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A time to ask: Are we compassionate enough?

December 16, 2013

In a university in Liverpool, some distance from Little India, two Singaporeans take a stance and make a point. Mr Tai Wang and Mr Kyle Sim are 24. One studies architecture, the other law, both share a common humanity.

They have started a fund that, among other things, will assist the family of the Indian national whose death in a traffic accident sparked last Sunday’s riot. They have raised US$1,180 (S$1,480) and it is not the sum that is relevant but the quality of their act.

Perhaps it is the Bangladeshi workers that Mr Wang has met in Singapore, or the coffee shop in England where he works part-time, but there is a clarity to his conscience. “This is not the time for inaction,” he says. He believes his generation must have a voice and they must speak for the underprivileged.

He has received hate mail already – “why are you helping those people” – yet responds with calmness about his critics. “I must get these people on my side,” he says.

It is an appealing moment for two young men have revealed themselves as compassionate. Yet in a city where workers are often second-class people and many maids are simply objects of use, are we?

In the aftermath of a startling riot in a placid city there will be rightful punishment and justified condemnation of thuggish behaviour. Mobs we don’t want. But in a practical nation there must not only be accusation but also reflection on the nature of compassion.

There is a quote attributed to Plato which has an elegant simplicity: “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” To lacerate an entire tribe of workers from diverse nations who toil 10 hours a day or more for a modest wage is too easy. To offer them dignity is invariably harder.

In the week in which Mr Nelson Mandela died, this would be appropriate. The South African was convenient to admire for he gave us nobility and appeared to single- handedly compensate for a planet’s callousness. But to only laud Mr Mandela is lazy. The idea of example is to learn and if we cannot be him, we can at least try to be a lesser, diluted version of him.

It means before we have a national conversation on divisiveness and classism, we first must have a conversation with ourselves.

Am I compassionate enough? Do I wonder enough about the workers’ families left behind in distant homelands, of a year passed without a hand to hold and a face to kiss? Do I consider enough this tyranny of distance where so much of life is led in isolation?

Do I think enough about the truth that, but for an act of chance, that could be me? Do I ponder enough about the loneliness of crowded dormitories, a mother’s missed birthday and about people who are as foreign to us as they become to their children whom they live apart from? Do I even take 10 minutes, on enough days, to ask my maid how her day has been?

No, I don’t. Not enough. And yet if we ask ourselves, are we good people, we will instinctively say yes.

So maybe this riot offers itself as an opportune time to search for the better parts of our nature. For those parts are there. In a 2004 paper, Professor Dacher Keltner, the founder of the Greater Good Science Centre at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote that “it has long been assumed that selfishness, greed and competitiveness lie at the core of human behaviour”. Yet, he adds, “recent scientific findings forcefully challenge this view of human nature. We see that compassion is deeply rooted in our brains, our bodies”.

Yet he tags a warning onto this: “Realising this is not enough; we must also make room for our compassionate impulses to flourish.”

Goodness must have a chance to work. But reflection requires time and Singapore, like most urban sprawls, is a hectic, blinkered city whose pace can be told by the furious click of heels on marble floor. We may not mean to ignore the world around us, but we sometimes do; we don’t always choose to be rude, but we can be. The average tourist, like my blissful parents, will speak constantly of Singaporean kindness, but there is another barometer. It is what we are to the disadvantaged and how we look at the deprived that reveal us.

Mr Mandela’s virtue lay in his ability to unite. Division, after all, is a simpler business and our planet – and this includes Singapore – has become adept at it. In casual remarks, in careless tweets, in callous online postings, we segregate ourselves into “us” and “them”, washed and unwashed, poor and rich, executive and worker. The more we divide, the more we retreat into mental ghettoes, the less we learn, the colder we are.

Singapore treats its maids with more civility than some nations I know and is less xenophobic than other lands I have lived in. But we cannot be reassured by nations “worse” than us. We must instead confront our worst selves. We embrace those polls that state this is a liveable city, a clean city, an honest city. But surely the most evolved cities are not just those with green parks and swept roads, but also with strong conscience.

Some of it is already evident in the letters to this newspaper which are armed with caring. We need these fine, reasonable voices because a truly enlightened citizenry is not just one that pays better, or imposes law and order, but also one that honestly negotiates its own moral landscape. If we celebrate our rise by 50 places to 64th in the 2013 World Giving Index – more are donating to charity and volunteering – then we must question why, when it comes to Helping a Stranger, we are 134th. Or second last.

The unparalleled power of compassion starts by agreeing to share a city and its space with the maids. By acknowledging not just the skyscraper but also the man who builds it. When they return to their lands, it should not just be with money to feed a family but with a dignity intact. This we can do. It will not always come instinctively, but we must fight to find it. For when found, it is something.

A colleague, a Singaporean who is of Indian stock, tells a tale from years ago. Of a day when he tugged on his shorts, grabbed his shears and wandered off to trim his hedge. Beyond his bushes on one side, in a condo, a worker was also gardening. On spying my colleague and believing he might have found a fellow foreigner, the worker asked with a smile: “You Bangladeshi, you Bangladeshi?”

My colleague’s first instinct was to dismiss him and point out he was no worker but the owner of the property. But he did not. Instead, he smiled back and softly said: “No, me Indian, me Indian.” The Bangladeshi grinned, a connection had been made, a humanity established. And then both men, local and foreigner, advantaged man and disadvantaged one, returned to their gardening.

by Rohit Brijnath

This column was first published in The Sunday Times, 15 December 2013.


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