Campaigning for courtesy

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I love living in Singapore – everyone who knows me knows that much. You would also know that I have little or nothing in life to complain about other than pedestrian etiquette or rather the complete absence of it. And since I/we walk everywhere this is a regular irritation.

Pedestrian etiquette requires people who are walking two or more abreast to assume a single file during a passing manoeuver ie when a pedestrian is on approach from the opposite direction. It’s common practice in Australia and a fundamental courtesy in my view.

In Singapore, people walk two, three or four abreast and never make way for someone coming in the opposite direction. They will drive you into the terrain either side of the sidewalk or if you do decide to maintain your rightful position, striding on your fair share of the concrete, someone will walk into you rather than surrender. It is surprising given that this is otherwise a non-aggressive society but it might be explained by kiasu – the fear to lose out to others and always wanting the upper hand.

This lack of consideration though is evident in other areas of life eg charging onto the MRT and into lifts and a lack of courtesy on the roads.

The government, which is always proactive in dealing with *every* *little* *thing* introduced the National Courtesy Campaign in 1979 to encourage Singaporeans to be more kind and considerate. Singapore is a densely populated country with 5.5 million people living on what we affectionately call ‘the little red dot’ – just 718 square kilometres (276 square miles) so you can understand the imperative.

Every marketing tool known to mankind was employed to advance this campaign. There was a mascot – Singa, the Courtesy Lion – advertisements on radio, TV and in newspapers, courtesy songs, posters, leaflets, stickers, badges, t-shirts, coffee mugs, vases, contests, essay competitions and even a musical coin that played a courtesy jingle. Everything issued by the government came with a courtesy slogan.

However, in May 2013, Singa resigned. In an open letter, the courtesy lion said he was “just too tired to continue facing an increasingly angry and disagreeable society.” Having been in the job for over 30 years, Singa noted that kindness should not be a campaign but a part of inherent values – he has a point. His letter also went on to say that, “it’s not that we aren’t a gracious society or that kindness is not innate in all of us, but some days it feels like not very many of us believe in or care about expressing kindness.”

The irony is that Singapore is by world standards one of the safest, if not *the* safest country where your children will not encounter violence or any other socially unacceptable behaviour while out walking with friends late at night (which is completely normal and acceptable). All we have to complain about is people rushing to get on the MRT before those vice-like doors chop your arms off and not having fair room to move on the footpath.

However, not one to give up a fight and despite Singa’s scathing letter of resignation, we now have a new campaign to remind us to be decent human beings – the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) which offers some excellent tips for those of us still not sure on how to go about it. Like it or not, you will be kind.

One response »

  1. As you know, Leigh, I’m a person who does a lot of urban walking. I’m glad pedestrians in Chicago aren’t as defiant as those in Singapore.

    Here, if I run into a bunch of people coming from the other direction and I don’t feel like getting out of their way, stopping at least makes them split up and walk around me, They don’t deliberately walk into me.

    On the other hand, a Courtesy Campaign or Kindness Movement in this city would be considered a joke. Our recently re-elected mayor is said to be, on a personal level, as rude as they come. All the voters here care about is whether he gets the job done!

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