Yawning Bread. October 2006

What a clean and cultured place we have




Martin Goh beat me to it. I've been collecting pictures over the last few months for an essay about Singaporeans' disgraceful social behaviour, and I was almost ready. But he got to the Straits Times' Forum page before I got to my website.

Not that I disagree with him. I most assuredly second all the points he made. In fact, barely 5 minutes before I saw his letter, I was muttering to myself how impolite our service staff were.

You see, I was just entering a McDonald's restaurant, pulling open the glass door to let myself in. Just then, two employees, probably going off duty, came out through the door. Giggling to each other over something, they hardly broke step, so I had to fall back to let them pass. So there I was, a (hopefully) valued customer of McDonald's holding the door open like a hotel doorman for 2 young women still in the company uniform. They went past me with no eye contact and certainly not a word of appreciation.

If I had been their boss, I would have been fuming mad. But this is Singapore. Hardly anyone thinks this kind of behaviour is inexcusable.

My friend was late, so I found a seat inside and read the Straits Times. That's when I saw Martin Goh's letter.

Must Singaporeans 'behave like pigs'?

Recently, my friend from Australia commented that Singaporeans behaved like pigs. I disagreed, saying that at most it's a small minority who behaved that way.

He challenged me to a test. I accepted his challenge, determined to prove him wrong. I was bitterly disappointed.

Here is an account of what happened.

My friend, my wife, our one-year-old son in a pram and I (wearing a neck brace and with my arm in a sling from injuries sustained in a car accident) went for an MRT ride. My wife and son couldn't get into the station for some time because other commuters kept using the gate meant for the disabled, ignoring her and the pram.

When the train arrived, people rushed in while alighting passengers rushed out. No one gave way to my wife and the pram. She had to compete with the horde to get onto the train. To make things worse, those standing at the doorway refused to move in, making it even more difficult for her.

Once on board, no one bothered to give up his seat to my wife, who was carrying our son. Those seated were young, able-bodied and educated (executive-type) adults. Finally, it was two Thai workers who gave up their seats to us.

Later, an old woman boarded the train. Again, no one gave up his seat until a man in a neck brace and an arm sling did so.

When we reached our destination, we tried to take the lift from the platform to the ticket concourse. The lift was packed with able-bodied people. My friend asked that my wife and the pram be allowed in but one man turned around and remarked rudely, 'Why can't you take the next lift?'. I was shocked beyond words.

We went to a packed food court for lunch. No tables were available. We waited and finally noticed a couple leaving. We inched our way towards their table but, with just 5m to go, a group of office girls ran ahead of us and took the table.

When we finally got a table, it was unbelievably messy. There were chicken bones, spilt sauces and prawn shells all over the table.

I turned red in the face when my friend, who was helping to clear the table, asked, 'So, do you still think that it's only a minority of Singaporeans that behave this way? If so, take a look around you. Look real hard at the tables when they leave... You guys eat like pigs.'

Martin Goh Lye Thiam 

-- Straits Times Forum, 14 October 2006

As I said, I've been collecting pictures. I've not been going out of my way to take them, but snapped them only on days when I had a camera with me for some other purpose. One of those other purposes is to build a portfolio of photographs like the one on the right, taken slightly past 7 p.m. from across Marina Bay towards the financial district.

We like to think of Singapore like this - a glossy, sophisticated city. We believe we're a modern, well-behaved society and we take pride in the "clean and green" label we have coined for ourselves. 

But it's not difficult, after I have shot a picture like that, to shoot some other pictures showing a different side of Singapore. These, more typical, scenes are not hard to find.

On the left is one I took of a black stone bench at People's Park. Some people have been eating there. There's a coconut, left-overs of a water-melon, some noodles with gravy spilling out, a plastic cup, straws and tissue paper.

The sunken space at the lower right of the picture is actually a planter. It's now full of trash. I can't imagine anything growing there except worms.




Perhaps you can't blame the people, some of you might say, for the bin nearby (right) was already overflowing. Indeed, one of the problems I have noticed is the relative scarcity of trash bins in heavy-traffic locations. Many times, I have walked a hundred metres or more looking for a bin to deposit an empty bottle or food wrapper.

I do think that people who plan municipal sanitation tend to undersupply bins, perhaps to make it easier for their workers - they don't have to stop at so many places.

But if so, it's short-sighted, for then, other workers would have to sweep up the mess on the ground.

But is the shortage of bins the real reason for bad behaviour? The next two pictures prove otherwise. 


The one on the left tells you some people have been enjoying durians but leaving the husks behind. The bin - virtually empty - is just paces away, but it's too far to walk?

The second picture leaves you equally speechless. Do people not see the virtually empty bin? Is the green thing just a signpost that says, "You're forgiven if you dump your trash somewhere in this general vicinity"?

Martin Goh referred to a foodcourt in his letter. We're all familiar with the disgusting mess people leave behind. But it's not just foodcourts. The  picture on the left was taken at a BurgerKing fast-food restaurant. Almost everywhere else in the world I've been, people clear their own tables when dining at fast-food places - that's why they give you trays. But trays notwithstanding, clearing your own table is not the done thing in Singapore. Menial labour is for others.

Then trains. This is how we wait for the train to arrive:

And when it has come and the doors open, we push our way in. Those trying to exit (two of whom are arrowed) have to squeeze their way out; nobody gives way to them, nor to anyone with young children. Notice how the woman with the child in her arms has to fight her way like everyone else.

About a month ago, my friend and I were on the platform of Siam Skytrain station, Bangkok. We saw something that would be as rare as snow in our home city. I said to my friend, "Do you have a camera with you? Yes?"

"Please take a picture now!"

Shame, Singapore, shame.

Yawning Bread