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Monday with the Editor: Churning out better-behaved Singaporeans


For many years, we have been known as a city of campaigns. We Singaporeans have had to have campaigns to teach us how to keep our city clean, how to be courteous to others, how to keep our toilets clean - in short, how to be cultured.

We have been called many names, among which are kiasu, ugly, and self-centred. Some of us jump queue, talk loudly in public places such as libraries and fast-food restaurants, and pack our plates with a mountain of food at buffets. And the 'best' part of it is - we are unabashed about our own behaviour. It is almost as if we have accepted it as second nature. 

Fellow Singaporeans have complained about our excesses in the local forums of newspapers and Web sites. In recent years, newspapers have been chockfull of reports about some Singaporeans abusing their maids. Such news spread quickly to the home country of the maids and make others resentful of Singaporeans. It seems we do not know how to behave as we become more affluent and able to partake in the trappings that a higher standard of living has brought about.

Perhaps, if we had remained a poor country with slums for housing and mosquito-infested drains we would not have the luxury of time to be kiasu, ugly or self-centred. We would be too busy trying to eke out a living for our family. We would have to depend on our neighbours to help us look after our children while we were out working. We would need to have a closely knit neighbourhood as everyone - we and our neighbours - would have to co-operate to keep the area secure from hooligans and robbers. And that would mean we would not be able to afford being complacent and withdrawn from the community.

Wouldn't that be nice then, for we would have been more civil in our behaviour albeit poor. Let's not kid ourselves. We can't bring back the past. We also do not want to abandon our present-day comfortable lifestyle.

But, because we have been able to depend on ourselves and need not be neighbourly - we know our proficient government running an efficient police force can protect us - many of us have discarded our social-integration skills.   

It's not that we do not have such skills; we have merely discarded them. They are still lying around somewhere. It takes a common disaster to get us to pick these skills up again. This was what happened during the SARS epidemic last year.

Do we need a disaster to teach us how to be civil again? I hope not. Do we need more campaigns to remind us how to act humanly to others? I think so. We like to blame others for our mistakes and short-comings. It's so convenient, so Singaporean, to do so. In this instance, we blame the government for doing everything for us so much so that we have lost the urge to make things better ourselves. So, we leave everything to the government and just sit back and withdraw ourselves into our little cocoon. 

Can we change the attitudes and habits of our current grownups? It would be difficult to undo such things picked up over the past thirty or so years. Should we start educating our young and then indirectly get these youngsters to re-imbue our grownups with social-integration skills? That would be good as we are 'hitting two birds with one stone', so to speak.

Already, school students have to do community projects in order to earn points for their CCA (Co-Curricular Activities). They visit old folks homes. They also help clean the neighbourhood around their schools. But, I think there's one area that the schools have been neglecting sorely. Our schools have not focused on teaching our students to be well-mannered.

Of course, every time a teacher enters the classroom or leaves it, students stand to attention and bid the teacher welcome or goodbye. But these greetings, in my view, have become perfunctory.

In schools, many pupils do not greet teachers when they pass these teachers in the corridors and staircases. However, most would greet their subject or form teachers. A well-mannered student doesn't discriminate between teachers. So the culture is missing. It isn't in place when it should be, after all education is the process of preparing our young for the work of life, which includes being civil to others, regardless of affiliation.

There are, however, exceptions. This morning, while listening to the Morning Express radio programme on Class 95 FM, I heard the Flying Dutchman, a co-presenter, heaping praise on a group of SCGS students who gave up their seats at a table in a restaurant to the Flying Dutchman and his family who were looking around for a table with five seats. The FD was quick to point out that he was walking behind his family so that it could not be misconstrued that the students had recognised a celebrity and behaved thus. The SCGS students then moved to a table with fewer seats.

Now that's spontaneous good manners. It reflects good education and upbringing. That's the type of behaviour that should emanate from our students. But, that's also behaviour that's sorely lacking among our students, whether in restaurants or hawker centres.

How nice it would be if our education system can churn out kids such as those at SCGS and make them the norm rather than the exception.

Have a good week!


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19 July 2004