Singapore: first-world country with third-world citizens? |

by Cheryl Tan

Speaking at the Singapore Bicentennial Conference conducted at Raffles City Convention Centre in October 2019, Professor Tommy Koh stirred up a bucket of emotions among the local population by commenting that Singaporeans lack the social etiquette and civic-mindedness expected of a first world nation.

The country is currently experiencing a worst-case scenario when it comes to third-world behavior in the light of the recent DORSCON Orange status, with people stockpiling masks, sanitisers, and supermarket essentials without a care that others – who may need them more – may not get enough supply. This behavior almost seems to undermine that fact that Singapore is a well-educated nation, but one that has thus far prized wealth as the epitome of being successful.

Prof. Koh’s comment is not to be taken as an insult but to serve as a timely reminder that for Singapore to truly be the epitome of a first world nation, we need to look beyond financial statistics as a measure of our country’s success and instead, challenge the definition of what it means to be a capitalist society and how we as individuals can create a ripple effect of positive change within our micro-communities too.


While it is important to attract visionary, capable CEOs that can lead in a competitive market, we should also reflect on the vital role rank and file employees play as the foundation and guts of a thriving and productive business.

When companies attain a healthy balance between monetary profits that benefit shareholders and family-friendly policies that improve the well-being of employees, they will reap the benefits of having satisfied, productive employees that work effectively because they care for the company which in turn becomes an important driver to an organisation’s sustainable economic growth.

Perhaps this is an exciting time not just for the fourth generation of leaders to spearhead pilot programmes that promote disruptive innovation ( think Airbnb, Netflix, Amazon Alexa) but also an opportunity for individuals to step up and take ownership for how we want to shape our future society and landscape.


One of the core aspects that makes us such a successful nation is the government’s huge investment in it’s people by providing us with a world-class education. However, much as it is important to emphasise the acquisition of hard skills which make us employable, it is also important to place a greater emphasis on pastoral care from early childhood through to tertiary education levels.

Singapore has fantastic infrastructure in place and brilliant minds that run the country, but if we fail to invest time into teaching children kindness and generosity at an early age, we risk pumping out a future workforce of people who work for the money, not for the love of our country; who pursue materialistic ideals, not for the sustainability of an egalitarian society.

A cohesive and inclusive society

Just as Singapore is a melting pot of diverse cultures, races and religions, our success as a nation is multifaceted. The wealth of our nation cannot solely be measured by financial statistics such as our GDP or Ginni Coefficient.

Instead our success stems from a dynamic network of pragmatic leaders in government with the vision to establish world-class infrastructure that in turn provides a robust foundation for the social and intellectual growth of our nation. All these connections are intrinsically woven together and create the very fabric of our society we now call Singapore.