Bring on the daisies, and those acts of kindness

Seth Mydans
The New York Times

Singapore Kindness MovementWhile 21 national leaders gathered behind tight security this weekend to address the region’s problems, some Singaporeans were out in the rain-washed streets handing out yellow daisies in the latest government campaign to improve the national character.

The annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting seemed to draw only modest attention here, despite the star power of President Barack Obama, who arrived late Saturday, just in time to join a photo lineup of leaders in bright silk Singapore-made tunics.

The international visitors had a look at the perfect skyline of tall modern buildings that might have been a life-size presentation of one of their own hoped-for model cities.

But on Orchard Road, the overcrowded shopping street where Singapore’s pulse quickens, another more problematical side of national development was unfolding.

Young volunteers were meeting with surprise and sometimes suspicion as they handed out long-stemmed yellow gerbera daisies as symbols of an elusive Singapore ideal of personal kindness.

“I think we have it inside, but people are just a little bit shy to show it,” said Wendy Lee, a senior manager of the government-funded Singapore Kindness Movement Secretariat, after participating in the distribution of 45,000 flowers throughout the city.

Some people skittered away warily at the notion of receiving something for free; others seized several when they realized they didn’t have to pay.

“Once in a while we need these little reminders,” said Ms. Lee, who wore a bright yellow T-shirt bearing the words, “I am one of a kind” and, “Kindness … bring it on.”

Singapore’s leaders have pushed for years to redevelop their population much as they have transformed an island of villages and palm trees into the most orderly of urban jungles.

The Singapore Kindness Movement is part of a long, many-sided government campaign to create what might be called the New Singapore Man.

“We built up the infrastructure,” the nation’s founder, Lee Kuan Yew, said in an interview two years ago. “The difficult part was getting the people to change their habits so that they behaved more like first-world citizens, not like third-world citizens spitting and littering all over the place.”

So Singapore embarked on what Mr. Lee called “campaigns to do this, campaigns to do that.” The ideal citizen, if these campaigns are a guide, will smile, speak good English, flush the toilet and perform “spontaneous acts of kindness” but will never spit, chew gum or throw garbage off balconies.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong used his National Day speech in August 2008 to address one recurring theme in Singaporean behavior management, urging people to clean away their trays in cafeterias. If military recruits can police their mess halls, he said, there is no reason why civilians cannot do the same.

He did note that Singaporeans behave quite well in some other pursuits like sitting in the cinema without putting their feet up on the chair in front of them.

Campaigns like this are not as silly as they may seem, he said.

“Sometimes people laugh at us, but actually these are things which we can work on and improve,” the prime minister said. With training, he said, “They will respond, and our social norms will upgrade.”

The most persistent theme of these campaigns has been kindness, or courtesy, traits that the country’s leaders clearly believe are lacking among their people.

Like doctors trying to summon a heartbeat, they have persisted for three decades employing banners, contests, jingles, debates, cheerleading contests and newspaper articles like one last Friday under the headline, “Ditch the disdain and do some good deeds — it’s easier than you think.”

The campaigns follow one after another, their catch phrases varying only slightly: Make courtesy our way of life (1979); it’s so nice to be courteous (1981); let’s go the courtesy way (1983); bring on a smile (1985); courtesy begins with me … go on, be the first (1990); try a little kindness (1996); let’s use hand phones with courtesy (2000).

If taxi drivers are a barometer of national discourse, Heng Ng, 46, indicated that in this tightly managed nation these campaigns have had some success.

“The surprise is that most people are courteous, most people are kind,” he said, “because here in Singapore the law is very strong. They tell people to be kind, they must be kind. Cannot be rude.”

But Singapore’s unsentimental founder, Mr. Lee, who now holds the title minister mentor, suggested at an open forum last week that the problem was more fundamental.

On a visit here in 1978, he said, the former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping congratulated him on his success in nation building.

“So I said, ‘Whatever we can do, you will do better. We are the descendants of the landless peasants of South China. You have the literati, you have the top brains, you have the poets, the artists.’

“He did not answer me,” Mr. Lee said. “He just looked down and went back to his food.”

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