Monday, 16 November 2009:
Two o’clock in the afternoon. On 8th Avenue, this guy with a clipboard and a slingbag approached me. “Do you have a moment, sir?” he asked. I stopped. In the West, I respond less defensively than I would in Singapore.
He was from Greenpeace and was canvassing for support for a proposal to build a wind farm off the coast of Long Island. In this age of global warming, anything that boosts renewable energy can’t be a bad thing. We got to talking a bit and he explained that the Massachusetts government has recently approved a wind farm off its coast, with some 80 per cent support from citizens and residents. Greenpeace in New York would like to replicate the campaign for the Long Island proposal. He had in his sling bag brochures and a petition for signing. Alas, since I wasn’t resident in New York, it didn’t make sense for me to sign.
It was a short but pleasant and informative conversation that not only touched on the wind farm idea, but also the Kyoto protocol and the upcoming conference in Copenhagen on global warming. He spoke about his group’s frustration with the US government not signing the Kyoto protocol and its foot-dragging over global warming generally. I felt rewarded for stopping and listening.
It is rare to see cause-related canvassers on Singapore streets. Non-government-endorsed causes are considered a form a dissent, and people have learnt to give up without trying. Even if you have dedicated people on the streets as canvassers, the most likely reaction you get from your target audience is flight, the moment they realise that you are there for a cause, and one that is not endorsed by the government at that. Nobody wants to be associated with “anti-government” activity.
Government-endorsed causes (if you’d even dignify them with the word ’cause’) don’t have canvassers; instead they take the form of outdoor signs, posters and TV commercials. They take this form because canvassers would be hard to find. You see, canvassing is a labour-intensive activity; only people who are passionate about a cause would do it. Yet, once a cause is endorsed by the Singapore government, passion is given the kiss of death. Anyway, people avoid being seen in association with cheesy government-endorsed campaigns. It’s too degrading. Thus, government campaigns use TV ads and outdoor signs. No humans involved. Like the annual Courtesy campaign, where the only smiles you see are on actors’ faces.
The “canvassers” we do see in Singapore are often the ones who would hard sell you insurance or credit cards. We’ve all learnt to put up our guards the moment we spot them. But outside Singapore, you may be like me, much more relaxed about interacting with canvassers.
Six o’clock in the evening. On Madison Avenue, I spotted a supermarket. I needed a drink after walking all day, and I’m the type that don’t see the point of sitting in a cafe and paying through the nose, when a cold drink can be bought from a supermarket chiller.
Having picked a strawberry smoothie, I made my way to the checkout. The cashier was in a wheelchair and her work station had been slightly modified to suit her lower level. Hmmm… how often would you see something like this in Singapore?
My bottle scanned (US$3.95), she automatically put it in a polyethylene shopping bag.
“Oh, a bag’s not necessary,” I quickly said. ” I’m going to be drinking it right away.”
As she took the bottle out of the bag and handed it to me, she said with a big smile, “Thank you for recycling.”
How often would you hear a supermarket cashier say it so nicely in Singapore? The choice of words are not only appropriate, they serve to reinforce environmental virtue. The customer feels his waiver is deeply appreciated, but more importantly, that it adds to the collective good. He is thus motivated to do it again. Repeated many times by the cashier customer by customer, she will have gradually reinforced, single-handedly, environmental consicousness in a large number of people.
In America, the people try to change the course of the government’s and other people’s actions. In Singapore, the government attempts to social-engineer our citizens. Therein lies difference between a top-down society and a bottom-up one.