Are Singaporeans ungracious?

YES: Stress levels raised by sense of being squeezed

Tempers are getting shorter and actions becoming nastier in Singapore, said some community leaders and analysts on Monday.

They agreed with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who in the National Day Rally on Sunday had flagged "troubling signs" in Singaporeans' behaviour towards each other and foreigners.

But in analysing the causes of the problem, some went a step further by noting that it may partly be of the state's own making.

In his speech, Mr Lee highlighted a "rising trend of not so good behaviour", like residents who do not want nursing homes in their backyard. He was also worried by the "one-eyed dragon" syndrome, in which some Singaporeans are quick to criticise foreigners' bad behaviour but slow to notice good actions.

Mr Lee said the loss of the kampung spirit may be one reason "we seem to be getting less patient, less tolerant, less willing to compromise to get along".

People now lead more private lives and interact less, leading to self-centred behaviour, he said.

Things get worse when you add the stresses of living in a dense city, said National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Paulin Straughan. "When you step out of the house, you can't get to the MRT, when you're on the MRT, people are in your face. It can change your whole outlook of life," she said.

Unlike in other countries, Singaporeans do not have the option of moving to the suburbs when life gets too stressful or expensive in the city, added NUS political scientist Reuben Wong. "We're living in a goldfish bowl which is too small."

The sense of being squeezed - especially in the past six years - has contributed to Singaporeans' unhappiness with foreigners.

"Singaporeans are not xenophobic," noted former National Integration Council member Edward D'Silva, adding foreigners have always been present here.

He said Singaporeans now feel strongly against foreigners not so much out of double standards, but because of festering resentment that they have seemingly been passed over despite sacrificing for the country.

Others like sociologists Tan Ern Ser and Mathew Mathews pointed to the competitive environment which creates a self-serving attitude.

"When people feel their interests threatened, they tend not to display a spirit of generosity," said Prof Tan.

Self-interest is also the unintended side-effect of two cornerstones of Singaporean society: meritocracy and self-reliance.

On Sunday, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, also speaking at the Rally, said "extreme meritocracy and competition can lead to a winner-take-all society, with the winners thinking little of others".

The Government's emphasis on self-reliance, with "little outright social safety nets", means people are conditioned to take care of themselves first, added Ms Corinna Lim, executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research.

Most observers agreed social media has changed how people interact. Nominated MP Faizah Jamal said the angry online chatter could be because people did not have a channel for speaking up prior to the Internet.

But Singaporeans are in the process of learning how to "disagree without being personal", said Madam Faizah.

andreao@sph.com.sg