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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.

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What are we working for here at our lessons…

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I’ve just returned from a trip to my hometown of Rockhampton (Queensland, Australia) to celebrate 35 years since we, my girls and I, finished our senior year at the Rockhampton Girls’ Grammar School. But it was a celebration of much more than that. What we know now but didn’t appreciate then – we were in a hurry to be done and out of there – is that we had just spent five years of our lives in a confined and restrictive environment that would foster lifelong friendships and allegiances that can never be broken. No matter what has happened to us along the way, nothing can diminish those five years. And time has only served to bathe them in a golden light much the same colour as our old school berets.

We have a strange and enduring connection. It is difficult to explain. Most people I know do not even have reunions let alone actually look forward to seeing their school friends again. Perhaps it is because we knew each other before we were someone’s spouse or mother, doctor or lawyer. We knew each other before our life’s choices were known. And we did spend the five most tumultuous years of any girl’s life together. There was plenty of drama and trauma along the way and ‘incidents’ which now give us plenty to laugh about. I expect we will never tire of bringing out the old school yarns; soon enough we won’t even remember them as repeats.

On the Sunday morning of our reunion weekend, we were invited back to the school in Agnes Street for a tour around the old stomping grounds. We met a few of our teachers – Mrs Black (maths), Mrs Mulder (history) and Ms Phillips (Japanese). Unfortunately they remember way too much. J I also had a Homer Simpson d’oh moment when I arrived for the morning tea a little late (was watching the World Cup with my nephew) and felt compelled to apologize to Mrs Black on my way past her – it’s not like I had missed anything other than coffee and scones!

The school seemed so huge back then (1975-1979). That walk down the hill to what was the music room and primary school seemed steep and long; it’s not. The library seemed huge and lined with millions of books. It’s now an arts room and considerably smaller in stature to what we remember – in fact it is difficult to imagine we could ever hide in there. The new library is probably even smaller, even relatively so, since the school now utilizes ebooks.

In five more years we will reunite to wax lyrical once more and to fill in the recent part of our stories. Time will pass even more quickly than the last five years such is the nature of growing older. So glad though that I get to spend time with these amazing women while we can still remember our names and our recollections are still sort of consistent.

Races_14 June 2014