Wednesday 22 June 2016

Should we be wary of a heightened sense of entitlement?

By William Wan, Published The Straits Times, 21 Jun 2016

Recently, netizens were in an uproar over a Facebook video which showed a livid female customer berating a deaf cleaner and his manager at JEM food court. What appeared to be a simple case of miscommunication on the part of the cleaner (due to his inability to communicate verbally) escalated into the most talked-about topic in town. It even had our national leaders weighing in.

Such reactions did not come as a surprise. The woman's outburst happened amid a slew of other reports of ill-treatment towards service staff in the healthcare, food and beverage, and retail industries. The Straits Times recently reported that nurses are experiencing more physical and verbal abuse from patients and their family members. In another article by The New Paper, a customer almost turned violent after a restaurant owner told him about their no-split-bill policy.

Reports of such nature seem to be endemic of a society whose sense of entitlement is rapidly peaking.

Barely a year ago, Mr Victor Mills, chief executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, observed that many people "felt that life, their employer and the Government owe them a living" which gives rise to an overly fussy attitude towards employment and job-hunting.

While Mr Mills specifically referenced workplace attitudes, mistreatment of service staff is an equal, if not greater, cause for concern. If incidents of disparaging remarks and abuse from customers become a day-to-day reality, staff morale can be severely undermined. This will drive Singaporeans further away from industries that are already short of workers. Recently, my friends from Golden Village, a cineplex chain, shared that rude customers are one of the main contributors to the high turnover rate within the industry.

While it is fair to expect a reasonable standard of service one has paid for, it becomes a problem when it slides into an unreasonable sense of entitlement. That said, we should still be compassionate and empathetic in how we respond when the quality of service falls short.

What is more alarming to me is that the way we treat our service staff reflects squarely on our core values, which define who we are as a society. Will those values revolve around self-centred righteousness and being overly sensitive about one's own precious ego - or can we embrace values of compassion, empathy and tenderness in the way we treat one another?

It is disconcerting to note that such instances of ignominious behaviour appear to be more commonplace today, and that some people assume they can demand anything from service staff and launch into long harangues when things don't go their way, just because they are paying patrons of the establishment.

If only we stopped to think about the stress that accompanies the long hours and manual labour that service staff endure. It is erroneous to assume that, as customers, there is no need to practise patience and empathy. The maxim "the customer is always right" ought to have been thrown out the door a long time ago.


Many reasons have been cited for the existence of an over-inflated sense of entitlement in our society, one of which is our robust economic achievements as a nation. Higher incomes induce greater spending, raising consumers' expectations of service standards. Coupled with elevated socioeconomic statuses and regular overseas travel, this has led to customers imposing unrealistic demands on service staff.

Our fast-growing economy has fostered a competitive culture, inadvertently exacerbating a sense of entitlement.To stay on top, we tend to prioritise self-interest above all else. We complain vehemently when things don't go our way, and the ugly practice of escalating complaints to demand some compensation is becoming prevalent.

A friend proudly told me that every time he complained on a flight, he would be placated with some goodies including upgrades! Choosing to take advantage of the benefits gained from complaining, rather than recognising the inconvenience and detriment it brings to others, is being selfish and unfair. Instead, we should reflect on how such self-centred, exploitative complaining is shameful behaviour that teaches all the wrong values to our young.

Many also contend that this competitiveness arose from Singapore's education system, and has bred an elite class of entitled students.

A Raffles Institution student's view that "elitism can be good for society" raised eyebrows when it was published last year, with many criticising the lack of empathy shown by the student.

While having confidence in one's own ability to succeed is commendable, putting a premium on the rights and achievements of the individual while ignoring nurturing efforts from the wider system is at odds with citizenry of a mature and advanced nation.

If we believe that an entitled mentality does not a gracious society make, shouldn't we do something about it now?

It is time to raise our standards of social consciousness to the same level as our economic prowess. To buck the trend, society has to embrace important qualities of practical kindness expressed in acts of compassion.


A stellar example of compassion is The Straits Times' Singaporean of the Year 2015, Madam Noriza A. Mansor. In October 2014, she stepped forward to help an elderly man who had soiled himself while buying groceries with his wheelchair-bound wife at a Toa Payoh supermarket, where she was working as a bedsheet promoter. Others recoiled from the stench, but Madam Noriza knelt down to wipe the dried faeces off his legs and bought him new shorts, moving a bystander to tears. Madam Noriza is the embodiment of selflessness, stepping up when others turned a blind eye. This sense of compassion for one another is crucial to keeping our community intact.

I strongly believe that parents and educators play a crucial role in teaching our young to be kind and compassionate. We can only do this well when we model the right behaviour. One cannot impart values by lecturing children to be good. Values are not taught, but caught. Parents should seize every teachable moment to be good role models.

We also need to help our young develop a deeper awareness of our interdependence and interconnectedness as members of a society, and to help them appreciate the social responsibility that comes with being part of this larger system.

While some kind of happy ending was reached for the deaf cleaner who was verbally assaulted, with job offers pouring in after netizens took notice of his intention to quit his job, the ugly episode remains a reminder that there is much work to be done in inculcating empathy and compassion into our core belief system.

As we progress as a country, it is important that these values are not only remembered, but prioritised. Imbuing a spirit of active kindness in our culture remains an urgent task. And we can begin by simply showing appreciation to those who wait on us.

The writer is general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.

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