Monday 17 March 2014

Be nice, lah!

Talk of the town: An Ang Moh (foreigner, literally redhead) has been negative about Singapore in the press. Again. Singaporeans would be uncompassionate and uncourteous. The attack is not coming from an arrogant British banker this time, but from a British lady. A pregnant lady. 

In a column on the BBC website, freelance writer Charlotte Ashton writes about her experiences in Singapore. She loves it, initially. Until one day, a couple of months pregnant, she feels unwell in the MRT. Nauseous and weak. Does someone offer her a seat? No. 

Charlotte describes how, for the fifteen minutes of her journey, she crouches on the floor, head in hands. It makes her very unhappy. Singapore, she writes, has let me down.

My thoughts immediately go back to myself, pregnant and sick, in the London underground. Did people offer me a seat in this country that is supposedly so polite? Often not. I too, have spent an uncomfortable journey on the wobbly floor of the tube, my piercing eyes trying to force someone of their seat.

Did I blame Great Britain? Did I feel the country had let me down? Or was I just mad at that car full of commuters too busy with their phones and e-readers to notice me?

A friend who commuted daily on the underground had a good trick, a button: Baby on Board. It did help, she said, most of the time. I was never pregnant in the Netherlands, nor in Singapore, but I think not giving up seats for fellow passengers, pregnant or not, is a universal problem. Like many expats, Charlotte Ashton sees her home country through homesick stained pink glasses.

Singaporeans fight back. Netizens throw generalist platitudes as bad as Charlottes. In online comments, they wish her back home, together with the rest of the complaining bunch. Prime minister Lee Tsien Loong comments the article is a good reminder for everyone to be more gracious and kind to others.

Yes, customs are different in every country. Everyone should value that, guests and hosts alike. I propose a button, in good Singlish: Everyone be nice, lah!


  1. I recall standing at the top of a bus facing right the way down the aisle and quietly but openly weeping as I hung on grimly to the bus strap, visibly pregnant and tired with absolutely no one standing up for me. I had to wait for a large party of men to get off before I finally sunk onto a seat and cried my way home. Global, lah. Like your button idea :)

  2. Same happened to me in Australia. 8 months pregnant. Then another female passenger decided to shame the whole carriage until someone gave up their seat. This is certainly not a local issue.

  3. 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.

    1. hi thnks for that. I agree that we need to look into other factors as well, cultural differences. Somethings that are seen as rude by expats actually stem from Chinese cultural things, like different ways of addressing each other, shyness, etc. It is good for Singaporeans and expats alike to be aware of this and work on being the best we can, best of both cultures.

  4. Thanks Timothy for your reply. My personal experience has been that Singaporeans are very friendly and helpful, not much less than people in any other country I have lived in (and more helpful then some). Once, my husband left his shoes in a taxi and the next day the driver came to drop them off at our house, miles out of his way, and reused any payment or tip, even for me to pay him the fare it would have been for him to drive there. When I told that story back home people were astonished! It would never happen in Europe. I think Singaporeans could give themselves a bit more credit. Yes, some are reserved, but they are also very honest and friendly and helpful. A fellow expat collated some stories from expats that were similar positive experiences and put them on her blog: I am sure you could put together a similar list of bad experience, but what is the point of that? Better to inspire people with positive stories!