Free desserts for returning trays

From ‘Give dessert voucher, free meal to encourage tray return’, 3 Feb 2018, ST Forum

(Dr Thomas Lee Hock Seng): The perennial problem of not cleaning after oneself in self-service hawker centres has stumped most civic-minded people.

So charging for trays is one example of a desperate hope to change the diehard habit of not bothering to clear one’s table after eating (Charging for trays can help change attitudes, by Miss Tan Lin Neo; Feb 1).

Singaporeans are familiar with the use of fines as disincentives to punish undesirable social habits.

We have earned our reputation as a “fine” city since the introduction of such measures a long time ago.

But we have failed most miserably with such measures.

Yet, there are still advocates who insist on using money as a disincentive to effect behavioural change.

I would suggest we reverse the equation: Use money as a reward or incentive for good social habits.

Instead of charging for the non-return of trays, give a voucher for a free meal or item, such as a dessert of one’s choice, for tray return. I suspect this would have more success.

Yes, it will be a success and there will be a surge of people returning trays. Just that these will be people who didn’t order a single thing from the hawker stalls because free ice kacang. Free diabetes too.

When it comes to rewards, some assholes will always try to take advantage of our intentions to make the world a better place. Take the Skillfutures fiasco for example.

So if you can’t beat Singaporeans into being kind and considerate, nor should one use shaming methods to ruin people’s lives, what made this writer reach the conclusion that giving rewards could make us better people? Do we want to issue National Day awards to Top Tray Returners as well?

We’ve been conditioned by enticements and penalties like lab rats since we were born. Don’t flush a toilet and you get slapped with a fine. Vote for the ruling party and you get GST vouchers. None of this made society any better for it. Courtesy is for free? Courtesy is for puiiii!

Here’s a better idea. Put sorry abandoned cat faces on trays. This is will make us return trays out of pure guilt.









Walking on escalators should not be allowed

From ‘Don’t overburden escalators by walking on them’, 21 Dec 16, ST Forum

(Gan Kok Tiong): Escalators in MRT stations should not be functioning like staircases.

The main issue is that those doing so are overburdening the escalators.

Also, commuters who are right-handed will then be able to hold on to the railings on the right without having to move to the left to make way for those wishing to “walk” on the escalators.

Disallowing people from walking on the escalators will lead to normal usage of the machines, which would help in reducing the frequency of breakdowns.

Perhaps a professor of physics could answer the age-old question of what’s the best way to move people along an escalator. But in the absence of actual escalator studies, we’ll just have to settle for the wisdom of SMRT spokespeople. In 2001, SMRT in fact DISCOURAGED people from keeping to the left, as this would leave the right side underutilised and reducing rider capacity. Walking up an escalator was also deemed a safety hazard, especially when you’re on fast moving rides, though the worst thing anyone could do while on an escalator, whether they’re on the left, right, standing or walking, is to wear goddamn CROCS.

SMRT has changed their tune since. Today MRT signs remind you to keep to the left and allow others to pass. Keeping to one side of an escalator, analogous to responsible driving, remains a hallmark of a civilised society. We unwittingly teach our kids to do it and we growl at aunties for hogging the right lane when we’re in a rush. Unless there’s a drastic shift in commuter behaviour no one would want to stick out on the right side and face the wrath of a marauding escalator-walker. What SMRT needs is a lab, model escalators, and willing subjects to test the hypothesis that walking up and down an escalator on one side will eventually destroy it. But I guess they have other things to worry about, like managing mysterious signal faults for example.

Or, if you want to avoid having to deal with the ethics of escalator riding, have time and energy to spare, and not doing anything for the rest of the day beyond sitting on your arse in front of the office computer – take the stairs.

Pop up kindness cafe sending wrong message

From ‘Kindness cafe sends wrong message’, 13 June 2014, ST Forum

(Jeffrey Law Lee Beng): WE SHOULD not create the notion that one can only enjoy discounts or freebies by being friendly, kind and polite (“Say please and thanks for discount”; Tuesday).

I am supportive of the various initiatives of the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) in encouraging Singaporeans to make a positive commitment to gracious living through simple acts of kindness. Events such as the I Love My Mum campaign, Heroes Run and photo contest organised by the SKM are commendable as they have impacted and reminded us of the importance of being filial, courteous and kind.

However, the movement’s pop-up cafe where customers are given a discount on a cup of coffee or a free loaf of bread by saying “please” and “thank you” is not the appropriate way to further inspire graciousness and friendliness, which should come from the heart.

(Lim Lih Mei): Being polite is basic manners for all. Striving hard to perform better in their studies is what all students should do. Do we really need money to incentivise such attitude and mindset? We may be nurturing a population that will perform certain acts only when the carrot is cash.

Will that be with a smile or no smile, sir?

Will that be with a smile or no smile, sir?

Here’s what you should do if you want to get a FREE coffee at the Kindness Cafe. Tip your hat, smile, bow and say ‘Good afternoon, how are you doing today, my good sir. Can I trouble you with one coffee, pretty please with sugar on top. Thank you very much!God bless you!’

There’s much more to kindness than saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ of course. You can put on the most nerve-cringing display of politeness at the counter just for a $2 cuppa but come back later and complain that it tastes like bloody ‘longkang’ water after that. There is also nothing in the Kindness Cafe rulebook that says you can’t recite the $2 line with a grumpy, monotonous tone, or shout it out with your finger pointing all over the place not even looking the poor fella in the eye. You may also try to test the gimmick by seeing how the staff would react if you just say ‘Oi!Give me THAT one’. If you have $5 or more to spare, that is. What about people with speech impairments then, do they have a sign language version for discounted coffee? If I were a staff of the Kindness Cafe I’d feel pretty unimpressed throughout, knowing that people are being nice to me only because they’re following a template on the board next to them, and not that they’re actually out to make my day. In fact I’d feel pretty good if I can charge the rare $5 customer for being a total asshole whose parents never taught to say ‘please’ like a decent human being.

The last time someone ran a promo for discounted drinks was not based on how polite you are, but how physically well-endowed you are. The bigger your cup size, the less you had to pay for drinks at Overeasy bar back in 2010. Totally unrelated of course, except that it’s not just the customers alone who got to see how ‘HAPPY things can get’.  By linking ‘happy’ material discounts to politeness, the SKM is saying ‘happiness’ is about getting things cheap, when we’ve always been told that the reward of a good deed is to have done it, that, well, courtesy is FOR FREE. Courtesy has taken on a ‘GSS mentality’, and before you know it, someone will be patrolling MRT trains dishing out free transport vouchers to people who give up their seats to those who need it. So that’s where all the money for former courtesy mascot Singa’s salary goes to.

The Kindness cafe is not going to train people into becoming angels to those poor souls in the service industry. At best, it’s just a harmless reminder that baristas are humans with feelings too and it would be ‘nice’ to give compliments once in a while. I, for one, wouldn’t line up for a Kindness coffee. Not that I’m the kind who points at menus and grunts, but because I’d have to wait for people to memorise and recite their $2 lines before getting served. Anyway, it’s also time for a new courtesy song. Something like this perhaps?

Courtesy is for kopi
Courtesy is for you and me
It makes for happy sipping and harmony
Happiness you can buy
With discounted kopi-o-siew dai
Make courtesy our way of life
(Adapted from the Courtesy is for Free song, original lyrics here)

Singapore is misery city with a massive compassion deficit

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.

They had all bought a beverage from Starbucks

From ‘Courtesy and the Starbucks syndrome’, 27 Dec 2010, ST Forum

(Virdi Bhupinder): AFTER watching a movie at the The Cathay Cineplex recently, my family and I wanted to grab a quick coffee at Starbucks.

However, the tables were occupied by teenagers with open laptops, chatting away loudly; some had their feet settled on the sofas and had literally ‘dug in’ for long sessions of free surfing.

After I had waited for about 10 minutes, I asked the manager if she could request a few teenagers to make way for other customers.

Her reply was that she could not because they had all bought a beverage from Starbucks.

It was a strange reply to me as I do not think that buying a single drink entitles a customer to park himself at an outlet for hours and deprive others of a seat.

…Food and beverage outlets like Starbucks should stop this system, where a customer need buy only one drink and he can stay as long as he likes, and adopt a policy that is reasonable and shows consideration to all customers.

Perhaps limit free wi-fi to half an hour of surfing by issuing a time-limit coupon when customers buy drinks. Or install a sign stating that those studying or hogging tables should show consideration to other customers.

Such behaviour also suggests an innate lack of graciousness, which as a society we should try to change.

If the writer intended to have a ‘quick coffee’, perhaps instead of hanging around for 10 minutes urging the management to chase regular customers away (even if they only bought 1 drink), there’s another system in place which he/she may consider commonly known as the ‘take-away’. Coffeehouses are not hawker centres. The whole marketing concept, the air-con comfort, the interior decor, the piped music, are all designed specifically to sustain long periods of not just studying over a freshly brewed cuppa but also idle chatter, first dates and informal business meetings, and it applies not just here but anywhere else in the world where people are conned into buying coffee that costs as much as  a McDonald’s Value Meal. The success of Starbucks strives on it, and either this writer is new to the whole coffeehouse concept, or is the sort who looms over occupied tables at kopitiams watch-gazing and foot-tapping patrons into submission.

Surely it’s unfair to blame students for hogging seats when others are doing likewise, be it playing with their iPhones, reading a thick novel from start to finish, or trying to sell insurance plans whilst doping clients with caffeine, which the writer does not notice simply because they make less noise than the kids. It’s also unfair to extrapolate such behaviour to society in general, and as an advocate for a gracious society, one should also exercise the virtues of patience and tolerance, but more importantly the economy of common sense to get around the ‘system’ and go somewhere else (perhaps another Starbucks 100m away) if you don’t like what you see instead of telling a giant coffee conglomerate how to run a business just because you can’t have things your way. Other than Starbucks, studying, even in the early 70’s,  has never been well received in libraries as well,  as seen in this 16 October 1973 article ‘Students occupy all the seats in the library’ below. Which suggests, that for close to 40 years, study rooms in Singaporean homes have been used for every other purpose than actual studying.


Singaporeans plugged into headphones all the time

From ‘Being friendly will help foreigners feel more at home’, 30 Nov 2010, My Paper

(Tian Guiqing): …There are people from all over the world living and working in Singapore, and this is helpful in fostering cultural exchanges.

However, there has not been enough sharing between cultures. People here need to communicate with one another, and learn to understand the social customs and habits of people from different backgrounds.

If we understand and respect people from different countries, it is easier to be friendly with one another.

Perhaps we should start from the basics – with commuters practising courtesy on public transport.

A friendly smile or a hello will be a nice gesture to fellow commuters, instead of being plugged into headphones all the time.

This takes only a few seconds but will go a long way in making the atmosphere in trains and buses friendly and will help foreigners feel more at ease.

Good intentions to be admired no doubt, but Ms Tian comes across as an urban Luddite from a land with prairies, milkmen and hay-loaded horsewagons who has probably little experience travelling to modern, bustling cities like ours, cities which suffer from characteristic disdain for our fellow man, not to mention foreigners. What the writer proposes is the kind of bloated rhetoric a New World foreign invader would deliver before a miscellany of tribes who have worked and lived together for more than a century with the occasional scuffle over defaced totem poles . Like any effort to harmonise ethnicities anywhere in the world, it’s obviously easier said than done. In the first place, there has to be some evidence that we don’t intermingle enough, and unless Ms Tian can cite some concrete examples of near-riots occurring because people celebrate Christmas during Deepavali, such a letter probably boils down to a bad personal experience lazily extrapolated to Singaporeans in general.

Technically, before one even begins to understand another’s culture, not to mention initiate a conversation, it would probably be useful to also speak the same language, and if our foreign friends don’t make the effort to assimilate into the local lingo, the natural assumption by most Singaporeans is that they prefer to be left to themselves. It also doesn’t help that we Singaporeans are generally a cold lot too, whether towards a foreigner or a long-time next door neighbour. The general resistance to playing host thus perpetuates a social vicious cycle in most situations with the classic exception of uncles at the kopitiam cavorting with PRC beer ladies, a tip-of-iceberg example of how such relationships can probably exist only with sexual undertones, where the context of ‘fostering cultural exchange’ would be nothing more than an underwhelming euphemism for a more primitive sort of interaction.

Smiling randomly at strangers on trains may work in a little hamlet where everybody knows which fishmonger you patronise, but any overt friendliness here will be viewed with nervous suspicion. Allow me to ‘share’ a common term that Singaporeans will toss around for good measure in the event that a stranger greets them with a warm and bubbly ‘Good morning!’ on the train. They will wonder if you are ‘Siao!’ or are hiding a clipboard with a survey ‘that will only take 2 minutes’ to fill. So, instead of blaming Singaporeans for being unfriendly, perhaps one should look at this from a ‘it takes two hands to clap’ perspective, and remind yourself that this is Singapore, not the Shire from Lord of the Rings. Even if one made immigration officers smile lovingly at foreigners, locals will complain about preferential treatment, as seen in this 3 Jan 2003 letter, Today.


Doctor was selfish for eating his dinner

From ‘A discourteous practice that should be stopped’, 23 Oct 2010, ST Forum

(Tan May Sian): MY COMPLAINT is not new. But it is relevant as it is about something that is inconsiderate and discourteous: Why is it that patients inevitably end up waiting to see the doctor or dentist, regardless of the circumstances?

A doctor kept me waiting at his clinic for half an hour on Monday night because he was having his dinner.

While I understand that doctors need breaks as well, I would think such breaks should not be part of a clinic’s operating hours. When a clinic is open, shouldn’t the doctor be on hand?

…Such behaviour is unprofessional and shows scant respect for the valuable time of others. It creates the impression that a doctor’s or dentist’s time is more valuable than anyone else’s and borders on selfishness.

Perhaps the schools catering to these professions should include a course on basic courtesies for medical and dental students.

The reasoning is so simple I don’t see how people like Ms Tan here just don’t get it. One doctor, many patients, wait your turn.  On the one hand, we have patients complaining about doctors not being polite and caring enough, on the other they complain about long waiting times which, other than number of sick patients on hand, also factors in time taken by the doctor on each patient. Visiting a doctor is not a quickie lunchtime manicure for busy, on-the-go women like the writer comes across as, it’s an agonising ordeal but for good reason: Doctors need to be observant and cautious when patients’ lives are at stake. And that means taking time. You can’t cut short waiting times by attending courtesy courses alone, and your time is as precious as anyone else’s. Every GP clinic is running a business whereby one can’t afford to close the clinic for half an hour dinner breaks and lose patients to nearby rivals. Even if they do close for dinner, there’s bound to be people running in with a profusely bleeding paper cut 5 minutes into the break complaining about clinics denying them treatment when they’re about to haemmorrhage to death. With the haze mounting and more people reporting ill, it’s expected that doctors will have their work cut out for them and waiting is a given, as it’s always been. I wonder what ailment befell the writer to trigger such hostility, but judging from the baseless deriding of the doctor’s basic need to eat food and the collective accusation of doctors and dentists lacking professionalism, suggests that it’s more appropriate, and less of a waste of her precious time, that she should have seen a psychiatrist instead.