Standing up to rudeness and, boy, it felt good

Like many Singaporeans, I shy away from confrontation.

Why inconvenience yourself and speak up, at the risk of incurring someone else's wrath?

In fast-paced Singapore, there is always somewhere else to be, something to get done. Confrontation? There is no time for that.

But two recent incidents changed my mind.

One of them occurred in a cafe at a posh mall downtown.

The cafe advertised its "eggless ice cream". Unfortunately, it did not mention which flavours were eggless and which ones were not.

A well-dressed woman, presumably vegan, went up to the cashier and asked if a particular flavour of ice cream had egg in it.

The cashier, perhaps new at his job, said: "Wait a minute, Madam. Let me check."

Unfortunately, the ice cream was not what she was looking for - it contained egg.

So she walked back to the fridge and took another tub of ice cream and asked: "What about this one?"

The cashier asked for a moment, so he could check with his colleague.

At this point, the woman raised her voice. "Why don't you know anything?" she said.

Her rude remark startled customers around her. She put the ice cream back, slammed the fridge door and walked away, leaving the poor cashier stunned.

Her husband did nothing to calm his agitated wife down.

Instead, acting as if nothing had happened, he bought two bottles of water and paid for them. A few moments later, the woman walked back and asked loudly: "Why didn't you give him a plastic bag?"

At this point, I wished that somebody had stood up to her and said: "Excuse me, Madam. I think you are making a scene. You should not embarrass the cashier like that. If your husband wanted a plastic bag, he could have asked."

But the usual excuses cropped up and I just stood there, feeling indignant yet doing nothing about it.

Two weeks later, a similar incident happened, this time at a cafe near a library.

A middle-aged man had to collect his steak at the self-service counter. He asked the service staff if this was his order. But the service staff, busy making a sandwich, might not have heard him.

"Hello, I'm talking to you," he bellowed. "Are you deaf? I asked you if this is the steak!" he continued. "Why are you not answering me?"

The man was so loud that diners started looking up from their lunch tables. An awkward silence hung in the air as customers waited for one another to put this unpleasant man in his place.

Nobody did.

I did not sleep well that night, knowing that I had taken the easy way out.

Then it dawned on me: By doing nothing, we were complicit in such rude behaviour. Because nobody confronts these ungracious individuals, they assume they can get away with it.

Take littering, for example. We depend on an ever-increasing network of surveillance cameras and government fines to detect and punish litterbugs. Despite dustbins everywhere, Singapore needs 70,000 cleaners to clean up after us.

But when we see somebody litter, do we have the courage to call him out? Or will we simply outsource our civic duty to Big Brother and the authorities?

Perhaps forging a gracious society is not simply about being polite or friendly.

There is a place for taking ownership of society, confronting ungracious individuals when needed, so that a social norm might be established.

Just two days ago, I went to the supermarket. And I saw a shopper pressing mangoes to check how ripe they were.

"Excuse me," I said. "I don't think you should be doing that."

The middle-aged woman was shocked for a few seconds. I don't think anyone had ever called her out.

She shot me a glance as if to say, "Get off your moral high horse". But after a few seconds, she picked up a plastic bag and claimed all three mangoes, which she had pressed.

I walked away, feeling like I had done my part that day.

I slept like a baby that night.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2015, with the headline 'Standing up to rudeness and, boy, it felt good'. Print Edition | Subscribe