A Wonderful Weekend In Singapore!

Experiences from the weekend:

  • Some Chinese people know nothing about any of the other cultures that live in Singapore. At a formal dinner on Friday, we (I and other law graduates) were served Malay food. When the gado-gado arrived, people were staring at it blankly and asking what it was. When some of us (I and the Indian guy next to me) read “potato cutlets” on the menu and concluded that it was probably bergadil (I have no idea how to spell it, because it never appears on the menus, but I’ve used the word my whole life), others looked blank and said they’d never heard of that either. Over the months I have been home, I have also met a first class honours NUS law grad who, when told the cuisine we were eating was from Kerala, said “What is Kerala?”, Chinese people who don’t know Muslims don’t drink alcohol, and Chinese people who know nothing whatsoever about Eurasians. So much for Singapore being a multi-cultural society. If you’re Chinese, apparently none of the others matter.
  • Multiple travel agents promised that I could take a direct ferry from Tanah Merah ferry terminal to Tioman, and offered to sell me tour packages on this basis, but the service stopped running in June.
  • Singaporeans are willing to queue up for hours to secure condominium bookings, Hello Kitty commemorative dolls, and Singapore Idol audition slots. They are also noted (derided?) for their compliance with rules and respect for authority. However, announcements in four languages and so many ground markings that the platform looks like the scene of a gruesome arrow massacre are not enough to persuade Singaporeans to let people off the train before shouldering them aside and charging in, before sitting comfortably in seats reserved for the elderly/pregnant, studiously ignoring the at least eight-month-pregnant woman teetering in front of them.


  1. I didn’t realise at first that the title was meant ironically and actually spent most of the first bullet point waiting for the “But”. More the fool me…

    On Singaporean-Chinese racism… a woman from the Philippines came up to me today and said that she had this running joke with a number of Singaporeans that we abuse Philippinos. I couldn’t bring myself to join in in the spirit in which she meant it, it was just so awfully true. Sometimes I can laugh at our people with equanimity; other times I just want to cry.

  2. Tell me about it. Talking to a rental agent about renting a flat. They ask if I was Singaporean. I said yes, but my boyfriend’s American, is that ok? He says oh yeah…as long as he’s not Indian. I gasped and asked if the landlords specifically said that. He said yes in a matter of fact way. It’s a curious thing. And horrid.

  3. I kept waiting for surprise/disgust/annoyance to set in and it just didn’t.

    btw, Michelle, I think bergadil is an adaptation of a dutch word along the lines of beurgadill – think I saw it in a hotel once. It’s Eurasian/Nonya. Oh! It’s in Violet Oon’s cookbook of Singapore home cooking.

  4. I was talking to a friend about the strange attitudes of Singaporeans just recently, and we concluded that we hyper-industrialised and achieved near first world standards too fast for our ‘kampong’ cultural standards to assimilate. Hence, we have the existence of behaviour mentioned in this post, and subsequently, the government-perceived need for public campaigns to be more civic-conscious and polite, and to be more racially aware, etc, which basically makes everything here even more wonderful.

    Go blame it all on Asian modernity.

  5. I agree with M. Patrick wonders why despite all the marks and arrows on the MRT floor, people insist on rushing on the train before letting people come out first. He has a great temptation to elbow those people. I explained what M talks about. We tried to leapfrog into ‘civilization’ so quickly. That ol’ kampong survival instinct survives. Am pretty sure London was a plague-ridden shithole to live in in the early days of industrialization (or at least Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Great Expectations told me it was). They had about 150 years to become polite(r), “re-fined”, “civilized”.

  6. I think this particular explanation only goes a little way torwards explaining kiasu-ism. There are plenty of countries that have suffered more deprivation more recently that Singapore – say Eastern Europe and Russia. Yet their social manners are generally excellent.

    In my own country we have our fair share of mean, rude grasping people (they survived the famine and thrieved in the aftermath). Yet rules about stepping onto or off trains are not and were never neccessary.

  7. I agree with Alec. I am also wary of the glibness of some of these ideas – modernity, civilisation. I’m not hearkening back to some Eden full of noble savages all living in harmony. I just don’t think that being, well, a rich society necessarily has that much to do with being a kindly one. Singapore’s problem is not that it was recently materially impoverished or that historically it has been backward. Its problem is more that it has been forcibly held in spiritual impoverishment and the development of its sense of history has been retarded. That’s what I think, anyhow.

  8. Kelly and M, you make good points, but I’m not sure if I’m understanding you right on one thing: this idea of “kampung standards”. My idea of “kampung standards” of behaviour is that they actually involve a strong sense of neighbourliness. There’s even a Malay word for it – gotong royong I think. Is this what you mean, or are you using “kampung” in the “BALEK KAMPUNG LAH!” sense? :)

    Also, I agree with Alec that in many other places which have also seen rapid development, people have not lost their social graces. You can see it right here in South East Asia – just look at Bangkok. The city has seen rapid development, its people run the gamut from high-flying sophisticates to menial labourers, but I have not met a single Thai there who was not impeccably polite.

    And lastly, I’m not sure how being “plague-ridden” would be relevant to social graces in London, but I would just say that one of the most famous examples of people retaining their concern for others in the middle of terrible adversity is from London – the “Blitz spirit”. Staying human while your city is being bombed to a cinder and your country is fighting completely alone against Nazi Germany is pretty admirable to me.

  9. Michelle, you’re right. “Kampung spirit” is the wrong word to use, but my friend and I can’t come up with another better word, so I shall just leave it nebulously as “the kind of spirit people had in those days, pre-industrialisation in the late-1960s/1970s”. To add on to the glibness and the fluffiness, we were discussing the impact of the sudden moving into demarcated tightly compressed spaces (i.e. HDB flats) on the Singapore psyche.

    I agree with Jol about Singapore being held in spiritual impoverishment. (how is it forcibly held?) I look at Thailand, after Michelle’s example, and I think the politeness of the people is grounded in a belief in the Buddhist religion which promotes a sense of grace towards others. I run the risk of falling into generalizations, but could we claim that Singaporeans aren’t all that religious, or even, that Singaporeans follow a more practical religion of material attainment? From what I hear about a certain minority of more radical churches, (heard from friends, not personally verified), they push a certain kind of ethic that revolves around worshipping God to earn money and achieve wealth, which could be seen as a more extreme expression of this formless geist that we’re talking about.

    After all, most of our ancestors came here with the aim of making money. Whether they formed the necessary bonds to larger community, that’s another question that has yet to be answered.

    Just throwing in some ideas, albeit big vague ones. : )

  10. Sorry… it just occurred to me. Might it be more useful to compare the attitudes of Singaporeans with those of Hong Kongers?

  11. I’m not quite sure where the discussion has moved too. Are we talking about getting on/off trains, social graces, social solidarity or something else? Well here are my two cents anyway.

    Kampung spirit and HGB flats: I’m still not buying what your selling M. Singapore is exceptionally well planned, flats are generally large compared to other large Asin cultures and there’s a fair bit of space between flat complexes with trees, parks, facilities etc.

    Religion: Certainly this must have an impact on the way people interact. And religion doesn’t occupy the same place in the Singapore psyche that it does in Thailand, but it still seems an ardently religious country compared to the great majority of the developed world.

    Emirgration: I can see some logic to the idea that Singapore is a product of an emmirgrant population. My experience of other cosmopolitan cities is that emmirgrants become totally assimilated after a gereneration or two. The young share nothing of the experience of emmirgration. This must be particulaly the case in Singapore with its excellent education system

    Social solidarity: Singapore has this in bucketloads. Generally the people seem inordinatly willing to jump through whatever hoops the governement puts up, to follow the bureacracy and obey the laws. So why all this trouble inforcing the boarding of trains?

    Social graces: Perhaps the problem is cultural. Modern social graces are essentially a European construct. Chinese culture will have its own sets of favoured behavior and these are bound, on occasion, to clash. The comparison with Hong Kong would be an interesting test of this theory.

  12. Sorry, Alec, for throwing this discussion all over the place with disparate ideas : ) Will attempt to tie it all together.

    I see Singaporeans rushing to get on and off the trains as an example of a lack of social graces. This behaviour could also be due to other factors, and I’m trying to think through the possible factors now.

    The idea of “kampung spirit” thing (or whatever it is) was just a more geographically-based conjecture. As far as I understand, Singaporeans were living in overcrowded conditions — shacks and slums, what is “retrospectively romanticized as Kampongs” (‘Beyond Description’ 7) in the pre-HDB days, and that could have caused Singaporeans to adopt particular attitudes and habits in their daily living and interaction. These attitudes and habits must have changed when the HDB blocks, these well-planned, spacious, high-rise blocks suddenly came up, and people had to move in to live in those, along with changes in infrastructure, etc.

    Someone told me once that his Cambodian girlfriend screamed when she saw an escalator in a shopping mall and refused to step on it. Until today, I see old aunties still struggling with escalators and other modern contraptions, so I assumed that these environmental changes must have some sort of impact on Singaporeans’ behaviour. Exactly how they have impacted, I’m still not sure. It was just a conjecture. : )

    There was another point that I must have been attempting to make about Singaporeans having this almost religious attitude of being first in everything. This is related to a constant drive towards material attainment.

    This could be due to the fact that Singaporeans have always been pushed to be the best (we are the Little Nation that Could), to achieve. This, of course, is a generalization, but I thought it could possibly explain why Singaporeans lack social graces and rush for their seat in MRT trains, or refuse to give up their seats for someone who is in a more unfortunate situation, and kiasu-ism, I guess. My example of the radical church’s stance illustrates more extremely the perpetuation of this attitude of needing to be first in pursuit material attainment — it’s been institutionalized and proposed as religious doctrine to a proportion of the masses.

    Your point on emigration is interesting. It brings me back to Michelle’s point on the Londoners showing solidarity in the face of bombing, their “blitz spirit”. The young share no experience of emigration. The young in Singapore share no common experience of adversity on such as scale, hence they do not have any opportunity or impetus to develop any such spirit.

    And yeah, I agree with you that the problem might be cultural. People do complain about Hong Kongers sometimes in similar ways, and maybe that’s closer to home.

    Although, I’m aware when we talk about ‘Hong Kongers’ and ‘Singaporeans’ and whoever else, they are all just very very big generalizations, and we are not doing everyone to a certain extent, justice. : )

  13. Thanks for the clarification M. I enjoyed this last comment and find all the conjecture reasonable and credible. I’d like to discuss this further but I’m in between exams right now, so I’m not very often online.

    I’m still not convinced by the Kampung Spirit thing. I think the effect is just common ordinary urbinisation. Old fashioned manners and social graces become victims of stress and anonymity in all large cities. Perhaps Singapore in the old days with its kampungs and slower pace of life was a bit more like a village.

    And of course you’re right that we’re engaging in a shocking level of prejudice and generalisation (particularly myself whose only ever spent three weeks in Singapore) but sure, where’s the harm in an idle discussion.

  14. May I just add that I didn’t mean religion when I talked about spiritual impoverishment. I just meant… general soullessness, lack of imagination, a sort of where’s-the-love-y’all kinda thing. Yeah, I know, I’m real precise.

  15. What’s with the whole “I disagree, but I respect your opinion” vibe I’m getting here? Blog comment sections should be reserved for flaming, verbal abuse and tides of invective.

    So in summary, Singaporians are rude because they’re mostly chinks.

  16. James……………………………………………………………………………………………………………….Alec.

    Distancing myself from those last comments.

  17. a Singaporean jumping in with both feet. :P

    i’m not going to add to the discussion, mainly because i’ve never got any closer to discovering the “reason” for Singaporean rudeness after all my 19 years of trying. sometimes, it’s just the perceptions and definitions of people that make the “problem” seem bigger than it really is. like for example what do we define as rude?

    yesterday on the (extremely crowded peak hour) train somebody got up to leave and this young punk with coloured hair made to sit down — but was thwarted by the person who just got up, and who ushered an elderly lady into the seat instead. later the young man found a seat (with no other elderly ladies in sight), and when he eventually got off he held the seat politely for this little boy who was standing in front of him. so hmm. is he rude or isn’t he?

    i object to the comment about chinks! we all came from North Africa anyway… :P

  18. When he held the seat for the little boy, he was probably being ironic. At least, during the morning rush hour in London, that’s how I would perceive it.

    I’d also say that, the reason I’ve only joined this comments list now is because until now, the conversation has been too intellectual for me.

  19. I’m sure you could have joined in at least a little earlier Matt, say around the time of James’ comment.

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