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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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The kindness of a foreigner

The most heart-warming story I have read in recent time was about a South Korean’s generous donation of his own pair of slippers to an old lady he spotted on the bus. It was a spontaneous moment, going by what his friends told ST. You know, he did loads more. He showed that a foreigner could care too, about the plight of someone who is probably Singaporean. He also showed he was not afraid to be seen doing good.

I think we should just ask ourselves whether we would do the same thing. My guess is that 999 out of 1,000 wouldn’t. Not because we are unkind but because it’s too public a gesture for us shy Singaporeans to make. Really.
I’ve been thinking hard about what would make us kinder or happier or gentler. I figure it’s our self-consciousness that’s in the way. We wouldn’t do anything in public that would attract attention to ourselves, especially if we are alone. We might do so as part of a group. But an individual simply stands out.

That’s the reason Singaporeans in a lift do not smile at others, unless they know each other in some way. We never want to be the first to make the move, also for fear of being misconstrued. You know why there are so many single people in Singapore? Because we’re not comfortable with striking up a conversation with strangers, unless we’re a little tipsy. It’s too forward a gesture. So the circle of friends remains small and tight; cliques become difficult to penetrate.

Look at groups of people on the street. They make sure people know they are part of a group, to the point of ignoring everything and everyone else. Nothing and no one matters but the group. If you look at people who are walking singly; they are either looking down or playing with their best friend, the cell phone. In fact, one good way to ignore someone like the old woman on the bus is to look at your own cellphone. We look like such busy people…

Maybe if we came across the old woman at a HDB void deck, or any place where there weren’t so many eyes, we too might do the same as that nice young man. More likely, we’ll give some money, not the shoes on our feet.

When we talk about the Singapore core and the things that make us Singaporean, we like to talk about the way we speak or walk, our fondness for food and how we can identify a Singaporean when we are in a foreign country. I suppose we can add that we are law-abiding, hardworking and believe in meritocracy, however tarnished it may be. Maybe that self-consciousness (I hesitate to say selfishness) is also a part of us. It takes us a lot to be spontaneous. We might want to add some bad points: we are impatient, whiny, a bit arrogant. We actually revel in being labelled kiasu and kiasi.

Virtues and vices, they are part of what makes up a Singaporean. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I wasn’t surprised that it was a foreigner who gave away his slippers. That would have been too un-Singaporean.

Anyway, above is just so much pop psychology. Please feel free to disagree.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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