From ‘Massive compassion deficit in Singapore?’, 16 March 2014, article by Maryam Mokhtar, Sunday Times
FREELANCE writer and self-described food lover Charlotte Ashton jumped at the chance to relocate from London to Singapore last year, she says in the biography section of her website. The Oxford University graduate and former BBC reporter and her husband were happy here until one day, in her 10th week of pregnancy, she felt nauseous while taking the train to work and ended up crouching for 15 minutes because no one offered her a seat.
“For the first time, Singapore had made me feel unhappy. I had been vulnerable – completely reliant on the kindness of strangers. Singaporeans, I felt, had let me down,” she wrote. Recounting the incident in a BBC Viewpoint piece, she concluded that Singapore suffers from a “massive compassion deficit”.
One Singaporean friend told her it was because “we measure everything in dollar bills – personal identity, self-respect, happiness, your sense of worth”.
In the original BBC article, Charlotte Ashton was singing praises about our country’s cheap, delicious noodles and pineapple juice. She also described Starhub’s ‘Happiness everywhere’ campaign as ‘full of smiling Singaporeans dancing to PLINKY PLONKY music’, an ad with no ‘deficit’ of goosebumps or cheesiness whatsoever.
Then things changed abruptly for the worse following the train incident. Disappointed by how she felt let down by her Singaporean hosts, she quoted some guy called ‘Marcus’ who blamed our apathy on money and that we’re ‘programmed to think only of ourselves’. This obsession with money is too simplistic a root cause of our ‘compassion deficit’, and the only way to prove Marcus’ theory right is for us to reward altruistic behaviour, like winning a week’s worth of free train rides if you’re the first one to surrender your seat, though no one would conduct such an experiment without being branded for cheapening basic human courtesy as we know it. Marcus is desperately trying to flee to Canada as we speak, and I can’t imagine how that would be accomplished smoothly if one didn’t at some point think deeply about the money involved, you know, like the rest of us miserly penny pinchers.
Someone should tell Ashton what happened to us that drove Singa the Lion to quit his courtesy job altogether. Was it because we don’t give a shit about anything anymore, whether it’s a pregnant woman puking her guts out, or a butt-naked man lying in the middle of the carriage? To be fair, I’ve seen more people giving up seats than what public complaints of isolated incidents suggest. Was her baby bump obvious at 10 weeks? That it’s possible that people did not REALISE that she was pregnant? In any case, Ashton needed HELP regardless, and nobody responded. If it were that bad, why didn’t she just ASK for a seat? Or were the people sitting nearby too caught up in an important Whatsapp business conference chat, or too busy faking sleep to be disturbed? You’re very unlikely to get rejected if you’re pregnant and ask someone, especially from the priority seat, to get off their Ugly Singaporean ass pronto. In a nice polite way, of course.
Some attribute this coldness to us being a ‘reserved’ lot, that we refuse to budge when a stranger is in clear distress because it’s in our nature to mind our own business, an argument shot down by victims of the ‘bystander effect’ who retort that this ‘shyness’ is an excuse for ‘selfish and cowardly’ behaviour. I’m also not sure if there’s a correlation between being miserable and being a callous, unfeeling twat. The greatest feats of altruism, after all, are often displayed during the darkest periods of humanity. We were all miserable during last year’s haze, for example, but there were still kind souls who went around distributing N95 masks to the needy. If we were all suffering from a ‘massive’ compassion deficit, we wouldn’t queue like civil beings for those things, and would be looting Chinese medical halls for ‘cooling teas’ if we had the chance. Incidentally, the most ‘positive’ country based on a survey cited by Ashton was Panama. I’d be impressed if the country also holds the record for fastest return of a lost wallet.
A consultant psychologist once claimed in 2000 that Singaporeans are mostly ‘intrinsically kind’, that most of us DO want to help, but are either afraid of ending up being redundant, seen as trying to ‘act like a hero’, or making things worse. The more skeptical don’t want to let the Good Samaritan get the better of us, in case the ‘victim’ is really a con artist preying on the naive altruism of others, who ends up swindling money from you for doing what you thought was the ‘right thing’. But that’s as rare as finding a gracious Singaporean at a buffet with a 60 minute time limit. A case of spirit willing but flesh weak, perhaps?
Some group psychology studies have shown that this isn’t a malady of Singaporeans alone; the more people around a victim, the less likely someone will step forward to assist. The fact that using ‘eye power’ and waiting for someone else to take action is a universal trait, however, shouldn’t excuse us from exercising compassion when it’s so close to us that we could touch it. Ashton mentioned that the train was ‘packed’, and it’s baffling that you could have a pregnant woman ‘crouching’ next to you and you ignore her totally. That wouldn’t be a mere ‘deficit’ in graces or anything to do with being caught up in the ‘ratrace’, it would be a mental disorder, where the part of the brain that’s responsible for empathy has completely degenerated, possibly from playing too much handphone games like Flappy Bird. In fact, some psychiatry circles have coined the term EDD, or ‘empathy deficit disorder’, though that could apply to anyone from the engrossed teen thumbing his phone to death to a psycho killer charging at random people with a chainsaw.
Let’s hope Ashton’s case is a one-off affair, and may she continue to enjoy the affordable tropical delights that our little city has to offer, a tasty consolation I might add, even if we do suffer from a pathological lack of social graces, a disease that no one, not the Government, not the Church, not Singa the Lion or Dim Sum Dollies can do anything about. Synchronised dancing on an escalator, especially, isn’t going to help one bit. In fact, from the kindness campaign video below, it’s obviously a bloody waste of time.