Inconsiderate behaviour as the Singapore way

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.

* * * * *

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.

31 Responses to “Inconsiderate behaviour as the Singapore way”

  1. 1 ilcourtilcourt 24 June 2010 at 00:05

    I noticed the same as soon as I had a family in Singapour: it runs in large concentric circles (Chinese families have extended families that include friends); I however would have drawn the people outside the circle as smaller: to the Chinese family they do not count other than as competition (someone from outside the family circle can move inside, though)

    One last thing: in the reaffirmed current Singapore context, I think it would be good to add precision to what you mean by “Chinese”; as some Singaporeans (those who comment on the Straits Times forum) will immediately think “foreign worker”, when I think you mean “of traditional Chinese culture”

    Still French

  2. 2 KS 'Kaz' Augustin 24 June 2010 at 10:07

    I agree with Charles on both points here. I would also extend the space between the Chinese family and the others, in addition to making them smaller. You really haven’t quite grasped the totality of the “us vs. them” mentality that we see on a daily basis.

    The punitive nature of education when in a Chinese-majority situation is also deeply disturbing to me. I see it manifested in the children who are only “good” when a teacher is watching and behave like selfish uncaring little bastards when they’re not and, in later life, in the Singaporean tourists who toss entire trayfulls of litter out the car window when they motor up into Malaysia. No lessons have been learnt. No morality. No ethics. No self-discipline. No manners.

    Also, you have to factor in age, because there is a definite sense of entitlement among those who are older. They feel it well within their rights to ignore, disparage and even physically shove aside children who are in their way. I find the behaviour repulsive and primitive but also prevalent, whether subtly or overtly executed.

  3. 3 Fox 24 June 2010 at 11:24

    Sorry to say, I think that this misguided sense of entitlement and selfishness is stronger amongst older Chinese Singaporeans. Growing up in Singapore in the 80’s and 90’s, it was rare to see anyone give up his/her seat to the elderly or the pregnant. However, over the years, I noticed that young people are more willing to get up and offer their seats to the needy.

    • 4 yawningbread 24 June 2010 at 16:19

      Erm, actually what I meant was that the cultural veneration of age leads as a by-product, to a sense of entitlement among older members. Example: when a person reaches, say, 50 and notions of matriarchal or patriarchal dignity begin to apply to one’s sense of self, that older person begins to make certain assumptions as to his/her rights.

      It will be interesting to see whether this present younger generation, when they reach middle age, also adopt the same expectations.

      • 5 Fox 27 June 2010 at 19:43

        What I really meant was that the sense of age-based entitlement is stronger in the elder generation of Chinese Singaporeans. Likewise, they have a weaker sense of civic consciousness. Littering was a big issue in the 80’s but nowadays, younger Singaporeans seem to be less likely to litter and spit than young people of their parents’ generation. I suspect that younger Singaporeans brought up under a stricter regime of nation-building propaganda have a stronger sense of civic consciousness.

  4. 6 twasher 24 June 2010 at 12:31

    This is a digression, but I’m not even sure it’s true that “Chinese parents are prepared to make huge sacrifices for their children”. It’s true that Chinese parents tend to have a lot of anxiety over their children’s financial future. But this also means that they are often extremely unwilling to help their children pursue hobbies, educational, or career paths that are not perceived to bring in money. I suspect that many are willing to make huge sacrifices only if they anticipate that it leads to future financial returns. For example, I frequently hear accounts of how families threaten to withhold financial support for university unless the child chooses to study certain ‘lucrative’ subjects. The child is treated almost like an instrument for financial investment; her wishes are not taken into account. Making huge sacrifices for the anticipated financial returns of your children is not the same as making sacrifices for the children. In many cases the child’s individual wishes may be so repeatedly battered and thwarted by parental injunctions to pursue this or that lucrative route that the child itself, taken as a person and not a financial investment, becomes a sacrifice to money.

  5. 8 KS 'Kaz' Augustin 24 June 2010 at 12:44

    @twasher: I completely and utterly agree (says the second-class trophy on the parental display shelf) but I think that’s more generally Asian than Chinese. I know I was under enormous pressure to study medicine or law when I was heading to Uni, and I’m Eurasian. While a degree in Computer Science eventually brought in money (look ma! I’m a success! I can afford to buy a house!), I was still harried to begin a second degree in law because, let’s face it, a Science degree just doesn’t cut it, does it?

    By the same token, any hobbies or interests of mine (like, writing) that didn’t directly relate to something appropriately high-status were actively discouraged. This included recreational reading! If I didn’t read textbooks, then I was just being lazy. Nope, not exclusive to Chinese, I’m sorry to say and if there’s a supreme deity, may It damn ALL those parents to a Christian hell.

  6. 9 Pritam Singh 24 June 2010 at 14:42

    Hi Alex,

    Interesting article that definitely deserves further comments/views/inputs from a broader segment of society. Just a super super small correction about the Muslim community. Its commonly referred to as ummah, not umrah. An umrah is broadly speaking, a ‘mini’ version of the Hajj to Mecca, which can be performed at any time in a year.

    All good things, pritam

  7. 10 yawningbread 24 June 2010 at 16:13

    Thanks Pritam for pointing out the error [embarrassed]. Correction made.

  8. 11 Chris 24 June 2010 at 18:56

    I think this is quite a perceptive article. The difference between a Chinese person’s reaction to a fellow clan member and a random person on the street would explain the apparent rudeness of some people in Singapore when it comes to the “priority seat” question.

    I’ve had a similar experience with “priority seating”, where I gave up my seat (not priority) to an auntie who was extremely infirm while the teenage Chinese boy sitting in the priority seat ignored her.

    I would say that the only way to get the priority seat question settled would be to impose a fine on people who do not give up the priority seat to someone who requires it. Enforcing this would be impractical without some kind of “seat monitor” in every carriage. Efforts to develop a sensitivity to this situation among the “men and women in the street” don’t seem to have worked very well. A thorny problem.

    • 12 twasher 24 June 2010 at 23:34

      Please, not more fines! Acts of kindness in general are already debased enough in Singapore (what with compulsory community service, compulsory maintenance of parents, etc.) without making the situation worse. Fines do not ‘settle’ the problem of people being selfish. If occasionally someone in a non-priority seat has to give up his seat because someone in a priority seat was being selfish, that’s not a big problem. In the long term, continuing to use external sticks alone to regulate behaviour rather than trying to develop good internal norms will inflict much more damage on society.

    • 13 Lee Chee Wai 25 June 2010 at 01:38

      I agree with Twasher. As much as I like the occasional joke about our “fine” city, we have overdone it. As a country, we are in a state of chronic over-regulation.

      Every time we have a problem, we seem to look for the most obvious “cause” and either ban it or regulate the hell off it. It almost feels like we are unable to see the shades of gray in a problem’s solution-space. Whatever happened to problem management and mitigation?

      Chris, what you have done is part of the solution. You set an important example that others will learn to follow. Put regulation into that scenario and your act will no longer seem to others like the right thing to do, but merely what people “must” do. The latter is, IMHO, *not* a long-term solution.

    • 14 Robox 25 June 2010 at 02:19

      I was in two minds when I read the words “impose a fine” to regulate this behaviour, and possibly, other behaviour in public. The PAP government’s usual other solution, sometimes in concert with fines, is campaigns; Singaporeans are tired of those too.

      The last solution is the one that is preferred in most democracies: moral suasion. That necessarily means that the greatest amount of pressure comes from members of the public themselves begging the questions:

      1. Are there enough civic-minded Singaporeans to effect such change?

      2. How amenable – ie. culturally predisposed – are Singaporeans towards the efforts of such individuals?

      Perhaps the deeper question is whether the PAP’s government’s previous methods used in behaviour modification – fines and campaigns – have been so overdone to the point that we find ourselves in such a conundrum.

  9. 15 anony 25 June 2010 at 08:48

    I think Alex ought to take a trip to Japan to see how selfish the Japanese commuters are towards their elderly folks & infirm passengers in subways & buses. It will be a huge culture shock for you as it was for me!

    Having seen it with my own eyes in Japan, I would say that Spore commuters are more gracious in giving up their seats to those who need it most: elderly, handicapped, pregnant women…

    • 16 Lee Chee Wai 26 June 2010 at 05:25

      Anony – I hate to say this, but why benchmark ourselves against a (really) bad example? Plus … is this Japan in general or just big cities like Tokyo?

  10. 17 Agagooga 26 June 2010 at 21:08

    Interesting and plausible observation

    I just can’t help but wonder if you’d have made similarly honest remarks about non-Chinese

    • 18 yawningbread 26 June 2010 at 22:16

      If you think I haven’t, that may be because I would be careful to be diplomatic about it. I think it would be more for the Malays and Indians to critique their respective cultural attitudes and behaviour. I also think that as the majority group, the Chinese should lead the way. Do not expect minority groups who are already power-disadvantaged to engage in self-criticism if the majority does not.

  11. 20 Supersasha 26 June 2010 at 23:50

    I have never linked race and the Chinese-majority to be a part of the inconsiderate behavoir which I see on trains and on buses.
    What I see are many commuters like the author who are willing to give up their seats for parents with kids but not for the elderly.
    I am 37 years of age, and I never ever take a sit on the MRT train unless it’s extremely empty and that’s like, what, twice a year?
    If I do give up my seat, I always give it to someone old enough to be my parents at least. That’s my cut off age. I always ask myself, “How would I want others to treat my mother?” The elderly and pregnant women are my first priority, followed by the handicapped.

    I never give my seats to parents with kids.

    Kids can do with a bit more standing around, in my opinion.
    I have seen kids rushing through doors just to claim seats with triumph glee. How utterly shameful, I thought to myself.
    Meanwhile, the slower elderly commuters and the pregnant ladies are left standing, because they weren’t fast enough.

    I cannot stress the dangers of the elderly falling down and breaking a hip or their arm(s). Studies have shown that the elderly do not do well once their hips are broken.
    I do not have to go on about the dangers of pregnant women falling down.
    My point is, many Singaporeans tend to have this misplaced tendency to give up seats for the parents with babies and/or kids. Why is that?
    Kids bounce back really well even if their bones are broken.
    They have such astounding abilities to recover.
    In addition the parents with babies often have strollers, which are blocking the entry way.
    And like I posted above, kids should be made to stand as it builds character. The youths of today are becoming like strawberries. Completely pampered.
    So easily prone to sloth.

    Many a times I have to go up to a standing elderly person and ask if they require a seat. And most of the time, they recovered sufficiently from their shock to readily accept my offer to get them a seat.
    And to the credit of most Singaporeans, most would be happy to give up their seats for the elderly. The thing is, they have to be asked.
    Perhaps it’s because on previous occasions when they tried to give up their seats to the needy, they were politely refused.
    There is no shame in extending help to those who are less fortunate than we are, who are less able to fight for themselves.
    Even if they reject us, be proud of the fact that you had at least tried to help them.
    That’s what count the most.

    And remember, if fate is willing, we will one day be old and in need of an empty seat. Don’t you want to be the person help was extended to?

    • 21 ryisse 29 June 2010 at 11:21

      Supersasha – Agreed. I must however add the small note that the auntie YB didn’t give his seat up to is probably of comparable age to YB, if she’s elderly then he is too.

  12. 22 percolator 27 June 2010 at 16:05

    while studying in Aust, I took trains and buses daily. There are signs on board requiring school children to give up their seats, not just to those with mobility difficulties and expectant mothers (for safety reasons) but to (full fare paying) adults as well. More often than not, the kids comply readily without prompting, and in the rare exceptions I observed, all it took was a killer stare from the adult to pop his pop his/her butt off the seat.

  13. 23 K Das 27 June 2010 at 18:13

    Socio-cultural mooring has a bearing on public behaviour of a community is vividly brought out in this analytical piece.

    I pin my hope on our younger generation for better civic behaviour. Our school children don’t spit. They are quite colour blind and mix freely with children of other races. They clear the table at tuck-shops. They raise their hands to alert the motorists when crossing zebra lanes or minor traffic junctions. They show deference to elders. All good signs undoubtedly. But the teenagers are found wanting. Half of them are impervious to what is happening around them. Their eyes are open but the mind is shut. You can see them on trains with their ears plugged to music with ear phones. Those without ear phones are better behaved especially from junior colleges and institutions of higher learning. Often I have seen them giving up their seats to the elderly and women with small children.

    I also note (from my experience) that the Malays and Indians are more forthcoming in rendering help in emergencies like road accidents where people are injured, robbers and snatch thieves on the run, or people falling or getting fainted.

    We must endeavour to be an agent of change for others by our civic behaviour. People have offered their seat on trains to me many times. Every time I occupy the seat I look forward to an elderly person, pregnant lady or women with tiny-tots to board and come my way so that I can give up my seat to that person. I have done it often and in one instance, immediately one station after I had taken up the seat that was given to me by a kind teenage girl. Commuters give me strange looks. I do this consciously. It brightens up my day with a feeling that I have done somebody a good turn. Also I give visibility to an act of kindness to catch on others.

    We can’t change the world but we can try to change what we can within our capacity. Last week I was at my bank counter to draw $4,000. It was 11 am and the lady teller wanted to give me all in $50 bills. As I had many things in my pockets I requested for $1,000 bills to avoid bulge. When she said she had run out of big bills I got agitated. If a bank does not have $1000 bills early in the morning who else will have such bills I queried the girl. I told her point blank that if I don’t get them I am not moving from the counter and requested to see the manager. She immediately went and whispered something to another staff 2-3 counters away after which she went to the back room. She returned with notes in denomination I wanted.

    That was not the end of the story. I went to another bank just at the opposite direction to deposit the money into my account. I had to fill the deposit slip which I did. In the process I wrote the amount wrongly as $3,000 when it should be $4,000. I struck the 3000 figure with a line and wrote 4000 above it appending my signature next to the alteration in the presence of the teller girl. The girl refused to accept it and handed me another deposit slip to fill up. When I asked her why, she could only say: ‘Bank rules’. She didn’t know what to do when I asked her to show me the bank rules. I told her it made no sense to insist to fill up another set of slips that come in duplicates, for such silly matters and waste precious stationery. I also advised her that if she felt uncomfortable, she could always write a note at the bottom of the slip indicating that the customer insists on presenting this slip and refused to fill up a new set when given.

    I do not know where we are heading with some ridiculously rule-bound rules.

  14. 24 anony 28 June 2010 at 12:26

    @Lee Chee Wai, 26 June 2010 at 05:25,

    Big cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto etc. Ask those who have taken buses & subways in these cities to see what they have to say. Its a whole lot better in Spore, I can assure you of this.

    A polite & civil society in Japan does not extend itself to public transportation courtesy there. Its a strange phenomenon.

    • 25 Agagooga 28 June 2010 at 12:55

      I’ve taken public transport in those Japanese cities and while they don’t go out of their way to be gracious, they move in and don’t rush out of the train when you’re trying to go in.

      The only Western country (including Japan) where people have rushed into the train while I was getting out has been Greece.

  15. 26 Robox 29 June 2010 at 07:59

    I’ve been mulling over this article, not that it was hard to recognize the many truths contained in it. However, if there is one word that could aptly describe the behaviour among ethnic Chinese Singaporeans that is being described here, I would say that it is “xenophobia” in the broadest sense of the word.

    The The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition describes xenophobia as such:

    xenophobia: An unreasonable fear, distrust, or hatred of strangers, foreigners, or anything perceived as foreign or different.

    If we focussed more on the object of said xenophobia – the “other” who is invariably a stranger to the subject of the xenophobia, as opposed to focussing on one’s citizenship, then to describe the attitudes that you talk about as xenophobia makes sense whether it is in relation to non-family members(ie. strangers), members of other ethnic groups (ie. strangers), citizens of other countries (ie. strangers), etc.

    It’s us versus them.

    However, if it is deemed that “xenophobia” should be used exclusively for people of a different citizenship or if its use can lead to confusion, then may I suggest “themmophobia” instead.

    All of this is hardly surprising to me. I’ve known all East Asian cultures to be xenophobic.

    Having said that, I personally find that of the three major East Asian cultures, the Chinese tend to be the least xenophobic. As well, among the four Chinese-majority countries – China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore – Singapore is the least xenophobic.

    However, xenophobia (in its broad sense) is still a problem in Singapore.

  16. 27 T 29 June 2010 at 15:45

    Robox – I don’t think it is xenophobia at work here. Heck, the Chinese also do that to their fellow Chinese. It is kiasuism at work here. And there is also resentment against foreigners. But don’t lump this with xenophobia. This is probably a reaction against the government policy of unbridled immigration so much so that locals are displaced in the job markets, in the wet markets and in the supermarkets.

    • 28 Robox 29 June 2010 at 21:14

      Hi T, okay let me try and explain.

      When I suggested that it is xenophobia that we are talking, I meant that it is exactly the same attitudes as in xenophobia but applied an “other” who is not a citizen of a different country: it’s situational, in other words.

      After all, the definition of xenophobia encompasses “strangers”: any stranger who is not necessarily a foreigner. However, when the stranger happens to be a foreigner, it is recognizable as the conventional meaning of xenophobia.

      Hope that clarifies.

  17. 29 T 30 June 2010 at 07:58

    Robox – yes. On second reading and your second post – you made sense. I jumped on the word xenophobia without reading through the whole post.

  18. 30 Robox 23 July 2010 at 05:11

    Alex, I thought that you may be interested in this portion from the question and answer session that followed a recent speech by George Yeo. The full text of the speech is available on the MFA website, but doesn’t have a unique URL. It’s accessible from the “Archived Releases” link on the homepage.


    Question: Good afternoon, sir. My name is Chan Zhixing and I’m a third year law student from the Singapore Management University (SMU). You mentioned about elements of nei (ÄÚ-internal) and wai (Íâ-external). My question is: What are some of the guiding principles which determine what is nei and what is wai from a Chinese perspective? Do we know what is considered important to them, what is their core interest, but what is the guiding principle for them in deciding whether something is internal or external? Thank you.

    Minister: You know, it’s hard to reduce this into rules. I think those of us who are raised as Chinese instinctively feel it, and learn that as a core principle, learning as a young child how to deal with people who are not like you. And the way to treat those who are not like you is to be extra nice to them. You always treat strangers better than your own people because you are afraid of strangers. So the best food, the best items are reserved for strangers [Laughter]. Among yourselves you get the second best, but when a foreigner comes, always win him over by generosity because you are afraid of him. How do you define that? Is it genetic? It is not genetic because Han people are genetically very diverse. Is it a fixed set of cultural norms? But the norms in dong bei (¶«±±-the Northeast) are very different from the norms in gan su (¸ÊËà), very different from norms in the South. And strangely even the Chinese outside China often make this clear distinction between nei(ÄÚ) and wai (Íâ). If you talk to the Indonesian Chinese, the Malaysian Chinese, they make that distinction very clearly. And even those who are assimilated in the Philippines and Thailand, very often these distinctions persist. But I am hard put – I think it would require scholars to do research into this – to say look, these are the hundred rules by which you distinguish inside from outside.


  19. 31 Anonymous 3 September 2010 at 09:29

    But in the case of the Chinese, they also lack a discourse about community.

    Could you please just refrain from making generalizations of this sort — do you think holding an ic that says your “race” is chinese endows you with freedom from obvious ignorance in these matters?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: