Monday 17 March 2014

Do Singaporeans lack compassion?

'Massive compassion deficit' in S'pore?
British writer recounts unpleasant experience on MRT, sparking talk on graciousness here
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Sunday Times, 16 Mar 2014

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.

"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."

"And at dinners with our Singaporean friends who did not seem to moan any more than the rest of us - sure they are battling soaring property prices and the tedium of the corporate ladder, but coming from London that was hardly unfamiliar.
We got on with life on the immaculate island, where social housing estates look like spotless toy towns, crime is pretty much non-existent and you can get a delicious bowl of noodles for $3 (£1.50). If we were living in the misery capital of the world it certainly was not affecting our own sense of happiness.
Until I got pregnant."
- Charlotte Ashton

Happy in Singapore, until the day she needed help
The Sunday Times, 16 Mar 2014

In her commentary, Does Singapore deserve its "miserable" tag?, the BBC's Charlotte Ashton said she and her husband were happy here at first and could not understand why Singaporeans had been dubbed the least positive people on Earth in a survey. Then she got pregnant, and her view changed, as she describes in this extract.

One morning, the nausea finally got the better of me just as I had stepped onto a packed train. Worried I was going to faint, I crouched to the floor, holding my head in my hands. And so I remained, completely ignored, for the full 15 minutes it took to reach my station. Nobody offered me a seat or asked me if I was okay.

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.

As I sat recovering on the platform, I wondered if this was part of the story behind those Gallup poll results. By this time, a follow-up to the original survey had been published and according to the figures, Singapore had apparently cheered up quite a lot. But all I could see was a massive compassion deficit. Or were my fellow passengers that day just unusually uncaring?

"Oh no, I am not surprised at all," said a Singaporean friend later that day. "My sister is seven months pregnant and she fell down a packed escalator the other day and had to crawl to the nearest railing to heave herself up. Nobody helped."

Another Singaporean friend was equally unsurprised. "I slipped down a drain last year and cut my leg," she said. "It was bleeding badly but nobody stopped to help. Perhaps they were all in a rush."

Our friend Marcus offered deeper analysis over brunch in a trendy retro cafe. That is not his real name by the way. "We are programmed to think only about ourselves," he exclaimed. "The only thing that matters is money - helping people is not important."

Marcus is Chinese Singaporean but was educated in Canada. After five years back home, he is desperate to leave again, because, he says, Singapore makes him unhappy too. "In Canada, people were helpful and friendly and they respect each other regardless of whether you are a manager or a bus driver.

"The problem here is that we measure everything in dollar bills - personal identity, self-respect, happiness, your sense of worth - it is all linked to how much money you have. But only the top few per cent earn serious cash - so everyone else feels worthless and apathetic."

...Happily, my morning sickness has passed, but despite becoming visibly pregnant, it is still rare for anyone to offer me a seat on the packed commuter train without my having to ask first.

I do not know if I would have had a better time in London, but in the Singaporean rat race, you are certainly on your own. An unhappy conclusion, I am afraid, from misery city.

S'poreans uncaring? Readers say yes ...and no
'Compassion deficit' claim prompts divided response
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 18 Mar 2014

WHEN Ms Vivien Goh was five months pregnant, she tripped and fell on the pavement near her office at Raffles Place.

But she was quickly helped to her feet by a couple, who sat with her until she was able to get up and walk back to her workplace.

Meanwhile, frequent MRT user Steven Tannenbaum, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, said he has "never not been offered a seat by a younger person, or seen a person in need not offered assistance".

The don and his wife, both in their 70s, have been shuttling between Singapore and the United States over the last five years for work.

These two accounts were among more than 90 responses from citizens and foreigners to The Straits Times after the paper ran a piece asking if Singapore was suffering from a "massive compassion deficit".

That was a phrase used by freelance writer Charlotte Ashton in a BBC Viewpoint piece, in which she recounted how, in her 10th week of pregnancy, she was overcome with nausea while taking the train to work and had to crouch for 15 minutes because no one offered her a seat.

Ms Ashton, who moved to Singapore from London last year and said she had been happy here until that incident, concluded that Singapore suffers from a "massive compassion deficit".

Her comments prompted online posts by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and two ministers, urging Singaporeans to be kinder and more gracious.

It also spurred more than 90 readers to write in to ST with passionate accounts of their encounters with kind and callous Singaporeans, and their theories on why Singaporeans behave the way they do.

They were evenly split between those who think Singaporeans lack compassion and those who say people here are among the kindest they have met.

Of the nine foreigners who wrote in, six shared positive experiences of how Singaporeans behaved towards them on trains and in malls. The other three related negative encounters.

Mr Simon Hulber, who has been here since 1998, said "the rudeness and indifference I experience does seem more confined to public transport". He added that this was "no different from other crowded mass transport systems around the world".

Agreeing, Ms Vicki Loh, who is five months pregnant, finds it "impossible to get a seat on the train (or) bus". She added: "Given that my daily commute is about one hour each way, coupled with back pain due to the pregnancy, public transport is not looking to be a feasible means of getting around any more, especially as I get bigger."

Others stressed, however, that such ungracious behaviour did not represent Singaporeans as a whole, given the significant number of foreigners living and working in the Republic.

"We all know Singapore as a country consists of many other foreigners (who) live, work, transit (here)... How (does) anyone know if those people (who) are not compassionate, not kind and not gracious are Singaporeans?" asked Mr Mok Tuck Sung. At least 11 other readers made the same point.

Singaporeans also "tend to be rather self-conscious and feel embarrassed when our offer of help is rebuffed", observed Ms Irene Sim. She said that many have grown up reserved, preferring to "mind our own business".

But how an individual acts, argues Ms Dawn Lee, should not be a benchmark for painting a picture of the larger society.

"Indifference and apathy exist in individuals, not in entire populations. Some foreign cultures view kindness as weakness and vulnerability as exploitability... wherever they are in the world," said the 35-year-old, who has lived and studied both here and overseas.

Agreeing, reader Edwin Chow said: "Singapore is by no means perfect but I believe that what we have here is a mix of misery and joy, selfishness and compassion, no different from any other developed city. One generally finds what one is looking for."

Charlotte Ashton replies
The Straits Times, 18 Mar 2014

IN AN e-mailed reply to The Straits Times, journalist Charlotte Ashton wrote that she left Singapore last week to return to Britain for a couple of months to have her baby.

Ms Ashton, who had been living in Singapore since last year and was working as a freelance writer, sparked debate with her BBC Viewpoint piece headlined "Does Singapore deserve its miserable tag?"

In it, she described how she and her husband were happy here until an incident on an MRT train during her 10th week of pregnancy. She became overcome with nausea and had to crouch for 15 minutes during her commute as no one offered her a seat. She felt that Singaporeans had "let me down".

"In terms of my report for the BBC's From Our Own Correspondent programme, it comes from a personal perspective based on my experience of Singapore and various conversations I've had with Singaporeans and expats living in Singapore.

"Pieces of this kind inevitably stir debate and I've had as many messages of support as I have criticism. Whether my conclusions are shared by others, I welcome the fact that Singaporeans are so keen to take part in a lively debate about this subject."

Graciousness requires everyone playing a part
By Goh Kian Huat, Voices TODAY, 18 Mar 2014

I refer to the report “BBC article a good reminder to be more gracious, says PM Lee” (March 17) and agree with the Prime Minister.

It was unfair, though, of freelance reporter Charlotte Ashton to label Singapore a “misery city” based on her experience one morning.

She was in her 10th week of pregnancy when she felt nauseated while taking a train. Would her early state of pregnancy have been obvious to commuters? Unless one reads body language well, no one might have noticed that she was nauseated when she was crouching.

In such a situation, instead of waiting passively for someone to offer a seat, one should ask for help. I believe that one would get a seat if one does so.

This is similar to those who need financial help approaching the relevant authority for assistance.

If not, would the authorities know who needs help?

Singaporeans are generally kind enough to offer help. Some may have reservations; it is not uncommon to see someone stand up, offer his seat to another who appears to need it, but gets rebuffed.

Someone else who does not need the seat may end up taking it.

In short, it is gracious to be considerate and offer help to those in need. It is not ungracious to ask for help when in need. To be gracious, everyone has a part to play.

No 'massive compassion deficit'

WHILE Singapore, like any other country, can and should improve its level of compassion, we are certainly not suffering from a "massive compassion deficit" ("'Massive compassion deficit' in S'pore?"; Sunday).

According to a survey by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, more people in Singapore are volunteering ("More people do volunteer work"; Feb 1, 2013). Also, more Singaporeans are donating money to charity ("S'poreans becoming more generous"; Dec 4, 2013).

I am saddened that Ms Charlotte Ashton has allowed an unfortunate incident and comments from friends to colour her judgment.

Many people have cited anecdotal evidence to prove that Singaporeans can be compassionate. Stories of how a cabby and a factory supervisor donated part of their livers to complete strangers continue to touch our hearts.

It is amazing how Ms Ashton can come to such an extreme conclusion based on one experience. Doesn't she know that "one swallow does not make a summer" and that there are "black sheep" in every flock?

I am sure there are similar incidents in any city in the world.

If there is any comparison to be made, perhaps it may be good to highlight that Singapore is still one of the safest places in the world. There is less worry that a passenger may be robbed or raped on our public transport system.

As a country, we have responded to many crisis relief efforts. We have not only contributed more than our fair share of effort, but have also punched above our weight in humanitarian work.

I hope fellow Singaporeans will reflect positively on the article. It should spur us to build a more gracious and compassionate society.

Patrick Liew
ST Forum, 19 Mar 2014

Younger generation lacks graciousness

I AM a 68-year-old who wishes to add to Ms Charlotte Ashton's observations ("'Massive compassion deficit' in S'pore?"; Sunday).

On Sunday night, I boarded a train at Potong Pasir station. Unable to find a seat, I stood by the train door next to a reserved seat occupied by an elderly woman.

At Serangoon station, a woman seated three seats away stood up to alight from the train. As I walked towards the empty seat, a young woman rushed past me and sat down, all the while playing a game on her mobile phone.

The elderly woman on the reserved seat quickly stood up and offered her seat to me.

All this while, the young woman just continued playing her game.

In another instance, during the morning rush hour, I was sitting on a reserved seat when a pregnant woman entered the train at Hougang station.

A foreign worker quickly stood up and offered his seat to her. But a well-dressed young woman who was playing a game on her phone quickly took the seat, and I had to offer my seat to the pregnant woman.

In these two incidents, the other passengers just kept quiet even though they were aware of the situation.

It seems that foreign workers and senior citizens know how to be gracious, but not our younger generation.

Richard Chin Koon Fong
ST Forum, 19 Mar 2014

Kindness alive and well in Singapore: PM Lee
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 19 Mar 2014

Kindess is alive and well in Singapore, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a Facebook post on Wednesday amid an ongoing debate on whether the country lacked compassion.

Along with his post, PM Lee attached a photo of six-year-old Rowan Chua, who is shown sharing a priority seat with an older lady on the train.

The boy, who had sent the picture to Mr Lee, included the words: "There are compassionate people in Singapore. See? This elderly woman even shared half her seat with me."

Mr Lee said that being kind goes beyond giving up seats, and extends to "adopting a mindset of being considerate and sensitive to others' needs", and showing appreciation when kindness is shown.

Dwell on positive, look at bigger picture

I read with a tinge of regret Ms Charlotte Ashton's observations about Singaporeans' apparent lack of graciousness and compassion ("Happy in Singapore, until the day she needed help"; last Sunday).

My regret stems not from the fact that Singaporeans are not perfect, but that Ms Ashton let her views be clouded by a single experience.

Our view of the world is a summation of the experiences of our lives. In my 53 years as a Singaporean, I have had many positive and negative experiences. I choose to dwell on the positive ones and believe that we, as a society, are growing in the right direction towards graciousness.

On my MRT trips, I have noticed that, more often than not, commuters are offering their seats to those who need them more.

Even if Singaporeans may not be gracious in Ms Ashton's view, they are certainly non-intrusive. I wonder if she would have been ignored had she asked for help. It may be that the other commuters simply did not know she needed help.

We can choose to come to a conclusion based on one or two experiences, or we can choose to look at the bigger picture.

During my family vacation in Paris in June last year, we were pickpocketed twice and encountered a rude waiter - all on the same day.

My children were traumatised but that did not change my view that Paris is one of the greatest cities in the world.

While my daughter was on a student exchange programme at Toronto's York University, a female Chinese student was brutally murdered barely 50m across the street, and there were frequent reports of student rapes. Yet, now that she is home, my daughter speaks with fondness of the wonderful times she had in Toronto, instead of dwelling on the dark side of an otherwise great city.

To Ms Ashton, I hope her view of Singaporeans will not be tarnished by one incident and that she will give us other opportunities to show the warmer side of our evolving personality.

To my fellow Singaporeans, I hope Ms Ashton's story will spur us to be more introspective on the issue of graciousness, and encourage us to be more proactive in acts of kindness and graciousness.

Soon Kim Tat
ST Forum, 23 Mar 2014

Compassion deficit - it's true of all cities
By Rob O'brien, The Sunday Times, 23 Mar 2014

There's a wonderful moment in the Wizard Of Oz when Dorothy looks around this fantastical land and states the immortalised and blindingly obvious: "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more."

It's a sentiment everyone will have experienced on reaching a foreign land that looks and smells unlike home.

The online soul-searching that has followed "Massive compassion deficit-gate" - a viewpoint of a BBC writer about Singapore's "misery" complex - in some ways points to how personalised cities have become. It's a judgment that could have been made about many cities.

I've lived in Britain and Australia. The first thing visitors to London tell me is that the London Underground (The Tube) is unfriendly and no one smiles. That might well be true, but I once boarded the Tube when I was living in London and the announcer said: "Please move inside the carriage. Don't view this as a busy commuter train, view it as an opportunity to meet someone nice."

Everyone laughed, and probably as a result of that interjection an otherwise boring commute was vastly improved. Anyone who boarded that train on that morning would have struggled to enforce the stereotype that London was a hopelessly miserable city.

Singapore has a similar problem: Visitors arrive and talk about the chewing gum ban before they talk about, for example, the quality and character of its hawker centres.

The BBC story paints a picture of a city that is home to battle-hardened commuters stuck in the rat race and treading on heads and hands to get where they want.

But aren't all cities like that? I can't think of many that are overly compassionate. Even with happiness of citizens now becoming a policy objective for some governments, cities aren't necessarily becoming happier or more compassionate.

British clinical psychologist Oli-ver James charted the spread of a consumerist contagion he called "Affluenza" in a 2007 book of the same name. It was "the placing of a high value on money, possessions, and appearances (physical and social) and fame". Lots of cities were "infected", he found, among them Singapore, London, Moscow, Sydney, Shanghai and New York.

"We have become absolutely obsessed with measuring ourselves through the distorted lens of Affluenza values," he wrote. "The great majority of people in English-speaking nations now define their lives through earnings, possessions, appearances and celebrity, and those things are making them miserable because they impede the meeting of our fundamental needs."

I get asked why I moved to Singapore from Sydney, a city with seemingly endless reasons to be happy and compassionate. But Sydney also had an unhealthy focus on material possessions and a premium placed on ownership of property and income, neither of which I cared that much about. In the right light it looked like the happiest place on Earth, with its wonderful beaches and lifestyle, but it was just as busy and no more compassionate during a peak-hour commute.

Perhaps it is the plight of living in a home away from home that expats seem to don rose-tinted goggles about home when they move abroad, as if our cities are awash with Dickensian chivalry compared to Asian cities. They're not. You don't leave a British city feeling that you've been touched by its wonderful surplus of compassion.

Compassion isn't in the British DNA, history proves that.

There is a Twitter account, Very British Problems, which documents the pained and awkward social exchanges of the British quite beautifully. Among the postings: "Making eye contact with the noisy train passenger and quickly pretending to look at every single other thing in the carriage", and "Not knowing anyone at the party so pretending to do something extremely important and complicated on your phone".

The reality is that no city has an abundance of compassion. How can any, with so many people to service?

Singapore does have a hardness about it, but it isn't the only city in the world where a pregnant wo-man won't get offered a seat. We are all barging around via busy commuter networks, ignoring everyone around us and praying that no one starts up a conversation in the lift at the office.

When you're vulnerable, you're alone in any city - not just Singapore.

Over the years I've learnt to hold back my judgments on cities and their people because I always find that one way or another, whatever I believe as true can be quickly countered in a heartbeat.

You can't hold up a selfish act as representative of a city any more than a few random acts of kindness.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

S'porean, miserable and proud of it
By John Lui, The Sunday Times, 23 Mar 2014

Fishballs really are a waste of time, said a friend recently. In her Cantonese mind, it's ridiculous to turn perfectly good fish into bleached meat pills.

Any animal can be turned into a ball-shaped food substance, I argued. It makes for a pleasing shape. Humans are perverse. It is not enough that we eat the creature, we must display our complete domination of other species by shaping their flesh into loaves, cubes, balls, strips, patties, nuggets and something called "tenders".

She was unmoved and felt that fishballs do not make fish better; they make the entire category of ball-shaped foods worse.

What was interesting about the argument is that I found myself, a person who does not give a hoot about fishballs, defending them like I had invented them.

When someone criticises Singapore, that person better be a Singaporean, or I will get upset; it's like when a clueless Cantonese demeans the noble Teochew fishball.

So in a BBC report from an expat writer, Charlotte Ashton, we have been called a nation of miserable people and of course I felt insulted, even as, two minutes before, I had been raging bitterly about a burly bloke I saw not give up his train seat to an elderly gent standing in front of him and wondering what the hell was wrong with Singaporeans.

No matter what we do, no matter how many times we share a Facebook video of a kid sharing an ice cream with a kid whose ice cream dropped on the ground, a survey from a foreign source will come along finding us emotionless, depressed, undersexed, overstressed and generally in need of a good cry.

I'm beginning to get the feeling that we're the kid at school that gets picked on because he seems so perfect, he must come from a family of sickos. We're the teacher's pet of nations, so we'll get a few hard tackles on the football field from the slower kids.

So let's embrace it. We are miserable, we are fed up and we are living on the edge of a hysterical breakdown. And there's nothing wrong with that.

If Charlotte Ashton prefers to live her life on a cloud of pink fluffy joy in the land of candy-cotton trees next to the refreshing lime-soda river down by the leafy shire where apple-cheeked children have a hearty "Good morning!" on their lips and it's Christmas all year round and purple gumdrops come down when it rains, well, good for her.

Because we do have a lot to be miserable about. We are miserable because we have to pay $112 to watch the World Cup on cable TV. Other countries get to watch it for free because the cost of buying broadcast rights is spread over a population that far outmatches ours.

We are miserable because our trains are packed and no-one gives pregnant women and old people a seat. We are miserable because we live in a high-achieving high-pressure society and because our children don't score enough in maths and science so we go out and buy workbooks with maths and science inside them so they can be as miserable as we are.

We're drowning in misery because after months of no rain, it's coming down like cats and dogs and even as we are baking in drought or steaming in humidity, we are sucking down haze smoke blown from oil palm plantations chopping down the rainforest to make a food product that is clogging our hearts nestled next to the lungs which are turning charcoal with every breath.

If you aren't miserable, you are not paying attention. If you are already miserable, it means you are doing something right.

We are miserable because when we see people piping up waste oil outside a coffee shop it must be because they are going to turn it back into cooking oil, there's no other explanation for it. Such as them being fuel oil recyclers.

Happiness is not for us, and that's okay.

We're miserable because our favourite restaurant has to close because it can't find a Singaporean dishwasher and we're miserable because the restaurant next door has too many foreign workers who go around clogging up our public transport. Oh, and the misery of our historical heritage sites being torn up for condos and flats and the misery of rising property prices because land prices keep going up.

Hi, are you new to the misery party? Welcome, please help yourself to a drink. Go easy on the beer, prices have gone up. Does that make you miserable? Wonderful - you'll fit right in.

Singapore is given to us to take care of, like a nephew whose parents have gone off on a holiday. He's lumpy and funny-looking and he's a bit weird but he's our lumpy weird kid. Most times, we put up with him and we might say rude things about him now and then. But if someone outside the family mentions how odd he is to our faces, watch out.

So go to the country they call the Land Of Smiles or The Place Of Perpetual Bliss or maybe it's called The Grove Of Fluffy Kittens if that's where you prefer to live. I live here because I'm miserable, and I'm proud of it.

Do the right thing till it's the new normal
By William Wan, The Sunday Times, 23 Mar 2014

Freelance writer Charlotte Ashton's question about whether Singapore deserves its "miserable" tag has predictably generated quite a furore.

Predictable, because it happens almost every time an international publication portrays Singapore negatively. Predictable also, because the answer to her question is: "It depends."

Attempting to measure social behaviour is always a tricky business, and perception and experience can be a fickle unit of measurement.

We experience the good, the bad and the ugly - not always at the same time, but certainly at different times and in different contexts in our daily journey through life. And perception is always influenced and informed by our personal experiences.

I am not questioning Ms Ashton's unfortunate experiences. But does Singapore deserve its "miserable" tag? The honest answer is, it does, sometimes.

Are Singaporeans miserable, emotionless, unkind or ungracious? Yes, sometimes. Are we also a joyful, caring and compassionate people? Yes, sometimes.

"Why?" may be a more interesting question to ask. "Why does Singapore sometimes seem so miserable?" Or, "Why aren't Singaporeans more actively considerate on public transport?"

We each have our opinions on what makes us miserable, and our opinions on what needs to change so we can be happier, or nicer, or simply less miserable.

For me, the "why" question has only one meaningful answer. Why are we miserable? It's because our perception of our circumstances don't match up to our expectations.

This leads to a more important question - not "why" but "how".

How can we be happier, kinder and more considerate?

How happy or unhappy we are is a combination of many factors that we have varying degrees of control over.

We may not be able to change all the circumstances that make up our reality, but we can choose how we perceive them.

For example, we might not be able to magically heal ourselves if we are ill, but we could decide if we would let illness get the better of us.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't also work to change our circumstances where we can.

If we are unfairly criticised or bullied online, we can immediately improve our well-being by choosing to change our perception of our situation, but we can also improve our well-being, and that of others, over the long term by gradually changing the culture of the Internet.

We can also simply adjust our expectations. We can see the same principles at work in the example of the MRT carriage.

If you need a seat, and one isn't available, you can stand and glare angrily at the people pretending to sleep, oblivious to your clear and urgent need.

Or we can choose to change our circumstances by asking one of them for a seat. It doesn't even have to be a priority seat.

We can say it's our competitive, kiasu nature - and therefore, our education system - that's to blame. But if we, and others, do the right thing often enough, then the culture will change.

All we need is enough people whose actions are kind and considerate. Once we've crossed the tipping point, it'll become the norm - the same way kiasuism became the norm, and the kampung spirit was left by the wayside.

But how will we achieve this? By trying, and then trying again. Ms Ashton's BBC Viewpoint piece, and many others like it, is the first step. They expose our problems and cut them open to be discussed and examined vigorously.

She certainly stirred debate. That is a good thing.

It becomes even better when we can graciously agree to disagree.

And it is best when, as a result of this debate, we take ownership of the need to be kinder and more gracious, and start doing something about it.

The writer is the general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement. A fuller version of this commentary first appeared on and

To help or not to help? That is the issue

ON SUNDAY, the Daily Mail in Britain published an article on a social experiment for TV, in which two little girls pretended to be lost in a busy shopping centre. For over an hour, only one person stopped to help them, while 616 others ignored them.

A journalist commented that "it is impossible to believe that in a civilised, compassionate society, there weren't many passers-by who wanted to help". She attributed this to the "paedophile hysteria" gripping her nation now.

This gives a fresh perspective to freelance writer Charlotte Ashton's recent claim that Singaporeans suffer from a "massive compassion deficit" ("'Massive compassion deficit' in S'pore?"; March 16).

Like British citizens, many of us are reluctant to help because of the fear of being misunderstood. Too often, we are told to not be a busybody. This goes against the teaching of kindness, courtesy, civic consciousness and other values such as loyalty to the institutions and the nation that nurture and protect us.

Where will all these fears and anxieties lead to? Doing nothing would become the preferred stratagem, or the norm in our increasingly "kiasu" (Hokkien for "afraid to lose") and "kiasi" ("afraid to die") society.

Ng Ya Ken
ST Forum, 25 Mar 2014

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