Musing #7 – Baby steps towards a more gracious Singapore

“At Youth Corps Singapore, empowering youths to ignite positive change is at the heart of what we do.” – Youth Corps promotional poster

All rights reserved by Youth Corps Singapore

All rights reserved by Youth Corps Singapore

I embarked on my Youth Corps journey to make Singapore better (abrupt introduction after not blogging for months). And yes, Cohort 3 is open for application!

I would like to start off by explaining what community service means for me. After all, I am currently serving my national service, why would I devote my already scarce free time to community service? It is not as if I need to bolster my resume, nor do I need to fulfill compulsory CIP hours.

For me, I genuinely feel immensely thankful for everything this country has given me. A safe environment for my family and I to reside in; a good education that gives me the potential to realise my dreams and ambitions. For these, I am grateful. But I feel even grateful for the opportunities that I can and will have. This is why, I feel compelled to give back.

Currently, my team and I (Zest 1) are working on a project to make Chong Pang Food Market more green and gracious.
Why are we working on a project to make a common heartland food market more green and gracious? Is the one at Chong Pang highly ungracious or very environmentally-unfriendly compared to all other hawker centres around Singapore?

The truth is, no. The one at Chong Pang is highly similar to those around Singapore. It is similar because it is ungracious, and it is not green. Most of us (myself included) Singaporeans are an ungracious lot. Choping of tables with tissue packets. Not cleaning up our own messy tables after eating (not returning your own tray, and leaving food debris(?) on the table). Taking cleaners for granted (not saying thank you, ordering them around, and please stop throwing your tissue papers in to your leftover soup, IT IS DISGUSTING!). All these need to stop, right now.

SHOULD we Singaporeans be proud of this?

The crux of the problem lies not with Chong Pang Food Market, but it is a cultural issue that is nation-wide. It is the social norm that we, Singaporeans had lived with since hawker centres came about. Lai Hock from Ground-Up Initiative shared with us this story. Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) stations began operating in 1987, but it took us, Singaporeans, almost 3 decades to finally start keeping to the left on escalators, and allowing commuters to alight from the trains first. So how long, do we need for us to finally be able to clean up after ourselves in hawker centres?

Most of us cleaned up after ourselves and returned our own utensils in primary schools, secondary schools, junior colleges, ITEs, polytechnics and universities, so what is the reason that we are not doing so when we are outside in the public?

It appears that in a different environment, we have different social norms to guide our behavior. (Social norms are behaviors expected of people in a cultural or group context.) 

I remember this article vividly. The author, Kenneth Thomas, talks about his experience with one of his colleague in a local food court and another in Europe. After finishing his meal with his colleague in a food court in Singapore, he proceeded to clear his tray while expecting his colleague to do the same.but he did not. The colleague justified his action (or lack of) by claiming that he paid for the food, must he also clear his tray? (I agree that from my numerous observations and interaction with patrons and cleaners, it does seem that it is not just a minority of Singaporeans that have this mindset) The ironic thing is that, when in Europe, the author observed this same colleague of his, clearing his tray when he dined out in Europe! In Europe, it is the norm for people to clean up after themselves, and those who do not, are shunned upon or criticised by others.

Did he not pay for his food in Europe? His justification for not clearing his tray in Singapore therefore, does not hold. And what this points to, is that the social norms in Singapore’s hawker centres and food courts are INHERENTLY UNGRACIOUS! Let us not talk about whether is this the kind of Singapore we, Singaporeans would want foreigners to know us by (take a look at this Huffington Post article). Let us just ask ourselves if this is the kind of Singapore we are proud of? It is high time to talk about this (Hello SG50!). It has only been 50 years of nation-building, and we are definitely first class, in terms of economic development. But in terms of social development, I would say, we are simply, not there yet. We can be richer and more prosperous than so many other countries out there, but we are inherently poor in terms of our social values. Is this really what we want? Mr Lee Kuan Yew once mentioned in (year 2000) his book, From Third World to First:

In material terms, we have left behind our Third World Problems of poverty. However, it will take another generation before our arts, culture and social standards can match the First World infrastructure we have installed. – Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First (p. 13)

I am not sure if it is true that by 2025, our social standards will match the first world economic development of our country. But I do know that, if we do not start now, then… who will? If we do not start now, then… when?

We need to start learning how to walk, to take our baby steps, towards a more gracious Singapore.

I still believe in a better Singapore.

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