Compassion deficit - it's true of all cities

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."

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