S. Koreans reflect on culture of obedience

Workers preparing flowers at a group memorial altar for the victims of South Korean ferry Sewol at the Ansan Olympic memorial hall, near Danwon High School which many of the school children lost in the accident attended.

Some critics have blamed the high death toll in South Korea's ferry disaster - 108 bodies recovered so far, 194 still missing - on the country's culture of obedience. But others feel it was only natural for the passengers, mostly high school students, to listen to a voice of authority during an emergency situation.

South Korea may be the world's most wired country, but Confucian values instilled during the Chosun dynasty still run deep.

Children are taught to respect their elders and listen to them, and workers rarely challenge their seniors in the office.

Even if they dare speak up - like the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 co-pilot who warned his pilot that the plane was descending too fast before it crashed in San Francisco last year - their words may not be taken seriously.

On board the doomed Sewol, the captain and his crew issued orders to stay put and not move when the ferry started listing and eventually sank in waters off the south-western coast of the Korean peninsula last Wednesday.

Media reports noted that it was the "naughty" students - the ones who disobeyed orders - who are among the 174 survivors.

Those who obeyed instructions did it out of the conformist mindset to "do what everyone else is doing", said Ms Kelly Yu, 38, a South Korean mother of two living in Singapore.

"If one person moves, others will say, 'no, no, you have to listen to the teacher'," she told The Straits Times. "It's very difficult to break out of group behaviour."

South Koreans are "painfully aware" of their need to belong to a larger system and maintain a good public image, wrote Dr Kim Eun Yong in her book, A Cross-cultural Reference Of Business Practices In A New Korea. "South Koreans first consider what others would think of them in their decision-making process and tend to avoid any risky deviation from conformity."

Others, like marketing consultant Joanna Choi, 25, said she feels that the students acted out of a natural and not cultural instinct.

"It's not just students who followed orders, adults, too," she said. "It's a natural instinct to follow guidance during an emergency situation."

The fault should not fall on the victims' shoulders, said Mr Kim Wan Joong, minister-counsellor and consul-general of the South Korea Embassy in Singapore.

"You can't call it a culture of obedience," he said. "Anyone on board is supposed to follow orders, it's a form of discipline."

Assistant Professor of Sociology at Harvard University Paul Y. Chang felt it was "difficult to say whether South Koreans are obedient" just based on one incident. "Sure it can seem that way but it's only in hindsight that we now know that listening to the captain's orders was the wrong thing to do."

In the wake of the incident, some parents have raised the issue of whether kids should continue to be taught to obey adults without question, reported JoongAng Daily. A 32-year-old mother of a primary school pupil told the paper: "I'm not certain whether I should teach my child to listen to adults in an emergency - or to just run away as fast as he can."

This article was published on April 23 in The Straits Times.Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.