National Day awards need a rethink

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By Augustine Low

At around this time, the National Day honours list is being drawn up. When it is announced in August, there will hardly be any surprises.

Top bureaucrats get the top awards. Also a shoo-in are civil servants (past and present), military personnel, people appointed to serve on government committees or who front government-endorsed campaigns and projects. Every once a while, a poet or playwright might get the nod. Otherwise, it’s the usual suspects – those honoured pursue causes and vocations aligned with those of the government.

When was the last time a social activist passionate about humane (not necessarily pro-government) causes got onto the National Day honours list? Never!

Why should that be the case?

According to the Prime Minister’s Office, “National Day Awards are a means of recognising various forms of merit and service.”

It does not say that the service must be in support of the government or government-related causes. It does suggest that the awards are meant to signify an all-inclusive and all-embracing Singapore, recognising diverse forms of merit and service to country.

So why the insular and political nature of the awards?

One person who deserves a National Day award is Chiam See Tong. He has become part of the Singapore story, a son and patriot who inspires with his perseverance, dignity and dedication.

Recently, four students from the NTU produced a final-year project on Chiam and Potong Pasir, which has a heritage and history distinct from other constituencies. Their project, titled My Kind of Town, paid glowing tributes to Chiam and Potong Pasir.

The students explained why they undertook the project: “While other politicians have had their contributions and stories recorded in the history books through multiple journals and documentaries, veteran opposition politician Chiam See Tong has yet to have an in-depth book written about his career. We felt that he is an important part of Singapore’s political history and his stories deserve to be remembered.”

What a fine gesture it would be, if Chiam were to be bestowed a National Day Award. It would show that as a country, we have taken a big step forward to be more inclusive, more embracing of people who serve fellow Singaporeans with pride and dignity, regardless of political affiliation.

We are often told that Singaporeans need to be more gracious. Can the government take the lead for once, and show us the way to true graciousness?