Is there a 'massive compassion deficit' in Singapore?

Freelance writer Charlotte Ashton said that she felt let down after her experience when she had felt nauseous on an MRT train but had to crouch for 15 minutes because no one offered her a seat. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Freelance writer Charlotte Ashton said that she felt let down after her experience when she had felt nauseous on an MRT train but had to crouch for 15 minutes because no one offered her a seat. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

British writer recounts unpleasant experience on MRT, sparking talk on graciousness here

Freelance writer and self-described food lover Charlotte Ashton jumped at the chance to relocate from London to Singapore last year, she says in the biography section of her website.

The Oxford University graduate and former BBC reporter and her husband were happy here until one day, in her 10th week of pregnancy, she felt nauseous while taking the train to work and ended up crouching for 15 minutes because no one offered her a seat.

"For the first time, Singapore had made me feel unhappy. I had been vulnerable - completely reliant on the kindness of strangers. Singaporeans, I felt, had let me down," she wrote.

Recounting the incident in a BBC Viewpoint piece, she concluded that Singapore suffers from a "massive compassion deficit".

One Singaporean friend told her it was because "we measure everything in dollar bills - personal identity, self-respect, happiness, your sense of worth".

Her commentary, published on the News Magazine page of the BBC website, has sparked discussion and prompted two ministers to urge Singaporeans to reflect on what each can do to help build a gracious society.

Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin responded with a similar tale of the time his wife was pregnant and had her arm in a sling after an injury, yet no one offered her a seat on the MRT train.

"We do hear stories of people being callous, indifferent, unfeeling. And I guess we need to look at ourselves and ask if we too sometimes reflect these ugly traits," he wrote in a Facebook post.

But he has also come across examples of "wonderful kind-hearted Singaporeans who reach out to others".

"Building a gracious society starts with every one of us. When we begin to care for those around us, we would have started building not only a gracious society, but also perhaps a great nation," he added.

Agreeing, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong highlighted the Singapore Kindness Movement's Graciousness Index, which fell sharply last year.

"We are and we can be better than this," he wrote in a Facebook post. He welcomed "ground-up 'mini-kindness' initiatives from young Singaporeans", including the "Stand Up for Singapore" movement by a group that travelled from train to train and encouraged commuters to give up their seats to those who needed them more.

But some MPs The Sunday Times spoke to said the negative experiences of Ms Ashton and her friends were not representative of Singaporeans' behaviour as a whole.

Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah said Ms Ashton's conclusions on Singaporeans were "too generalised".

Agreeing, Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng, said it is "all too easy to stereotype a country".

"Singapore is not perfect but it is not the heartless place it is made out to be," she said in an e-mail response.

Singapore Kindness Movement's general secretary William Wan said he felt sorry that Ms Ashton had such an unpleasant experience but added that there were examples galore of gracious behaviour, including those experienced by foreign visitors.

"We can always be kinder and more gracious," he added.

Pharmacist Nashirah Kamal, 24, who regularly commutes to work, said: "I do see people giving up their seats and helping out those in need. It all boils down to the values you were brought up with and I don't think Singaporeans are that selfish."

maryamm@sph.com.sg

Do you think Singaporeans lack compassion and need to shape up? Tell us what you thinkat maryamm@sph.com.sg or views@singapolitics.sg

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