Bring back the kampung spirit of kindness

January 05, 2013

If we want a kind and gracious Singapore, we must find ways to promote the spirit of give-and-take
By William Wan

ONE thing stood out last year in Singapore’s effort to be a more gracious nation: high-profile incidents involving inconsiderate behaviour, and the subsequent reactions to them that were no better than the initial conduct itself.

From quarrels (and worse) on public transport and racist rants on social media to rude children in nursing rooms, 2012 was replete with bad behaviour. Concerned and well-meaning parties wondered if it was time to return to government-led courtesy campaigns. Or even if there should be laws to mandate good behaviour.

But there is a limit to what laws can do. While legislation has worked in the past to stamp out practices like spitting in public, kindness and graciousness are intrinsic values, more akin to a state of mind than a set of actions.

Laws to govern social behaviour are also difficult to enforce.

Take the “reserved” seats on the MRT meant for the elderly, pregnant or frail. Singapore is hardly the first city to consider appending penalties. In cities like New York, Toronto and Ottawa, those who refuse to give up their seat to a person entitled to priority seating can be fined.

But such regulations are hard to enforce, requiring a huge number of officials to patrol and mediate disputes – and would still not stamp out such behaviour.

Other social behaviours are simply beyond enforcement. We do not imagine a state enforcing us to greet each other with a smile, or to show appreciation for each other with a word of thanks.

Tweaking mindsets

THE tricky bit in becoming a gracious society is changing mindsets, not just behaviour.

Changing mindsets is not as difficult as it may seem. After all, we once had it, in the kampung spirit of give-and-take and watching out for one another. That has become distorted over the decades, to the kiasu or kiasi spirit of self-centred behaviour of someone afraid to lose out to others.

If we desire a kind and gracious society – a more civil nation – we must find ways to promote the kampung spirit, while tempering kiasuism and kiasism.

Society, like a kampung or village, is a collective group in which people work together for more- or-less equitable benefits.

In exchange, its constituents – people – need to accept restrictions on their own behaviour. Apart from laws, informal and unspoken “contracts” or norms, also govern individuals’ behaviour for the sake of the collective society.

Take the social norm of queuing, one of Singapore’s national pastimes. This is often cited as an example of our culture of graciousness. People have internalised the value of queuing as a way to ration a service. Everyone takes their place. If anyone tries to jump the queue, others will enforce the norm through social pressure: by showing disapproval, or a verbal admonishment. No laws are needed; most times, the violator will get in line.

Norms are powerful tools for changing behaviour, more effective in some cases than fines and penalties. What Singapore needs is to develop norms in more areas of social behaviour.

Civic behaviours deemed desirable collectively can be agreed upon and then encouraged through a powerful disincentive – social pressure. The persuasive power of social pressure can be soft, like a gentle word of advice, or an expression of disappointment. It can also be hard, like a disapproving glare or a spoken word of rebuke.

But most critically, if we see norms as social “laws” created by society for the benefit of a civilised society, then we can use social pressure as a tool for society to be self-governing and self-moderating. Each of us then has a role to play in enforcing this social pressure.

Take a stand openly

SEEN from this perspective, creating a more gracious society is a bottom-up approach that involves all of us, not a top-down one that involves state legislation.

Instead, each of us needs to moderate our own sense of entitlement, while vigilantly speaking up against ill behaviour.

Take the reserved MRT seats: We hear complaints of able-bodied young men taking those seats, pretending not to see, or just not caring, that a frail person nearby deserves that seat more.

Too often, we hear about those with a fierce sense of justice writing to the media, or venting online, and demanding that either the Government or the transport operators do something about it.

But why do we seek a legal mandate for common courtesy?

Why turn to a faraway higher authority when we are the ones on the scene who have witnessed this injustice? Why not ask what we ourselves can do?

We are not powerless.

Some take photos of bad behaviour and post them on citizen journalism sites. This may appear to be standing up against bad behaviour. But its effects are even more negative, creating an ugly culture where people don’t dare to speak up openly but are prone to anonymous “revenge” and punitive shaming.

Instead, we can take a stand openly on behalf of graciousness, for the sake of the collective – the people around us.

We can give up our own seat – reserved or not – to someone who needs it more. We can politely ask for the reserved seat, if we have need of it ourselves, or on behalf of the pregnant woman or the elderly man who has need of it.

This way, these individuals in need are no longer on their own. They are now part of a collective, because we have chosen to stand by them and act for them.

Take another example: pet owners not cleaning up after their pets on a walk. Legislation was bandied about as a way to curb this social ill.

Can we not walk up to the pet owner and say: “I noticed you don’t have a plastic bag. Here, I have one for you so people wouldn’t blame you for what your dog did”? It’s a simple act, non-confrontational and to the point, yet effective in applying just that bit of social pressure by offering some kindness.

New norms

IN THE same way that members of a queue will protect the culture of the queue, members of a gracious society can come together to protect the culture of graciousness.

If we can agree, collectively, on some basic practices of courtesy and self-moderation, we will undoubtedly be on the path towards a more pleasant neighbourhood, a society that values togetherness and the culture of mutual help. This way, we can rise above petty factionalism and self-centredness.

Establishing new norms of social grace takes a few simple ingredients.

First, leaders have to lead by being gracious and taking a stand for gracious behaviour. Positive behaviour, when modelled by the people that others look up to, will be emulated.

Second, we must collectively encourage and applaud good behaviour, not just punish the bad.

How often is someone praised for good deeds with the same intensity as citizens asking for Amy Cheong to be sacked?

When was the last time we used our own Facebook page to highlight positive, not negative, acts?

Third, there must be a collective will to take ownership of social norms. It is in our power as individuals to create a kinder and more gracious society.

Be the one to give up your seat, help the less able to cross the road, and give way to the car changing lanes.

And when you next see someone hogging the reserved seat on the MRT while an elderly person is standing, stand up for gracious behaviour and ask the young person to give up his seat.

The writer is the general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement

First published in The Straits Times – January 5, 2013

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