The 45-year story behind “Gratitude is not servitude”

Many Singaporeans may recall the one-liner “Gratitude is not servitude” that I started using during the 2011 General Election. To this day, I get reminded of it from time to time by supporters and detractors alike. Many wanted to know how I came up with this succinct and pointed retort to PAP’s constant reminder to voters to vote PAP out of gratitude for raising Singapore’s economic well being.

A retort to the gratitude blackmail

The idea came about in the weeks before I announced my decision in April to contest the 2011 May GE as opposition candidate. I knew I would be attacked for being “ungrateful” to the government who had given me a university scholarship and a well paid job in the civil service after graduation. But I was determined to tell Singaporeans that gratitude did not mean blind loyalty and that while we could be thankful to the government, it did not mean we could not criticize them for any wrongdoing. The challenge was to tell it in a way Singaporeans could remember and recite it easily.

Corinthians epiphany

I got my epiphany in church one day when 1 Corinthians 13:4–8a) was read, setting out what love is and what love is not ….” Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” In particular, I liked how two contrasting ideas were put together in one short sentence. I turned to my wife, ”Pat, I have found the statement we are looking for to change Singaporeans’ mindset that they can recite as easily as our favourite Corinthians verse.” She smiled approvingly.

Mindset change

That mindset change in me took place 37 years earlier in 1974 when I was a student in Oxford. I was walking on High Street just outside my college one day when someone called my name from across the road. I turned right and instantly recognized the face of the young lady behind the voice. I waved and walked towards her. She stopped her bicycle and as I reached her, she suggested “Coffee?”. “Love to. Where?” “St Hilda’s.” She climbed down from her bike and with both hands on the front handle, she gently pushed her bike along as we both walked towards her college.

As we sat down in her room, enjoying her freshly brewed coffee, I said to her, “Charis, I want to tell you how grateful I am to you for what you have done for me the other day. Is there anything that I can do for you in return?” She cut me off immediately:”No, not at all. I did what I did because I liked to and wanted to do it for you. And I expect nothing in return.”

I did not expect that 45 years later, I would again engage in a similar lively conversation over coffee with the same straight-talking and passionate English girl from Dorset but this time in a London cafe on my recent visit to the city. We last met nearly 40 years ago in Hong Kong where she was working for the Hotel Peninsula group. We lost contact after that until I found her on Facebook early this year.

I told Charis how her strong view on gratitude changed my mindset so profoundly that I had expressed it in an election slogan years later. She was thrilled. “I still hold the same view to this day. But gosh, did I say all those things at age 19?” Yes we were both around 19 then and were already discussing the big issues confronting humanity and society. Isn’t this what going to university is all about, to search for answers to the big questions in life?

The Confucian reciprocity

Her view on gratitude had initially struck me like a bolt from the blue. I told her how difficult it was for me to accept it. “That’s not how I was brought up to believe in and not how we Chinese look at it,” I had protested. “To us, gratitude means returning kindness with kindness, a favour for a favour, like how Confucius taught us, and gratitude is eternal, passing from generation to generation.” Charis understood what I was talking about. As a scholar of Chinese studies at Oxford herself, she knew all about the Confucian notion of reciprocity in gratitude. But she thought differently. “I know this thing about “报恩””bao en”(gratitude). But to me in a different culture, showing me gratitude is to do the same act of kindness to others even though it does not come back to benefit me. That’s how we view gratitude.”

Beware gratitude can enslave

It is an enlightened view. It frees us from being held to ransom by those who use gratitude to blackmail us. In the Singapore political context, many Singaporeans voted PAP out of gratitude for taking their families out of poverty. There are three things wrong with this attitude.

First, the old PAP leaders who took us out of poverty had already passed away and current leaders are just sitting on old goodwill and paying themselves million dollar salaries, way above what the old generation leaders were paid and without anything to show that they are any better.

Second, Singapore is not the only country that has made huge economic strides and moved from Third World to First in the last 50-60 years; so many countries have done so too like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and many other cities in China, Norway, Sweden and Finland. And the leaders in these countries are paid very modest salaries unlike the million dollars demanded by PAP ministers.

Third, voting is about the future and not about the past. Gratitude is for the past not the future. Have current leaders done anything in the recent past that gives us confidence that they will do us good in the future? Have they done anything exceptional for us to deserve their exceptionally high salaries paid for by us through our tax-payers’ money? No, they have not. The only thing exceptional they have done is for themselves, by creating a super welfare state for PAP and their cronies. That’s why The Economist Intelligence Unit has ranked Singapore Number 4 in the world in its Global Cronyism Index, after Ukraine, Malaysia and Russia. What an exceptional achievement for PAP’s exceptionalism!

Fellow Singaporeans, do not allow PAP to use past gratitude to blackmail us into voting them again and condemning ourselves to a future of servitude. Gratitude is not servitude.

P/s Charis has lived and worked in Hong Kong and mainland China and has written several books on China. She also worked as a BBC analyst for several years.

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