By Mr Richard Magnus, Deputy Chairman, Temasek Foundation
Sometimes, a struggle can have beautiful results.
Just ask an oyster. It defends itself from an invading parasite by coating itself with layers of a material called nacre. The oyster becomes adaptive and resilient.
In time, this process forms a lustrous pearl, glowing and defiant.
In a strange way, the coronavirus pandemic reminds me of this magical and indomitable quest for survival in nature.
Covid-19 sneaked into our nation, uninvited and unwelcome. It caused major catastrophes that changed our lives. The disease lifted the veil on hidden vulnerabilities. But these grim realities on the ground can translate into opportunities.
The relentless march of the coronavirus was met by an equally determined swell of empathy that lifted the nation. Empathy was manifest in action by thousands of individuals who self-organised efforts to help the vulnerable, and seen in generous donations by organisations and in unprecedented Budget support by the state.
When face masks became the central focus in our fight against the disease, organisations both public and private stepped up to combat a potential lack of supply. There are now 1,200 24-hour vending machines across 800 locations to dispense masks to some five million Singaporeans and residents at the flash of an identity card.
It sounds simple, but using dispensing machines to distribute masks this way is complicated. Security, convenience and the sheer volume of people collecting make the task challenging. More importantly, the insight to deliver masks via vending machines springs from an empathetic understanding of what a customer wants in a pandemic situation: a low-touch, yet reliable way to collect the masks without face-to-face contact, to reduce transmission risks.
For Singapore, this surge of empathy has another far-reaching value. Empathy can lead to innovations for economic recovery, and give us relevance on the international stage.
In Singapore, our society has displayed a strong, collective fighting spirit through a heightened sense of empathy at this time of national crisis. It was not only Covid-19 that brought this out.
Throughout our young history, an empathetic response has been part of our arsenal to meet crises. We have had to delve deep into our internal faith – our confidence in destiny – through many years of overcoming pain in our history.
There was the separation from Malaysia after the merger, the British army’s withdrawal in 1971, the oil crisis in 1973, Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome), the Asian financial crisis and then the global financial crisis, and the impact of the Sept 11 terror attacks.
Together, we have built, and are building, a nation. We have kept the covenant made by our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew that we will be “one united people, regardless of race, language or religion”. This is our duty of care to one another.
During this pandemic, there are many stories about how we have gone above and beyond this duty, and extended service to our neighbours. These are promising and powerful energies of empathy stirring in our society.
Singapore’s nacre, our mother-of-pearl casing, is empathy. It is the substance that bonds us, keeps us relevant and turns us into a shining society in a gloomy world.
The pages of newspapers and social media are brimming with stories about individuals who stepped up to respond to needs from the community.
Retiree Chad Tan volunteered to carry bags full of lunch packets, distributing them to low-income families and elderly residents living alone. He felt compelled to do this because he learnt that the number of people needing help had doubled.
To help keep Bangladeshi compatriots informed, Mr Omar Faruque Shipon became an information ambassador for the migrant workers. He set up a Facebook page, now 54,000 followers strong, to act as a hotline, helping migrant workers with queries and issues.
Project Stable Staples was an initiative by eight young people looking to provide three months’ worth of grocery vouchers to families living in rental flats who have experienced a loss in income. The project has since helped almost 3,000 individuals and raised more than $160,000.
There are many more such stories of empathetic responses by individuals.
As Singapore grapples with a new reality of muted activity as a result of Covid-19, we can tap the same empathetic energies to blaze new pathways.
In fact, there is even an empathy index, developed by Empathy Business, that in 2016 found that companies that embed empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of others – into their business models perform far better than those that don’t.
Just last month, an article on www.forbes.com reported: “A recent Ipsos poll, conducted on behalf of PepsiCo Beverages North America, finds that Americans believe it is now more critical than ever that brands demonstrate empathetic qualities and take action to maintain customer loyalty and support. In response, companies have described empathy as the ‘brand mandate’ from this point forward.”
The article goes on to describe what empathy is in business terms: “Empathy is about perspective-taking; it’s about walking in your customers’ shoes to understand their experience and how we can better help them solve problems in their lives. But let’s be clear, brands aren’t empathetic; the people who manage the brands have to be empathetic.”
If you want to succeed, empathy needs to be at the core of your business.
This relationship between corporate empathy and the ability to innovate cannot be denied. Statistics show that four out of the top five most empathetic companies globally spent more than US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) on research and development in 2015.
Empathy can also undergird our attempts to stay relevant to the world.
Over the past few months, as Covid-19 ravaged the globe, we have seen countries retreating into their nationalist core.
I am reminded of my time as Singapore’s first representative to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.
Back then, I had expressed my concern about the need to balance the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms with corresponding neighbourly and societal duties and responsibilities. This was especially so in an Asean setting where nationalism was strong.
I sought to understand if we each had a common core of beliefs in human rights and beliefs in the context of our respective nations’ histories. This was intentional empathy. It was diplomatic work and information gathering and sharing with openness and honesty.
Today, as a nation, we stand in solidarity with our regional neighbours, finding new ways to be useful for our collective well-being. We readily provided them with masks, test kits and medical equipment.
Singapore has opened its doors even wider to support its neighbouring communities as well as the regional and global economy.
We are led by our shared values of helping one another, even more so in times of crisis as our fates are forever intertwined by deep personal and national histories. No one is safe until everyone is safe.
During this pandemic, Singaporeans have strengthened our foundation as a society, through our many empathetic responses. This is observable from the initiatives started by individuals and organisations.
Each country will emerge from its shell into a new world characterised by new constructs. While many things are refreshed and rebooted, one axiom remains central for Singapore: that our survival hinges on staying relevant to the global community.
Empathy can lead to innovation. According to Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella, the source of innovation is “all about being able to meet the unmet and unarticulated needs of customers”. To do this successfully, you need to have empathy. If we can perform this as a nation, we have a chance of keeping relevant in a world of disruption and uncertainty.
In his national broadcast recently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong lauded the resilience and solidarity that Singaporeans have shown in these difficult months: “They show we can emerge stronger from the crisis, with a sharper consciousness of being Singapore.”
Let us put on the pearls of unity, resilience and fortitude, and begin the long journey ahead, together.
• Richard Magnus, former senior district judge of the Subordinate – now termed State – Courts, is the chairman of Temasek Foundation Cares, a non-profit philanthropic organisation that funds and supports innovative community-based programmes in Singapore. He was Singapore’s first representative to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.
This was first published on https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/the-energising-spirit-of-empathy-stirs-in-singapore