depth of my being; I feel that I am not just a machine, a mechanical person. And so I read books on spirituality. I reflect, I meditate, I contemplate and I always ask myself “What is the purpose of life? How can I make a difference?”
Bharati: What influences your spirituality? Aside from religion.
Wan: Maybe that’s the way I am composed. I was a science student during my school days, and I ended up excelling in literature, in poetry. So there is that part, that soft part of me that is always wanting to come out of myself and make changes for good.
Bharati: Was there any particular person who influenced you as well?
Wan: I grew up in a kampung. My dad was a small businessman who didn’t make it. Unfortunately he didn’t have much resilience, so he gave up, and he basically just went wandering around with the Teochew opera, and he never really took care of the family. So my mom took care of us, and we didn’t grow up in great wealth. I mean we were not really poor, but we were not anywhere middle-class. We were really just struggling along.
Bharati: Your mother was a hawker and a cleaner.
Wan: Yes, and so we didn’t have much. But we managed, and that’s the life that I lived. My mother has a very strong character. The only reason my family survived was because my mother was a very determined person. We are a blended family. Both my father and mother were widowed previously, and they came out from China and married in Singapore. My mother had two kids, and my father had one. And then they gave birth to two of us, so there are five of us who are from three different parentages.
So, my mother ended up having to take care of five kids on her own. But she was tough. She took on two jobs. I learnt from my mother.
Bharati: Your mum put you through school?
Wan: No. I made my own way through school. I worked. I graduated from theology, so I became a pastor while I was going to university. While I was in college, I taught at St Thomas school and I was supporting myself all the way. My mother was already in her 40s when I was born, so as she got older, I took care of myself. In spite of the fact that I didn’t have a lot of money, money never appealed to me. I never felt the need to have lots of money. That’s a blessing too.
OF LITERATURE AND RELIGIOUS HARMONY
Bharati: In the past, you’ve mentioned literature as one of the most important influences in your life.
Wan: Yeah, I wrote a letter to the media responding to an article about literature. I’ve learnt a lot about values by enjoying literature. And I believe that literature could be used, not only for the pleasure of enjoying a verse or a prose, but to begin to discuss the values that the author is trying to portray in the characters of the people in literature. I think that’s a very interesting discussion.
Bharati: Can you name me one thing that you learnt through literature that still resonates with you?
Wan: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. When I read that and discussed it with my friends, we at first didn’t think that it was really relevant to Singapore. But when we read further, we realised the theme of racism, the rejection of people of colour. You then realise that Singapore is so blessed. And it’s something that we take for granted. In many places, race and religion is a big divide for people. People don’t even talk to each other because they don’t share the same religion.
So what do I say about literature? Literature like that reminds me to be grateful and thankful for what we have, and to preserve it. And to realise that even in the best of worlds, this can fracture, and we can lose it.
In fact right now, we need to really not take our religious harmony for granted. We have a few people who sometimes go to the extreme of trying to create religious tension, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Maybe it’s because of their passion for what they believe to be the truth. And actually, if a religion is worth anything, we all have to believe with passion that it is the truth. But it’s the question of then saying that: “I believe that mine is the truth, but do I then respect the other person who believes that his is the truth?” I think that is the question.
And it takes a lot of maturity to say that we all can individually believe that we have the truth, without having to attack somebody else for believing that he or she has the truth as well, even if it is different from yours. And no, I don’t think that we are in imminent danger, but I think that we need to curtail any sign of anyone using so-called freedom of speech to attack another person’s religion or race.
Bharati: Some academics have questioned the types of organised dialogues we have about race and religion – whether they are frank enough to create a truly meaningful understanding between the various racial and religious groups and result in authentic, enduring harmony. Are we being too diplomatic in our discussions, sweeping things under the rug, avoiding the difficult issues altogether? What do you think?
Wan: I think ignorance is the mother of prejudice and fear. So having more dialogues would appear to be a good thing. But that assumes that the participants are open-minded and mature enough to listen without being censorious or proselytising etc. It assumes a level of mutual respect. That’s the rub. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing.
We want to reach a point of mutual respect through dialogue and yet a good and productive dialogue needs to be based on mutual respect to begin with. I agree that our dialogue has not been very open and frank in the public sphere. But there are some open and frank ones in smaller closed-door contexts. For example, the Singapore Kindness Movement has facilitated a couple of formats to get some conversation going. Last year, we collaborated with The Thought Collective with a sub-series titled Regardless of Race, Language or Religion.
There are clearly concerns that if dialogues are not conducted effectively, they can spiral downwards into unhelpful and insensitive comments and conclusions, and even personal attacks and hate speech. So I can understand why there is very little true dialogue to speak of.
The Inter-Religious Confidence Circles have an important role to play and they have their dialogues. Some may find that too tame, but they contribute to religious harmony, to be sure. Like I said, we are cautiously trying to get small meaningful dialogues started.
Yes, I am convinced that good, open and frank dialogues on race and religion can help to prevent fissures from developing, but as a pluralistic society, we have some ways to go to be able to have a substantive public discourse on race and religion to pre-empt prejudice and fear arising out of ignorance.
I think that it shouldn’t be a top-down thing. It should be a ground-up thing. In my own context, I have been having dinners, on a regular basis, with four other sets of families. As it happens, they all represent the four different races in Singapore and various religions. Five families have been gathering for the last 20 years. We’ve seen our children grow up. We’ve not converted anybody. We continue to respect each other’s religion and we celebrate each other’s special holidays. We still do. The kids have grown up to be good friends. And I think that’s a good model. We just need to keep thinking that we are truly a multi-racial, multi-religious society. And to make it work, we have to embrace everyone in our neighbourhood.
Bharati: I’d like to go back to a point you made earlier about exposing kids to literature as a way of developing values too. But the number of people taking Literature at O-Levels has declined over the years. People say they drop the subject because they see no utility for it; it’s hard to score in the subject. How do you feel about this?
Wan: Makes me feel sad. It’s like philosophy. There was a time when philosophy was almost removed from the universities. It makes me sad because I think we lose something of our soul, our spirit. We can end up being a very mechanistic, machine-like society. There is something spiritual about literature that touches the human spirit.
Bharati: Do we have too much of a focus on achievement in this country still, rather than character?
Wan: I empathise with the Government in this regard. One important role of government is to ensure we have enough jobs for everybody, we have enough economic growth to lift everybody out of poverty, that we have homes for everybody and so on. So that’s what they are concerned about. And from the being of our nation, there’s always been a threat that we may not survive. So I can understand them wanting to put the emphasis on survival.
I am just hoping, and I think there are signs of this happening, that as we stabilise, as we become affluent, there will be more emphasis on literature, music, art. And that’s all coming back. So I hope we’ll do better. Now, the problem is there can be a disconnect between government policy – putting money in arts and literature and all that – and the parents.
In other words, there can still be a gap, between now, what the Government wants to do to create a more holistic society and parents who still live in that other mentality, where they still want their kids to be a doctor, a lawyer, whatever it is, because they are going to make money doing those things.
Hopefully, parents will also discover for themselves that there’s more to life than just having a banking job.
Bharati: But should literature, the arts and character-building merely be icing on the cake? Shouldn’t all these things be an integral and intrinsic part of the growth of a nation, a person, right from the start? These things shouldn’t only come into play after a person or society has achieved economic success, even though that’s the way the Government seems to have approached it.
Wan: What the Government did in the past is water under the bridge. Today, there’s a lot of money being put into arts. Now, it’s about encouraging people to see this as not just icing on the cake, but a way to reflect on life, a way to appreciate beauty, a way to enjoy music. So that is the hard part. Infrastructure is the easy part. Getting people to want to embrace these things is the hard part.
Parents who are the product of this “need-to-succeed” culture have to decide whether they want to pass this “need-to-succeed” culture to their kids and then make the kids just like them? Or are you now going to say: “I know better. There is more to life than just succeeding and achieving. I want my kids to have a holistic, well-rounded life.” The schools can do their best to message that. But the parents still need to make that decision. Can you force the parents to make a decision? You can’t.
HAS THE SINGAPORE KINDNESS MOVEMENT FAILED?
Bharati: With bad behaviour constantly being highlighted on social media, some might say the Singapore Kindness Movement has failed.
Wan: We all know psychologically, negative things make the news. And people like to read about murders, bad things and so on. There is a study that says our brains work in such a way that negative things are remembered longer. So what I try to tell people is that we need to counter that by also reporting and talking about positive things. I think shaming people is a very temporary thing, and it, in fact, can become damaging to people because “STOMP-ing” and shaming people is basically saying to people: “You’re no good.”
I say that people are free to report what they want and if they choose to report negative things, let’s remember that for every negative incident – let’s say somebody spitting on someone else on the MRT on a particular day – there are positive incidents. There are millions of trips that day, and you have one incident like that and it gives people the impression that we’re all unkind on the MRT. We need to resist thinking that way and say that is simply not true. It’s only one out of a million trips. It cannot be representative of every one of us.
Bharati: But let’s face it, beyond the incidents highlighted on social media, there’s a lot of evidence pointing to how inconsiderate Singapore residents are. The Kindness Movement is also involved in addressing other social behaviour – littering, returning trays at eating places – and we know that there’s plenty of evidence to show that we’re not very well-behaved in that regard either.
Wan: The road to graciousness and kindness is a very long road – many touch points, many different areas. So if you ask me for one big idea that can improve things, you’re asking for a silver bullet. I don’t have it. I haven’t found it. I find that it is winning one person at a time, getting one thing done at a time. You know it is about reaching a tipping point. And to reach a tipping point, there is no silver bullet.
Hopefully as these things get into the national consciousness more and more, people will start saying “yeah, it makes sense”. You will be surprised to know that Japan has a kindness movement like ours that’s been around for 53 years.
Bharati: Longer than ours.
Wan: It’s supported by the royal family. The kindness movement there has contributed greatly to post-war Japan’s evolution into a gracious society. So don’t imagine that they became gracious overnight.
If you go onto their trains, you will still see signs telling people to give up their seats, to turn off their phones, etc.
Bharati: Are we close?
Wan: Not close at all.
Bharati: Why not? Again, has the movement failed?
Wan: Actually, we went to Taiwan and we discovered that the Taiwanese have actually come a long way. Specifically we were looking at the littering problem and the anti-littering campaign. Taiwan has, in the last 10 years, become more successful in recycling, more successful in getting the school students involved in cleaning, more successful in the anti-littering campaign.
Now, many people are complaining that we have actually gone backward – we’ve become less clean than under Lee Kuan Yew’s “Keep Singapore Clean” campaign era.
Bharati: Yeah, so why? Is there a problem with the approach you’re using to reach people?
Wan: I really don’t know the answer why. I have suggested some possible answers. One of them is we are victims of our own affluence. How many countries are there where a middle-class or even a lower middle-class household can afford a domestic helper? I have no live-in domestic helper. I have a domestic helper who comes in on Saturday, works half a day, helps to clean up our house, no cooking, nothing. And we pay her local wages. She herself has a domestic helper. While she goes around and cleans other people’s homes, she has a full-time live-in domestic helper. How many countries can say that?
So we have become a victim of our own material success. Kids don’t need to clean up after themselves. It’s not a habit. It’s not internalised. Then, there is that elitist feeling that we have servants to help us, so why should we do anything.
Bharati: In terms of measures to make us less so, do you think certain things such as hiring foreign domestic workers should be made even more expensive in Singapore?
Wan: I guess there is a need for balance – the need to enable mothers and fathers to be active in the workforce, and making it more expensive may make it less viable for these folks to work full-time outside the home. Many of these parents are in the so-called sandwiched generation are looking after their own aging parents and children as well.
The answer is not so much to make it more expensive to hire domestic helpers, but to change our mindset about the role of these helpers and how we treat them within the eco-system of our family relationships. There is also perhaps a need for continuous review and evolution of the labour guidelines governing the hiring of foreign domestic workers, so that we can equip employers to treat them better and not rely on them for every little thing, so much so that our children don’t need to do anything. And in so doing, perhaps we can also see our children being raised in a better environment.
Bharati: You said that some have commented we’ve become less clean than under Lee Kuan Yew’s “Keep Singapore Clean” campaign era. Some people have blamed this on the foreigners who live in Singapore.
Wan: To say that one group of people has more bad habits than another is basically stereotyping – a form of unfair profiling. In my work with the Public Hygiene Council, we go to the ground to pick litter and in some cases, enforce anti-littering laws. And guess what – we have found many litterbugs and they are a mixture of people.
At the same time, we have foreigners joining us in keeping Singapore clean – like the Green Birds, who are Japanese. We also came across Myanmar nationals who picked up the litter after a game as a group. We have Indian nationals who volunteer to pick litter with us. On one occasion, we found a whole family from China picking litter with us.
In other words, we all have a share of the good, the bad and the ugly in this regard. We are all not really better or worse. We are just humans who need a little reminder, a little encouragement, and a dose of deterrent, to restrain us from becoming litterbugs. We are also all capable of doing the right thing if we choose to. We have to stop the blame game. I need to start with me. What am I doing to keep clean, should be my first question. We should not start with others, asking why they are not keeping clean.
Bharati: I am sure that you’re not always so positive and gracious all the time. I’m sure you lose it as well.
Wan: You’ve been after me for this.
Bharati: You’re a human being.
Wan: I am a human being. I have my impatience and I have my frustrations. But I have learnt to be disciplined about my feelings. I need to deal with my own feelings when I’m upset and angry. There is no point for me to take it out on any other person. When there is something that’s wrong in my organisation, when my team members make a mistake, I take them aside and I tell them in a very firm way that that’s not the right thing to do and so on.
I have also in my professional life actually fired people for doing things that are not ethical and so on. So I am not incapable of doing that. Kindness is not weakness. However, I do not believe that as adults, we should be showing uncontrollable rage in public. I do not believe in using four-letter words, in screaming at people, just because we’re unhappy.
IS ELITISM THWARTING KINDNESS?
Bharati: In the past, you’ve also lamented that elitism is scuppering the spirit of kindness.
Wan: Elitism is the function of our success, of a programme that has enabled us to succeed so far. What we have done as a nation is to identify the best, and then give them all the support in order for them to have an even better chance of succeeding. And as a result, we have a tier of people who are, as far as we can see, endowed with higher achievement and abilities and so on. And then we put them on a track, where everything is mapped out for them. It is really natural then if these people are not mature enough and begin to think of themselves as better than the other person. And that is the beginning of elitism. Setting them up to succeed in such a way that they themselves begin to think of themselves as elites – that’s where the problem is.
Bharati: What do you think needs to be done in order to counter this problem?
Wan: Humility. I think it’s humility. I would like to encourage all these elites who are very good at what they do, scholars and all, to take time every year, maybe twice a year, to walk through the cemeteries.
Bharati: Why the cemeteries?
Wan: To look at the epitaphs. To see that all these intelligent people, all these bright people, all these elites, also end up the same place. We must begin to recognise and acknowledge our own mortality, and to realise that no matter how good we are, we share a common humanity, we need to learn to be humble.
I wrote a forum letter once and I had a lot of flak, because the Methodist Welfare Services organised an empathy program at the Singapore Island Country Club to get the wealthy members of the club to have a simulated experience of poverty. And a lot of people felt very unhappy saying that they were making fun of the poor and so on.
Actually, I lived in the West for many years, and this is not uncommon. It’s not uncommon for neighbourhoods to get out there and get in touch with the more marginalised people and to really talk about how they can collectively do something to make life better for other people. Some people are not able to go straight away to these communities. And they say, can we at least come together and have a simulated experience, before we take that next step to go and work with them?
Why do they need that? Because all their lives, they’ve never been in touch with the poor. They’re afraid that they may say the wrong word. Or they may do the wrong thing. And they just want to learn how to be sensitive to people who are marginalised. And I think it’s a good thing. People with wealth are not bad people. Many of them are also asking themselves, how they can give back to the community. And if they want to learn from others who have had experience with the marginalised people or vulnerable people, we should give them a chance to learn.
Bharati: To what extent do you think this can be done more organically from a younger age? Some say the school system itself reinforces the divides.
Wan: The school has got Values in Action, Character and Citizenship Education. And there are many opportunities for them to actually bring the students to nursing homes and to help with organisations like Willing Hearts, preparing food for the vulnerable. I think if we are creative enough, we can find opportunities to bring our children and for the school to organise trips for children to go to these places and interact with people who are in need of friendship, who are lonely, who are vulnerable.
Bharati: Some would say the Government has a hand in to what extent the system is set up for the creation of an elite. What do you think it should do?
Wan: You see, sometimes we are so ambitious; we keep thinking, “Can we make structural changes? Universal changes? Nationwide changes?” To be honest Bharati, I’m not so ambitious.
Bharati: Why not?
Wan: I think those are the tasks of perhaps our politicians, our Government. They have the ways and means to make policy and hopefully they will do the right thing and set up nationwide changes. What I do as an individual is to be the voice crying in the wilderness.
Bharati: I know you said that policy is the realm of government and politicians, but if you could have some input, what sorts of policy do you think might help in terms of narrowing this divide between the elite and everyone else?
Wan: In the article I wrote recently about the lessons we can learn from Brexit, I talked about disenfranchisement and I felt that’s really what happened to Great Britain. People in the little towns and so on, ended up having to compete with immigrants who are more qualified than they are, and prepared to take the job for less, and there was a danger that this was happening in Singapore. And I said that the Government was manly enough to start to tweak the policy and make changes.
So what I’m saying is that the voices that are out there, the challenges to the Government and so on, have the right to challenge Government in a democratic way and hopefully in a gracious way.
I think the Government, thankfully, at least from that experience, showed that they’re listening. Some of us may not be happy with them, saying “they’re not listening hard enough”. But whatever the extent, they’re trying to adapt, make changes, tweak it, so hopefully more people should be talking, should be writing. Hopefully we should not be afraid to say to the Government that they can do better and hopefully they will listen. And of course otherwise, there’s always the ballot box, right?
ARE WE CAPABLE OF MATURE DISCOURSE?
Bharati: When it comes to kindness and civility, much has been said about the tone of online discourse about current issues and politics – that it seems people can’t converse maturely without put-downs and insults.
Wan: Of course. As long as you remember that it’s a minority and it’s amplified on social media, we’re fine. But don’t allow the amplification to make us think that it’s everybody doing it. In fact on many of these sites, where you have this kind of conversation, I believe that it’s the same old people, using different names and just supporting each other. So let it be. Sometimes it’s good to walk away from that, because we’re getting nowhere. Some of us tried to go into those kinds of sites and we’re just overwhelmed by nonsense, and we say: “We’re wasting our time.”
Bharati: Lately, there have been several debates about social issues in Singapore involving members of religious communities – for instance, the LGBT issue. How do you process the texture of the debate which has been explosive and intolerant at times, on both sides of the divide, considering your own religious background?
Wan: There’s fundamentalism on both sides. There’s fundamentalism in liberalism as well. In other words, I am right, you’re wrong. I am liberally right, you are wrong. I am conservatively right, you’re wrong. I’ve been observing the conversation. I have not participated in the conversation directly. People have asked me about it.
My take is simply this: I have friends who are gay who talk to me. I treat them as friends. I do not judge them. Why can’t we do that? Of course the religious people want to talk about sin. Gayness is not the only sin we should be worried about. What about greed? Is greed a sin? Of course it is. Pride, is it a sin? Of course it is a sin. So there are many kinds of sins, but we need to talk about it as compassionate adults, with sensitivity.
I don’t think pointing fingers, judging, is the way to go. If you believe that a heterosexual lifestyle is the right way, you live it out, committedly, faithfully and hopefully, people can see that it’s a good way. Whatever else that’s happening, if your friends want to talk to you about it, listen. Listen with empathy and compassion.
Bharati: Why haven’t you spoken up and said all of these things in order to present the moderate view?
Wan: I haven’t said anything deliberately because already, in some of the other things that I have said, that have nothing to do with this kind of issue – a simple issue like Anton Casey’s case – I got a lot of flak because there are people who simply dislike deeply the idea that one can be empathetic even to the worst people. When it comes to this, the divide is so deep and I’ve got so many other things I need to do.
I am really worried about it pulling me down into a very deep and long conversation that I may not even have enough energy left to do the other things I want to do. This is a very deep, very sapping arena of conversation.
Bharati: But that’s the problem – the silent majority needs to speak up and isn’t doing so.
Wan: Yeah, that is true.
Bharati: And isn’t it key to get the silent majority to just at least speak up and present views publicly even if you don’t get into it with the bigots?
Wan: It’s a discernment thing – there’s a point where you say to yourself: Live and let live. If people are not going to listen, and you just keep hitting your head against the wall, and there is no rational, logical response, it’s all ineffective and so on, then you shouldn’t be getting into that. Somehow I find that in certain quarters, people are very thin-skinned. They get easily offended.
Another thing I’ve noticed too is that somehow – maybe it’s the culture of always needing to win – some people have to win every argument. Why do you have to win every argument? There are grey areas where nobody wins. It’s just differences in opinion, right? And why is it that we must attack the person when we disagree with their idea. Why?
So quite frankly, I think that we’ve still got a lot of work to do. We’re getting people to wrap our heads round the idea that we can have differences in opinion and it’s not always right or wrong. We can have differences in opinion and we can still be the best of friends. We need that kind of maturity.
Bharati: How do you think we can get there?
Wan: I think we are getting there, little by little, slowly. I think debates, for example, have existed for the longest time in schools. It’s perhaps a matter of raising the standards of debates and the issues discussed, and giving the students better guidance as to how one can disagree without getting angry with each other. I think that can happen in the school context. Hopefully it will spill over to outside the school. But the online platform is a bit difficult, because again, there are some people who have decided to be online warriors and they just hide behind their keyboards. For that, we have to have discernment and move away. The administrator must also be wise enough to actually be strong and throw them out. And I think it can happen – more maturity in discourse on and offline.