The 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.