Singaporeans' poor social graces a result of a weak sense of community
By Han Fook Kwang
I couldn't find any public dustbins in Taipei where I was visiting about a week ago.
The city was clean and as well kept as any I have seen elsewhere.
But nobody throws rubbish here? What happens if you've a piece of tissue paper you want to get rid of?
Leave it in the pocket?
That's what the Taiwanese do, said my guide. They dispose of it when they get home so they can separate what can be recycled from the rest.
That's really impressive, I thought, especially considering how difficult it is to get Singaporeans to recycle their waste, let alone carry it home with them.
I had to remind myself I was in Taipei, not Tokyo where you expect the Japanese to be ultra civic-minded.
It was one of several surprises about Taipei and its people, which overturned my previous preconceptions about the place.
Truth is I didn't know very much about Taiwan, not having visited for more than 20 years - I was last there on a brief news assignment.
Much of what I knew came from reading the papers and watching the news on television, and it was mostly negative - the unruly politics, fist fights in Parliament, and headline-grabbing melodramatic elections (remember the mysterious shooting of then President Chen Shui-bian a day before the 2004 presidential election?).
There were other revelations from my visit.
At Taipei's MRT stations, commuters waited in orderly, single-line queues for trains, a sight you don't see here in Singapore, and their trains are just as crowded.
(Second reminder - it's not Tokyo.)
But the stand-out observation of my four-day visit was the service at restaurants.
It was better than Tokyo's.
These were not fine-dining places that I visited, where you expect service to be good, but popular ones such as Din Tai Fung and T.G.I. Friday's, both of which are also in Singapore.
I have never experienced such personal, enthusiastic and know-ledgeable service anywhere in the world - and from very young waiters barely out of school.
It was packed in Din Tai Fung, so you couldn't say the exceptional service was because it was a slow day there.
The issue of how to get Singaporeans to be more civic-minded has been an evergreen one because there are too many examples of bad behaviour which have gone uncorrected for too long.
Commuters blocking the way of those getting off the trains, diners not returning their trays at hawker centres and foodcourts, residents not recycling their waste, moviegoers using their mobile phones in cinemas. Many visitors have also commented that the city isn't as clean as it used to be and more people have been caught littering in public places.
The list goes on.
That's not even including how motorists behave on the road - top of my hate list being the way they accelerate instead of giving way the moment they see another driver signalling to get into their lane.
It's often said we're a First World economy but without the accompanying social graces, and that it'll take another generation before we get there.
It was such a refreshing change to visit a city where you could see a qualitative difference in social behaviour and attitude towards one another, and which was not so culturally or economically different from Singapore that it seems like an alien place.
It's how I feel about Japan - it sets a very high standard for courteous behaviour and public-spiritedness but Japanese society is hard to fathom and the social codes are so opaque to outsiders it seems like a world apart.
Singaporeans will never be like them, so there's no point studying how they do it.
But Taiwan is predominantly Chinese, and much more similar to Singapore.
It disproves the point that some people here have made that one reason for the mediocre service in retail shops and restaurants is that Chinese people are not known to be service-oriented, unlike say Thais or Filipinos.
Taiwan proves this wrong.
But if it was just about service, it wouldn't be such a big issue.
A Gallup survey put Singaporeans right at the bottom of 148 countries for lacking emotion and for being the least positive.
You could argue with the flawed way the survey was done, as many critics have done, but it still sucks to be bottom of the class.
More disconcerting was the finding of the World Giving Index two weeks ago that Singaporeans were one of the least likely people in the world (140th out of 146) to have helped a stranger in the past month.
As for giving money to charity, the score wasn't great either - 53rd, and way behind other South-east Asian countries such as Indonesia and Thailand.
I couldn't think of a worse dampener to the year-end celebrations.
Many reasons have been given for Singapore being so far behind in these softer aspects of our development.
Among several: Because we're a fast-paced, competitive economy in a densely populated urban city, people here have less time to be nice to one another. And that we're a society in which just a generation ago, many among our parents came from some of the poorest villages in China and India and who might not have grown out of their peasant habits.
But Hong Kong is just as compactly populated with immigrants from a similar background, yet it ranked 19th in the overall index, 95 places ahead of Singapore.
America is one of the most competitive economies in the world and was rated fifth.
I believe there is a common thread running through societies that do so much better than others in this area.
It has to do with having a strong sense of community and identity among the people, that they are in it together and so have to look out for one another.
It's like being part of a family, no one needs to be told to do his or her part for the other - it should come naturally because the ties that bind are as strong as Mother Earth.
When I asked a colleague who has worked in Taipei what accounts for the behaviour I observed there, she said there were many reasons, one of which was that things became noticeably better as a result of the civic movement during the years leading to the lifting of martial law in 1987.
Those were the years of political and social awakening in Taiwan when the people became more involved and participated more actively in the issues that mattered to Taiwan.
As a result, they developed a stronger sense of Taiwanese identity.
Their politics is often ugly and the economy has been sluggish for some time, but they appear to have made greater strides on the social front.
For Singapore, the challenge is greater than in a homogeneous society like Taiwan.
It is why all those top-down campaigns to get people to return food trays, stop littering, or move to the back of buses will have only limited success because Singaporeans don't feel strongly enough that they are one community and will look after one another.
That's the painful truth and acknowledging it is necessary before progress can be made.
Forging those bonds requires action, not words, from as many people as possible doing things for the common good, and not for themselves and their families. That means a much more vibrant civic society, one where Singaporeans truly believe they have an active part to play in shaping the future of this place.
The more civic organisations, interest groups, non-governmental organisations, charities and volunteers there are doing their bit in whatever area they are interested in, the greater will be this sense of community and ownership.
Conversely, if it's all done by the Government, the weaker the bonds.
But it also requires the Government to respect and support the work done by these groups.
There's clearly much more at stake than just uncleared food trays.