Forum: Go beyond national culture to understand mask-wearing behaviour in Singapore

I read Straits Times mobile editor Jeremy Au Yong's article, "What makes Singapore Singaporean? Society's unique cultural traits offer a clue" (Sept 11), in detail and reflected on it.

He draws upon Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede's famous framework for measuring differences between national cultures to explain the willingness of Singaporeans to continue using masks even when the practice is no longer mandatory.

As someone who teaches Dr Hofstede's framework to undergraduate students in Singapore, I find Mr Au Yong's article to be academic and convincing, as he uses the national cultural values of Singapore, which score low on "individualism" and high on "long-term orientation", to explain the willingness of Singaporeans to wear masks.

Dr Hofstede's framework is indeed appropriate when explaining culture at the national level rather than at the individual level.

That said, going deeper into why people as individuals behave as they do, I see Mr Au Yong leaning towards an essentialist view (that assumes "national culture" as a valid predictor of action - how people in general behave) to explain why Singaporeans did not fling off their face coverings even when restrictions were eased.

Taking an essentialist view increases the predictability of people's behaviour. However, it ignores the social context in which people behave.

Therefore, one must look at the non-essentialist view of culture (that assumes culture is complex, dynamic and contextual) as well, to seek a more rounded explanation of personal actions like mask-wearing.

For example, the non-essential view of culture asserts that personal actions are affected by other factors like power/authority, structure, status and context.

So, taking a non-essentialist view, national cultural values alone may not explain the continued behaviour of mask-wearing in Singapore, and there is a need to look deeper into why people behave as they do, as individual-level values may differ from country-level values in both content and structure.

Kanjula Spandana (Dr)

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.