SINGAPORE - A child should never take up a stranger's offer of a lift in their vehicle, even on a rainy day.
That was the resounding verdict of sociologists, support groups and Members of Parliament, who were commenting on a series of recent incidents here that raised the spectre - albeit briefly - of kidnapping.
They agreed that students should not take any chances, even if the drivers have no ill intent.
Some MPs on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law advised children to err on the side of caution.
Jurong GRC MP Tan Wu Meng believes it is "better to be safe than sorry". "While Singapore has a lower crime rate than many other countries, it's important to remain vigilant," he added.
Tampines GRC MP Desmond Choo said children may not be able to fend for themselves: "While most people are kind and well-meaning, there might be the odd chance of perpetrators with nefarious intent."
Their views come after international schools sent letters informing parents of cases where their students were approached by strangers offering a lift.
The two incidents had sparked fears of kidnapping attempts but the drivers were just trying to help by offering the students a lift, the police said on Thursday (Jan 18).
The first occurred on Jan 11 when a male driver approached a female student from United World College of South East Asia who was waiting at a bus stop in the rain.
The man offered her a ride and asked her to get into his van.
The second incident on Jan 16 involved a female student from Tanglin Trust School. A female bus attendant on a school bus from Tanglin Trust School had noticed the student walking towards the school and offered her a ride.
Two similar cases have surfaced involving Dulwich College and Nexus International School.
Sociologists said the drivers in these cases - even with their good intentions - should have known that their actions were startling.
Sociologist Paulin Straughan said: "The sad truth is - it is not odd for adults to stop and offer assistance but because of our heightened awareness of security, we now perceive kind gestures as threats."
National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said: "While one may have good intentions, the fact that one is a stranger as well as being an adult in a position to be able to cause harm would mean that one would likely be misunderstood.
"However, if it is raining and the student is running in the rain without an umbrella, it would be helpful to offer one, though not a ride."
While many people found it hard to believe that there was no ill intent, a few felt there was no issue accepting a ride from well-meaning strangers.
Sales manager Kevin Lee, 41, who has a six-year-old daughter, said some people may genuinely need help from others. "Rather than seeing someone get stranded cause of the rain, I would offer them a lift if I can."
Jurong GRC MP Rahayu Mahzam said kind acts should not go unappreciated. "There are many kind souls out there and we shouldn't discourage kind acts. We also need to teach our children about kindness."
She recalled an incident years ago when she got off at the wrong bus stop "in a rather deserted area" and called her mother to fetch her.
"This kind man in a car drove up to me and asked what I was doing there. I told him my situation and he offered me a ride," added Ms Rahayu, who declined the offer as her mother was on the way.
"He was not comfortable leaving me there alone and waited with me. He stayed in the car and I just stood by the road. He said that he lives nearby and that area was not safe."
However, Ms Rahayu said the message to children needs to be clear. "We can never know for sure, and they may be too young to make distinctions," she added.
Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, said children should adhere to tightly set boundaries set by their parents.
However, he urged Singaporeans to move on. "Because if we are to continue in our journey towards being a kinder and more gracious society, I hope we all develop the common sense and spontaneity to offer help when needed in more general situations," he added.