A typical day, with me straphanging in a bus, about one quarter the way in. We pull up at a bus stop, a few people get off and a few people board. The last group to come up the front steps consist of a mother, laden with shopping, and two sons, aged around 12 and 8. The bus driver tells her in mainland-accented Chinese that they shouldn’t board because the two boys each have an ice-cream cone in hand.
The mother starts to make a scene. “They are only children, you cannot be so strict with children,” she says, “and anyway I am in a hurry.”
She adds that they need to get home and can’t afford to wait for the next bus.
The driver then suggests they get rid of the ice-cream before coming on board, to which the mother says something I cannot quite make out but was obviously a refusal to comply. By now, I am more concerned about making my way further down the aisle. I don’t want the boys to be standing next to me should the bus driver relent and let them board. The slightest jerk of the vehicle might send a ball of ice-cream onto my trousers.
I needn’t have feared. The driver stood firm and refused to move until the family got off. A White guy straphanging close to the front door also chimed in, telling the woman: “Oh, come on, get off and don’t hold us back. Let us get a move on.”
The woman, now rather incensed, started to turn on the man, but the 12-year-old then turned around and got off the bus. “Mom, mom,” he said, appealing to her to alight too. Faced with rebellion in her own ranks, she finally backed down.
As if the scene was not appalling enough, I then heard a remark from a fellow passenger: “Wah lao, now you have foreigners ganging up on Singaporeans.”
I don’t know if there ever was a time when people were embarrassed to be anti-social, or whether we’re seeing the past through rose-tinted lenses. But I would like to imagine we might once have been a society that had some social graces and recognised where standards were. Of course here and there people might have fallen short, but at least they would have known they were falling short and felt suitably ashamed?
Now it seems, not only do we have people eating and drinking on buses and trains, and not only do they leave their litter everywhere, as the accompanying photos I took over the last two or three months attest – have they no thought for the next person who might need the seat? – we’ve reached the stage where people, like that mother of two sons, think they have a right to be anti-social.
And then when the driver, who was only doing his job, wanted to enforce the rules, and when the fellow passenger, as a civic-minded person, came to the aid of the driver, we have others making it into an “us versus them” issue. It’s ridiculous. Especially when the woman was so clearly in the wrong.
What sort of society have we become?
* * * * *
The “clean” part is much less than meets the eye. Singaporeans litter with wild abandon. Old furniture is left at stairs landings, cigarette butts are everywhere underfoot, paper tissue stuffed in every conceivable crevice. The classic Singapore scene is that of someone clipping his toe nails while riding the bus. Maybe we should apply to UNESCO to make that a protected heritage cultural practice.
We’re only “clean” because we hire an army of cleaners to pick up after us. And then we complain that this city is flooded with foreign workers.
People should be embarrassed with their behaviour and attitudes, but too many are not. Instead, it is me who is sometimes embarrassed to be Singaporean.