Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Of The Best And Worst Singaporean Habits

In The Glenn & FD Singaporean Habit Challenge, Class 95 FM urged listeners to phone in what they thought were the worst and best of typical Singaporean habits.

I'm a fan of Robin Sharma as well as Stephen Covey. If a book were to be written entitled 7 Habits of Highly Effective Countries, I'd vouch for Singapore as one of the first countries the author should look at. Just a few months ago, my friend Mr. Chippy and I attempted to start a blog that would list one hundred and one simple things that other countries in the region could learn from Singapore and implement locally. We wanted to first set our sights on those that could be undertaken with minimal costs before progressing to the more complex ones that require significant funding. This project is still underway.

Congruent with that original idea, this blog site was created with the intention of celebrating Singapore’s best or at the very least, its goods. With that in mind, I want this post to be consistent with that philosophy (or idea, value, concept or WYWTCI-Whatever You Want To Call It) without losing my grasp of reality. After all, it’s easier to find the worst in people than the best in them. Also, anyone can rant; even my 80-year old grandma and my 5-year old cousin are good at that at times. I’ll save the bests for last and start off with the worsts. I'll stick to lucky number seven (7).

Off To A Worsts Start
  • Not giving way to passengers alighting the MRT

    During my first trip to Singapore four years ago, this was one of the things I admired most -- people following the huge, yellow arrows on the train platforms to give way to alighting passengers, before they themselves boarded.

    Now, I get very annoyed to see a lot of people blocking the doorways and forcing themselves to board the train even before the first alighting passenger takes his initial step.

  • Riding the MRT with an overpowering body odor

    Morning. A man wearing a necktie and having one of those ubiquitous white earphones plugged into his ears boards the MRT. It's definitely him. What possible excuse could he have for not yet having discovered the substance effective at controlling body odor, a commodity commonly known as a deodorant?

    While in theory there may be cultures that do not find bodily odors offensive, I find it difficult to believe that such a culture exists nowadays, and I know for a fact that the Singaporean culture was never one of them.

    I can discern the smell of food on clothes left to dry in the kitchen that have absorbed the aroma of cooking. I can accept that. A person literally sweats to make a living? My heart is bigger than my nose to take that. Someone is sick and can't take a bath? I can bear with that. But not knowing that deodorants were invented for a reason (just like sunscreens) when you have an iPod? I'm sorry, but that's just too much for me to take.

    I know this doesn't technically qualify as a habit, and it's not even typical. It's actually more of the exception. But forming the habit of using deodorants especially for those with special powers seems like a good idea. Can hor?

  • Spitting -- worse, spitting on you

    I've read somewhere that a true gentleman doesn't spit even in his own backyard.

    There's a certain age group that's more prone to this habit that's why I have to be more forgiving here. But please make sure the sprays don't land on another human being. Tissue papers can help too. But then again, isn't this against the law?

    If we do it in the bathroom sink, maybe we can get rid of the evidence?

  • Clearing the table before you're done eating

    In a restaurant.

    "May I clear this?"

    "Why, is it vague?" Fuzzy perhaps?"

    In a hawker center.

    "Should I growl or hold my fork in a certain way when I see auntie approach to scare her away lest she takes my plate before I'm even done eating?"

    Forgive my sarcastic lunch buddy who's bound to give himself a heart attack. The waiters in the restaurants and the aunties in the hawker centers just ignore him anyway. Surely he doesn't appreciate the zealous application of efficiency here.

    This is also one of those things I found a bit discourteous and annoying, more so during my earlier days here. It's difficult to enjoy the food when you have to be on the constant lookout for the auntie clearers.

  • Irresponsible handling of food

    Now this isn't funny or annoying. It's sad.

    I find it hard to believe that some things I consider common sense need to be taught. For instance, when a waiter brings your soup or desert, you wouldn’t expect to see his thumb dipped inside to provide additional flavor, right? What about when serving drinks and putting cups on the tray? Being able to hold several at once may seem like a neat trick but I certainly don’t appreciate it if the fingers go into the cup and touch the ice. Same goes for handing off straws, spoons and forks; shouldn’t the food server know by instinct that he shouldn’t touching the parts that go into the mouth?

    Call me finicky or kiasu (I've learned that word late last year), but I believe good service means not taking such things for granted. Educating our food handlers will certainly lessen the risk of spreading disease. But how?

  • Proof of lunch

    Someone once said to me that the best way to enjoy food is to use one’s hands to eat. I won’t disagree.

    It goes without saying that washing one’s hands before and after eating is a must. There is proof (more than one actually) however that suggest the second part is often times forgotten. Greasy phones, pens, keyboards and mice are on top of the list. If you had a sharp nose like mine, you’d smell the trace of evidence when making a call to confirm your 2 p.m. meeting.

  • Other forms of inconsiderateness

    Such as not moving near enough the person ahead of a queue while waiting for the bus so that more people end up being able to sit, parking a car that blocks the ramp for the disabled, etc.
Saving The Bests For Last
  • Offering one's seat in the MRT to someone who needs it more

    Yes, a lot of people would pretend to be asleep so that they won't have to offer their seats to those who have a greater need. This is indeed annoying. But what is amazing is that someone eventually gives up his or her seat. Always. Chivalry is very much alive with Singaporeans. And I'm referring to both genders.

  • Reading in the MRT

    Singapore has a very high literacy rate (92.5%). But a good number of people reading books on the MRT ride home is praiseworthy. Talk about habits that make good use of idle time.

    Oh, I know someone who listens to audio books stored in his PSP while riding the train.

  • Cabbies' habit of giving your $0.05 change

    Admiring something they ought to be doing and the law requires? Isn't this akin to praising or thanking someone for doing his or her job?

    Ah! You only have to make a trip to Malaysia or the Philippines and try taking a cab when you're there. Expecting the best from people is good practice but losing sense of reality is not -- ask for it if you must but don't expect the driver to use the taxi meter or give you your change (especially loose change). (No disrespect to these two countries, I'm just voicing out my observations like what the rest of this post is all about).

  • Punctuality & Efficiency all around, year-round

    I had to merge these two so I don't go beyond the lucky number because I cannot omit one of my favorite Singaporean habits.

    Efficiency -- there's conscious effort to achieve it, and then to maintain it.

    No wonder, this country has made good progress in a relatively short period of time. The habit of doing things efficiently or finding ways to continuously improve is remarkable. Maybe kaizen is a distant relative of kiasu?

    The downside of this is that the expectations are very high such that some people can be so unforgiving of mistakes. "What!?!? That cannot happen! This is Singapore!"

    Punctuality is a close relative of efficiency. But it deserves special treatment. It's a winning habit.

    Meetings? Bus arrival? Movie start? Parade? Store opening? Chances are, it's on time. Singaporeans respect other people's time. This might be easy to take for granted when you're so used to it. It's not difficult to be reminded and be appreciative of when you're outside the country.

  • Keeping left on the escalators

    Truly this is one of my favorites. How did this even start to be a practice? A government initative perhaps? Was there a campaign suggesting that citizens keep left on the escalators so that people racing to get to their destination can overtake on the right?

    Really commendable. Marvelous indeed.

  • Dressing up

    On the lighter side of things.

    I observed that Singapore ladies are always dressed up whether they're heading to the mall, the zoo or some other place. Good grooming is always a good habit. It's a lovely spectacle too, isn't it?

  • Giving

    This one is all about the heart.

    Money, food, clothing, books and other educational supplies, medicines, medical equipment and supplies, other high-tech stuff. Singapore knows how to give, starting with the government down to its citizens.

    I pass by the blind uncle in the MRTs who sings and plays the organ for a living. It's heartwarming to see people spare him a few coins. Also, how can I not notice the students on a regular mission who go marching around armed with a tin can and a bunch of stickers? You give coins and they give you a sticker in appreciation of your donation. From my point of view, it's an inspiring spectacle.

    Even with the recent scandal associated with the Ren Ci Hospital and Medicare Centre, I hope Singaporeans keep up the habit of giving.
So there you have it. I did not bother to rank them, much more overanalyze. What about you, what are the things you like most about the Singaporeans as a people? What admirable habits, practices or traits do they have that other countries (especially the developing ones) can emulate?

I'd like to end this entry with two quotes. One is from Robin Sharma in The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari -- "Bad habits can never be erased but they can be replaced." And this one, by Vince Lombardi: "Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing."

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At August 2, 2008 at 11:06 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

great post! enjoyed the body odor thingy. gave you a tip ;)

At August 3, 2008 at 2:11 PM , Anonymous KH said...

I think the escalator thingy came from western countries.

And I want to add 2 more - in places like hawker centers or food courts, whenever there's a long queue, it usually blocks the walking path. Some people know how to break the queue to allow passer-by to walk past, but most don't. I think this occurs most in CBD areas when all the office people take their lunch at the same time.

Another one is the usage of ATM. Most involve transfer of funds to another account or when applying for some services. For some reason, some people like to execute everything after they are at the machine and inserted their card. They take out their phones and call up someone to ask for the account number or amount when they are already doing the transaction. Sometimes at the cash deposit machine, they refuse to accept the fact that their notes are rejected after 4-5 attempts and 4-5 people already behind them.

Maybe because I'm a Singaporean, I only see the dark side. =P But I also appreciate alot of things we have here too. Great post anyway. =)

At August 4, 2008 at 5:58 PM , Blogger Singapore Fountain Pen said...

hi kh,

thanks for the additions. you are so right about the queue and the atm. the queue is irritating indeed. sometimes i try to "fix" or "curve" the queue but it's pretty useless when the person behind you doesn't get it.

oh well, these things don't happen just here in singapore. for things like these, i see complaining as a good sign -- it means we want to improve things. but we do miss the good things about home (or any place for that matter) when we're away.


At August 5, 2008 at 5:15 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keeping to one side on the escalator is common sense and one way society manages traffic flow. You find this primarily in big cities, where people let you get off trains, and generally try not to obstruct your path.

As for dressing well, you might want to compare Singaporean women to South Koreans, Taiwanese, Japanese, Hongkongers and Shanghainese, who all dress fairly immaculately. Comparing a city state that's a developed country with a hive of corporate offices to decidedly less formal places like KL, Bangkok, Jakarta and such isn't really much of a comparison at all, mmm?

At August 5, 2008 at 11:17 PM , Blogger Singapore Fountain Pen said...

hi anonymous,


you have a point. ok no, you have two.

and yet common sense is not so common that sometimes (just sometimes) i wish that commonsensical things such as giving way to outbound passengers were passed as laws. of course, individuals could have different common senses. anyway, i think it is still commendable (just as the opposite is abhorring) that most people have the sense and consideration to do what should be done in the first place.

as for the dressing part, i was referring to outside office hours. but then my comparison is not fairly accurate and far from precise so i'm revising that part of my post. so thanks again.

At August 8, 2008 at 4:40 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

just this morning i saw someone clipping nails while riding the mrt. worse, she was allowing her clipped nails to fly all over the place. if i may add, some people don't know how to flush -- their stool samples are not a lovely sight.

At December 21, 2008 at 10:56 AM , Anonymous Robin Sharma said...

I happen to be a big Fan of Robin Sharma too, he is coming to singapore for a public workshop, 15th May 2009. Raffles City Convention Centre.... Hurray

At January 15, 2009 at 6:57 AM , Blogger C K said...

Ah... reading this post does bring back memories of home. Will be checking back again. Cheers!

At April 9, 2009 at 2:49 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robin Sharma "Lead Without Title"



At June 30, 2009 at 6:09 PM , Blogger Jake said...

Sheeshhh felt disgusted about the spitting. its gross eh! even worse than sneezing n public with that woooozzzhhhh sound!

At July 16, 2009 at 10:21 PM , Blogger Tales said...

The body odor on the train is the one that bothers me the most. I can't understand how someone can get dressed in the morning without showering, and then getting on the train smelly. In the afternoon I can accept that some people have worked all day in the heat and sweated, but sometimes the odor is far too overpowering for just one day's work. I've done a lot of hard work in the sun, and I know how people smell from it at the end of the day, and it's quite distinct from the odor that is often present on the trains. That's the odor of not bathing. My wife and I actually had to exit a train once and wait for the next one. The smell was so harsh it burned my nose and made my wife nauseous.

As for what I admire about Singapore, there are a lot of things. I love the efficiency the people have. I love the pride they have for their young country. I love how most people are polite and friendly. I dig how into tech the people are, and how they still take time to read, like you said. I've always loved to read myself. In fact, I'm in the middle of Ayn Rand's Anthem.

At July 17, 2009 at 12:50 AM , Blogger Singapore Fountain Pen said...

Hi Tales, I'd have to say that what bothers you most is the exact same thing that bothers me most. And yes, I've also exited the MRT only to board the same train two cars away, just to get as far as I can from the source of the bad smell. There's just no excuse for not taking a shower in the morning here in Singapore. Bad smell bothers me so much that I had to write The World Of Babahuskis.

Adding Ayn Rand's Anthem to my To-Read list... Thanks!

At January 12, 2010 at 9:34 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

why nobody is complaining about the irritating habit of smokers? They are everywhere! Even now you can still find them smoking inside restrooms, beside bus stops, inside the lifts. I say a total ban of smoking is the only way to stop this. Increasing smoke free areas will not solve this problem as law enforcers can't be patrolling every restrooms/bus stop/lifts in Singapore. Not to forget many smokers also little everywhere.

At July 9, 2011 at 6:01 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi nice to read your post. The body odour thing is getting from bad to worse now. It is not about being racist or what, but some people should know that others around do not share their preference for such smell. Try alighting to Pioneer mrt one day and you will realize that entire place smells different.

Some locals are also peeved at the habits which foreigners from mainland China bring. Locals are not the only one guilty for spitting, littering and cutting queues etc. The pristine and clean image of Singapore is rapidly being tarnished by the influx.

At March 31, 2014 at 11:26 AM , Blogger Jeffrey Lawrence Omar said...

Keeping Left.

This was in fact either a government initiative or one that was done by MRT themselves. I followed this with some interest because I thought the unwritten rule of standing to one side in other major cities made a lot of sense, and I wanted to see if the campaign (which was done on the quiet) would have an effect here.

Several years ago signs were posted on, or near, escalators in the MRT stations, with the suggestion to stand on the left unless you were walking up. No one paid attention at first, but over the years--as more and more people started to follow the suggestion--it started to influence other commuters to keep left when standing. Maybe through more people reading the signs, but I'd lean more towards social osmosis being behind the change in behaviour.

Before the inclusion of the signs people just piled on the escalators and those who were in a rush shoved their way through. It was pretty interesting to see how such a surreptitious campaign could end up influencing public behaviour.


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