Does Singapore deserve its ‘miserable’ tag? It does, sometimes

March 20, 2014

There has been much discussion on whether Singapore deserves its “miserable” tag, following a BBC Viewpoint piece by freelance writer Charlotte Ashton who wrote about how no one offered her a seat on the train when she felt unwell.

But the right question to ask, says Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, is: Why are we miserable?

Freelance writer Charlotte Ashton’s question about whether Singapore deserves its “miserable” tag has predictably generated quite a furore. Predictable, because it happens almost every time an international publication portrays Singapore negatively. Predictable also, because the answer to her question is “it depends”.

Attempting to measure social behaviour is always a tricky business, and perception and experience can be a fickle unit of measurement. We experience the good, the bad and the ugly – not always at the same time, but certainly at different times and different contexts in our daily journey through life. And perception is always influenced and informed by our personal experiences.
I am not questioning Ms Ashton’s unfortunate experiences.

But does Singapore deserve its “miserable” tag? The honest answer is it does, sometimes.

Are Singaporeans miserable, emotionless, unkind or ungracious? Yes, sometimes.

Are we also a joyful, caring and compassionate people? Yes, sometimes.

Too much of our time is spent fussing over the wrong questions – questions that have no meaningful answers, or answers that change as predictably as night follows day. “Why” may be a more interesting question to ask. “Why does Singapore sometimes seem so miserable?” Or “why aren’t Singaporeans more actively considerate on public transport”. Ms Ashton does ask some of those questions, but those are difficult questions to answer. Certainly more complex than can be answered by the opinions of just three people.

“All we need is enough people whose actions are kind and considerate. Once we’ve crossed the tipping point, it’ll become the norm – the same way kiasuism became the norm.”- Dr William Wan

The question of “why” deserves much more attention. It is the question most of us are trying to answer when we comment on this story, or share it on our social platforms. We each have our own opinions on what makes us miserable, and our own opinions of what needs to change so we can be happier, or nicer, or simply less miserable.

For me, the “why” question has only one meaningful answer. Why are we miserable? Simply, it’s because our perception of our circumstances don’t match up with our expectations. This leads to a more important question. Not “why” but “how”. How can we be happier, kinder, and more considerate?

At the Singapore Kindness Movement, this is a question we strive to answer every day. We don’t always have answers, but our team – many of whom are young people – keeps trying. Their enthusiasm and passion is inspiring, and being part of that certainly makes me much less miserable.

How happy or unhappy we are is a combination of many factors that we have varying degrees of control over. We may not be able to change all the circumstances that make up our reality, but we can choose how we perceive them. For example, we might not be able to magically heal ourselves if we are ill, but we could decide if we would let illness get the better of us.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also work to change our circumstances where we can. If we are unfairly criticised or bullied online, we can immediately improve our well-being by choosing to change our perception of our situation, but we can also improve our well-being, and that of others, over the long term by gradually changing the culture of the Internet.

We can also simply adjust our expectations. We can see the same principles at work in the oft-cited example of the MRT carriage. If you need a seat, and one isn’t available, you can stand around and glare angrily at the people pretending to sleep, oblivious to your clear and urgent need. Or we can choose to change our circumstances by asking one of them for a seat. It doesn’t even have to be a priority seat. You can do this with any seat!

We can say it’s our competitive, kiasu nature – and therefore, our education system – that’s to blame. But if we, and others, do this often enough, then the culture will change. We can be a kinder, more considerate society. All we need is enough people whose actions are kind and considerate. Once we’ve crossed the tipping point, it’ll become the norm – the same way kiasuism became the norm, and the kampung spirit was left by the wayside.

But my favourite question remains. How will we achieve this? By trying, and then trying again. Ms Ashton’s BBC Viewpoint piece, and the many others like it, is the first step. They expose our problems and cut them open to be discussed and examined vigorously.
Whatever else she managed to achieve with her article, she certainly stirred debate. That is a good thing. And it becomes even better when we can graciously agree to disagree. And it is best when, as a result of this debate, we take ownership of the need to be kinder and more gracious, and we start doing something about it.

With ownership, action will be more likely to follow – one at a time – setting us on our way, regardless of where we are now, to becoming a nation of kindness.

Dr William Wan
General Secretary
Singapore Kindness Movement

First published in The Straits Times – March 19, 2014

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3 thoughts on “Does Singapore deserve its ‘miserable’ tag? It does, sometimes”

  1. I have thought about the question of why Singaporeans can be seen as miserable. The following is my answer.


    Charlotte Ashton was using her own personal experience to make sense of Singapore’s ranking on the global survey that found it to be the least positive country in the world. Many people did not realize this and assumed she was using her single experience to judge the whole of Singapore.

    Even though Charlotte Ashton’s article from the BBC is not a big survey of Singapore’s level of graciousness, her experience on a public train that eventually led to her feeling unhappy is a cause for consideration for all locals.

    I think that the ability to practice graciousness in public is based largely on one’s ability to be socially-responsive, empathetic and courageous(ability to adapt well in uncommon situations). These qualities would allow a person to react adequately to those in need.

    Although I do feel that many Singaporeans do possess empathy, I feel that the qualities of social-responsiveness and courage are under-developed in most, which has led to them being perceived as being indifferent and uncaring in public.

    Native Singaporeans are commonly brought up in very strict Asian households that instilled subservience from a young age. This, as well as Singapore’s rote-learning education system, do not provide much encouragement for us to think on our own. The added pressure to be intensely competitive in terms of studies and work has made us even less focused in such a crucial skill.

    The overall lack of social-responsiveness has many times in the past gotten the general youth in Singapore to be perceived as being politically apathetic.

    Professional medical staff in Singapore are well-trained to take charge of demanding medical-related situations so they stand ready to help those in need. I am quite certain if such medical staff were present during Ms Ashton’s plight on her train, they would have immediately assisted her without a thought.

    Regarding my thoughts on the train passengers who did not assist Ms Ashton, it is difficult to know if they were actually being indifferent and uncaring towards her plight. Their lack of social-responsiveness and lack of courage are also factors needed to be considered.

    The qualities of social-responsiveness, empathy and courage are much needed to overcome adversity to create liberation that can make one feel happy. The lack of such qualities could keep one stagnant in misery.

    1. Hi Timothy,

      Thank you for sharing your insightful commentary with us. You certainly raised several valid points, especially those observations about Singaporeans’ upbringing and values that play some part in breeding passivity when it comes to kindness and graciousness. We agree that the key to fostering graciousness lies in the ability to bring Singaporeans out of their shells so they are less shy or hesitant to help others. It will certainly take time and effort to educate and move people such that they develop a more pro-active and pro-social attitude. That’s where thoughtful people like yourself who find the vision of a kinder Singapore a compelling one will come into play. We thank you and hope you continue to help us plant the seeds of kindness and graciousness in your own ways.

      Team SKM

      1. Thanks for the reply. I recently wrote a letter to TODAY newspaper highlighting on the more effective ways to help pregnant women with morning sickness rather than just offering them a seat. With such tips, I think the public could be more well-prepared and quick with the knowledge to help them ease their nausea.

        Allow women to consume snacks in MRT stations to alleviate morning sickness

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