I saw a man blow his nose and Asian Values came out – republish

This essay was written in February 2000 (11 and a half years ago) and published in the old Yawning Bread website. A comment-maker in the previous article was possibly referring to it in his comment, and for convenience, I am republishing it here.

I saw a man blow his nose, but the mucus just strung out, suspended half the distance from nose to ground. He was only a metre away from me having lunch at a coffeeshop. For an interminable one and a half seconds, I was confronted with this disgusting sight; time enough for me to retch up this essay about “Asian Values”.

Spitting and nose-blowing on public streets are habits that represent total disregard for the public domain. They are at the same time, among the more venerable traditions of the Chinese, yet they are never included in the package labelled “Asian Values”.

Why? Well, the answer is obvious: because what the politicians promote as “Asian Values” is a selection of “values” useful to their agenda. It is also interesting that in Singapore at least, when we speak of “Asian Values”, we often mean the things that others would recognise as Confucian precepts and Chinese traditions. So there is no great contradiction when I speak of “Asian Values” and Chinese practices in the same breath.

An exhaustive discussion of “Asian Values” would be impossible within the space I have. All I want to do is to talk about nose-blowing, and what it tells you about those values. Actually nose-blowing is only one side of the coin. The other face of the same coin is known as “strong family ties”. They’re one and the same thing, presenting in different ways, that’s all. So if politicians promote “strong family ties” as a virtue to be emulated, they really cannot deny nose-blowing.

At this point you may think this is all tongue-in-cheek, or that I’m talking rubbish. Maybe mucus got to my brain. But hang in there, bear with me.

* * * * *

Strong family ties become important in societies when outside of the family, threats abound. In such societies, family is what you can most rely on in the face of insecurity. If you become impoverished, no one else will help you. If you are injured, no one else will look after you. If you are treated unjustly, the system provides no remedy, you can only rely on your brothers and cousins to exact revenge for you, and in this connection, we should note that secret societies are a kind of surrogate family — their initiation rites stress blood-bonding.

In other words, this value that we praise — strong family ties — is in fact a reflection of the weakness of society itself. It’s an indictment of how poorly developed is that society.

This poverty is a poverty at many levels. At its highest, there is an absence of structures and systems that provide support and remedies for the individual. For example, there may not be a justice system he can trust. He may perceive it as corrupt or perhaps indifferent to the plight of the small guy. What is the victim to do then? Falling back on family, clan or triad, and through them, getting even with the perpetrators, must seem the most effective recourse. Another example: there may not be any kind of social security system, or any reputable insurance industry. If he falls ill, he has to depend on the family to pay the medical bills.

Below the level of the state, strong family ties also indicate weak fellow-citizen ties. The high dependence on family suggests that there are few groupings or platforms that may enable a person to publicise his grievance, and to persuade others to come to his assistance. The “mind-your-own-business” attitude that is prevalent here is another symptom of this. We don’t want to get involved in others’ causes or difficulties. Voluntary organisations are always saying Singaporeans are very reluctant to offer a bit of their time. Even at a personal level, for example, if your ceiling leaks badly, and you need to stay somewhere else for a while, most Singaporeans end up moving in with a sister or going back to mother. It’s rare indeed to move in with a friend. There is a great reluctance to open our hearts and homes to others in need.

The warmth of the family domain is a reflection of the coldness of the non-family, or public, domain. It is hardly surprising then that we do not value the public domain. We show our alienation from it, unconsciously of course, through our daily thoughtlessness towards others and the public space. We never clear our trays from Burgerkings. We push open a swing door to walk through, then let it slam back against the person behind us instead of holding it open for a little longer. Inside many Singaporeans’ flats, everything is spick and span, but five paces out in the common corridor, worn mops, short-circuited toasters and soiled pillows accumulate.

It’s not a huge leap from such thoughtlessness to blowing your nose while walking past a coffeeshop, flinging the mucus at another’s feet.

* * * * *

Can’t we have strong family bonds without so much disrespect for others in general? Perhaps, though what I have argued above is that family bonds grow strong in response to the paucity of alternatives. But such a question also indicates how we automatically see family ties as a “good” in itself, such that even as we might want to strengthen social ties, we wouldn’t want ever to weaken our existing closeness of family bonds.

I think once in a while, we should squint a little at this “social virtue” that is family ties. Except for our spouses, we never choose our families. We are bound to them by emotion and guilt. It is not obvious that all that sacrificing to help each other is truly satisfying to ourselves as individuals. Sometimes, our family obligations seem a very heavy burden, e.g. when we have to act as caregiver for years to an aging and dying parent, or to look after a Down’s syndrome sibling for the rest of our lives. Yet we can’t shirk that responsibility; we’ve been imbued with too great a sense of guilt, even as it greatly destroys our own freedom and happiness. Very often, there is no alternative, anyway. Either society is still so weak that there are no solutions outside the family, or, in Singapore’s case, the government, under the rubric of not undermining family responsibility (see how family responsibility is cast as something so precious, it must not be undermined?), is reluctant to provide the full array of social services. Either way, we feel trapped by our family obligations, as much as unhappy wives have been trapped in loveless marriages, cleaning up after drunk and abusive husbands, all in the name of family values. Or, to reduce it to something very immediate and personal to many Yawning Bread readers — gay men in their twenties and thirties — think of how difficult it is to move out of their parents’ homes, yet how oppressive it can be on some days to continue living there!

So already, the idea that strong family ties are an immaculate “good” is disputable.

Still, as a political message, it’s an easy sell. Chinese culture, courtesy of that Confucius of 2,500 years’ vintage, have long placed great store on filial piety, ancestral worship, and family obligations. People are brought up to believe that these are good and worthwhile objectives. If the government says so too, then it must be.

In the next step of selling Asian Values, strong family ties are presented as something Asian, at least as something that Asians have retained, while others have allegedly lost it. High divorce rates, juvenile deliquency are used to paint other societies as unenviable. Casting this virtue of family bonds as Asian dredges up racial or nationalist pride, maximising the chance that the audience would be uncritical with the next argument: that resonating with strong families as an Asian characteristic, we also have strongly communitarian values.

The theory goes: in our Asian societies, we are respectful and considerate of others. We see society as an extended family. We take care to give face, not to cause offence, and we are mutually co-operative.

This is where my nose-blowing comes in. It is difficult to reconcile the utter disrespect to the public domain represented by this act with the claim to be a society that is considerate of others.

And then the Asian Values argument is stretched further. From the credo that we are a communitarian society, it is argued that we are, or should be, respectful of hierarchy and authority. In other words, we should be proud that we are obsequious to our rulers. And thus, unchecked governments, suppression of the press, censorship, and equating criticism of the government with subversion of the state, become the natural order of the Asian universe.

My reading is that we are not really communitarian. We don’t give two hoots to our responsibilities to the community. We don’t modify our individual behaviour in the interests of others. (When I say “we”, I mean Singaporeans, albeit it could also mean the Chinese in general)

It only looks as if we modify our behaviour to be respectful of the community, but in actual fact we are just cowed by our government. We don’t speak up and criticise, not because we don’t want to cause offence, but because we fear punishment.

Where there is no punishment to be feared, noses are blown, loud as foghorns.

22 Responses to “I saw a man blow his nose and Asian Values came out – republish”

  1. 1 yuen 31 October 2011 at 18:23

    in san francisco city, it is legal to walk around naked;


    isnt it similar to nose blowing? putting private values before social values can take many forms, asian or western

    • 2 yawningbread 31 October 2011 at 22:10

      No it is not. spreading mucus about is a public health risk. What you wear or don’t wear causes no injury to others.

      • 3 yuen 31 October 2011 at 22:27

        actually the same issue arises too, if you read the article, you would note that sitting down naked on a public park bench is regarded as unhygenic and nude walkers are advised (maybe in future legally required) to cover the bench with towel/mat before sitting down

      • 4 Poker Player 1 November 2011 at 10:21

        You got it upside down.

        In the case of the park bench, the inconvenience and risk it to the person in the nude. The advise does not apply to people who wear pants.

        In the case of the nose blowing, the risk and inconvenience are to people who are not blowing their nose.

      • 5 Anonymous 1 November 2011 at 11:19

        in response to yuen@22:27, how is person A sitting down naked any less hygienic for person B than a clothed person C sitting down?

        it’s less hygienic for the naked person than the clothed person, that’s for sure; but that breaks the comparison between your example and YB’s.

      • 6 SN 8 November 2011 at 19:44

        Actually, Poker Player, it is you, not yuen, who needs a second take.

        Read the article, again. This time, carefully.

      • 7 Poker Player 11 November 2011 at 22:08

        SN is confused. I was responding to “you would note that sitting down naked on a public park bench is regarded as unhygenic”, not the article. It was obvious that yuen was graspsing at straws when he was reduced to saying “maybe in future legally required”.

      • 8 SN 13 November 2011 at 21:07

        Dear Poker Player,

        Oh, never mind.



      • 9 Poker Player 14 November 2011 at 18:00

        Dear SN,

        It would be nice if your comments had content. Only Zen masters should be allowed to get away with contentless repartees – anyone else doing it is admitting he has no argument.

  2. 10 Passerby 31 October 2011 at 23:10

    Hands up if you’ve heard this from your parents when you were a child: “if you don’t behave, the policeman will catch you!”

    I know I have. I’ll wager that a majority of us have too. We are too often taught that something is wrong because we’ll get caught doing it and suffer the painful consequences. This in part leads to an ethical system that is mainly about punishment-avoidance. We’re also ingrained with the rule of thumb of “do what you want, but don’t get caught.” So the main factor one has to consider about one’s actions is whether we’ll get caught doing it. Hence, acts which cannot land us in trouble, or have a low chance of being caught committing, like blowing one’s nose in public, are not considered wrong.

    We need a new national morality that is based on consideration of others. It doesn’t have to be about bleeding-heart altruism – just the understanding that little acts that cost us little can have large positive effects on the wider community which in turn will impact us beneficially. If we’re going to have a primarily self-interested society, at least let it be an enlightened self-interested one, as opposed to an unenlightened self-interested community, where greed and short-sighted selfishness is the norm.

    It has to start from schools, as parents don’t spend enough time with their kids to impart the values that matter. The imperative to work hard to secure a good income is over-stressed at the expense of cultivating a sense of civic consciousness.

  3. 11 ET 1 November 2011 at 00:00

    People nose blow onto the street? Happy to say I’ve never seen that, though have heard some one doing it in the shower, when the sound made me want to throw up. Pretty disgusting. Don’t people have tissues in Singapore?!

  4. 12 nihaoma 1 November 2011 at 10:34

    This situation is similar to how the communist party promote Confucianism in China. Under the guise of promoting and being a champion and defender of Chinese culture and Asian values, the real reason is that promoting Confucianism will might bring about a more docile and collective society that is easier to control.

    Likewise, the govt often use “Asian values” to differentiate us from the West to justify authoritarian governance and reluctance to increase welfare spending.

    It is an old ruse used by the govt time and time again but to appear good on the surface but I believe that younger Singaporeans are as docile as before.

  5. 13 digitzen 1 November 2011 at 12:09

    It cannot be that only today or a century ago that mankind is taught (good)manners and hygiene. It only boils down to one thing about humans; he/she is either born with conscience or without.
    So, me would just conclude man(kind), is either human or beast.

  6. 14 Seeprompt 1 November 2011 at 14:26

    I’ve read the article a few times but I cannot really grasp what the article is trying to bring across. For example, I cannot connect how blowing nose is considered as a “value” and subsequently how it is Asian (never see ang mo do that kind of stuff meh?). I’ll read it a few more times later. Promise.

    About the comments on public nudity, it reminded me of my army friend who showed a group of us a video clip of a young Japanese couple making out in broad day light in very public places like the supermarket and in a moving van with the doors wide open for passerby to ogle. And the passerby would ogle quietly for a brief moment before continuing their way.

    I have to confess that (as a guy) it was initially interesting to watch that video. However after a while I got quite disturbed. I honestly cannot imagine raising my children within that kind of environment.

    Blowing nose and spitting I kinda can tolerate (to an extend). I dunno about others but public nudity and/or open display of sexual activities are beyond what I am comfortable, with or without my children around. I dunno how come the Japanese can so cool about it.

  7. 15 octopi 1 November 2011 at 14:55

    I think that it is possible to argue that the responsibility for care is both on the state and the family. One half of your argument is that the government should not be pushing its responsibility for giving care to its citizens to the citizen’s immediate family. That is true.

    The other part seems to be that caring for one’s family is unbearably onerous. No, that is not true. No matter how well the state takes care of your family, your own ties with your family are not absolved. It is never correct to say that one institution should take the place of another. The state cannot provide as good care as the family. The state should be an aid, but not a substitute. Same argument goes for other institutions like NGOs or religious bodies.

  8. 16 gohyh 2 November 2011 at 04:24

    Some thoughts:

    1) You seem to imply that an all-or-nothing approach has to be taken to adoption of ‘Asian values’, including more ‘peripheral’ practices like spitting (which, by the way, I would hesitate to overgeneralise as ascribable only to the Chinese), and that anything less is hypocritical. Why should this be so? Besides, as you point out, there is a legitimate health concern with respect to spitting. Why shouldn’t a government therefore avoid promoting, or indeed proscribe, such behaviour, whatever its cultural origins? Not sure where you’re trying to go with this.

    2) Another way of looking at it is that you’re just singing the opposite tune (‘no it isn’t Western values that are bad, with their tendency to corrupt society, it’s Asian values that weaken fellow-citizen ties’). Not that I don’t agree, or see where you’re coming from, but analogies and anecdotes can be raised on either side till the proverbial cows come home. Surely there are other ways of winning the debate than joining the government in its value-caricaturing exercise?

  9. 17 Yujuan 2 November 2011 at 16:01

    Dun mind people blowing their noses into tissue papers and have them thrown into waste bin. Many people have allergic noses that build mucus easily and need to be removed.
    What is even more disgusting is spitting phlegm on the ground or straight into the open bin. Have seen all races doing that here.

  10. 18 sally 4 November 2011 at 19:04


    why should it have to start from schools just because “parents don’t spend enough time with their kids to impart the values that matter”?

    shldn’t the system evolve to let the parents spend time with their kids instead of pushing these impt responsibilities to schools?!

    • 19 Passerby 9 November 2011 at 23:36

      It is a matter of expediency. If you have children taught the right values by our public schools now, you can see changes among the young even in the short term, and when they become parents themselves, they can judge for themselves whether passing on such values is important or not.

      If you attempt to change “the system”, by which I’m guessing you mean the social-economic structure that leads to the lack of respect for work-life-balance, which in turn leads to the lack of social graciousness as parents consider passing down right values as being optional, how soon would you say such an endeavour would bear fruit, assuming such a complex thing as the social-economic structure can be tinkered with?

      Besides, the MOE has already announced plans to inculcate values among our young. I support such a move. If parents resent the government poking their noses into the business of passing down values, they need to do a better job themselves.

  11. 20 Chow 5 November 2011 at 15:17

    A bit late to the party but the first thing that came to my mind about the article the commenter referred to was your June 23rd 2010 article because he talked about family circles and all that. Not that the exact article is important because i get your drift and the two back articles are almost similar in content.

  12. 21 digitzen 8 November 2011 at 16:44

    Why blame the school and education system?

    Me am sure Alex was apparently writing about
    adults doing the blowing and spitting.

    Is anyone saying that if one is not taught a
    particular knowledge in school, he/she will
    never know about it in his/her whole life?
    Are we not talking about manners,
    hygiene and maybe upbringings as well?

  13. 22 Poker Player 11 November 2011 at 22:14

    SN, Anonymous @ 1 November 2011 at 11:19 had the same point. Maybe you should re-examine your own reading.

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