Essay About Graciousness

The scene in the picture above, taken at City Hall metro station, is not that remarkable now. It might have been so ten years ago, but queuing to board is beginning to catch on. As is standing on the left on escalators.

Social graciousness and civic responsibility are slowly inching forward.

I must admit that for a long time, I have been skeptical that Singaporeans would ever change. Our rude, selfish behaviour seems ingrained in our DNA. With intense competition for scarce resources (e.g. seats on trains), the rational response should surely be to remain pushy. Add to that our deep reluctance to speak up when we see others behave uncivilly, and there is nothing by way of social penalty.

As recently as May 2009, I wrote of several incidents that appalled me. You can read that article here: The rosary woman and other head-shaking tales.

Even now, each of us can easily cite examples of disgraceful public toilets, or of people elbowing their way forward, jumping queues, leaving bubble-tea cups on benches and hotdog wrappers on cinema seats. There is no noticeable progress with respect to clearing one’s own tray at food courts. Stair landings in housing blocks are still cluttered with discarded furniture, and people still take supermarket trolleys all the way home and leave them wherever they please.

More recently in the news was the destruction of an artwork on public display. A third of the pieces making up the installation art went missing.

Even though an online appeal to recover missing art pieces from local artist Karen Mitchell’s work has gone viral, none of the 114 pieces had been recovered as of 6pm yesterday. Last Sunday, Ms Mitchell posted on Facebook that pieces from her art installation at the Singapore Night Festival had gone missing. An online appeal was subsequently put up on Monday to urge people to return them.

Picture source: Substation.org

Titled Everyday Aspirations, her work was made up of 365 words of aspiration cut into pieces of wooden panels. Displayed along the alley between The Substation and the Peranakan Museum, visitors could pick up various pieces and use their own light source to project the shadows of different words and phrases.

— Today newspaper, 28 August 2013, Art pieces still missing despite online appeal

Picture source: Straits Times

Whoever took pieces of Mitchell’s artwork away, let me tell you this: you’re scum.

* * * * *

And yet, we have the neat queues as seen in the topmost picture. Encouraging as the scene may be, I sometimes wonder whether these nascent shoots might wither. All around us, we still see examples of inconsiderate behaviour. For every one who vows to comport himself well, many others don’t. How many of the more thoughtful ones might have found themselves taken advantage of by queue jumpers (for example) leading them to decide: To hell with it, from now on, I’m going to give as good as I get. Why bother to be nice when others only step all over me?

This calculus is analogous to the key thesis giving new insight into effective policing. Named Broken Windows, the theory has been shown to work in several cities including New York. This theory goes like this: When residents see around them broken windows, graffiti, damaged public facilities and litter, they subconsciously or otherwise get the impression that it is acceptable to behave in anti-social or even criminal ways. The signs are that one can do so with impunity. For many others then, come a moment when there is temptation to do likewise, there is less inhibition. As a result there is a reinforcing feedback cycle to anti-social and criminal behaviour.

In Broken Windows, priority is given to repairing windows, painting over graffiti, fixing damaged facilities and generally cleaning up, in order to change the environment and the signals it gives out. It seems to work. There is evidence that crime rates go down.

I’ll grant that the Broken Windows approach is meant to address crimes like drug-dealing, petty violence, burglary and so on, a slightly more serious order of offences than the uncivil behaviour we’re discussing here in relation to Singapore. (Then again, how different are we when pieces of art are stolen?). But civic irresponsibility — the topic we’re discussing here — is arguably on the same continuum as the afore-mentioned petty offences. Its persistence may therefore be (at least partly) the result too of a reinforcing feedback loop. When people behave badly around you, you behave badly too.

While property can be repaired, it would be impossible to expect official intervention to “repair” ungracious and rude behaviour among hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans in their daily interactions. The “fixing” must come from fellow Singaporeans speaking up and admonishing the bad apples in their midst.

Our famous preference for minding our own business now means that this rarely happens, and therefore the broken windows of bad behaviour aren’t fixed.

* * * * *

One widely-held assumption is that education makes a difference — a theory that may be contradicted by the example of many countries with more basic levels of education displaying far higher standards of social behaviour than Singapore. I reckon though, that while there is a very complex aetiology to whatever level of social behaviour we have, education is a significant ingredient.

But if education really makes a difference, why, despite the considerable strides that Singapore has made over a generation or two, has the improvement in social behaviour been at best patchy?

The thought that I am led to is this: There is education and there is pseudo-education.

Education ought to mean development of the mind. With it must necessarily come a broadening of horizons and the ability to see the bigger picture in both long and short historical  perspectives. It should counter basal tendencies towards self-centredness and uncritical allegiance to narrow circles, for which the corollary would be a greater sense of responsibility to the wider world.

Without education, the Other is a more estranged Other; loyalties, empathy and identity are more tightly restricted to family, clan and close circles.

With education, the stranger becomes more familiar. With better connectivity to and more empathetic understanding of people (and increasingly, animals and the environment) further away, our sense of responsibility to wider circles increase. With this widening outlook comes consideration towards strangers, and civic (and planet) responsibility.

Might it be that much of what passes for “education” in Singapore has been more along the lines of intensive training? Yes, our youth may score well in advanced physics, digital animation or nursing skills, but have they been educated? Even at university, how much real education goes on for those in Engineering or Law? The shocking parochialism I have encountered in several high-earning professionals in Singapore have led me to wonder whether, at these professional schools, what is imparted may be more glorified vocational training than stretching of the mind.

If indeed Singaporeans have not had much by way of education, but only pseudo-education, might this explain the slow progress (if any) in social graciousness and civic responsibility?  Is this why Singapore is still accused of being without soul?

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A SMALL TREATISE

ON THE GREAT VIRTUES

The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life.

By André Comte-Sponville.

Translated by Catherine Temerson.

352 pp. New York: Metropolitan Books/

Henry Holt & Company. $27.50.

A MARTIAN who knew some of our literature and religion but nothing about our bodies might be forgiven for thinking that people have seven fingers. Why else would they be so puzzlingly keen to make lists of seven items? We have -- or had -- seven deadly sins, Seven Wonders of the World, seven liberal arts, seven sages of Greece, seven virtues, seven sacraments and (if we are highly effective people) seven habits. The list of lists could go on and on, and most of the collections would be as arbitrary as these, er, seven.

The virtues, to be sure, almost didn't make it. In Plato's day, there were just four cardinal ones: justice, courage, prudence and temperance. But luckily Christianity came along and brought the total up to quota with a convenient trio of theological virtues: faith, hope and charity. Today, it seems, we are more demanding or ambitious. André Comte-Sponville counts no fewer than 18 in ''A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues'': the four cardinal virtues, one theological one (namely love, of which charity, in its Christian sense, is a variant), plus politeness, fidelity, generosity, compassion, mercy, gratitude, humility, simplicity, tolerance, purity, gentleness, good faith (by which he means respect for truth) and humor. Humor? For the author, this important virtue is the capacity that prevents us from taking ourselves too seriously -- an unusual sentiment to find in a philosophy book.

But then this is no ordinary work of philosophy. For one thing, it has been successful: it sat on French best-seller lists for over a year after it was published in 1995. Comte-Sponville, a specialist in ancient philosophy and a professor at the Sorbonne, became something of a celebrity. For a book of philosophy to sell that well in English-speaking countries requires it to masquerade as something else. Jostein Gaarder's ''Sophie's World'' pretended to be for children; Alain de Botton's ''Consolations of Philosophy'' was presented as a self-help book. Mindful, presumably, of what they are up against, Comte-Sponville's American publishers have cannily added a subtitle: ''The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life.''

That is not, quite, false advertising. The book may be steeped in the work of the great moral writers -- there are copious quotations from and discussions of Aristotle, Epicurus, Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche and others, authors who are not exactly from the who-moved-my-soup-from-Venus racks -- but it is by no means an academic tome. In addition to its directness and clarity, well conveyed by Catherine Temerson's translation, it is pretty much aimed at moral improvement rather than textual interpretation, the trademark obscurantism of second-rate academe or the meta-ethical questions (''How do we know what is right or wrong?'' ''What are moral statements about?'') that have given much of postwar moral philosophy in English-speaking countries its constipated pallor.

The point of a treatise on the virtues, for Comte-Sponville, is ''to understand what we should do, what we should be and how we should live, and thereby gauge, at least intellectually, the distance that separates us from these ideals.'' He picked his virtues by asking himself ''what the dispositions of heart, mind or character are whose presence in an individual tends to increase my moral regard for him and whose absence tends to diminish it.'' (This is a subjective exercise, certainly, but there is in fact not much disagreement, even between very different societies, over which qualities are morally admirable.) The exercise yielded some 30 virtues, from which he then subtracted any already covered by some other (as honesty is, in his view, by justice). Having narrowed his field, he sets out to indicate ''what they are, or ought to be, and what it is that makes them always necessary and always difficult.'' He proceeds as a true classicist, drawing on 2,500 years of tradition to probe his own ideas. The virtues we need now, he finds, are pretty much those necessary 25 centuries ago, though the circumstances that call for them may often have changed. The ancient virtue of prudence was never just the art of avoiding harm; it involves the intelligent choice of means to achieve an end, and thus reappears as the ability to calculate risks. Topical applications of this virtue that never occurred to the Greeks include those raised by pollution and its effect on the future.

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