Much has already been written about this year’s National Day Rally speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. To me, the message that resonated most is about “everyday heroes”, good neighbourliness and the kampong spirit.

Towards the end of his speech, PM Lee said: “But our greatest strength is our people – united and resilient, steadfast and resourceful, in good times and bad. During Covid-19, we stepped up in so many ways to support one another, making hand sanitisers, sewing face masks, delivering food to the quarantined, refurbishing laptops for disadvantaged kids, caring for migrant workers, vaccinating the elderly or showing a little extra kindness to one another, starting young.”

The focus on ordinary citizens showing a little extra kindness to one another is a reminder that everyone can play a part for the greater good.

This people-centricity is also what the notion of civic duty and civic virtue (or civic-mindedness) is about. The word “civic” is related to the notion of citizenship, itself originally a description of “a person who lives in a city” and the duties of a citizen.

In his speech, PM Lee talked about a citizen’s civic responsibilities in two aspects. When he talked about the ordinary citizens showing kindness to one another, he was referring to civic virtues. And when he touched on the Government’s intention to pass a specific legislation on racial harmony, he was talking about civic duty.

A civic duty is the duty of the citizen to obey the law simply because it is the law.

In contrast, a civic virtue is the duty of the citizen to do the right thing not because it is the law, but because it is virtuous to do so. It is an obligation driven by an inner conviction rather than an external compulsion.

There is a penalty attached to the breaking of a legal obligation but there is usually no credit given for fulfilling that obligation – you do not get rewarded for not littering. Legal obligations imply adhering to some minimal standards. In contrast, virtue is the inner state of character that regularly expresses itself in praiseworthy actions. It implies that some shared values or norms are esteemed, welcomed and respected.

To unpack the difference between civic duty and civic virtue, here are three recent examples.

On path-sharing

Shared Paths
Image source: Shutterstock / ENeems

Last week, I was with Sembawang GRC MP Poh Li San and a group of volunteers, spreading the word about safe cycling. The campaign was a collaboration involving the Singapore Kindness Movement, Sembawang Town Council and the Safe Cycling Task Force. We reminded residents we met in Sembawang West to be careful and considerate as they shared the footpaths as pedestrians and cyclists.

Although everyone we met was on the same page on the virtue of the message, the success of this mini-campaign depends on cyclists having the mindset, or the civic virtue, to do the right thing without the force of the law.

On tray return

Tray return
Image source: Shutterstock / kandl stock

Starting this month, the law against littering will be enforced against patrons who do not return their tray of used crockery and utensils after a meal at hawker centres. The law against littering in public spaces has been in place since 1987 but it has not been enforced for table litter in public places until now. That this is now being enforced is a reflection of the failure of civic virtue despite more than a decade of campaigning and other “soft” approaches.

It is hoped that this route would eventually lead to a point where civic duty (keeping tables clean because it is the law) will result in civic virtue (keeping clean because it is the right thing to do) through force of habit.

On racial harmony

racial harmony
Image source: Shutterstock / anythings

Finally, PM Lee spoke about the intention to enact the Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act. He said: “It will collect together in one place all the Government’s powers to deal with racial issues. It will also incorporate some softer, gentler touches.”

This is an example of a hybrid approach – appealing to the sense of civic virtue while enacting to extract civic duty.

Education and persuasion is key when talking about inculcating civic virtues.

For instance, Roses Of Peace is a youth-driven, ground-up movement that started in 2012 to promote interfaith messages of love and harmony, with ambassadors appointed for a year to build bridges across various faith communities and champion peace-building initiatives. Since it started, the group has engaged more than 3,000 youth volunteers from diverse faiths and distributed over 50,000 roses with messages of peace.

The relation between civic virtue, civic duty and the law is succinctly summarised by philosopher Thomas Paine, a key figure in the American Revolution, who wrote in 1776: “Some writers have so confounded government with society, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher…”

It is still better to voluntarily practise the duty of civic virtue to foster a kinder society. But if that virtue is lacking, it is necessary to have civic duty imposed on the citizenry by law so that the country can function at its best.

This article first appeared in the Straits Times

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