The Shared Values are five national values of Singapore. They were formalised by the government on 15 January 1991 to forge a national identity in the face of a changing society with evolving values. The Shared Values were formulated according to the nation’s multicultural heritage, as well as the attitudes and values that have contributed to the success of Singapore.1 They are inculcated through education in schools.2
The notion of having an official set of shared national values was first mooted by then First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong on 28 October 1988 during his speech to the People’s Action Party Youth Wing.3 Goh noted that the values of Singaporeans were slowly shifting from communitarianism to individualism because they were being exposed to “Western values”, primarily individualism. Goh deemed this a worrying trend, citing that social cohesion and national competitiveness would be compromised, thus adversely affecting Singapore’s economic growth and national survival. To prevent these negative outcomes, Goh proposed the creation of an official “national ideology” comprising a set of shared values to anchor Singapore society.4
During his opening address to the seventh parliament on 9 January 1989, then President Wee Kim Wee reiterated the need for Singapore to adopt a set of shared national values, because Singaporeans had begun to adopt “a more Westernised, individualistic, and self-centred outlook on life” as opposed to “[t]raditional Asian ideas of morality, duty and society”. Wee cited four shared values: 1) Placing society above self, 2) Upholding the family as the basic building block of society, 3) Resolving major issues through consensus instead of contention, and 4) Stressing racial and religious tolerance and harmony. The core values were said to distil the essence of the Singapore identity, “preserve the cultural heritage of each of our communities” and bond Singaporeans together.5
As a follow-up to Wee’s proposal, a committee led by then Minister for Trade and Industry Lee Hsien Loong was convened to identify and set the government’s position on the shared values.6 A key consideration in drawing up the values was to ensure their compatibility with the cultural practices and religious beliefs of the local communities. To ensure that the values would be common across different communities, the committee solicited feedback for its proposal from various ethnic and religious groups.7 Another consideration was to strike a balance between society’s interests and individual well-being.8 The committee also decided to exclude political values such as democracy and meritocracy from the shared values, as the focus of the shared values was the relation between the individual and society. Besides, some of the core political values were already enshrined in the symbolism of the national flag.9
On 2 January 1991, the committee tabled its findings in a white paper during parliament.10 The five values proposed in the White Paper on Shared Values were: 1) Nation before community and society above self, 2) Family as the basic unit of society, 3) Regard and community support for the individual, 4) Consensus instead of contention, and 5) Racial and religious harmony.11
Debate and amendments
The white paper was debated in parliament over two days, on 14 and 15 January.12 While most members generally agreed on the need for a set of shared values to build a national identity, some also flagged concerns about the proposed values. One such concern was that the values placed too much emphasis on the nation at the expense of the individual. It was postulated that this could stifle the individual, leading to feelings of a lack of respect or being unappreciated for their individual talents and contributions. Creativity and innovation could also be compromised and thus curtail the nation’s competitiveness.13 To address this concern, the value, “Regard and community support for the individual”, was amended to “Community support and respect for the individual” to more strongly convey the importance of upholding the place of, and caring for, every individual in Singapore.14
Another concern over the proposed shared values was the usage of the word “contention” in the fourth value, “Consensus instead of contention”. Some members of parliament pointed out that the statement could imply the suppression of debates and dissenting views.15 To avoid this misconception, an amendment was made to replace the word “contention” with “conflict”. The amendment aimed to clarify that debates and disagreements should be resolved amicably and ultimately reach consensus, instead of being unconstructive and confrontational.16
Following the amendments, the Shared Values were passed by parliament on 15 January 1991. The final version of the five Shared Values are: 1) Nation before community and society above self, 2) Family as the basic unit of society, 3) Community support and respect for the individual, 4) Consensus not conflict, and 5) Racial and religious harmony. The values were to be developed in accordance with the directions laid out in the Shared Values white paper.17
The Five Shared Values
The following elucidates what each shared value means.
Nation before community and society above self
There are two components in this value. The first component, “nation before community”, signifies that national interests should supersede community interests. Various communities should not pursue their own interests to the detriment of the nation – for example, pertaining to Singapore's racial and religious harmony.18 The second component, “society before self”, emphasises that society’s interests should take precedence over the individual’s; the latter should always be willing to compromise by giving up his or her personal prerogative for the betterment of society at large.19 The White Paper on Shared Values identified Singaporeans’ willingness to make “temporary individual sacrifices” for the sake of national interests as key to overcoming past challenges such as the British military withdrawal, and thus leading to “greater success for all”. This quality was viewed as imperative for the nation’s continued progress.20
Family as the basic unit of society
This value upholds the sanctity of the family unit, which is deemed the most important building block of society and upon which a stable society is formed. The family not only provides a safe and nurturing environment for children, but is also the place where values are transmitted and the elderly are cared for.21 The value reminds Singaporeans not to shun the responsibility of caring for the aged, or uncritically adopt “alternative lifestyles” such as casual sexual relations and single parenthood, which weaken the family unit.22
Community support and respect for the individual
A major component of this value is the emphasis that every individual in Singapore society has rights that should be respected and “not lightly encroached upon”.23 It is not merely “polite deference” to another person; rather, it is to acknowledge the person and genuinely value him or her.24 By emphasising on the individual, this value balances the Shared Values’ stress on community and society with the individual.25 The other aspect of this shared value is the focus on the need for the community to support the individual, particularly by showing compassion to the less fortunate. Grassroots welfare associations and volunteering with social services are examples of community support. Such efforts help to avoid the pitfalls of a welfare state and prevent the “dependent mentality” from developing among Singaporeans.26
Consensus not conflict
The aim of this value is to show that consensus should be the end result for any debate or dispute; constructive rather than confrontational discussion should be the means by which consensus is achieved.27 Singaporeans should participate in constructive discussion with sincerity and with the intention of upholding national interests. This value extends beyond state-civil relations: It also applies to disputes arising between unions and employers, communities, within families and in the commercial sphere.28
Racial and religious harmony
This value stresses the importance of maintaining racial and religious harmony in Singapore. As the Shared Values white paper noted, racial and religious harmony is fundamental to the nation’s well-being. Therefore, it is imperative for all members of society, whether they belong to the majority Chinese or the minority ethnic groups, to look past their differences and beliefs so that a harmonious society can be preserved for the nation’s progress.29
Inculcating the Shared Values
There were a number of suggestions on how the shared values should be inculcated or promoted. They included legislating and turning the values into law, adding them into the constitution, incorporating them into the national pledge or the national anthem, composing them into a song, transmission through mass media and even erecting a monument to cast them in concrete.30 In the end, it was decided that the most feasible way to inculcate these values is through schools – primarily via civics and moral education (CME) lessons – and with the help of parents.31
The CME syllabus focuses on six core values: respect, responsibility, integrity, care, resilience and harmony. They form the basis of the development of a person of good character as well as a useful citizen. Among the six CME core values, four of them – respect, responsibility, care and harmony – are derived from the Shared Values. In this way, the CME syllabus complements and reinforces the Shared Values.32
The home environment has also been identified as the other means by which the Shared Values are transmitted, as that is where the values and attitudes of children are significantly shaped. Besides, all parents are ascribed the responsibility of nurturing their children into good citizens.33
Lim Tin Seng
1. Singapore. Parliament, White Paper on Shared Values, paper cmd. 1 of 1991 (Singapore: [s.n.], 1991), 1–2 (Call no. RSING 306.095957 SIN); “2 Shared Values Amended to Make them More Acceptable,” Straits Times, 16 January 1991, 1; “BG Lee Zeroes in on the Core Issues,” Straits Times, 12 January 1989, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, vol. 56 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 15 January 1991, cols. 930–39. (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN)
3. “Shared Values Should Help Us Develop a Singaporean Identity,” Straits Times, 16 January 1991, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Goh Chok Tong, “The PAP Youth Wing Charity Night,” speech, Neptune Theatre Restaurant, 28 October 1988, transcript, Ministry of Communications and Information (1985–1990). (From National Archives of Singapore document no. gct19881028s)
5. Parliament of Singapore, President’s Address, vol. 52 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 9 January 1989, cols. 13–14 (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN); “Develop a Singaporean Identity.”
6. “Core Issues.”
7. Singapore. Parliament, White Paper on Shared Values, 3–4.
8. Singapore. Parliament, White Paper on Shared Values, 6.
9. Singapore. Parliament, White Paper on Shared Values, 9.
10. Singapore. Parliament, White Paper on Shared Values, i.
11. Singapore. Parliament, White Paper on Shared Values, 10.
12. “Self and Society: Concern Over Emphasis to Get Right Balance,” Straits Times, 15 January 1991, 1 (From NewspaperSG); “2 Shared Values Amended to Make Them More Acceptable.”
13. Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, vol. 56 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 14 January 1991, cols. 818–20, 861–62. (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN)
14. Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, cols. 834–36; Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, cols. 927, 930–31, 935, 967–68; Anna Teo, “Parliament Endorses Core Values, with Two Rephrasings,” Business Times, 16 January 1991, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, cols. 820, 856; Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, cols. 887–89, 897, 901–02, 917–19, 920–22, 931; Warren Fernandez and Tan Ban Huat, “‘Consensus’ Emerges as the Most Controversial Value,” Straits Times, 9 January 1991, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, cols. 836–38; Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, cols. 928, 930–31, 936.
17. Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, cols. 967–68.
18. Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, cols. 812–13.
19. Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, cols. 813.
20. Singapore. Parliament, White Paper on Shared Values, 3.
21. Singapore. Parliament, White Paper on Shared Values, 3.
22. Singapore. Parliament, White Paper on Shared Values, 3–4.
23. Singapore. Parliament, White Paper on Shared Values, 6.
24. Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, col. 935.
25. Singapore. Parliament, White Paper on Shared Values, 6.
26. Singapore. Parliament, White Paper on Shared Values, 6–7.
27. Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, col. 936.
28. Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, col. 936.
29. Singapore. Parliament, White Paper on Shared Values, 4.
30. Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, col. 819; Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, cols. 883, 929–30.
31. Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, col. 839; Parliament of Singapore, Shared Values, cols. 929–30; Singapore. Parliament, White Paper on Shared Values, 10.
32. “Civics and Moral Education Syllabus: Primary: 2007,” National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, A-5–A6, accessed on 16 September 2021; “Civics and Moral Education Syllabus: Secondary: 2007,” National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, 6–7, accessed on 16 September 2021.
33. Singapore. Parliament, White Paper on Shared Values, 10.
Sharon Snodgrass, “Real Challenge to Keep Core Values from Gathering Dust on Shelf,” Straits Times, 12 February 1994, 33. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as at 13 July 2015 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.