The rosary woman and other head-shaking tales

Have I ever started an essay with what a movie star said? I don’t think so. This must be a first.

The Sunday Times’ Life! Section reported that Jackie Chan thought Singaporeans’ inconsiderate behaviour was due to a lack of self-respect.

While commenting indiscriminately on Chinese people at a forum last month in Hainan, China, he said that Singaporeans have no self-respect because of the inconsiderate ways they disposed of chewing gum, hence prompting the government ban on its sale.

— Sunday Times, 3 May 2009, No self-respect

He has a point. Graciousness and consideration for others begins from a sense of dignity, and I mean dignity in a good way. Only then would one feel: “It would be unbecoming of me to behave badly towards others; I am worthier than that.”

I won’t bother with the rest of the Sunday Times article. It was a mix of defensive reactions on the part of some (“‘People can harbour prejudices for reasons ranging from the ethnocentric to differences in culture”) and claims that “Singaporeans use criticisms as occasions for national self-reflection.” Somehow, I find the latter claim dubious. Not when I have yet to see any improvement in social behaviour.

In fact, I had half-penned this piece the week before I spotted the Jackie Chan story, agitated as I was by many examples of inconsiderate behaviour recently. Seeing Chan’s comment only spurred me to wrap up this essay.

* * * * *

Earlier Sunday, I crossed Stamford Road heading towards Raffles City Shopping Centre. Crossing with me was a bunch of people, with a Caucasian man leading the pack. Just behind him were four women and a man, perhaps the husband of one of them. They looked like they had just come from St Andrew’s Cathedral, clutching bibles and all. Two teenage boys on roller skates and I took up the rear.

As the group approached the glass door of the shopping centre, the White guy held the door open for the women to enter the shopping mall. They marched in, together with the husband. None of them acknowledged the courteous gesture of the Caucasian man, who might have been a tourist. There was not a word of thanks; there was no eye contact. They treated him like he was some doorman.

I was so embarrassed for Singaporeans, I slowed down hoping to open up a distance between me and the bible bunch. Partly, I didn’t want to be associated with them, partly because I didn’t want the tall guy to continue holding the door open for me. (The roller skaters took off in a different direction after crossing the road.)

This was hardly the first time that I have noticed such behaviour. In fact, there have been occasions when I found myself holding the door open and treated like a doormat. So don’t anyone tell me this was a rare case.

* * * * *

Living in the heartlands, every other month a tented bazaar comes around to the precinct. Among the popular stalls are those selling ready-to-eat food, like Ramly Burger and Taiwanese sausages. Of course, there is no dining area; the stalls only do take-away.

Three girls –- two Malay and one Indian, age-wise I reckon about 19 or 20 -– had bought mee siam  (rice vermicelli in tamarind gravy), packed in styrofoam boxes. They decided to sit on some steps at the bus interchange to consume their meal.

First, they didn’t care that they obstructed traffic by taking up half the width of the steps. But worse, when they had finished eating, they just left the boxes, each with some gravy in them still, on the steps.

* * * * *

The middle-aged Chinese man smoked at a bus stop. It’s illegal but no one told him off.

When he was done, he turned to throw his cigarette butt into a nearby bin, but he moved too suddenly. He didn’t hear the cyclist, a construction worker from China, who was whizzing through the centre of the bus stop mindless of people waiting for a bus, and who, not expecting arm and cigarette to swing out, crashed into the smoker.

* * * * *

The train was crowded. Two young parents with a pram had to stand. Somewhere between Clementi and Dover station, the baby started crying, which somehow the parents knew was a plea for milk. The young mother picked up the month-old infant (the child couldn’t yet hold up her head) to feed her from a bottle that the father whisked out from a bag.

The train rocked. Young Malay father had to hold on to the pram. Young Malay mother had to keep her balance while cradling with one arm the baby, whose head tended to loll as the train swayed, with the other hand holding the bottle.

Young father spoke softly to the fortyish Chinese woman sitting at the priority seat. “Could you let my wife sit here? She’s nursing the baby; it’s difficult to do so while standing up.”

She, with a chunky Buddhist rosary around her wrist, pretended not to hear him, continuing to read from her Chinese book.

Her husband, who was in the seat next to hers, nudged her. Speaking in the Fujian dialect, he told her that the man wanted her seat. She ignored her husband and kept her eyes on her book, immobile. He got up instead. “Your wife can sit here,” he said to the young father in English.

For about three or four stops, the young mother sat next to the rosary woman, who sat as still as stone, pretending to read. As she fed her baby, the young mother grumbled in a way that the older woman next to her cannot but hear: “No courtesy, no consideration whatsoever,” or something to that effect.

Everybody else on the train kept to himself. No one wanted to get involved. I thought about whipping out my cellphone to take a picture, but while I would have no qualms taking a picture of the rosary woman, it wouldn’t make any sense unless I included the young mother and baby in the photo, and I was in two minds whether she might want that. So I didn’t take out my phone. And to be honest, I wasn’t keen on making a scene either.

As the train approached Tiong Bahru station, the Chinese husband signalled to his wife that they were getting off. I took a deep breath and decided it was my last chance to do right by the young couple. I couldn’t let the incident pass without shaming the rosary woman in public. As she got up and squeezed by me to get to the door, I said to her, emphatically, “You were wrong.”

She heard and understood me. I saw her flinch, but she quickly regained her composure and pretended she hadn’t heard. She was good at that.

Her husband heard me too. From near the door, he said to me, loudly, “What do you mean we are wrong?”

“That’s a priority seat, and the mother needed it. You knew that, everybody on this crowded train can see that,” I told him, firmly.

“But I gave her my seat, so what’s wrong?”

“I didn’t say you were wrong. I said she was wrong.”

He gave me the middle finger.

“No need to get angry,” I said in return, flashing a victorious smile. “She was wrong, and she can hardly deny it.”

The husband advanced towards me but rosary woman held him back, and as the door opened, pushed him out.

“Thank you,” the young couple said.

3 Responses to “The rosary woman and other head-shaking tales”

  1. 1 yawningbread 23 June 2010 at 23:25

    Comments from May 2009 (when this essay was first published) can be found here:

  2. 2 loupgarou 24 June 2010 at 01:31

    personally, I hate it when people hold the door open.

    a) they are IN the way.
    b) I rather they swing the door open wider, so that i can get through before it closes. and for them to move off quickly enough.

    they aren’t doing anyone any favours by “holding a door” open. its not like people are infirm unable to even use their shoulders to push open a dooor even if their hands are full

  3. 3 Phlebas 24 June 2010 at 14:28

    There are two other occasions in which I’ve often observed Singaporeans acting inconsiderately on the MRT.

    The first is when they crowd in front of train doors before the train arrive and then try to get into the train without allowing for passengers to get off the train.

    The second is when they crowd in front of train doors after a train has arrived and before it leaves but refuse to get on. It has been explained to me that they are trying to ‘chope’ their place at the front of the queue so that they can get a seat on the next train to arrive, but their behavior renders late-comers unable to get on to the current train before it leaves.

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