Singaporeans stressed out by strangers’ smiles

pic_201212_09The flight back from Bali was full. And full of Singaporeans, with many dragging behind them the biggest cabin bag they can get away with. Some had two, despite the one-bag rule. You’d think that this airline does not provide a checked luggage service.

As the last ten passengers boarded, a steward was heard telling another, “Cannot. No more space in overhead bins. We have to offload.”

And with that began a delay, as the last passengers were told to exit and check in their cabin bags.

A woman seated not far from me said to her companion, “Wah, lucky we boarded first. If not, like these people, have to check in our bags. Jialak.”

The other woman replied, “Yah, but now everybody suffer. We have to wait.”

I didn’t look at my watch, but I think we were held back by 20 – 30 minutes. And when the plane reached Singapore, we must have lost our landing slot, so we had to circle for a fresh slot for another 20 minutes.

I don’t know if it is a particularly Singaporean thing, but not wanting to check in our luggage seems in line with our determination to rush in and rush out. We don’t want to have to wait at the conveyor belt to retrieve our bags. This trait is worsened when airlines implement a surcharge for check-in luggage, so people now cram everything into a suitcase-sized cabin bag, or even to try to get away with two cabin bags. Moreover, sensing that the competition for overhead bin space will be fierce, passengers push their way in at boarding so they don’t get left behind.

There may also be a lack of trust in the airline’s ability to deliver the bags securely to the destination.

Whatever the reasons, and however rational it may be at the individual level, the result is that the group as a whole suffers. The individual ‘kiasu’ leads to group frustration. The failure to be socially cooperative leads to a net loss for all.

* * * * *

A thirtyish woman boards a train with her daughter, aged eight or nine. The woman takes the seat ‘reserved’  for the elderly, pregnant or disabled. She doesn’t look pregnant. There is no vacant seat for the daughter but it doesn’t matter; the girl is quite content to stand near the door, look out the window, or sway by the grab-pole.

A few stops later, a seat frees up diagonally opposite the mother. The mother tells her daughter to take the seat. The girl looks in the direction her mother is pointing to but does not seem interested.

The train door opens, another rush of people come in and the seat is quickly taken.

“I told you to take the seat,” the mother admonishes her daughter. “Why you so slow?”

The girl seems to say, “But I don’t want to sit,” more from the movement of her lips than with her voice.

“Now somebody take already,” continues the mother, “why you don’t faster go?”

What lessons in life does the daughter learn? It seems to me that she is learning that to win the esteem of her mother, she has to acquire the same selfish and competitive traits.

* * * * *

Yet, again and again when we ask people what they wish Singapore to be, ‘a more gracious society’ comes up.

* * * * *


Back to Bali. I had the misfortune to be taking my dinner in a small restaurant where the next table was filled with a Singaporean family. You can tell from their Singlish.

Except for one memorable sentence, I can’t recall the exact words I overheard, but at one point, they were discussing how unnerving it was that other tourists greeted them as they passed each other in their hotel. That memorable sentence was, “Siao ah, total stranger also want to smile.”

I wanted to bang my head on the table, but my nose got into my soup.

And still we yearn for ‘a more gracious society’.

* * * * *

Like the layers of an onion, there are many reasons for our behaviour and attitudes. Start peeling one layer, and we find there’s another underlying cause.

Graciousness ultimately comes from a generosity of spirit. Sometimes this generosity, like a smile, costs us nothing. Other times, like checking in our luggage and carrying only the minimum into the cabin, there is a tangible cost — we have to wait at the conveyor belt or pay a surcharge. Or when we give up a seat in the train to someone more in need of one.

The scarcer the resources, the higher the cost. An overburdened airport means longer delay before bags come out. As trains get more crowded, the chances of getting another seat should you give up yours to a needier person, diminish to zero. The natural tendency is to compete harder as resources get scarcer. We become less generous, less gracious. Eventually, when we live a life in which we’re competing with each other every second, we lose even the ability to smile and say hello. We learn to see everybody around us as potential competitors to defeat.

If we don’t learn that by ourselves, our parents teach us so.

Not only is our society coarsened by it, so is our own life.

No society is ever so replete with resources that all people have all they want, though, it may be argued, in Singapore there is a deliberate underprovision across many sectors, from public transport to housing, to even mere resting seats in shopping malls. It’s part of an over-emphasis on profit at the expense of service. At the same time, the siege rhetoric has insidiously warped our minds. “Nobody owes us a living”. “Meritocracy”. We see this as a dog-eat-dog world, maybe because we made Singapore into one.

How other societies cope with a moderate level of competition is to have clear and fair rules. When boarding buses, people queue. When someone gives up a seat to an old lady, and the old lady reaches her destination, she says to the young man again, “Thank you for letting me have the seat, you may have it back again,” without someone else rushing in from three metres away to grab it.

The problem with such rules is that they are mostly social conventions, never explicitly written anywhere. One cannot rely on an external enforcer, but on peer pressure. Rule-breakers must feel chastised by others, and those who speak up against rule-breakers must get ready support from by-standers. “Minding my own business” is the wrong recipe.

Sometimes, however, rules can be explicitly enforced. For example, the cabin crew should have stopped people form bringing on board a second cabin bag.

Either way, if rules are not enforced and rule-abusers get away with their behaviour, it makes no sense for others to abide by the rules either. They end up feeling like suckers, paying the price for others’ misbehaviour.

People who are generous should be recognised and rewarded for their generosity. Our instinct for fairness tells us that it feels right that the young man who gave up his seat gets first option when it becomes vacant again. The old lady’s reciprocal act of generosity is to make it clear to others within earshot that he has the first option.

I honestly believe that most Singaporeans are capable of graciousness. The trouble is that we have allowed rule-breakers to go scot-free, and those who are generous in spirit find they’re taken advantage of. Just as there is a dictum in economics that bad money drives out good, so bad behaviour drives out good too.

There is however, one more angle I think we need to be aware of. Generosity tends to flow like gravity, from top down. Those with the resources to give play a crucial role in setting the tone and example. If the elite, or corporations or the government behave in mean-spirited ways, people take the cue and ask themselves, why should I be gracious and generous when my social superiors and institutions above me treat me like dirt?

The Law Society recently voted down very minimal guidelines for pro bono work. Lawyers seem to have objected to the message that they ought to do any at all.

The tone set by our government is also very damaging. Our public services, including ministries, are parsimonious and uncaring. There’s a fetish of means-testing, especially for healthcare. It’s penny-counting cost-recovery and profit everywhere we look. There is too much red-carpetting for bigwigs and the well-connected, and semi-contemptuous dismissal of the small guy’s concerns, whether at the Ministry of Manpower, or the police (“Bring your own proof, or we won’t investigate your complaint”).

When fierce competition and looking down at those beneath you is the order of the day, it’s hardly any wonder there is a deep yearning for graciousness. Yet it is never farther away.

46 Responses to “Singaporeans stressed out by strangers’ smiles”

  1. 1 anon ue33 22 December 2012 at 17:02

    Well Alex, students are now awarded for gracious acts in school! Mabe it’s a good start to a gracious society? *being sarcastic here*

  2. 2 S C Lim 22 December 2012 at 17:08

    Am surprise that the airline at the holding/boarding hall did not stop those with 2 luggages. It is clearly stipulated that passenger’s are entitled to one(1) cabin luggage not exceeding the 7kilo weight and a computer bag. The onus is on the airline ground handling staff to enforce this rule. Unfortunately, knowng Indonesians, “tidak apah” attitude this has caused unpleasantness to which it does not bother them.

    I have been with the airlines and have faced this sort of issues when in Bangkok checking in passengers going to Johannesburg. The experiences we encountered taught us how to resolve this issue.

    Many will try to squeeze in as much to maximise their allowable checkin weight – nothing wrong with that but before they checkin their luggage, they all hide their additional overloaded cabin bag and various handcarry bags in a corner and after checking in they proceed to the holding/boarding hall.

    This is where we catch hold of them and with a weighing machine at hand subject them to weigh their luggage and comply with the ruling. The excess is offloaded at the boarding hall and charged accordingly and transported to the baggage loading bay at aircraft side.

    This sort of a drastic measure must be implemented when it gets out of hand. Aircraft overhead storage cabins has a maximum permissable weight and size. Most season travellers are aware or should know.

  3. 3 Lye Khuen Way 22 December 2012 at 17:59

    Thanks for reminding us that we do have capacity for graciousness and a whole lot of good attributes that define a cultured society except that the “coverment” here do not really practice any policies that will encourage us to be gracious.
    We did not earned that “Kia su, Kia si” label by chance.

    Dare say, the ruling party since Independence had a lot to do with that honour.

  4. 4 Kelvin Tan Tuan Wei 22 December 2012 at 18:10

    Nice article. Reminded me of the time when Goh Chok Tong, the so called “gentleman PM”, told all of us that those wards who voted for opposition will see their wards turn to slums, while those PAP wards will rise in value. All Singaporeans could only look down and acted blur when those words came out.

    That was one severe blow on the level of graciousness in Singapore, and I guess we never recovered since then, from the example set by our leaders.

  5. 5 Fake Altruism 22 December 2012 at 18:15

    Quite true. This is a well written piece. It is the PAP government that made us Singaporeans kiasu. When people at the top donate, it always come with strings attached, like naming rights for a hospital, or so and so bilingualism fund. Hardly altruistic but full of selfish motives behind.

  6. 6 henry 22 December 2012 at 18:22

    Its the kiasu trait that runs through our veins.

    The aspiration is to beat others in getting a better deal. 2 Tvs can be exactly the same but if I could get it with a freebie like 2 NTUC or Takashimaya vouchers worth $50, I can claim to be a better shopper.

    In a way, I am savvy and I did not lose anything yet I gain more than you.
    Same thing with the cabin bags. I got away with 2 while you are a sucker to have yours offloaded and you have to wait at the conveyor belt. I gained time, and therefore I also got to the taxi queue faster than you.

    Why like that? Conditioning from streaming, PSLE etc. and since “I did not do well enough in school, academia, I will beat you at life skills.” ( anyway, earning money is far more useful then to be nice to strangers.) Anything.
    From disallowing you to overtake me while driving despite you indicating your intention, to beating you to seats at the hawker centre.

    This is loutish behaviour is learnt from our parents, uncles, brothers, sisters and aunts. Origins of an impoverished immigrant past. No amount of scholarly exposure will correct this. The English describe it as breeding.
    If it is of poor stock, it will not improve.

    Yet, I believe that in China, a mandarin is always a scholar with pedigree upbringing. When I encounter poor behaviour, I cannot imagine what examples did the parents impart.

    It will take a couple more generations to change.. and the influx will not hasten it. In fact it may delay it indefinitely.
    In fact its the elderly that display a boldness and arrogance that I notice these days. They will elbow their way through the bus or crowd impolitely using nothing more than their age as a birth right.

    Deal with such behaviour with assertiveness. When uncles & aunties nonchalantly waltz into the queue in front of you, give no quarter and tell them in no uncertain terms that the queue begins behind.

    I try not to holiday during term breaks and avoid like the plaque places such as BKK,PER,ADL,TPE, BJS, SHA, SYD,BNE. Singaporeans behave badly in other peoples countries. When I am asked, I will always say that I am a Malaysian. I get a smile. Say “Singapore” and you will get an insincere smile and the chest drops, indicating a sigh.

  7. 7 fromheadtoplate 22 December 2012 at 21:17

    Nice article, I agree with most of it but quite a few statements were too sweeping. I understand that you were trying to make a point but over generalizations are not helpful. For example, your comments on the Government agencies and the civil servants. I honestly believe that most civil servants really do try their very best to serve their roles and provide as much assistance as possible to those in need. For your comments on means testing, surely you are aware of the other side of the coin. Again, I think your overriding messages, on the culture of over competition and the adverse (and increasingly serious) consequences to a small nation as ours resonates with me. But it could be more nuanced.

    • 8 K Das 23 December 2012 at 17:39

      Sometimes you have to assert your rights. Otherwise they will take you for a lamp-post.

      I have had many unpleasant incidents. Let me quote you one. I was once in a bank to deposit some money into my own account. I filled in the cash deposit slip. I made an error with the amount. I cancelled it and wrote the correct amount above and countersigned it. The bank clerk refused to accept it and gave me a new slip to fill up. I asked her why the bank is asking me to waste precious papers and wanted the reason for it. She said “it is bank rule” I demanded to see the manager.

      The manager said the very same thing apparently protecting her staff. I lost my cool and raised my voice. I pointed it out I was the account holder, paying into my account, filling up the slip, amending it all under the very nose of the bank clerk in front. I told her as manager she must have some flexibility and discretion to decide and all she had to do was to make a remark on the original slip that the customer insisted on using this slip and refused to fill up a second one. She relented.

      You cannot kick up such a fuss at Government Departments. Some have wall posted advisories saying they value their staff and warning unreasonable members of public that they would be handed over to the police for any unruly behaviour.

      But honestly, the staff manning the counters in public sector generally serves the public superbly. If you encounter problems and speak to the supervisors, they will do all they can to help you out. This is my experience.

  8. 9 CK 22 December 2012 at 21:21

    Not that Toronto is the most gracious, but I do notice the differences between Toronto and Singapore, as reflected in your examples: passengers rushing for seats on the SG’s MRT vs Toronto’s TTC; people holding doors; people giving way or letting you go through the revolving doors; Starbucks in Toronto providing hot or cold water without charge [versus a decade or more ago, when a store would charge us 20 cents for some hot water when we needed it for infant formula when we visited SG with our infant(s)]. In Toronto, I managed to arrange for Starbucks (2 stores downtown) to give us (my son’s school) a free container of coffee, and free day old bagels, muffins, treats on Sunday mornings, for the parents during chit chat before mass, while the choir boys have their rehearsal, before singing at 10 am mass.

  9. 11 mike 22 December 2012 at 22:21

    personally, i have observed the following occurring in our public transport too often:

    1. in the mrt, even if you do give up your seat (note: it’s the “regular seat” and “not the type for the ones in need”), often the person who takes the seat simply sit down and that’t it. you don’t get a word of thank you nor a simple nod to show their appreciation. as a “bonus”, sometimes you get a facial expression or a body language that almost says “i owe this seat, you must give it up for me!” OR “who ask you to be so stupid to give up the seat for me, i need not thank you for it!”

    2. on the bus, technically if a bus begins to move off after shutting its door, i believe that the bus driver has the right to move off from the bus stop already. sometime, you have kind bus drivers that sees from their front screen or rear-end mirror that someone is rushing in hope to get onto the bus. but once they get on, they simply tap their card and walk off! again there is not the slightest nod or a “thank you” word from the passenger.

    which is the reason, why i often prefer not to give up my seat and hope the bus driver just move off as he is entitled to do so. there are people whom simply lack the basic graciousness that alex talks about. 1st world country, 4th world graciousness.

    • 12 23 December 2012 at 16:45

      I used to take the MRT and I also noticed this esp wrt to pregnant women. I noticed that Indian pregnant women are the worst; they not only do not thank, they also stared at the person who gave the seats to them. As for the Chinese, they simply take the seat and ignored the give. The most gracious is the Malay. They will thank the giver. By the way, I am a Chinese.

      • 13 qwertot 25 December 2012 at 03:41

        It’s a sad reflection on modern society that one has to state he is a member of the group he is making an observation on, in order to prevent the fanatical accusations of racism, sexism and other isms. It’s as if your opinion doesn’t even count unless you have insider status. This PC society will be the death of all discussion.

      • 14 Sarita 28 December 2012 at 01:49

        I agree about the complete ungraciousness of the Indians and their discourtesy. Smiling is an apparently unheard of social courtesy, whether it is India, Singapore or Europe; an offended look and a strange sort of hostility is par for the course. Btw, the way I am Indian:)

  10. 15 PaulineL 22 December 2012 at 22:52

    Thank you for writing this. A good observation and very well-written. We need more people like you in SG – a voice of conscience

  11. 16 Anon FSxa 22 December 2012 at 23:17

    YB, if people want to behave in a gracious manner, they don’t need to wait for anything or wait for someone else to lead by example. It all boils down to a person’s upbringing and their own conviction to change their behaviour. This sickening kiasu mentality has been around for ages. I was fortunate to have Singaporean parents who instilled manners in me, taught me not to grab all the last few pieces of pastry at parties, admonished me for not thinking of others in the train or bus and to learn to give way even if it means I end up “losing” at the end (not getting a seat/place/or getting that perfect spot).

    We were by no means rich, in fact we were somewhat poor at times. But it was impt to not succumb to kiasuness and that mentality that we had to stomp on others to get to the top. Even though we were at the bottom sometimes. I urge Singaporean parents to start instilling manners and compassion for others at a young age. You are right – we are not incapable of being gracious. But it has to be taught. We have to work at being gracious. Start with something as simple as giving way to others in buses or trains. Model gracious behaviour to your kids and correct them.
    Lest you think this is all useless and “not worth it” – I ended up living in a different part of the world and I saw my manners save me from a lot of the social headaches encountered by other Singaporean students.

  12. 18 Daniel Yap 22 December 2012 at 23:34

    You know, Alex, that is EXACTLY the difference between Finland’s education system and Singapore’s.

    Singapore believes that competition will make the cream rise and the detritus sink, which will result in a positive sum. Finland believes in cooperative learning that maximises the potential of every person.

  13. 19 kampong boy 23 December 2012 at 00:21

    Yes, i am quite embrassed at saying this, but when i travels, i usually avoids other singaporean. I was in shanghai recently, at a peranaken restaurant. Me and my friend were sitting at the bar chatting with the owner, 2 other tables, one with 4 singaporeans, the other with 2 malaysian. I tried to catch the eyes of the singaporean table but none of them would acknowledge me. the malaysian came over, shaked our hands and said hi.

  14. 20 Chew 23 December 2012 at 00:28

    Nice piece, Alex!

    I can’t change the world, but I can change myself. = =

  15. 22 Saycheese 23 December 2012 at 02:29

    Christmas is merry?

  16. 23 Hoo Humm 23 December 2012 at 09:52

    Very interesting and very true. I wonder how many reading this (including the author) and agree with the overall theme have done something today, yesterday or even for the last week, like holding the door open for the person behind you, have held the lift when there was another person coming, have said thank you IF someone did hold the door open. How many gave way way on a walkway instead of last minute change, how many cyclist will go off the walkway onto the grass to give the walker there space. When was the last time you said good morning to your neighbor? Common courtesies are very valuable life skills which the great civilizations were built on. In this hectic country perhaps it would be best if even one hour per week was spent at every level in the schools for the learning and practicing of common manners, social etiquette and life skills. NO! they can’t be learned at home or from the parents as they don’t know them! It will have to start at a young age and will take another decade to show up in our society.

  17. 25 I1000 23 December 2012 at 09:53

    Agree!!! I have more stress with the Singaporeans than the Japanese. Singaporeans suffer from a spirit of lack, of poverty, hence their behaviours as described above. When people smile and act generous, they call them stupid and naive!

    Then they mask their emptiness with the intellectual mind, penny wise, pound foolish. Money is flooding into Singapore yet, they analyse risks as as faithfully as their money gods, expecting everything to turn out a disaster. Then suddenly the Malaysian grab the money opportunity and they get upset that it’s theirs to begin with, how can a foreigner steal their inheritance!


  18. 26 sgcynic 23 December 2012 at 11:12

    “If the elite, or corporations or the government behave in mean-spirited ways, people take the cue and ask themselves, why should I be gracious and generous when my social superiors and institutions above me treat me like dirt?”

    Indeed, how can the “leaders” exhort the people to give “generously” when they themselves do the opposite? Just recently we see how “first world” Singapore turn away a boat full of refugees with the flimsy excuse that their identity cannot be verified. Please. Then I would not want to donate to “officially-sanctioned” charity too given that I cannot verify their use of my money. In fact Mr Leong Sze has also just pointed dubious use of charity funds for what seems like official expendititure:

  19. 27 sgcynic 23 December 2012 at 11:14

    This is the article
    Are we donating to help the needy or to help fund official expednditure. What crap!

  20. 28 Perry 23 December 2012 at 11:40

    This beng the season of Christmas, I think everyone should read Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. The government needs to change its Scrooge – like approach to it’s own people. They are setting an example. It is painful to see Singapore going this way. People were much more gracious in the 60’s even if they did not have much money. Are we a better society ? Nobody can argue with the recent gallup polls naming us the most emotionless and amongst the least positive people in the world. It has to be said, this is not a healthy society. I am not cynical about the “National Conversation” in terms of its intentions. But I am not optimistic that much will come of it.

  21. 29 henry 23 December 2012 at 12:51

    I used to do work that allows me to be near people with influence and authority and wealth ( of course ).

    You would not believe how these people behave.

    # Spitting grape pits out onto the carpet
    # Reading newspapers by tearing each page and allowing it fall unto the floor
    # Chewing gum while drinking coffee and then leaving the gum on the saucer
    # Raising their feet with socks on unto another seat
    # Trimming their finger nails and allowing clippings to fly all over

    Confidence? Bravado? Elitist? Beng? Beacuse I can?

    These are the nouvelle rich. Yet if they are examples of how wealth can be acquired in the shortest possible time, then the others will emulate.
    We do not need to be elitist or of gentry. Be considerate, have situational awareness and be kind. But I suppose, its like hoping people will vote to change our government.

    Singaporeans like to give the impression that they are very busy and that they have multiple appointments, tasks to do, even if its their day off.
    What is the hurry? Death will come, guaranteed. Slow down, think, look, listen and smile.

    I think we should provide hugging in public spaces. But since we are a very organised people, hugging can take place only in a boxed area designated as such. People entering that box will be willing parties to want to receive & give hugs. Who knows, we may have more people smiling and feeling much better for the rest of the day (s).

    Hugs for everyone here.. merry xmas!! 🙂

  22. 30 Philip 23 December 2012 at 14:56

    Experienced every issue you mentioned there during my 12 years in Singapore. Sometimes, iam glad that iam out of the place. It was turning me into another Kiasu Singaporean.

    The frown on my neighbours face whenever i smiled at them or wished them hello in the corridor / lift was really unnerving. This, inspite of us seeing each other daily for years.

  23. 31 K Das 23 December 2012 at 15:18

    You have written about the peccadillos of many uncultured Singaporeans with acerbic wit. I share your sentiments.

    As a senior, I have often experienced others giving up their seat to me and I usually reciprocate their gesture with thanks. When a young student offers the seat – which has happened to me many a times – I am even more deeply touched and will often reflect upon it and inwardly seek God’s grace for the student having and her/his parents inculcating such fundamental values. I must in return give what I receive. Hence I am very conscious of others boarding, who need the seat more than I do. I will readily give up my seat to the other person, much to the amusement or embarrassment of seated commuters around.

    I do not readily smile hence always looking serious. Since recently I have been trying adopting GST mantra (i.e. Greet, Smile and say Thank you) and am making, I believe, baby step progress. I would suggest young people reading this do likewise as this will contribute to them becoming more gracious and cultured.

  24. 32 Simon 23 December 2012 at 16:04

    I have the chance to visit Japan (Osaka and Tokyo) recently, and was amazed by their considerate and gracious attitude toward others as well as professionalism towards their work, especially those in the service sector. Some of the examples include:

    1.Everyone on the escalator automatically keep to one side (either left or right depends on the city) so that those in a hurry can walk up on the other side.

    2.Mobile phone calls are use cautiously without disturbing others and making a nuisance of themselves.

    3.All the sales service people (surprisingly all locals) greeting everyone with a smile and treating everyone with politeness.

    4.Bus drivers greeting and thanking everyone for using his bus. They are also very professional by trying to explain to you in English even though they are not very proficient in the language, and keep a lookout for your stop if you are unfamiliar. They will make sure that everyone is properly seated before moving off. Before you get off the bus, they will thank you again.

    5.For those free feeder bus (example from hotel to city), the driver will personally place a small step at the door of the bus to ease entry and exit. They will also stand at the door to greet and thank everyone for using his service.

    6.There was a mis-communication and a taxi driver cannot find the destination where we can take the feeder bus to our hotel. In the end, he drove us all the way to our hotel for free. When we reach our hotel, he came out of his cab to bow and apologies even though it’s not his fault.

    7.Sales staffs are very knowledgeable in their products and will go all out to re-direct you to the correct one if it’s not what you want, even though it’s a competitor brand.

    8.People are honest and do not take things that does not belongs to them.

    9.As a busy and bustling city, people on the street make sure they are not blocking the ways of other.

    10.For a city with minimum dustbins on the street, it is surprising that there is not much rubbish on the street, including cigarette butts. Everyone is considerate enough to hold on until they see a dustbin.

    11.There are smoking points in the streets and smokers are considerate enough to adhere to the rules of smoking there and not while walking around.

    Having seen all these, it seems that there is a serious problem with our system (be it education or government) that nobody want to admit…
    just my 2-cent worth…

  25. 33 lazycat 24 December 2012 at 01:43

    Interesting that the govt is blamed for our bad manners and lack of consideration for others. Surely these are personal attributes? The mark of an educated person? Of good upbringing?

    Even animals have a code of behaviour. A male cat, for instance, will always let a kitten eat first.

    Your manners and level of consideration for others once indicated whether you belonged to the upper or lower classes. It still does, though these days I note the rich have become excellent examples of utter ungraciousness.

    • 34 yawningbread 24 December 2012 at 10:28

      Indeed manners and consideration for others are personal attributes, the result of upbringing and mature self-reflection. But the state is also a factor in the way it shapes the social and economic environment in which upbringing and cost-benefit calculations occur, including the kinds of messaging we receive.

  26. 35 fn8org 24 December 2012 at 08:37

    Compeling lawyers to do pro bono is harping up the wrong tree. Many lawyers I know, do that out of compassion and sense of justice. What the Law Society should fight for is making sure that everyone who needs legal aid are provided for and not disadvantaged because the lack of mean to engage one. Just like we do not expect surgeon to give free operation, but we would like to think that everyone who need an operation will get one.

  27. 36 flyingbobo 24 December 2012 at 13:05

    I agree with fn8org. I think Alex mischaracterises the objection against pro bono work and fails to consider the bigger picture.

    Pro bono should not be made mandatory because the lack of access to justice is a social ill and should be remedied by society (funded by society possibly through the taxation mechanism); to force a certain group in society to bear the cost of remedying a societal problem is both unjust and unfair (the same argument made by some quarters against national service).

    Also, note that no other profession is required to do free work for the benefit of society. Society could benefit from free clinics for the needy, or free tuition for needy students who have learning difficulties or are underperforming but there is no such mandatory pro bono work.

    How does these objections tie in with the notion of graciousness?

    If indeed the marginal benefit of legal representation is so significant (and more significant than other professional services), the more rational and equitable alternative is to set up a legal aid fund (much like in the UK). In both solutions (mandatory pro bono or a legal aid fund), society is “gracious” by increasing access to justice for needy applicants. However, in adopting mandatory pro bono, society is less “gracious” to the lawyers by reaping the benefits and compelling the performance of pro bono. Further, if pro bono is mandatory, lawyers doing pro bono cannot be said to be gracious because they would be doing something, in part, to avoid sanction (inability to renew license). such actions lack moral worth (kantian ethics – although kant argues for a notion of predominant motive or sole motive but consider that those lawyers who are not motivated by the sanctions would already be doing pro bono so the scheme compels those who wouldnt be doing pro bono and for these lawyers their actions lack moral worth, therefore no increase in graciousness anyway) and, whatever ur definition of graciousness is, could not therefore be gracious. Instead of glossing over the underlying objections and simplistically equating the rejection of mandatory pro bono with “ungraciouness”, we should examine these objections which in fact suggest that the making pro bono mandatory is not more “gracious” but is, in fact, less “gracious”.

    • 37 Kelvin Tan Tuan Wei 24 December 2012 at 18:23

      I guess in Singapore, unlike the US, we do not have the right of a state appointed lawyer present during questioning if we cannot afford our own?

      • 38 flyingbobo 25 December 2012 at 14:07

        Hi Kelvin, I am, unfortunately, not familiar with US law. In singapore, the right to legal counsel (though constitutionally enshrined) can only be exercised after reasonable time (CPC debates 2010 per minister Shanmugam), also the accused has no right to be informed of his right to legal counsel (Edakalavan per Yong CJ). In capital offences cases, the state will assign counsel for the impecunious accused.

        there might be certain injustices propagated by the lack of legal representation for impecunious accused for non capital cases. but in any event even under a mandatory pro bono scheme not all accused would have the ability to exercise his option for legal representation, the CLAS has a stringent criteria. Because a normal criminal trial case would take more than 16 billable hours, in fact, mandatory pro bono scheme in its current proposed form would not increase legal representation for the accused.

    • 39 Fox 26 December 2012 at 12:35

      “Also, note that no other profession is required to do free work for the benefit of society.”

      I think that the legal profession is one of the few professions that is highly protected by the regulatory environment. Engineers simply don’t enjoy that level of legal protection. I think a bit of oblige noblesse is in order here…

  28. 40 Cel 25 December 2012 at 02:09

    Some Singaporeans are trying to turn the tide, and they’re doing it because they want to and not because they are being told to

  29. 41 Chanel 25 December 2012 at 09:37


    I truly believe that the level of graciousness in a population is very closely linked to the country’s national
    policies. The key theme of our national policies are self relance. In other words, the got is saying, “it is your faul that you are poor”

  30. 42 PLEASElah 25 December 2012 at 13:12

    We have seen how gracious the PAP was both its victories and defeats. Learn and follow what the leaders do eh?

  31. 43 Siao Liao 26 December 2012 at 13:10

    Singaporeans know how to laugh at dirty jokes but try to crack some other types of jokes n they will stare at you like you’re an idiot. No wit, intelligence, or satire. It’s above them to use their bloody brain cells ‘cos “too chim to understand”.

    Oh wait lah, there are a few more type of jokes Singaporeans laugh at: racist jokes and jokes at the expense of other people’s suffering like Sept 11, Tsunami, James Holmes shooting, etc., etc.

    Goes to show what kind of country we are, right?

  32. 44 Thomas 26 December 2012 at 19:26

    You want Singaporean to be less ” Kiasu” ?? Lets start from the top – The Biggest Kiasu of All – The Government!! Until they learn to be more gracious, dont expect any from the public!!

  33. 45 John John 28 December 2012 at 01:37

    We could also look at our education system for clues to this. Hardly any history oe literature is taught in our schools. It also about maths and science.

    No civic education, no religious studies, no general knowledge, no arts and drama classes.

    Only tough maths questions which nobody seems to understand why its needed. My fav is all primary schools student are drilled about area of circle blah blah, but how many times in your working life (or even social life) you needed to recall this, use this?

    Only this weekend, I had asked a Pri6 boy (next year Sec 1) – how many people live on the moon? He was totally baffled for an answer (and is did well in psle)

    Educatio should include soft skills, how we view others and what a society is about.

  34. 46 So Sad 28 December 2012 at 22:21

    I feel so sad hearing S’poreans complain or thinking strangers must be crazy when they smile and say hello to them. I’ve lived in mid-sized to smaller towns in Canada and the US, where it is normal for people to great strangers with a smile and hello. LKY and his MIW may have brought S’poreans to first world status, but along the way they lost many important aspects of being human: kindness, compassion, social consciousness and politeness.
    I’ve just returned from a trip to Taiwan, where people there are far more civil and polite to strangers (even in bustling cities like Taipei). There are far fewer dustbins (you have to buy a tag for each rubbish bag), yet people don’t litter – try doing that in S’pore, when you don’t see dustbins or when they get full, you see litter piling up on the sidewalk.
    And any Taiwanese above 60 gets free rides on public buses, free dental care, and highly subsidised healthcare. My family members (ranging in age from 12-77) were all very impressed with these observations. Where did we go wrong? We share many similar roots as the Taiwanese. The average S’porean probably makes more than the average Taiwanese, yet they are a kinder, more considerate people, and their govt cares more about their citizentry than ours.

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