Compassion deficit - it's true of all cities

There's a wonderful moment in the Wizard Of Oz when Dorothy looks around this fantastical land and states the immortalised and blindingly obvious: "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more."

It's a sentiment everyone will have experienced on reaching a foreign land that looks and smells unlike home.

The online soul-searching that has followed "Massive compassion deficit-gate" - a viewpoint of a BBC writer about Singapore's "misery" complex - in some ways points to how personalised cities have become.

It's a judgment that could have been made about many cities.

I've lived in Britain and Australia.

The first thing visitors to London tell me is that the London Underground (The Tube) is unfriendly and no one smiles. That might well be true, but I once boarded the Tube when I was living in London and the announcer said: "Please move inside the carriage. Don't view this as a busy commuter train, view it as an opportunity to meet someone nice."

Everyone laughed, and probably as a result of that interjection an otherwise boring commute was vastly improved. Anyone who boarded that train on that morning would have struggled to enforce the stereotype that London was a hopelessly miserable city.

Singapore has a similar problem: Visitors arrive and talk about the chewing gum ban before they talk about, for example, the quality and character of its hawker centres.

The BBC story paints a picture of a city that is home to battle-hardened commuters stuck in the rat race and treading on heads and hands to get where they want.

But aren't all cities like that? I can't think of many that are overly compassionate. Even with happiness of citizens now becoming a policy objective for some governments, cities aren't necessarily becoming happier or more compassionate.

British clinical psychologist Oliver James charted the spread of a consumerist contagion he called "Affluenza" in a 2007 book of the same name. It was "the placing of a high value on money, possessions, and appearances (physical and social) and fame". Lots of cities were "infected", he found, among them Singapore, London, Moscow, Sydney, Shanghai and New York.

"We have become absolutely obsessed with measuring ourselves through the distorted lens of Affluenza values," he wrote. "The great majority of people in English-speaking nations now define their lives through earnings, possessions, appearances and celebrity, and those things are making them miserable because they impede the meeting of our fundamental needs."

I get asked why I moved to Singapore from Sydney, a city with seemingly endless reasons to be happy and compassionate. But Sydney also had an unhealthy focus on material possessions and a premium placed on ownership of property and income, neither of which I cared that much about.

In the right light it looked like the happiest place on Earth, with its wonderful beaches and lifestyle, but it was just as busy and no more compassionate during a peak-hour commute.

Perhaps it is the plight of living in a home away from home that expats seem to don rose-tinted goggles about home when they move abroad, as if our cities are awash with Dickensian chivalry compared to Asian cities. They're not.

You don't leave a British city feeling that you've been touched by its wonderful surplus of compassion.

Compassion isn't in the British DNA, history proves that.

There is a Twitter account, Very British Problems, which documents the pained and awkward social exchanges of the British quite beautifully. Among the postings: "Making eye contact with the noisy train passenger and quickly pretending to look at every single other thing in the carriage", and "Not knowing anyone at the party so pretending to do something extremely important and complicated on your phone".

The reality is that no city has an abundance of compassion. How can any, with so many people to service?

Singapore does have a hardness about it, but it isn't the only city in the world where a pregnant woman won't get offered a seat. We are all barging around via busy commuter networks, ignoring everyone around us and praying that no one starts up a conversation in the lift at the office.

When you're vulnerable, you're alone in any city - not just Singapore.

Over the years I've learnt to hold back my judgments on cities and their people because I always find that one way or another, whatever I believe as true can be quickly countered in a heartbeat.

You can't hold up a selfish act as representative of a city any more than a few random acts of kindness.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.