National Courtesy Campaign
by Lim, Siew Yeen
The National Courtesy Campaign was launched on 1 June 1979 by the then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. The aim of the campaign was “to create a pleasant social environment, with Singaporeans considerate to each other and thoughtful of each other's needs”.1
The courtesy campaign began as an initiative by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (now Singapore Tourism Board) in 1978 to encourage Singaporeans to be more polite and friendly to tourists. However, Lee strongly felt that the campaign should encourage Singaporeans to be polite to everybody and not only to tourists. He thus spearheaded the nation-wide courtesy campaign with the intention of making Singapore a polite and considerate society as well as to raise the quality of life in Singapore by the 1980s.2
The campaign’s first slogan was “Make Courtesy Our Way of Life” and was represented by a smiling head logo.3 The campaign was initially held in July – designated as Courtesy Month – each year until 1985 when it became a year-long publicity drive.4 In 1982, the campaign’s logo was replaced by a new mascot named Singa the Courtesy Lion.5
Since its inception in 1979, the campaign has been held annually and involves both public and private sector participants, which include: commercial banks; department stores; restaurants; hotels; social and religious organisations; statutory boards; government ministries; National Trades Union Congress (NTUC); People’s Association; police force; bus service; taxi companies; schools; and radio/television stations.6
For the campaign each year, the organiser comes up with different themes and catchy slogans, adopts various strategies; and targets different groups such as youths, mobile phone users, Singaporean travellers, late wedding guests and neighbours.7
Activities and programmes organised during the campaign period to drive home the courtesy message include: distribution of pamphlets and souvenirs; media advertisements; use of catchy slogans; airing of television commercials, programmes and catchy jingles; special courtesy awards; tie-ups with schools; training and education programmes, and contests and competitions. These efforts have helped to raise people’s awareness of the need to be courteous and considerate in various social situations.8
Singapore Courtesy Council
The Singapore Courtesy Council, headed by Noel Hon, was set up in 1993 to advise the government on the administration of the courtesy campaign. The council was comprised mainly of people drawn from the private sector to organise and coordinate the campaign.9
One of the initiatives started by the council was the launch of Singapore’s own courtesy book, It’s the Hosomes!, in 1994. The title of the book is a play on the word “wholesome” and the Hokkien word “ho” (good) and is about a typical Singaporean family of five who possesses typical Singaporean traits. Copies of the book were sold at Times the Bookshop and distributed to schools, colleges, government organisations, statutory boards and corporations. A sequel was published in 1995 following the success of the first book.10
Singapore Kindness Movement
On 1 March 2001, the National Courtesy Campaign was officially subsumed under the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) after the Singapore Courtesy Council was officially dissolved. Courtesy programmes previously run under the National Courtesy Campaign were handed over to the SKM to organise. Noel Hon was appointed chairman of the SKM, which aims to encourage Singaporeans to be considerate and perform acts of kindness.11
Success of the courtesy campaign
There have been many examples of anti-social behaviour and traits of the “ugly Singaporean” reported in the media since the 1970s. These have prompted various discussions on the effectiveness of the courtesy campaign. The level of graciousness in Singapore has also been compared unfavourably against other countries such as Switzerland, Japan and Thailand.12
The courtesy campaign has enjoyed varying degrees of success in raising the level of courtesy among Singaporeans since it was launched in 1979. In June 1995, The Straits Times newspaper reported that the courtesy campaigns held in 1993 and 1994 were successful in reducing the “me-first” attitude among Singaporeans. The newspaper reported that there were fewer instances of Singaporeans piling their plates with food at buffets, and higher chances of people giving up their seats to older and weaker commuters on the MRT trains and buses. However, the newspaper article highlighted that road courtesy for motorists and queue-jumping were areas that needed to be improved on.13
Noel Hon stepped down as chairman of the SKM in 2008. In his many years heading the Singapore Courtesy Council and then the SKM, Hon has noticed a change in the attitudes of Singaporeans, who have moved from being courteous to being kind.14 His successor Koh Poh Tiong feels that Singaporeans are gracious but too shy to show it, and strongly believes that it will take up to three generations for Singapore to become a truly gracious and kind society.15
In his National Day Rally Speech in 2012, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong lamented the growing instances of the “ugly Singaporean” behaviour. He cited examples of Singaporeans reserving public road spaces outside their houses for parking their cars; quarrelling with neighbours over issues such as the washing of common corridors, placement of furniture and noise; and objecting to the building of eldercare facilities or studio apartments in their precincts.16
In 2013, the Graciousness Index, which measures the level of graciousness in Singapore based on survey findings, fell to a five-year low with respondents reporting that they performed and experienced fewer acts of kindness and graciousness. The computed index score of 53 represented an eight-point fall from the previous year and was the lowest score recorded since the index was started in 2009.17
Lim Siew Yeen & Mazelan bin Anuar
1. Towards a polite society. (1979, June 2). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Making polite behaviour our way of life... (1979, June 1). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Towards a polite society. (1979, June 2). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Byramji, N. (1979, June 17). We'll make it within five years. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Lee, V. (1985, June 29). New-style courtesy campaign will last a whole year. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Nirmala, M. (1999). Courtesy – more than a smile. Singapore: The Singapore Courtesy Council, p. 13. (Call no.: RSING 395.095957 NIR –[CUS])
6. Lam, D. (1979, June 5). SBS, police, NTUC join campaign spreading courtesy at the bus stops. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Making polite behaviour our way of life... (1979, June 1). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lee to kick off annual courtesy campaign. (1979, May 10). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Late wedding guests a target again. (1994, July 4). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lee to kick off annual courtesy campaign. (1979, May 10). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Making polite behaviour our way of life... (1979, June 1). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Courtesy council to advise Govt on annual campaign. (1993, March 18). The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Shuli Sudderuddin. (2008 July 6). Kindness still moves him. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Foo, J. (1994, December 13). Comic book shows up discourteous traits of wholesome families here. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Courteous Hos in a sequel. (1995, November 19). The Straits Times, p. 39. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Nirmala, M. (1999). Courtesy – more than a smile. Singapore: The Singapore Courtesy Council, p. 15. (Call no.: RSING 395.095957 NIR –[CUS])
11. Shuli Sudderuddin. (2008 July 6). Kindness still moves him. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Soon, courtesy will be part of kindness. (2001, January 13). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Tye, K. H. (1984, May 6). Ugly Singaporean goes into overdrive. Singapore Monitor, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Basapa, L. (1970, May 17). Will the 'Ugly Singaporean' ever change his attitude? The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tan, S. (1993, July 2). Singapore some way from Swiss level of graciousness. The Straits Times, p. 34. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Raise courtesy level, please. (1993, July 13). The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Success in previous campaigns. (1995, June 28). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; S'poreans more courteous. (1994, June 29). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Rajan, T. (2006, June 21). S'poreans get an 'F' for courtesy. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Shuli Sudderuddin. (2008 July 6). Kindness still moves him. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Chang, D. (2008, August 30). It begins at home. The Straits Times, p. 36. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ng, E. (2009, April 1). Are we ungracious, or just shy? Today, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Wong, T. (2008, January 14). S'poreans' lack of social graces a social disgrace. The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Chang, R. (2012, August 27). PM laments Ugly S'porean behaviour. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
17. Goy, P. & Cheng, J. (2013, April 10). Graciousness in Singapore hits five-year low: Survey. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
Courtesy is in us, let's show it. (1984). Singapore: Information Division, Ministry of Culture.
(Call no.: RSING 395.095957 COU -[CUS])
Survey of the 1985 courtesy campaign. (1985). Singapore: Survey Research Singapore: Ministry of Communications & Information.
(Call no.: RSING 177.1095957 SUR)
The information in this article is valid as at 4 July 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.