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The Singapore Kindness Movement: Building A First-World Citizenry


Image: Credits to Singapore Kindness Movement https://www.kindness.sg/corporate/partnerships/

In this Explainer, find out...

  • How has the Singapore Kindness Movement evolved over the years?

  • What are some steps the Singapore government has taken to promote kindness within society?

  • Despite the challenges, can Singapore still become a kind society?


Introduction


During the 2019 Singapore Bicentennial Conference, Professor Tommy Koh, a veteran Singaporean diplomat, lamented that Singapore was a “first-world country with third-world citizens”. “Many of our people don't give a damn about the environment when they should. Many of our people are selfish and unkind. Just look at the way they drive!" he remarked.¹ While this comment drew laughter from the audience, one wonders if there is a deeper message behind his words — one that Singaporeans should take more seriously. 


Singapore is known for its ‘hustle culture’, with its ethos of relentless work to get ahead in one’s career.² The hustle culture is particularly prevalent among the younger generation.³  However, constant competition to be the best can foster a sense of individualism and selfishness.⁴ Coupled with the mind-your-own- business mentality of many Singaporeans,⁵ is there hope for a caring, gracious, and above all, kind society? 


The Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM), is a nationwide initiative with this very objective. Having partnered with multiple governmental agencies like  the Ministry of Education (MOE), National Environmental Agency (NEA) and Land Transport Authority (LTA),⁶ whose roles significantly impact Singaporeans’ daily lives, the intention to integrate kindness in all aspects of our routines becomes clear — and rightly so! 


In this Policy Explainer, we discuss the ins and outs of the SKM, including its history, key initiatives, and even Singa the Lion who many of us recognise as a familiar face. Additionally, we take a closer look at the reasons behind certain cultural and behavioural norms in Singapore to understand how the SKM can be better tailored to promote a caring, gracious and kind society.


History and Evolution


Starting as the National Courtesy Campaign in 1979, Singapore’s kindness initiative has undergone multiple revisions. Every year, various themes are adopted to promote kindness in different aspects of Singapore society. 


Figure 1: The Singapore Kindness Movement Timeline


The National Courtesy Campaign (1979)


Launched on 1 June 1979 by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the objective had been to turn Singapore into a ‘pleasant’ country, where people were kind, considerate and thoughtful towards each other.⁷ The campaign expanded on an earlier courtesy campaign by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (now Singapore Tourism Board) that sought to encourage friendliness towards tourists.⁸ It was also viewed as a strategy to facilitate Singapore’s shift to a high-density city-state, where citizens would inhabit and work in dense urban areas while relying on public transport for travel. If people were to be selfish and inconsiderate in a denser nation, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew cautioned that life would become “unbearable”.⁹  


Many activities were organised under the National Courtesy Campaign to emphasise the importance of courtesy to one another. Training films and role-playing dramas were used to educate sales staff, taxi drivers and civil servants on this.¹⁰ To assess how courteous civil servants were in dealing with the public, the government also hired private companies to perform undercover courtesy audits. The slogan for the first courtesy campaign was “Make Courtesy Our Way of Life”, accompanied by a round yellow smiling head as its logo (see Figure 1).¹¹


Singa the Lion (1982)


In 1982, the yellow smiling head logo was replaced by a mascot named Singa (Malay for “lion”). Organisers of the campaign wanted to convey the message that courtesy was more than just smiling.¹² Singa, designed by the then Ministry of Culture’s art team, is a smiling golden-maned lion, with arms outstretched in a welcoming gesture. Singa is also accompanied by the slogan “It is so nice to be courteous”.¹³ Since then, Singa has been featured in numerous campaign materials, becoming a familiar face for  Singaporeans.


The Singapore Kindness Movement (1997)


The SKM was launched in 1997, accompanying Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s call for Singapore to be “a more gracious society by the 21st century”.¹⁴


The SKM consists of three main objectives:¹⁵


  1. To encourage Singaporeans to be kind and considerate;


  1. To create public awareness of acts of kindness; and


  1. To influence and raise standards of behaviour and responsibility.


Since 1997, the SKM has been managed by the Singapore Kindness Movement Council (the SKM Council), in partnership with members from various educational institutions and private organisations.¹⁶ The council’s members ensure collaboration with a wider group of stakeholders such as schools, businesses, and government agencies to integrate kindness into different aspects of society, thus promoting a harmonious and caring environment for all.


In 2001, the National Courtesy Campaign was subsumed under the SKM. Programmes that ran under the Courtesy Campaign were taken over by the SKM Council too. 


Key Initiatives of The Singapore Kindness Movement


Today, the SKM contains many initiatives that seek to promote the practice of kindness in our daily lives. These activities are organised with various government agencies to bring kindness into our schools and public transport system – places where it is arguably most needed. In addition, awards are given to service personnel who go out of their way to help others. 


Kindness Day SG


One of the more well-known events organised under the campaign is Kindness Day SG, formally known as the Singapore Kindness Week. The day is celebrated as one where people express their appreciation to each other, with the symbol of the yellow gerbera flower (see Figure 1).¹⁷ These appreciative gestures aim to cultivate the spirit of care and empathy in Singapore since even a small act can  brighten someone’s mood.¹⁸


Held in May every year, a myriad of activities are organised for the public. For example, there is a corridor decoration contest where neighbours can come together to decorate their walkways. Not only does this brighten common corridors, but it also helps to spread positivity throughout the community.¹⁹


Friend of Singa Programme


The Friends of Singa (FOS) programme was introduced in 1990 to encourage students to go the extra mile to improve their environment and community.²⁰ It is a year-long programme open to primary, secondary, special education, and international schools, as well as madrasahs.²¹


Some examples of past projects include “Thanking the  People Behind the Scenes” by Crest Secondary School, a school-wide project to thank non-teaching staff for their work,²² and a three-part web series called “Be Greater” by Anderson Secondary School, which showed how kindness could be used to resolve problems relating to feelings of jealousy, stress and peer pressure.²³ All of these projects are done by students and for students, hence fostering a school community that is not only well-educated on these issues but also one that takes an active stand to combat such problems.


Gracious Commuting: The Thoughtful Bunch 


Bus or train, these five little characters are the most frequent commuters on Singapore’s public transport! Named “The Thoughtful Bunch”, the characters were launched in 2014 by LTA to encourage commuters to spread kindness on public transport.²⁴


Figure 2:  Posters featuring The Thoughtful Bunch²⁵


Members of “The Thoughtful Bunch” are:²⁶ 


  1. Stand-Up Stacey: Gives up her seat to those who need it more.


  1. Move-In Martin: Moves in to make space so others can board.

  2. Give-Way Glenda: Queues to one side of the door and lets others alight first.

  3. Bag-Down Benny: Puts his bag down so others have more room. 

  4. Hush-Hush Hannah: Keeps her volume down so others enjoy a quieter ride.


With the bunch’s iconic faces and catchphrases plastered in train stations and on board public transport (see Figure 2), they are reminders for Singaporeans to practise graciousness in their daily commutes. Engaging in simple acts of kindness, by putting down bags  or offering one’s  seat to someone who needs it more, can make a mundane ride significantly more pleasant. 

According to a study by LTA, the Commuter Graciousness Index, which measures the ‘perceived change in behaviour’ of commuters rose to 61.3 per cent in 2014, up from 42 per cent the year before.²⁷ As this increase occurred roughly around the time when the initiative was released, it demonstrates the campaign’s effectiveness.


National Kindness Awards


The National Kindness Awards initiative was rolled out by the SKM to recognise and reward the efforts of outstanding individuals who contribute to creating a more pleasant and caring community.²⁸ 


There are two main awards that people working in transport or service industries can receive: 


  • Transport Gold Award: Recognises the efforts of transport staff who are hospitable and caring to those around them. This award also appreciates efforts to go the extra mile to create a more pleasant commuting environment.²⁹ 


  • Service Gold Award: Recognises hotel staff who have displayed exemplary behaviours. In 2003, a new category called “Gracious Guests” was introduced under the award.³⁰


By awarding members of staff for practising kindness at work, the initiative hopes to positively influence the behaviour of other staff. This will help create a society with empathetic and caring citizens who go out of their way to make Singapore a better place. 


Hope for a Kinder Singapore 


Though every society is bound to have its bad eggs, could there be any reason for unkindness in Singapore? Given these reasons, could it ever be possible for a pivot towards kindness in Singapore? 


Kindness and Kiasu-ism


One possible reason is rooted in our pressure-cooker environment, which follows one from school to the workforce.³¹ The drive to excel, an effect of meritocracy taken to extremes, has caused work to become the centre of many people’s lives. Encouraged to ‘hustle and work relentlessly’ to outpace others, meaning in life has become attributed to career success.  The result of “kiasu-ism”, also known as the “fear of losing out”, is a society where people do whatever it takes to get to their goal, potentially leaving out core values like kindness.³² For example, one who is absorbed with their office or schoolwork while sitting on the public bus may not notice a pregnant woman who would require the seat more and fail to give up their seat to her.  


Although the battle between kindness and kiasu-ness is one many Singaporeans might struggle with, our society is far from being devoid of warmth. The secondary school boy who held an umbrella to shelter alighting bus passengers on a rainy day,³³ and the man who rushed to help an elderly woman who had run out of time to cross a road; they are all examples of acts of kindness that shine through.³⁴ Other simple everyday acts of kindness that are not caught on video and made viral should also not be discounted.


Mind-Your-Own-Business Mentality


A second reason why people might hesitate to be kind is the “mind-your-own-business” mentality commonly associated with Asian cultures. Minding one’s own business is justified differently for different age groups. 


For older folk, being unsure of what to do or a lack of awareness were the dominant reasons for not offering help. On the contrary, young people are more  concerned with other’s perceptions of them. Hence keeping in one’s lane stemmed from the fear of being embarrassed. In fact, a survey finds that one in four young people held back from showing kindness due to this very reason.³⁵ Appearing stupid or getting mocked on social media were cited as the greatest deterrents to offering a helping hand since kind intentions were not always perceived as such.³⁶ In such cases, kindness was not absent but rather suppressed. 


Overall, however, there was a greater sense that Singaporeans were more capable of graciousness in 2024 as compared to 2023, with more people returning trays and giving way to others on pathways.³⁷ This does not mean that the job is done. Rather, the SKM must continue to remind Singaporeans of the importance of kindness. 


CONCLUSION 


As the SKM perseveres in its mission of proving Professor Koh’s assertion wrong, it would do well for Singaporeans to remind themselves that acting kindly is not a competition with a reward at the end for the ultimate winner. True kindness comes from within, driven not by external validation but by genuine desires to uplift others. Being kind must then be recognised as its own reward.³⁸ In the journey towards a kinder society, everyone, young or old, has a role to play. 


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This Policy Explainer was written by members of MAJU. MAJU is an independent, youth-led organisation that focuses on engaging Singaporean youths in a long-term research process to guide them in jointly formulating policy ideas of their own. 


By sharing our unique youth perspectives, MAJU hopes to contribute to the policymaking discourse and future of  Singapore.



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