For quite a long time, I’ve been meaning to blog about how I’ve noticed that Singaporeans are starting to stick to the left on escalators in MRT stations. Once I was going to Sembawang Camp and I had to take the Circle Line- and there’s this really tiny little escalator somewhere in Bishan MRT, with hardly any breathing room. People would be crushed to death if a stampede ever broke out- and everybody filled up the left side of the escalator, perfectly! It was so beautiful to witness. You just wanna high-five everybody.
And then a couple of days ago, I saw this on Facebook:
How awesome is that? Singaporeans queuing for the train in a calm, orderly manner instead of swarming the doors like a fanatic mob. Context- apparently this is happening in Raffles Place MRT during the morning peak hour, and it also happens regularly at Ang Mo Kio, at the same time.
This co-operation emerged without any external intervention. I mean, there have been public announcements and campaigns to tell people to be polite and courteous, but they’ve never really been particularly effective, have they? So what’s different now?
It was never effective before because most people never saw any point in co-operating- nobody else appeared to appreciate it, nobody thanked them for their acts of kindness. There wasn’t even really a psychological, internal reward- you don’t even feel like you’re doing anything nice, because the recipients of your good will neither notice nor appreciate it. (If a tree falls in a forest, and nobody witnesses it…) It’s like being snubbed every time you offer to co-operate. Eventually, you learn to avoid being a sucker, and look out for yourself in what seems to be a vast sea of selfishness. It’s completely rational.
So why are people behaving differently all of a sudden? I turn to Robert Axelrod’s Evolution of Co-operation, for the answers, and I think I find them. These people, presumably, are taking the same train at the same time every day. After a while, perhaps, they begin to recognize each other, and they begin to appreciate each other’s calm and restraint- and they reciprocate. Where did this self-restraint come from? It could have emerged spontaneously- read the “Trench Warfare” section in the link above to understand why.
The most interesting thing about this for me is the idea that such behaviour doesn’t require any sort of large-scale consensus. We don’t need any grand gestures or sweeping reform. All we need is a few individuals who’re committed to co-operating with one another. That’s not very much. That’s manageable. And behaviour is contagious. Most people are guarded, selfish and cold right now because they perceive everyone else to be guarded, selfish and cold. If a few of us- and I believe the wonderful people in the picture above are a testament to this idea- stand together and co-operate, then we will infect everyone else with the virus. Most people just want to fit in, and most people simply mimic the behaviour of everyone else around them.
If there’s a huge pile of rubbish at the roadside, we don’t feel the need to use the garbage can- because it wouldn’t make a difference, anyway. (Individually, it wouldn’t. Collectively, it would.) But if the city is pristine, we feel a twinge of guilt if we dirty the place. Clean places get kept clean, dirty places get even dirtier. (Broken Window Theory.) It’s hard to imagine somebody taking a long walk to a distant garbage can to throw away a piece of trash when the streets are overflowing with litter. And that, in essence, is the same reason why Singaporeans have been so cold for so long- because we think everybody else is the same way. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy- call a man a thief and he will steal, treat each other like we’re selfish, and we will certainly become so.
It’s incredibly heartening to realise that most people aren’t actually assholes- they’re simply behaving the way they do because they believe that they’re surrounded by assholes. Most people are decent folk who really just want to be a part of a wonderful, caring community. (I don’t have any scientific evidence for this, but I believe it with intense fervour. Call me a zealot if you like. Self-fulfilling prophecies are very real things in this world, and I’m personally choosing to bet on the outcome that I want to see.)
I think the folk at Raffles Place and Ang Mo Kio have revealed the way forward- all we need is a few committed individuals to decide that we’re going to resist the chaos, that we’re going to stand firm and co-operate with one another. (It could happen by chance- but why leave it to chance?) It might seem like an uphill battle at first- but remember, most people just want to fit in- and once enough of us stand together to do the ‘right’ thing- (in this case, what’s best for everybody), then most others should simply mimic us- which is what they’re already doing. The change will be a lot more sudden and drastic than we might imagine.
I believe that it’s possible for us to spread the culture of co-operation and reciprocity like a virus. All we need is for a few of us to commit to starting the trend, and everyone else should follow suit eventually.
It’s already happening in Raffles Place and Ang Mo Kio. Let’s commit to spreading it to the rest of Singapore, and the world.