Many who are born in modern Singapore might think that it is a natural state of affair for us – clean environment, low corruption, highly accountable leaders. But dig a little deeper and you will find out that it is not. Singapore has traditionally been in a region where corruption is perceived by many to be rampant. But today, Singapore brought a touch of yellow to the region. We are known to the world for being highly efficient, effective, and most importantly, we do what we say and we say what we do. Our principled approached have made us some enemies, but it has earned us a reputation on the international stage as a trusted partner and a country that despite being small, have what it takes to stick to our principles. From how we have handled the Michael Fay incident, to how we have denounced Russia for their invasion of Ukraine and to how we have advocated for a rule-based approach for the South China Sea conflict; time and time again, Singapore took things in our stride despite the pressure from the international community to bend to their will when we are a country barely the size of the province of many countries.
Our founding leaders took bold, decisive steps to shift us towards a clean government, where corruption is largely rooted out and heavily punished, and integrity being one of the most important quality of the public service. Decades down the road, Singaporeans reap the benefits. Today, while we still stand in awe for the courage, I reckon not many truly appreciate how much it takes to openly call out the United States, a giant on the world map when you are just the Prime Minister of a newly formed, outcasted Southeast Asia country. We as individuals may not be able to display the same valour, but we must do everything in our capacity to defend this reputation that Singapore have built, in every small way that we can. While we may not be able to fight every individual, organisation and community, sometimes the best way we can send a message is our abstinence from involvement. As consumers, we can choose to not purchase from dubious corporations. As individuals, we can choose not to collaborate with questionable individuals. As employees, we can choose to work only for ethical companies. If our forefathers can take the moral high ground during a time where resources are scarce and we have problem putting food on the table, Singaporeans today have even lesser excuse. It is just about how much your integrity is worth.
To a certain degree, abstinence from involvement sounds similar to cancel culture and some advocated a “call-out culture” instead. Sunlight, as it was said, is often the best disinfectant. Exposure will likely solve the issue. However, while sunlight can disinfect, it can also bring along with it detrimental effects; skin cancer is a good example. Often, real world issues are complex. When we go all out to solve one problem, we risk bringing in other new ones. There is no silver bullet. But ultimately, no matter what is our approach, it is important for us to put our foot down when it comes to integrity, trust and credibility issues, without which, Singapore will not have a foothold on the international arena. This is one of our founding principles and emphasis cannot be made more. It is crucial not to simply pay lip service to the matter. After all, if one claims to not compromise on such matter, and the actual situation on the ground is atrocious and horrendous, then it begs the questions on what did the non-compromising stand translated to. Hence, it is clear that while there can be difference in approach, the outcome should be perceivable and obvious. There are one thousand and one ways to skin a cat. But at the end of the day, the cat should be skinned.
Lastly, whatever our approach, there will be repercussions. Sometimes, it can even result in the accused casting aspersion on the one calling them out. While those who live in glasshouse should not throw rocks, it does not mean that we should let this distract us from the main issue. As individuals, we should strive to live true to our values and practise what we preach. That should give us confidence when allegations are being made. But it does not mean that we must be perfect individuals to make a stand on something, else there will be no one qualified to be law enforcers or judges. Allegations, especially those made on one’s integrity should be taken seriously. While we advocate free speech, it does not shield one from slandering another. When one maliciously cast aspersion on another’s character, especially when one is a public officer, it is irresponsible to let such matter go without investigation. The allegation does not just impact an individual, but the structure of the entire public service as a whole. Hence, I applaud Singapore’s stand when it comes to irresponsible speech. Some may argue that it will create a chilling effect. Generally, I would choose the chilling effect over eroded public trust in public institutions.
In summary, credibility is everything. Without credibility, almost nothing would function in this world – marriages, businesses, banking system and legislations. And that is also one strong reason why I have returned to the military to finish my officer course like I have said I would, even when it is challenging for me to take on the nine months training with one young child on dialysis and another in the womb of my spouse back then. Looking back, there is no regret from taking this path, even as it was tough (credits to my wife and family). It is something necessary for me to do, for the sake of my credibility. But that’s not the end of the story. Credibility, integrity and trust is something that we have to constantly watch. It is something that takes a lifetime to build and a moment to destroy.