A bit more graciousness and civic consciousness or just as bad as ever?


The scene in the picture above, taken at City Hall metro station, is not that remarkable now. It might have been so ten years ago, but queuing to board is beginning to catch on. As is standing on the left on escalators.

Social graciousness and civic responsibility are slowly inching forward.

I must admit that for a long time, I have been skeptical that Singaporeans would ever change. Our rude, selfish behaviour seems ingrained in our DNA. With intense competition for scarce resources (e.g. seats on trains), the rational response should surely be to remain pushy. Add to that our deep reluctance to speak up when we see others behave uncivilly, and there is nothing by way of social penalty.

As recently as May 2009, I wrote of several incidents that appalled me. You can read that article here: The rosary woman and other head-shaking tales.

Even now, each of us can easily cite examples of disgraceful public toilets, or of people elbowing their way forward, jumping queues, leaving bubble-tea cups on benches and hotdog wrappers on cinema seats. There is no noticeable progress with respect to clearing one’s own tray at food courts. Stair landings in housing blocks are still cluttered with discarded furniture, and people still take supermarket trolleys all the way home and leave them wherever they please.


More recently in the news was the destruction of an artwork on public display. A third of the pieces making up the installation art went missing.

Even though an online appeal to recover missing art pieces from local artist Karen Mitchell’s work has gone viral, none of the 114 pieces had been recovered as of 6pm yesterday. Last Sunday, Ms Mitchell posted on Facebook that pieces from her art installation at the Singapore Night Festival had gone missing. An online appeal was subsequently put up on Monday to urge people to return them.

Picture source: Substation.org

Picture source: Substation.org

Titled Everyday Aspirations, her work was made up of 365 words of aspiration cut into pieces of wooden panels. Displayed along the alley between The Substation and the Peranakan Museum, visitors could pick up various pieces and use their own light source to project the shadows of different words and phrases.

— Today newspaper, 28 August 2013, Art pieces still missing despite online appeal

Picture source: Straits Times

Picture source: Straits Times

Whoever took pieces of Mitchell’s artwork away, let me tell you this: you’re scum.

* * * * *

And yet, we have the neat queues as seen in the topmost picture. Encouraging as the scene may be, I sometimes wonder whether these nascent shoots might wither. All around us, we still see examples of inconsiderate behaviour. For every one who vows to comport himself well, many others don’t. How many of the more thoughtful ones might have found themselves taken advantage of by queue jumpers (for example) leading them to decide: To hell with it, from now on, I’m going to give as good as I get. Why bother to be nice when others only step all over me?

This calculus is analogous to the key thesis giving new insight into effective policing. Named Broken Windows, the theory has been shown to work in several cities including New York. This theory goes like this: When residents see around them broken windows, graffiti, damaged public facilities and litter, they subconsciously or otherwise get the impression that it is acceptable to behave in anti-social or even criminal ways. The signs are that one can do so with impunity. For many others then, come a moment when there is temptation to do likewise, there is less inhibition. As a result there is a reinforcing feedback cycle to anti-social and criminal behaviour.

In Broken Windows, priority is given to repairing windows, painting over graffiti, fixing damaged facilities and generally cleaning up, in order to change the environment and the signals it gives out. It seems to work. There is evidence that crime rates go down.

I’ll grant that the Broken Windows approach is meant to address crimes like drug-dealing, petty violence, burglary and so on, a slightly more serious order of offences than the uncivil behaviour we’re discussing here in relation to Singapore. (Then again, how different are we when pieces of art are stolen?). But civic irresponsibility — the topic we’re discussing here — is arguably on the same continuum as the afore-mentioned petty offences. Its persistence may therefore be (at least partly) the result too of a reinforcing feedback loop. When people behave badly around you, you behave badly too.

While property can be repaired, it would be impossible to expect official intervention to “repair” ungracious and rude behaviour among hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans in their daily interactions. The “fixing” must come from fellow Singaporeans speaking up and admonishing the bad apples in their midst.

Our famous preference for minding our own business now means that this rarely happens, and therefore the broken windows of bad behaviour aren’t fixed.

* * * * *

One widely-held assumption is that education makes a difference — a theory that may be contradicted by the example of many countries with more basic levels of education displaying far higher standards of social behaviour than Singapore. I reckon though, that while there is a very complex aetiology to whatever level of social behaviour we have, education is a significant ingredient.

But if education really makes a difference, why, despite the considerable strides that Singapore has made over a generation or two, has the improvement in social behaviour been at best patchy?

The thought that I am led to is this: There is education and there is pseudo-education.

Education ought to mean development of the mind. With it must necessarily come a broadening of horizons and the ability to see the bigger picture in both long and short historical  perspectives. It should counter basal tendencies towards self-centredness and uncritical allegiance to narrow circles, for which the corollary would be a greater sense of responsibility to the wider world.

Without education, the Other is a more estranged Other; loyalties, empathy and identity are more tightly restricted to family, clan and close circles.

With education, the stranger becomes more familiar. With better connectivity to and more empathetic understanding of people (and increasingly, animals and the environment) further away, our sense of responsibility to wider circles increase. With this widening outlook comes consideration towards strangers, and civic (and planet) responsibility.

Might it be that much of what passes for “education” in Singapore has been more along the lines of intensive training? Yes, our youth may score well in advanced physics, digital animation or nursing skills, but have they been educated? Even at university, how much real education goes on for those in Engineering or Law? The shocking parochialism I have encountered in several high-earning professionals in Singapore have led me to wonder whether, at these professional schools, what is imparted may be more glorified vocational training than stretching of the mind.

If indeed Singaporeans have not had much by way of education, but only pseudo-education, might this explain the slow progress (if any) in social graciousness and civic responsibility?  Is this why Singapore is still accused of being without soul?

28 Responses to “A bit more graciousness and civic consciousness or just as bad as ever?”

  1. 1 Kai Khiun 10 September 2013 at 22:19

    Good thought, but linked to education is also the whole concept of public ownership, or its lack of in Singapore that is more characterised by the Singapore’s Land Authority sign “State Land”. Despite the cosmetic efforts of giving us more say in upgrading and community gardens, effectively people have no real say over public property in the country that is casually subjected to “re-development”, leaving little avenues for cultivating any emotional attachment to the land. And, with a cynical corporatized relationship that sees people reduced to customers and government that of service provider, the public has absolved public responsibility of the public area when Singapore is being treated like a giant mall where your foreign worker is especially to clean up the mess and fix the damages that you have caused.

  2. 2 Junnies Jun Yang 10 September 2013 at 23:06

    The Singapore education system is meant to churn out workers, not “educated citizens”. It operates on a different definition of education; in Singapore, education is simply preparation for work. I’m pretty sure most Asian societies (China, Korea, Japan, etc) have similar definitions of education.

    From primary school to pre-U education, the emphasis is entirely on technical and academic knowledge. Humanities subjects sometimes very briefly veers towards development of the mind, but even then, it is entirely corrupted towards maximizing one’s test score. The only exception is the Knowledge and Inquiry subject which only a very small percentage of students are admitted to.

    One participates in the education system not to develop themselves but to develop their resume. I studied in an elite independent school not too long ago, which i presume to be more idealistic and holistic than the non-independent schools. Yes, we participated in annual overseas trips, extra-curricular sabbaticals and had weekly assembly sessions where for 2 hours we would participate in non-academic activities (external guest speakers/performers/presentations etc), but i estimate that these non-academic activities still made up less then 10% of the curriculum. I presume that government-run schools spend even less time and resources on non-academic activities.

    The problem comes down to the suffocating emphasis on economic productivity, work, and GDP. The Singapore government heavily emphasizes on the economy and pays little attention to other dimensions of the country; the political, social, civic, artistic, philosophical, leisure, humanistic etc aspects are ignored and neglected. No wonder, then, that our newspapers, our television shows, our sporting achievements, our arts, philosophy, civic, social and moral faculties are generally mediocre if not downright terrible.

    This strategy worked extremely well in the 1960s-90s. But if this economy-at-all-costs approach continues, Singapore risks turning into a first world corporation.

    • 3 Janice 12 September 2013 at 00:52

      Sorry to butt in here Alex. But just a small comment on the side: Many liberal-minded Singaporeans tend to be nationality-blind and that’s great. To most part, I am too. But it is here that we oddly stand on the same side as our right-wing government – just that the reasons for having foreigners are far from a liberal-minded one, but one of exploitation and means to an unscrupulous end. I fear we are complicit in their plan.

  3. 4 Duh 11 September 2013 at 00:11

    Given that the residential population of Singapore now comprises of about ~40% non-Singaporeans. It is reasonable to assume that some of these anti-social behaviours are committed by non-Singaporeans as well.

      • 6 Sad guy 11 September 2013 at 11:23

        Your article appears to target Singaporeans:

        I must admit that for a long time, I have been skeptical that Singaporeans would ever change. Our rude, selfish behaviour

        Why did you ignore the 40% foreigners when it comes to social graciousness? Based on anecdotal evidence, some of these bad social behaviours are propagated by foreigners. In your example of missing trolleys, I read a recent news of a PRC who boarded an SMRT bus with a supermarket trolley. Now, did you do a survey to find out the nationality of the culprits, or did you just assume it all to be Singaporeans?

        How do you expect our society to progress when the government keep importing truckloads of maladjusted immigrants who shouldn’t be here in the first place? How are we suppose to influence others when we are becoming a minority?

        Sorry, I feel that I have to defend my fellow Singaporeans if we keep being maligned to be the black sheeps. We are slowly becoming the minority in our own land. If we don’t fight back and continue to be gracious while foreigners elbow their way to take our jobs, we will soon become extinct.

        This is not the time to focus on social graciousness. To tell you the truth, we have to be rude and ugly from now onwards to push back the foreign invasion. I thought you are social worker, you should understand our frustrations. It is sad that you seem to stand on the government’s side now to push the blame onto us. Please do not look at things in isolation. Look at the bigger picture, our survival.

        Social graciousness, yes, but not our priority now, just like your gay agenda. These have to be pushed back, until we see basic improvement to our lives. Masglow hierachy, remember that.

      • 7 yawningbread 11 September 2013 at 11:50

        I am rather disturbed by this kind of attitude, which is only more proof of how stunted we are as a people. In effect, you are taking umbrage that I have shone the spotlight of criticism onto Singaporeans. Your defence starts with the belief that no fault should lie with Singaporeans — we are as immaculate as the Virgin Mary — and if there is anything wrong on this island, look to the foreigners for an explanation. Alternatively, blame lies squarely on the shoulder of the government for bringing in foreigners; if the natives behave badly, it is entirely defensible (indeed, we have every right to be boorish) because of what the government did.

      • 8 Sad guy 11 September 2013 at 11:59

        Your defence starts with the belief that no fault should lie with Singaporeans

        Since when did I imply that? I took umbrage because your criticism appears to be unfair and one-sided. Do a survey first. Don’t just blame us. That is what I am asking you.

      • 9 Duh 11 September 2013 at 13:12

        Your implication of these public evidence on the lack of civic behaviour as a reflection of Singaporeans is unwarranted. You should be fair in your assessment – it reflects a lack of civic awareness of Singaporeans AND non-Singaporeans. It is public education that needs to be reinforced, not so much a reflection of any sector of residents in the country.

        Also, Singapore is a very young nation and it takes time to ‘civilise’ its population. What you see as the ‘norm’ in many developed nations, took generations to achieve and it is not uniformly successful – you can still see anti-social and un-civic behaviours in these developed nations as well.

        Some things just take time to develop but look at what Singapore is already achieving – more, if not most, people are standing on the left lane of escalators. This, might I remind you, was not the social norm a decade or so before. It is easy to point to anecdotal evidence for something, which might not reflect the general situation. It is called self-confirmation bias.

        But I do agree with you on Singapore’s education though – it has been said by a foreign once, and I agree – Singaporeans are well-qualified but poorly educated. It’s all about getting the ‘A’s and paper qualifications. Singaporeans are good at doing tasks that are repetitive, low-risk, and clearly defined. All thanks to the model answer regurgitation method for getting grades.

      • 10 yawningbread 11 September 2013 at 16:59

        Ah! I see the problem. You see the word “Singaporeans” to mean either citizens or native-born citizens? That is why you automatically think I am criticising only this group. I use the word more broadly to mean people who live in Singapore; they are partial Singaporeans too.

        The difference seems to be this: you see NRIC readily and are sensitive to such distinctions; I tend to be NRIC-blind.

      • 11 Sgcynic 11 September 2013 at 14:41

        Perhaps if you can see it from this perspective:
        Indiscriminate import of ‘boorish’ foreigners (not describing the whole lot, just a proportion of them) may accelerate the increase in number of broken windows compared to those that we can mend. That being said, there is no excuse for poor behaviour from Singaporeans.

      • 12 John 11 September 2013 at 14:52

        Referring to Sad Guy’s comments, he did mentioned that “some of these bad social behaviours are propagated by foreigners” in the first paragraph. To be fair, he did not say all bad social behaviours are due to foreigners. Hence, in that sense, he is not putting all the blame on foreigners and therefore the govt. I agree wholeheartedly that Singaporeans do have to take some responsibility too.

        Alex, I also agree about the inadequacies of our education system. I will not hesitate to send my children overseas for a better and more holistic education if I can afford it. But, being a product of our lousy system, it is also ingrained in me the importance of being considerate and civic minded. Things like “don’t litter, don’t cut queue, don’t talk too loudly etc” have been deeply rooted in my mind (and I can also vouch for most of my Singaporean friends and family) Our education system can be blamed for many things, but probably not for creating a nation of uncivilised people.

        When you look at the extent of the problems like littering, it is certainly getting from bad to worst in recent years. For many years, my family has been going to the east coast park every weekend and in recent years many parts of the park will inevitably be a disgraceful mess by the end of the day. Why? Just look around and the answer is obvious. There are simply too many foreigners who are not well adjusted to our way of life and do not believe that garbage needs to be disposed properly. This tiny spot of a country cannot accommodate the mass inflow of “aliens”.

      • 13 Sad guy 11 September 2013 at 17:36

        Since when did the definition of Singaporeans include foreigners? It would be more proper to use the term “Singapore residents” if you are referring to all here in Singapore. This distinction is very important for a country with a significant proportion of foreigners, especially when your article is on social behaviour in a rojak (heterogenous) country like ours.

  4. 14 Anon rc6E 11 September 2013 at 08:08

    A Singapore education teaches you how to make a living, it does not teach you how to live.

  5. 15 Anon Nccw 11 September 2013 at 13:56

    I remember when Singapore started exhibiting a more gracious behavior as pointed out by Alex. It’s actually when a lot of foreigners started coming in. I can even pinpoint the year range it happened, about 5-8 years ago. So, to Sad Duh (no, not a mistake), what you are proposing isn’t so much like turning nasty, but reverting back to normality.

    And I use Singapore, not Singaporeans, for a reason. Could well be that the gracious behaviors are actually exhibited by foreigners rather than the locals.

    • 16 Seah 12 September 2013 at 00:07

      Foreigners, perhaps so. PRC nationals? A resounding NO.

      Conversely, my experience has been the exact opposite of yours, I see the PRC’s barbaric behaviour rubbing off Singaporeans, who feel like they have to be aggressive and an asshole to get ahead.

      Singaporeans are perfectly capable of such behaviour on their own, of course, but the [offensive term removed by Yawning Bread] has exacebated the ill manners of Singaporeans.

  6. 17 Anon t64E 11 September 2013 at 22:27

    For those blaming foreigners singularly when was the last time who saw a Singaporean cleaning the streets?

    • 18 sophia 12 September 2013 at 08:46

      Before the government decided to open the floodgates to cheap foreign labour, it was Singaporeans who did all the dirty jobs. Thereafter, these jobs become too unrewarding that most Singaporeans shun them unless they have no choice. The uncle who is in charge of my block’s cleanliness is a Singaporean. He has no choice because he cannot retire.

  7. 19 Seah 12 September 2013 at 00:03

    “You see the word “Singaporeans” to mean either citizens or native-born citizens? That is why you automatically think I am criticising only this group. I use the word more broadly to mean people who live in Singapore; they are partial Singaporeans too.”

    Wtf is with the sophistry, Alex? Do words only mean what you want them to be?

  8. 20 Janice 12 September 2013 at 00:47

    Personally I’ve accepted that we’re a rude, inconsiderate bunch and learnt to live with it. Why is graciousness a must? Why can’t we just be grumpy and get on with our lives.

    • 21 WL 12 September 2013 at 13:59

      A little graciousness and civility in this city of 5.3 million people sharing not quite 700 sq m of land would perhaps make “living with it” more bearable?

  9. 22 Megaphone 12 September 2013 at 07:42

    Another possible driver in anti-social behavior is the degree of anonymity. In cities with large percentage of immigrants like singapore, New York, Beijing and shanghai, people tend to be more antisocial as they subconsciously know that they can get away with it given that people around them will likely be strangers.

  10. 23 Lim Peh Kong 12 September 2013 at 10:53

    Shouldn’t the parents be the one responsible for teaching the kids how to behave in a socially acceptable manners? Although the schools can enforce that into the curriculum, I would hold the view that the parents should be the one setting the example and teaching the good manners to the kids from young. Hence, instead of just looking at the educational system, we should look at the role of parenting as well for the level of civic-mindedness.

  11. 24 Gerard 12 September 2013 at 19:49

    i think attributing our lack of graciousness to the problems in our education system, is just as bad as blaming the foreigners. Yes, our education system isnt perfect, yes it has problems, but graciousness , responsible behaviors should start with the self or perhaps parental role models. It will be quite embarrassing if other people (whether in school, or strangers) have to teach us basic manners.

  12. 25 Rosie 13 September 2013 at 19:33

    Great article, Alex. Thank you. I agree 100% with Gerard. I am very grateful for pictures like this one, and the kindness of people I witness regularly. At the same time, as a user of public transport and living in a very S’porean neighbourhood, I can say for sure that much of the boorish behaviour I have witnessed or experienced over the years is very much Singaporean, as in born and raised here. Worse, committed by people who are typically well-dressed and who, I am sure, would quite shamelessly describe themselves as “educated”, “civilized” and perhaps even “sophisticated”. Ha! So tragic, because with such blindness to their own lack of basic humanity or social graces, how can we ever be a first world country other than for our infrastructure and economy?

  13. 27 JL 14 September 2013 at 17:49

    20 years ago, when there were much fewer foreigners here, the general level of civic-mindedness in Singapore was quite low. Now too, so no change.

    • 28 Hazeymoxy 16 September 2013 at 16:08

      I agree. Nothing much has changed except for the obvious queuing at MRTs and up the escalators, perhaps from social pressure (were staff on hand to direct people?), and certainly lots of publicity played a part.

      Driving behaviour – terrible. Attitude towards the visually impaired and their guide dog – abhorrent and disgusting. Regarding the latter, I can understand that it’ll take time to educate the masses. But it’s disheartening that with our world class education, people still can’t think properly and critically, nor even try to educate themselves on what a guide dog is.

      Leave it to the government or charity to solve and blame the foreigners (somehow it always comes down to that too). If foreigners can so easily influence the behaviour of native Singaporeans, the change might just be cosmetic.

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