The last two weeks have been trying ones for Singapore. The annual haze, previously just a mild annoyance, climbed to record levels, sparking panic and sending jitters across our normally peaceful island.
While its impact ranks nowhere close to that of the Sars epidemic, the haze still presents one of the biggest tests of our Singaporean character and resilience in the way we react to it.
If we look, we will find many reasons to be proud of our fellow countrymen. As the haze worsened, anti-pollutant masks and air purifiers were in short supply.
Singaporeans, in groups or as individuals, many of them younger people, spontaneously stepped up to help. Many were found hastily distributing their own supplies of masks to family, friends and strangers. Some put in orders from abroad for future distribution should the situation worsen.
Groups such as Project Awareness, SG Haze Rescue, the Halogen Foundation and several others began to distribute masks to senior citizens and less privileged individuals across Singapore.
Among the more creative responses to the worsening air quality was that by volunteers offering to share their air-conditioned homes with strangers who needed a respite from the haze.
And there was one importer of the highly prized N95 masks who sent the company’s staff through the queues of people outside its warehouse with temporary masks and bottles of water. Other young people from grassroots organisations were out distributing drinks and masks to senior citizens who live alone.
This outpouring of charity and goodwill wasn’t the result of an edict from above. Rather, it arose from spontaneous people-powered initiatives. As a people we stood up and collectively demonstrated that we are unfazed by the haze.
These individuals and hastily-cobbled, volunteer-led organisations, united by a singleness of purpose and simplicity of action, remind us of the importance of taking ownership of our own communities. They worried less about what the causes of the haze might be. Instead, they focused on what needed to be done. What might seem to be small, even random acts of kindness and charity by individuals, many of them strangers, when multiplied, can create enormous impact on the lives and safety of others.
But the haze also clearly revealed the other side of the coin. Less scrupulous retailers seized the opportunity to charge exorbitant prices for masks which suddenly became their most desired commodity. In a classic example of kiasuism, consumers also bought and hoarded in excess, creating shortages across the island. Others sought to exploit the situation for self-promotion, with irresponsible statements and petitions on social media that exacerbated the panic and created divisions. Some even went so far as to start rumours and hoaxes over the Internet and via SMS.
Whether motivated by ill-judgment or ill-intent, such actions highlight the challenges we still face as a nation striving to be a home where we look out for each other, rather than only for ourselves. To be sure, there will always be a few who will, even during a crisis, continue to choose self-interest over the common good. But these incidents were overwhelmed by a surging tide of pro-social behaviour – a flood of spontaneous small kindnesses.
My immediate neighbour, for instance, came over to give us four masks because we had just returned from Malaysia the day after the most severe haze hit the city. I have been told of many such acts of kindness among neighbours. The kampung spirit is evident across the nation. Seen as a whole, Singapore acquitted itself well, and that is something we should be proud of.
This episode affirms a belief I’ve held for a long time, that we are all innately kind. If it were not so, our efforts in aspiring to be a visibly gracious society would be in vain. Given the opportunity, we will choose kindness over unkindness, and graciousness over ungraciousness – any time.
Shared challenges can draw us together and bring out the best in us. The barriers of self-consciousness are lowered by the urgency of the situation. Our innate kindness is unlocked, allowing us to reach out without being afraid of being labelled a do-gooder or, less kindly, kay poh.
If there is anything the haze has taught us, it is that when we face a common danger, we are capable of awakening from our boh chap attitude and rise to the challenge of releasing the goodness that is in us.
Clearly, the last couple of weeks have shown that when we act for the common good, each of us, the giver and the recipient, benefits equally.
In the coming weeks and months, when the air quality returns to normal, perhaps we will take advantage of the bridges we have built in the time of crisis. Perhaps we will find it natural to greet our neighbours, or offer a stranger a smile and a helping hand. The less fortunate will continue to be among us and will continue to need help – not just at a critical times, but at all times.
Perhaps then we won’t need perilous clouds hanging over us to find opportunities to show a little kindness to all.
Dr William Wan
Singapore Kindness Movement
First published in The Straits Times – July 1, 2013