S'poreans uncaring? Readers say yes ...and no

One foreign resident says rudeness in Singapore is mainly confined to public transport, as is the case around the world.

WHEN Ms Vivien Goh was five months pregnant, she tripped and fell on the pavement near her office at Raffles Place.

But she was quickly helped to her feet by a couple, who sat with her until she was able to get up and walk back to her workplace.

Meanwhile, frequent MRT user Steven Tannenbaum, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, said he has "never not been offered a seat by a younger person, or seen a person in need not offered assistance".

The don and his wife, both in their 70s, have been shuttling between Singapore and the United States over the last five years for work.

These two accounts were among more than 90 responses from citizens and foreigners to The Straits Times after the paper ran a piece asking if Singapore was suffering from a "massive compassion deficit".

That was a phrase used by freelance writer Charlotte Ashton in a BBC Viewpoint piece, in which she recounted how, in her 10th week of pregnancy, she was overcome with nausea while taking the train to work and had to crouch for 15 minutes because no one offered her a seat.

Ms Ashton, who moved to Singapore from London last year and said she had been happy here until that incident, concluded that Singapore suffers from a "massive compassion deficit".

Her comments prompted online posts by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and two ministers, urging Singaporeans to be kinder and more gracious.

It also spurred more than 90 readers to write in to ST with passionate accounts of their encounters with kind and callous Singaporeans, and their theories on why Singaporeans behave the way they do.

They were evenly split between those who think Singaporeans lack compassion and those who say people here are among the kindest they have met.

Of the nine foreigners who wrote in, six shared positive experiences of how Singaporeans behaved towards them on trains and in malls. The other three related negative encounters.

Mr Simon Hulber, who has been here since 1998, said "the rudeness and indifference I experience does seem more confined to public transport". He added that this was "no different from other crowded mass transport systems around the world".

Agreeing, Ms Vicki Loh, who is five months pregnant, finds it "impossible to get a seat on the train (or) bus". She added: "Given that my daily commute is about one hour each way, coupled with back pain due to the pregnancy, public transport is not looking to be a feasible means of getting around any more, especially as I get bigger."

Others stressed, however, that such ungracious behaviour did not represent Singaporeans as a whole, given the significant number of foreigners living and working in the Republic.

"We all know Singapore as a country consists of many other foreigners (who) live, work, transit (here)... How (does) anyone know if those people (who) are not compassionate, not kind and not gracious are Singaporeans?" asked Mr Mok Tuck Sung. At least 11 other readers made the same point.

Singaporeans also "tend to be rather self-conscious and feel embarrassed when our offer of help is rebuffed", observed Ms Irene Sim. She said that many have grown up reserved, preferring to "mind our own business".

But how an individual acts, argues Ms Dawn Lee, should not be a benchmark for painting a picture of the larger society.

"Indifference and apathy exist in individuals, not in entire populations. Some foreign cultures view kindness as weakness and vulnerability as exploitability... wherever they are in the world," said the 35-year-old, who has lived and studied both here and overseas.

Agreeing, reader Edwin Chow said: "Singapore is by no means perfect but I believe that what we have here is a mix of misery and joy, selfishness and compassion, no different from any other developed city. One generally finds what one is looking for."


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