Freelance writer Charlotte Ashton’s question about whether Singapore deserves its “miserable” tag has predictably generated quite a furore. Predictable, because it happens almost every time an international publication portrays Singapore negatively. Predictable also, because the answer to her question is “it depends”.
Attempting to measure social behaviour is always a tricky business, and perception and experience can be a fickle unit of measurement. We experience the good, the bad and the ugly – not always at the same time, but certainly at different times and different contexts in our daily journey through life. And perception is always influenced and informed by our personal experiences.I am not questioning Ms Ashton’s unfortunate experiences.
But does Singapore deserve its “miserable” tag? The honest answer is it does, sometimes.
Are Singaporeans miserable, emotionless, unkind or ungracious? Yes, sometimes.
Are we also a joyful, caring and compassionate people? Yes, sometimes.
Too much of our time is spent fussing over the wrong questions – questions that have no meaningful answers, or answers that change as predictably as night follows day. “Why” may be a more interesting question to ask. “Why does Singapore sometimes seem so miserable?” Or “why aren’t Singaporeans more actively considerate on public transport”. Ms Ashton does ask some of those questions, but those are difficult questions to answer. Certainly more complex than can be answered by the opinions of just three people.
"All we need is enough people whose actions are kind and considerate. Once we’ve crossed the tipping point, it’ll become the norm - the same way kiasuism became the norm."- Dr William Wan
The question of “why” deserves much more attention. It is the question most of us are trying to answer when we comment on this story, or share it on our social platforms. We each have our own opinions on what makes us miserable, and our own opinions of what needs to change so we can be happier, or nicer, or simply less miserable.
For me, the “why” question has only one meaningful answer. Why are we miserable? Simply, it’s because our perception of our circumstances don’t match up with our expectations. This leads to a more important question. Not “why” but “how”. How can we be happier, kinder, and more considerate?
At the Singapore Kindness Movement, this is a question we strive to answer every day. We don’t always have answers, but our team – many of whom are young people – keeps trying. Their enthusiasm and passion is inspiring, and being part of that certainly makes me much less miserable.
How happy or unhappy we are is a combination of many factors that we have varying degrees of control over. We may not be able to change all the circumstances that make up our reality, but we can choose how we perceive them. For example, we might not be able to magically heal ourselves if we are ill, but we could decide if we would let illness get the better of us.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also work to change our circumstances where we can. If we are unfairly criticised or bullied online, we can immediately improve our well-being by choosing to change our perception of our situation, but we can also improve our well-being, and that of others, over the long term by gradually changing the culture of the Internet.
We can also simply adjust our expectations. We can see the same principles at work in the oft-cited example of the MRT carriage. If you need a seat, and one isn’t available, you can stand around and glare angrily at the people pretending to sleep, oblivious to your clear and urgent need. Or we can choose to change our circumstances by asking one of them for a seat. It doesn’t even have to be a priority seat. You can do this with any seat!
We can say it’s our competitive, kiasu nature – and therefore, our education system – that’s to blame. But if we, and others, do this often enough, then the culture will change. We can be a kinder, more considerate society. All we need is enough people whose actions are kind and considerate. Once we’ve crossed the tipping point, it’ll become the norm - the same way kiasuism became the norm, and the kampung spirit was left by the wayside.
But my favourite question remains. How will we achieve this? By trying, and then trying again. Ms Ashton’s BBC Viewpoint piece, and the many others like it, is the first step. They expose our problems and cut them open to be discussed and examined vigorously. Whatever else she managed to achieve with her article, she certainly stirred debate. That is a good thing. And it becomes even better when we can graciously agree to disagree. And it is best when, as a result of this debate, we take ownership of the need to be kinder and more gracious, and we start doing something about it.
With ownership, action will be more likely to follow - one at a time - setting us on our way, regardless of where we are now, to becoming a nation of kindness.