How do we get Singaporeans to look out for each other?

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.

Who is responsible for the integration of foreigners?

Just who is responsible for making integration happen?
Let’s call the international student X and Singaporean society Y (for convenience.)

Y would be justified in saying that it doesn’t owe X anything. Y would be content to be left well enough alone. X could be perceived by Y as an undesirable intruder, strange and foreign. Y could be perceived by X as a cold, hostile and unfriendly place (but relatively opportunity-laden, compared to home.) So integration doesn’t have to happen, and in fact, it won’t happen if X and Y continue with their (individualistically rational) train of thoughts.

But that’s sub-optimal. When everyone looks out for themselves, everyone gets defensive and nobody’s willing to give anybody else a chance, everyone is worse off. Whether we’re talking from a biological, intellectual or cultural perspective, diversity always enriches everybody involved. Integration is ideal for everybody, both X and Y. We learn more about each other, and more importantly, about ourselves.

Exclusion, containment, isolation- these are not sustainable policies, in any situation- whether we’re talking about raising children, international relations (consider the Cold War), or, in this case, immigration. We do it when we’re trying to minimise the spread of viruses, but it makes more sense to build robust immune systems. Conflict resolution is a superior strategy to conflict avoidance- because the world is getting smaller, and interactions are getting more numerous.

Integration is conflict resolution. And no conflict between two parties is resolved by just one of the two. It’s everybody’s business, and in everybody’s self-interest, to grow the fuck up and extend a hand to the other.

And it doesn’t matter if we have a series of negative experiences, and if we get exploited or taken advantage of from time to time- because the few instances of co-operation that do emerge become robust, and will then be mimicked, and we’ll all be better off for it.


Grace, compassion and mercy aren’t just fancy-sounding moral ideals, they’re effective survival strategies in a world where fight-or-flight is no longer an option, and negotiation and compromise is the only way forward.

If we’re trying to pinpoint who to blame, we’re asking the wrong question. (But if we really had to go there- a systemic problem requires a systemic solution, so the villain is the system itself- and the onus is then on every single element of the system, simultaneously. So it’s all of us, together.)

Singaporean students lack drive because our culture sucks it out of them

Your tie is too long, sir.

The Education Minister is concerned about the number of employers who have said that Singaporean students lack drive and the confidence to venture out of their comfort zone.

When he asked what personal qualities are necessary to succeed, many of them said: Drive. ‘They said, ‘We think this is going to be critical (but) we are not seeing enough of this’,’ said Mr Heng, who was surprised at the number of CEOs who mentioned it. ‘I said, how can that be? Our students work very hard,’ he added. He had a long discussion with them, which did not throw up any solutions.

Students are unwilling to leave their comfort zones and try something new, says Heng. In Europe, when the CEO told workers he wanted to try them out in a new role with different responsibilities, the staff asked, what sort of training will I get, how will you help me succeed, what will I do, and so on.” But when the CEO approached Singaporeans, he was ‘shocked’ by the response: “What if I fail? Do I still have a job? Is there a support system, and do I get retrenchment benefits?” – Lack of drive in Singaporean students a worry

This is upsetting. We’ve spent the past 30 years breeding Singaporeans to be head-nodding wage-slave-dogs, only to find that there are billions of other people out there who will do the same jobs for far less.

Why do Singaporean students lack drive? Because our culture sucks it right out of them.

  • From day one, we tell our kids what they can or cannot think, what sort of dreams they ought to have.
  • We discourage them from studying what they’re passionate about if it’s not easy to score in.
  • We impose on them an obsession with grades, grades, grades. Anything you do outside of school is all about the CCA points.
  • We censor our valedictorians when they have something authentic and sincere to say.
  • Our teachers are forced to spend all their time (and then some!) covering the syllabus, which leaves them with scarce opportunity to set their kids’ hearts and minds on fire, to inspire and provoke them.

Of course we’re afraid of failure and leaving our comfort zones– it’s the Singaporean way! (Never mind that our founding fathers essentially stared failure in the face and said NOT TODAY.)

A big part of being Singaporean entails being a mindless drone, having no opinion. (“But what about the dissident netizens?” Oh, they’re narcissists who hide behind their pseudonyms and use heterodoxy as a poor substitute for genuine thought.)

We were bred by the system to be unquestioning, obedient wage-slaves to our lords and masters. We will bend over and let you fuck us in the ass if you promise to take care of us. We don’t have enough arts and culture. We hardly support our local bands and football teams.

Not all Singaporeans are afraid of leaving our comfort zones- many have already packed up and left.

They are no longer interested our uninspiring be-a-wage-slave culture. It’s the Singaporeans that are left behind that are meek and risk-averse. Awesome.

How much money must we spend, how many dreams must we crush, how much must we oppress each other, only for our Minister to go “How can that be? Our students work very hard!”. Well, NEWSFLASH: North Koreans also work very hard. African children in the diamond mines also work very hard. It doesn’t mean shit, okay?

Heng’s long discussion with the CEOs did not throw up any solutions. Let’s turn to some literature.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Our teachers need to be given the freedom to share their passion and joy with students. Parents need to do that for their kids, too. We need parents to stop going to schools demanding that we stuff their kids brains with knowledge as if it were a commodity, and teach people to think for themselves- REALLY think for themselves, and have opinions, and fight for them. We need broad, bottom-up cultural change. And that has to come from all of us standing up together and choosing, together, that that’s what we want.

The title of the Straits Times article reads “Lack of drive in Singaporeans students a worry.” That’s really nice of the journalist, or the editors. I would have phrased it differently. The truth is, it’s not surprising that our students lack drive. We’re all responsible for it. Bastards, all of us. Every child is born with curiosity and inquisitiveness. Fear of failure is taught, and frankly, that’s what we teach our kids every day.

You want to know why Singaporean kids have no drive, put yourselves in their shoes lah. What is there to be driven about?

The question now is- how are we going to move forward? How are we going to transcend our obsolete cultural mindsets?

Updated on May 14th, 2014.