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Singapore society: ‘Kiasu’ and ‘complaining’, but one that cares for the elderly

SINGAPORE — Six years on, Singaporeans still see society here in predominantly negative terms, associating values and behaviour such as "kiasu", "kiasi", "complaining", "competitive", "materialistic", "blame", and "self-centred" with the people around them.

The term "complaining" was added to the triennial National Values Assessment survey this year and it emerged as second-most cited value.

Not all was bleak in the latest survey conducted by the Barrett Values Centre and aAdvantage Consulting Group, which polled 2,000 Singaporeans from March to May this year.

A positive change was the term "care for the elderly" making the list for the first time. It was something that Singaporeans had indicated they desired in society since 2012, and featured alongside two attributes which Singaporeans indicated they liked about Singapore in 2015 – "effective healthcare" and "educational opportunities".

"Peace" and "security", which featured in the 2015 list, were replaced.

First conducted in 2012, the National Values Assessment survey looks at what Singaporeans consider to be the "values, beliefs and behaviours that best describe them at a personal level, their perceptions of Singapore society and their workplace today, and their vision of the ideal society and workplace".

Respondents were asked to pick 10 words that best reflect their views in each category from lists consisting of more than 100 words.

The results were released on Monday (July 30) at a roundtable discussion organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and attended by more than 40 academics, researchers and representatives of the public and private sectors.

This year, Singaporeans described an ideal society with terms such as "affordable housing", "dependable public services", "concern for future generations", "respect", and "compassion".

The latter two showed Singaporeans do want society to be defined by "higher order values", noted National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser, one of the speakers at the closed-door discussion on Monday.

But current values like "complaining" and "kiasu" – what he called "defensive mechanisms" – run counter to that aspiration, and Assoc Prof Tan suggested the need for "an affirming culture".

Analysing the statistics for the audience, Mr Vincent Ho, director of aAdvantage Consulting Group, noted that the term "complaining" – one of the many terms added to reflect the angst felt especially on the social media front – contributed significantly to the degree of a society's perceived dysfunction, which was also measured in the same survey.

"Complaining" made up 4 per cent of the attributes picked by respondents to describe the people around them – second only to "kiasu", which accounted for 5.1 per cent.

This year, 41 per cent of the attributes picked by respondents here were "potentially limiting" ones that could be destructive and unproductive for society, up from 37 per cent three years ago. This is better than Sweden's 44 per cent and Finland's 49 per cent, but worse than Bhutan's 4 per cent, United Arab Emirates' 12 per cent, and Denmark's 21 per cent.

Assoc Prof Tan, however, said the 41-per-cent figure does not necessarily reflect dysfunction in the culture here, and could indicate a higher level of self-criticism.

There is also a "better match" between what people picked as their personal values and desired societal values this year, he noted.

In assessing themselves, more Singaporeans now picked values like "balance (home/work)" and "humour/fun", which made this year's list together with seven terms that featured in the previous two editions of the survey. They are "family", "health", "caring", "friendship", "responsibility", "honesty", and "happiness".

Assoc Prof Tan felt Singaporeans are "doing better" and said the more negative results could be due to high expectations.

"(We always say) the best is always yet to be. Regardless, we will never 'make it' if you follow that motto. But the question (should be): Can we transform as a society from glory to glory? I am sure we want to do better, but how? What are the gaps we need to narrow?" he said.

On why Singaporeans had been harder on those around them, Assoc Prof Tan suggested that it could be due to economic disruption. "Economic concerns are always a part of the human condition… In wanting to make a living, we still want upward social mobility for ourselves or our children," he said.

Others at the roundtable did not see "complaining" as a bad thing.

"We are a nation of complainers because we are so used to things working very well. The slightest mistake (or) inconvenience, (people) complain about it," said Mr Bevan Cheong, chief transformation officer of Tokio Marine Life Insurance. "I don't feel it is really sinister. It is not a big problem. It is just who we are."

Citing recent complaints by the public about women having to pay higher premiums than men for the severe disability insurance scheme CareShield Life, Mr Cheong said complaining is "a very good way of giving feedback" and "there should be more of it".

"It took a few brave people to step up and ask that question," he said. "My point is, if you don't give the complaint then there is nothing to act upon. Complaint is just another word for feedback. And the government today is very active in seeking this sort of feedback."

Said Mr Ho: "If we complain for the sake of complaining, and start to draw lines saying 'I am right and you are wrong', then it might not lead to any positive outcomes. But if people complain and, as a result of that, we're able to openly discuss what went wrong… then potentially there might be a positive outcome."

When it came to their employment, Singaporeans continued to use negative words like "long hours", "results orientation" and "cost reduction" to describe their current workplace, but more are using new words like "continuous improvement", "continuous learning", and "information sharing" to describe it.

Singapore Business Federation chief executive Ho Meng Kit said the descriptions show that the Government's call for businesses to transform and respond to the changing economic landscape has gained some traction.

However, negative behaviour arising from values such as "long hours" and "cost reduction" may impede workplace transformation "despite the best of intentions", said Mr Ho.

This article was first published in TODAY on 30 July 2018.

Author: Vincent Ho, Director, aAdvantage Consulting

Vincent has led business transformations, customer experience and corporate structuring projects across diverse industries such as government services, telecommunications and media, healthcare, education, hospitality, manufacturing services, financial services, property development and consultancy, security services, distribution and retail.

He is also an experienced business facilitator and has facilitated many senior and staff workshops in areas of Vision, Mission and Values, Strategic Planning, Customer Experience, Work-planning and High Performance Team Development.

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