When observation contradicts theory, hold fast to theory – that is the Singapore way.
The Straits Times, Saturday 29 October 2011, has story about how wonderfully strong social ties are among Singaporeans. Funnily enough, just two days ago, I was shaking my head, saying to myself as I watched an everyday scene: Here’s proof, is any is needed, of the sorry state of social trust in this place.
I was among commuters caught off guard by approaching rain; most at the bus stop did not have umbrellas.
A bus pulled up and 12 – 15 persons gathered around the front door, but since the bus was already quite full, only 3 or 4 managed to get on board, though going no further in than the steps. The driver appealed to other passengers to tighten up but response was poor.
Eight to ten others were left out, staking their positions close to the bus for a chance of a toehold. However, it was drizzling already, but still they crowded around the doorway. This included a mother with an infant in a stroller. And so they stood for the better part of a miserable minute.
The child began to protest at the raindrops, abut there was little the mother could do.
The rational plan of action would be to stand back under the bus shelter, stay dry, and only go up to the bus when there was clearly enough space for a person to board. This however would require all the remaining people to observe a kind of unwritten rule as to who goes first. Forming a queue would be the most obvious thing, and in many cities around the world, people do it quite naturally. Alternatively everyone could observe an unwritten rule that certain persons have priority, e.g. the elderly or infants.
In the absence of either, the mother couldn’t stand back. If she did and left a gap between herself and the bus, a steady stream of other commuters would cut in front of her to board the bus. In fact, no one could afford to stand back, so everyone (with the exception of two schoolboys who didn’t seem in a hurry to get home) crowded around the doorway, rain notwithstanding.
It was an all-too-typical scene. Singaporeans cannot trust that others would respect any claim to priority; we cannot trust that others would observe good manners and exercise consideration. And because social trust is so low, everybody has to fight for resources, getting wet in this particular case. Everybody loses.
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Making such observations about the character of our society may not be welcome. Uncouth Singaporeans, the fear goes, would reflect badly on the government. Having been obsessively engaged in social engineering, the government can’t avoid blame if the results don’t look good.
But looking good is important. Demonstrating that Singapore has been successfully engineered into a near-utopia is a feather in the cap the government must have. To this end, leading questions are useful.
The above graphic came from Saturday’s Straits Times:
Strong social ties in Singapore
Three in four Singaporeans would trust a fellow citizen to help them should there be a terrorist attack. A similar number felt that citizens of all races and communities would stand united after an attack.
These findings and others were thrown up in a 2009 Community Engagement Programme (CEP) survey by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
— Straits Times, 29 October 2011, Strong social ties in Singapore, by Kimberly Spykerman
Look again at the statements that had been put to survey participants, and you’d wonder to what extent people felt that affirmative answers were expected of them. It is easy to see that all these statements have an aspirational nature; honest answers are hard to obtain in such a situation.
The other thing to bear in mind is that two of the survey statements (referring to “terrorist attack”) are hypothetical. How reliable are their answers? Would empirical observations of actual behaviour be a better gauge?
After the first wave of the Jemaah Islamiyah arrests in 2001, plenty of Malays in Singapore reported heightened scrutiny and distancing by non-Malays. Surely that tells us more than anything else what actual behaviour is likely to be.
Ditto, simple observations like how Singaporeans behave at a bus stop in a drizzle. We don’t put a lot of trust in others behaving well. And trust being a key indicator of social cohesion, it is hard to say that social ties are strong.
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The 8 to 10 who crowded around the bus never managed to board. The vehicle was just too full. Reluctantly, the driver closed the door and pulled away, and the unsuccessful passengers had to retreat under the shelter, wetter for the experience. They paid a price for nothing. The child continued to fret in his now-damp stroller.