Mid-afternoon on a working day. The train, for a change, was not crowded. In that section of the carriage, I was the only one standing, though all the seats were occupied. At the next station, four persons got off, three got on. That freed up one seat, but it was the “Reserved seat” nearest the door. With no one else standing within three metres of me, I took it.
As my bum was halfway down, I noticed through the corner of my eye a woman striding towards the same seat from another section of the carriage — I don’t know whether she had been standing like me or had just got on from that station via another door — but she braked on seeing me sit.
With a quick look, I noticed that she was a conservatively-dressed Chinese woman, about 45 or 50 in age, with a tote bag and a Chinese-language newspaper in hand. Nope, she didn’t look like someone eligible for priority — not pregnant, not elderly, not disabled, not a small child — so I continued to sit. She, however, met my glance with a pout and downturned lips as if she had been greatly wronged.
I didn’t sit long. One station later, the train began to fill up as we approached downtown. Among the many boarding was a father, in his late thirties or perhaps 40, carrying a two-year-old boy in his arms. The boy was crying agitatedly, thumping the father on his shoulders and kicking him on his hips. Daddy had his hands full trying to keep the boy still. I offered the guy my seat. He accepted, thanking me. The woman glared at me for giving my seat to him, not to her. The father was too preoccupied with his son to notice her.
Her glaring made me glad that I had got to the seat first. If she had taken it, I very much doubt if she would have given it to the one who needed it — the father with his child.
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Every now and then, we hear outcries over the lack of consideration among Singaporeans not giving up a seat to the needy on public transport, or pushing their way in on boarding without first letting others alight. To be honest, I am not sure if the situation here is as bad as all that, but I suppose it varies depending on time and place. Some sections of the route, or times of day, especially when the trains get crowded, it may be worse. To begin with, it’s got to do with urbanisation: The more people congregate, the more we are atomised, and competition for scarce common resources can bring out the worst in us.
At the same time, showing consideration to others is a learned trait. We can cultivate a sensitivity to the needs of the other person and pride in our displaying co-operative behaviour. But first, one has to see the other person not only as a competitor — or worse, an Other — but as a fellow member of the community, however community is defined.
That this is a learned trait is quite obvious when we observe the competition for seats on trains. There is a cultural difference, and here, I will not mince words: Nine times out of ten, the most aggressive person pushing her way into a carriage in the hope of grabbing a seat, without letting others out first, it is a middle-aged Chinese woman.
I have a theory about this: The Chinese have a weaker sense of community than other ethnic groups; they are a shade more competitive; and the cultural veneration of age translates to a sense of entitlement among those who are older.
A sense of entitlement is a powerful antidote to feeling ashamed. They don’t feel embarrassed when they display inconsideration to others.
But why would they be less considerate in the first place? I put it to a weaker sense of community. In a way, it is the flip side to a stronger sense of family.
It’s hardly a new observation that Chinese parents are prepared to make huge sacrifices for their children. In return, the culture stresses filial piety. Together, a high degree of loyalty to family is stressed — which shows up in the way Chinese mothers aggressively hold a vacant seat for husbands or grown daughters, calling them over even when the latter are some distance away and quite happy standing, a scenario which I’m sure everyone living here has seen. I think it comes at a cost. That focus on family as a unit of identity diminishes the community as another source of identity and affiliation.
Let me show what I mean graphically. Here is a mental map of how a person (in red) might see family (the group within the yellow disc) and the wider community, in the case of many other cultures:
Below is a mental map of how a Chinese-acculturated person might see family and the wider world. The family group is tighter and the gap between them and other people is wider.
Must it be so? Must a heightened sense of family come with a wider sense of alienation from non-family? I don’t know; maybe so, maybe not. But in the case of the Chinese, they also lack a discourse about community. The Muslims, for example, are taught to be conscious of the Ummah — the wider Muslim community — building a sense of mutuality and responsibility. There is no equivalent with the Chinese.
Perhaps the clan associations once filled that role, but if they ever did, they certainly can’t now since next to nobody is a member of one.
In addition, the Chinese tend also to rely on punishment as a tool to shape behaviour; they don’t see the plethora of intrusive rules we have in society as anything to quarrel with. The problem with relying on external controls, of course, is the weakening of internal self-discipline: Where there is no punishment, there’s no reason to behave better, with more consideration, to others.
* * * * *
The sense of alienation from a wider community manifests itself in more ways than just fighting for resources. It also shows itself in irresponsibility towards public space — the way rubbish is dumped in common corridors and stairway landings, and the way we dirty public toilets, for example.
(Another example: Why are public toilets in China among the most atrocious in the world?)
And because the Chinese are a majority, their habits set the tone for other ethnic groups. The Chinese norm for irresponsibility to the greater public becomes the low standard which other groups feel is acceptable and do not have to surpass. Very quickly, it becomes the Singapore way.
See also the May 2009 essay: The rosary woman and other head-shaking tales.