How to be kinder to strangers in Singapore

A survey shows that Singaporeans are charitable in donating money, but are less willing to help strangers. Can we develop kinder mindsets to turn strangers into friends?

The Charities Aid Foundation recently released the World Giving Index 2017, which provides insight into the scope and nature of giving around the world.

Based on data collected from the Gallup World Poll, the index, which polled 1,000 individuals in each representative country, revealed two surprising facts.

Myanmar, Indonesia and Kenya turned out to be among the most charitable countries, even though they have a huge number of their populations living below the poverty line. Being poor does not stop one from being generous.

Wealthy countries such as the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the United Arab Emirates also feature in the top 10.

Myanmar, the top country for four years in a row, has a poor human rights record, in part because of its treatment of the Rohingya Muslims. The generosity of its people is not related to its political landscape or its general societal behaviours.

Singapore, ranked 30, is behind Indonesia (2), Myanmar (1) and Thailand (15), but streets ahead of Cambodia (134), Vietnam (116) and the Philippines (54) in Asean.

Arguably, 30 out of 139 is not bad, but Uganda, a country stricken by poverty, civil war, human rights abuses and corruption, still ranks higher than Singapore at 22.


People passing bags of items to a Red Cross volunteer during a donation drive last year. Since we are willing to give money and time, the writer suggests using that time and money to learn how to be kind to strangers. ST FILE PHOTO

In the survey, respondents were asked whether in the month preceding the survey they did any of the following:

  • Helped a stranger who needed help;
  • Donated money to a charity; and
  • Volunteered their time to an organisation.

Singapore did best at donating money (12), followed by volunteering time (41), but pretty badly at helping a stranger in need (103).

Of course, charity and volunteerism are but two aspects of being a kind and gracious people. But not helping a stranger in need does not seem quite congruent with Singaporeans being charitable with time and money. There is clearly inherent kindness in Singaporeans. How then can we "do better" in terms of reaching out to strangers?

Let me suggest that it is within our power to transform strangers into friends by making a conscious decision to reach out to strangers. Apart from the excuse that we are shy, we may have to deal with some subconscious mindset issues that militate against our reaching out to strangers.

Changing our mindset

WE ARE NOT BYSTANDERS

Not being spontaneous in extending a hand to strangers in need, especially in crowded public spaces, is known as the bystander effect. We often see social media videos of someone being bullied in public, which also raises the question of why the people shooting the videos did not step in to intervene.

Often, when facing a stranger, we turn apprehensive and question their intentions. Such a reaction forms part of a deep-rooted Asian culture that cannot be changed overnight. Surely we know that turning a blind eye to individuals requiring assistance will only make our society cold and unfeeling.

Some empathy might be useful. Imagine needing help and being rejected by a stream of people walking past you, who won't even look you in the eye. If we don't like that feeling of rejection, should we not change this mindset and be willing to take that first step in helping others? Once we determine that the person is really in need, we should do for others what we expect others to do for us.

WE ARE NOT SUPERIOR

Singapore society is very diverse. Our diversity runs deep, from social status to race, religion, gender, nationality, culture and even sexual orientation. We bandy around words such as tolerance and harmony in an attempt to integrate our differences.

However, fundamental to achieving such harmony is a requirement that we treat every group as equals.

Alas, we often do not do that.

Just look at some of our social stereotypes. We often label a certain race lazy, or drunkards, or money-minded and so on. Almost always when we stereotype someone, we label them with a negative attribute.

When a report of bad behaviour makes its rounds on social media, do you read comments about how "they must be from China"? Such comments not only disparage everyone from the People's Republic of China, but also put Singaporeans on an unrealistic - and frankly rather arrogant - pedestal.

That stems from an intrinsic sense of superiority.

The first step to playing well with others is to acknowledge that we are not better than people who are different from us. This won't stop us from being angry at bad behaviour, but it would stop us from disparaging entire groups of people, which is the parent of such social ills as racism and xenophobia.

WE ARE NOT UNDERPRIVILEGED

A mindset that we are equal to others and not less privileged can open our minds and hearts to be more able to help others.

We are not underprivileged. No matter what our station in life is, there will almost always be someone else worse off than us. One may think it is pretty bad to be living in a one-room flat, but there will be others who do not even have a place they can call home.

That does not mean we do not strive for upward mobility; but as we go higher up that ladder, we should always look back to those who are not as fortunate. Everyone can share what little he has with those who are even more needy. If we wait till we have it all, we will never start to help others.

WE CAN CHOOSE TO BE FRIENDS TO OUR NEIGHBOURS

Unless we reach out to get to know them, our neighbours will remain strangers. Though we are neighbours by chance, we can make friends with them by choice.

Since we find it difficult to help a stranger, one way forward is to start converting strangers into friends. It is within our means to do that, especially with immediate neighbours.

We do that all the time at our workplaces and work-related events. Why not take the same attitude and see that it is our job to convert neighbours by chance into friends by choice?

These fundamental changes in mindsets might seem like common sense, but they are extremely difficult to embrace. It goes against our natural biases, because we often fear the unknown or that which is different. It goes against our desire to be involved, especially with strangers, because balancing our work and social life already takes up most of our days.

It takes us out of our comfort zones, and we naturally resist it because we prefer to be comfortably cocooned rather than be exposed.

But there is hope for Singapore.

Since we are willing to give money and time, why not take that time, and use that money to learn how to effectively change our mindset so we can be kind to strangers too?

When we care enough to do that, we can be a kinder and more generous society, not only to our friends and neighbours, but also to all we come across in our daily lives.

• The writer is general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2017, with the headline 'How to be kinder to strangers in Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe