Think before enforcing every rule

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

A couple of booklets were stuffed into the hands of a newly-wed couple urging them, in summation, to go forth and multiply, pronto.

It was sound advice. Crucial really, given Singapore's low fertility rate.

But in this case, the exhortation was a tad fruitless.

The bride was my 55-year-old mother and her groom, my brand-new 58-year-old stepfather.

My mother giggled nervously as her beau's barren head turned a shiny red.

There was a pregnant pause before my mother pushed the booklets back to the woman behind the counter at the Registry of Marriages and said: "We don't need these, you can save them for someone else."

The woman shook her head. They had to take the booklets, she said. It was her job to hand them out and that was that.

Never mind that my mother and her husband already had six adult children between them from previous marriages, as well as two grandchildren and a third on the way.

Was the staff member doing her job? Yes, she was following the rules. But let's be honest. Those booklets were as useful to my parents as teats on a bull.

The incident made me realise something: When you quote a rulebook chapter and verse, you might be doing your job, but you might also be missing the bigger picture.

The other day, I walked into a cafe at noon to order a basket of truffle fries to go.

I was already late for a potluck party. I could see through the glass panes right into the open concept kitchen. The fries were sitting there, in a wire basket right above the fryer, holstered in go position.

But the staff simply refused to fry me up a batch, despite the fact that the restaurant was next to empty. They matter-of-factly explained that fries were an item on their lunch menu, which kicked off at half past noon.

"But they're just there. I can see them!" I pleaded, poking at the glass desperately. They offered to fry me up some hash browns from their breakfast menu instead.

Hash browns and truffle fries are not the same thing. Both potato, I agree, but it is like offering me a char siew bao when I want a pulled pork sandwich.

I walked out, disappointed.

Sure, rules are rules. But come on, what's with the inflexibility? Aren't rules there just to give some structure?

I mean, such thinking was why the principal of St Margaret's Secondary School made several of her students wear wigs last year when they shaved their heads bald to raise funds for the Children's Cancer Foundation. There was a school rule against hairstyles deemed to be "punk, unfeminine and sloppy", but she missed the forest for the trees.

And remember the Charlotte Ashton incident earlier this year? The Singapore resident in her 10th week of pregnancy was overcome with nausea on the MRT and ended up crouching on the floor for 15 minutes because no one offered her a seat.

I, too, recall standing ashen-faced and perspiring in the train while in the early stages of my pregnancy. But when I became visibly pregnant, commuters readily gave up their seats to me. And now on my daily MRT commutes to play dates and swimming lessons with my six-month-old in a pram, I've always been offered a seat without fail.

Commuters here, I suppose, know how to give up their seats to the elderly, the heavily pregnant and the baby-toting mother - the labels on the MRT reserved seats tell them exactly who needs the seat more than they do.

But when the scenario changes and Ms Ashton comes along, nothing happens.

The celebrated psychologist Barry Schwartz once likened rules to music notes.

Most jazz musicians, he said, need some notes on the page. They dance around them, invent combinations that are appropriate for the situation.

A wise person, he said, knows when and how to make the exception to every rule. Rules are not meant to spare us from thinking.

limjess@sph.com.sg