Character & Soul, Opinions, Self-Improvement, Tan Lili

Do Singaporeans Lack Compassion? – Tan Lili

A British writer wrote that Singaporeans suffer from a “massive compassion deficit”, following her bad experience on the MRT train that left her crouching on the floor for 15 minutes. Is it a fair assessment of our countrymen? 


In case you haven’t read about British freelance writer Charlotte Ashton’s unpleasant experience on the train, here’s what went down: She wrote on BBC Viewpoint about how she had to crouch for 15 minutes on an MRT train because of a bad bout of nausea (she was 10 weeks pregnant at the time), yet no one offered to give up their seat for her. This led to her rather harsh statement that Singaporeans suffer from a “massive compassion deficit”. She wrote, “I do not know if I would have had a better time in London, but in the Singaporean rat race, you are certainly on your own. An unhappy conclusion, I am afraid, from misery city.”

Her experience was published in The Straits Times recently and it predictably drew fire from indignant Singaporeans. Everyone was quick to point fingers, attacking Ashton on all fronts with a barrage of angry comments – from the inequality between the rich and the poor in Singapore, to the complaint about foreigners taking over the train (and the country).

I think we’re missing the big picture here. Yes, those comments are valid concerns of many Singaporeans but they are separate issues altogether. I’m not defending Ashton, nor am I agreeing with her conclusion that we are seriously lacking compassion. It’s not about taking sides here – there are none to begin with, anyway, because when you take away her nationality, it all boils down to this: A person was clearly uncomfortable and ill, and nobody gave a shit. What does this say about humanity?

This lack of graciousness and compassion isn’t unique to our country; I’ve heard of worse incidents that frequently happen in other parts of the world. This isn’t to say that all Singaporeans are heartless, either; I’ve witnessed so many random acts of kindness here. As human beings, we can, however, do with a little more compassion. Here are a couple of ways to get us all started.

Practice Empathy

Empathy is the first step in cultivating compassion, and to develop that, we need to constantly put ourselves in another person’s shoes. Let’s not deny the point Ashton made about uncaring passengers. While I’ve seen commuters give up their seats for others in need, I’ve also seen a fair share of those who not-so-discreetly avert their gaze the moment an elderly or a pregnant lady boards the train. I’m sure you have personally encountered this scenario before. No one is 100-percent selfless, but if you’ve always placed your own needs ahead of others’, it’s high time that you recognise the world doesn’t revolve around you and you alone.

Don’t React, Respond

The myriad excuses – excuses that aren’t remotely related to the issue at hand – we make whenever someone points out our flaws has got to stop. Rather than react to a situation, try responding to it. When we react, we let our emotions get the better of us. Driven by impulse, we often react without thinking and end up coming across as being defensive. But when we respond to a situation, we actually listen to the other side of the story and respond as logically as we can. Even when some people cross the line and do or say things that would naturally trigger an angry response from us, we do so to protect our dignity and self-respect. But if you did it out of spite or with any malicious intent, it’d only reflect the type of person you are.


About The Author: A founder of Material World, Tan Lili has previously worked in magazines The Singapore Women’s Weekly and Cosmopolitan Singapore, as well as (now, the online counterpart of Her World). She is now a freelance writer who works on this website full-time. Lili hopes to travel the world, work with wild animals, and discover more awesome Twilight fan-fiction. Follow her on Twitter @TanLiliTweets

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One thought on “Do Singaporeans Lack Compassion? – Tan Lili

  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.


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