Monday, March 17, 2014

'Massive compassion deficit' in S'pore?

Mar 16, 2014

British writer recounts unpleasant experience on MRT, sparking talk on graciousness here

By Maryam Mokhtar

FREELANCE writer and self-described food lover Charlotte Ashton jumped at the chance to relocate from London to Singapore last year, she says in the biography section of her website.

The Oxford University graduate and former BBC reporter and her husband were happy here until one day, in her 10th week of pregnancy, she felt nauseous while taking the train to work and ended up crouching for 15 minutes because no one offered her a seat.

"For the first time, Singapore had made me feel unhappy. I had been vulnerable - completely reliant on the kindness of strangers. Singaporeans, I felt, had let me down," she wrote.

Recounting the incident in a BBC Viewpoint piece, she concluded that Singapore suffers from a "massive compassion deficit".

One Singaporean friend told her it was because "we measure everything in dollar bills - personal identity, self-respect, happiness, your sense of worth".

Her commentary, published on the News Magazine page of the BBC website, has sparked discussion and prompted two ministers to urge Singaporeans to reflect on what each can do to help build a gracious society.

Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin responded with a similar tale of the time his wife was pregnant and had her arm in a sling after an injury, yet no one offered her a seat on the MRT train.

"We do hear stories of people being callous, indifferent, unfeeling. And I guess we need to look at ourselves and ask if we too sometimes reflect these ugly traits," he wrote in a Facebook post.

But he has also come across examples of "wonderful kind-hearted Singaporeans who reach out to others".

"Building a gracious society starts with every one of us. When we begin to care for those around us, we would have started building not only a gracious society, but also perhaps a great nation," he added.

Agreeing, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong highlighted the Singapore Kindness Movement's Graciousness Index, which fell sharply last year.

"We are and we can be better than this," he wrote in a Facebook post. He welcomed "ground-up 'mini-kindness' initiatives from young Singaporeans", including the "Stand Up for Singapore" movement by a group that travelled from train to train and encouraged commuters to give up their seats to those who needed them more.

But some MPs The Sunday Times spoke to said the negative experiences of Ms Ashton and her friends were not representative of Singaporeans' behaviour as a whole.

Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah said Ms Ashton's conclusions on Singaporeans were "too generalised".

Agreeing, Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng, said it is "all too easy to stereotype a country".

"Singapore is not perfect but it is not the heartless place it is made out to be," she said in an e-mail response.

Singapore Kindness Movement's general secretary William Wan said he felt sorry that Ms Ashton had such an unpleasant experience but added that there were examples galore of gracious behaviour, including those experienced by foreign visitors.

"We can always be kinder and more gracious," he added.

Pharmacist Nashirah Kamal, 24, who regularly commutes to work, said: "I do see people giving up their seats and helping out those in need. It all boils down to the values you were brought up with and I don't think Singaporeans are that selfish."

[Another foreigner put it more... tactfully. She said, Singaporeans seem "oblivious". I agree. Singaporeans seem oblivious to their surroundings, to the needs of others, to their inconsideration, and the inconvenience they cause.

Oblivious is the nicest thing you can say about those who are apparently asleep in the reserved seats on buses and trains.

Oblivious is the nicest thing you can say about people who carry their backpacks in a crowded train or bus and cause hurt if not injuries to other passengers.

Oblivious is the nicest thing you can say about people who stop at the start of an escalator to discuss if they should proceed, oblivious to the people behind them intending to proceed.

Oblivious is the nicest thing you can call the parents who decide to put on those squeaky shoes for their toddler who is just learning to walk, and let the child run all about the church during service.

"Massive compassion deficit"? We are oblivious to that.]

1 comment:

Timerty said...

I have thought about the question of why Singaporeans can be seen as miserable. The following is my answer.

Charlotte Ashton was using her own personal experience to make sense of Singapore’s ranking on the global survey that found it to be the least positive country in the world. Many people did not realize this and assumed she was using her single experience to judge the whole of Singapore.

Even though Charlotte Ashton’s article from the BBC is not a big survey of Singapore’s level of graciousness, her experience on a public train that eventually led to her feeling unhappy is a cause for consideration for all locals.

I think that the ability to practice graciousness in public is based largely on one’s ability to be socially-responsive, empathetic and courageous(ability to adapt well in uncommon situations). These qualities would allow a person to react adequately to those in need.

Although I do feel that many Singaporeans do possess empathy, I feel that the qualities of social-responsiveness and courage are under-developed in most, which has led to them being perceived as being indifferent and uncaring in public.

Native Singaporeans are commonly brought up in very strict Asian households that instilled subservience from a young age. This, as well as Singapore’s rote-learning education system, do not provide much encouragement for us to think on our own. The added pressure to be intensely competitive in terms of studies and work has made us even less focused in such a crucial skill.

The overall lack of social-responsiveness has many times in the past gotten the general youth in Singapore to be perceived as being politically apathetic.

Professional medical staff in Singapore are well-trained to take charge of demanding medical-related situations so they stand ready to help those in need. I am quite certain if such medical staff were present during Ms Ashton’s plight on her train, they would have immediately assisted her without a thought.

Regarding my thoughts on the train passengers who did not assist Ms Ashton, it is difficult to know if they were actually being indifferent and uncaring towards her plight. Their lack of social-responsiveness and lack of courage are also factors needed to be considered.

The qualities of social-responsiveness, empathy and courage are much needed to overcome adversity to create liberation that can make one feel happy. The lack of such qualities could keep one stagnant in misery.