What is your idea of a civilized society? Do you feel that Singapore has achieved that status?

A note on spelling:
I am aware that some people insist on spelling “civilized” as “civilised”, in the attempt to stick to a British style of spelling. However, I encourage everyone to check their Oxford Dictionaries for the word “color” (Br: “colour”) and compare that entry to the entry for “civilized”. Not all “z’s” turn into “s’s” when you use a British style.

When most people think of “uncivilized” societies, they often think of pre-modern tribes, tribes that are ignorant of the marvels of science and technology, that are made up of people still dressed in skimpy animal skins. In that sense, Singapore is undeniably civilized. Most Singaporeans have smartphones, and most people that I know of have stopped dressing in animal skins. However, I would like to think of a “civilized” society in the sense of it being refined and advanced. In that sense, perhaps Singapore is still a significant distance from being a civilized society.

A refined and advanced society, in my mind, cannot simply be one that enjoys the benefits of science and technology — it also has to be one that is compassionate and just. After all, a society made out of violent criminals could look very attractive and civilized on the surface, but underneath that facade, the violence and crime that would surely occur would force us to consider that society to be uncivilized. Looking around us in Singapore, we see some amount of compassionate behaviour. There are charities that attempt to help the unprivileged in society, that are well-supported by the general population. The government has also attempted to shape students into compassionate individuals by making community service compulsory. However, it seems to me that these efforts only pierce through a thin layer of injustice in our society. That we still have an army of old people collecting cardboard for a living is testament to a society that is not completely refined and civilized yet.

The injustices in Singapore are many. In addition to the above-mentioned army of old people, we have foreign workers being treated unfairly, and a worrying level of income inequality. A refined and civilized society would not accept these injustices, and would work towards making society a little bit more equal, and a lot more just. That some old people here have to collect old cardboard boxes for a living is perhaps only a symptom of the larger problem of income inequality here. I grant that there is already some level of civilization in Singapore, since nobody has to starve and die on the streets. However, in an Asian culture, many people value their pride (their “face”) as much as they do their lives — for some, their pride is probably even more important than their life! With that in mind, it is unacceptable how vast income inequality is in Singapore.

I use the word “unacceptable” in the sense that a truly refined society would find it unacceptable. There is a section of society whose children can afford not to work anymore, those who live in multi-million dollar mansions in secluded areas, and who sit on massive bank accounts. Then there is a section of society who cannot afford the privileges of having smartphones and nice clothes, even though they work their fingers to the bone — the lowest paid in our society, including the foreign workers and uneducated among us. Smartphones and nice clothes may be seen as unnecessary to some, but without these privileges, it is very difficult to participate in mainstream life — think about how difficult it would be to get a good job when you cannot send an email or a text message.

Therefore, even though on some level, Singapore is already civilized, it is not completely refined. As long as there are glaring levels of inequality and injustice in our society, we cannot say with conviction that Singapore is completely civilized. If we close our eyes to injustice, we cannot claim to be civilized.

(589 words)

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