The Cantonese have a neat phrase 得把口 which translates literally as “got mouth only”. It refers to people who talk more than they do and make light of tasks which are easier said than done. They may talk like experts on the subject, patronising those being talked to, but in reality, they have absolutely no hands-on experience.
There are many forms of NATO – No Action Talk Only. Let’s go through them one at a time.
1. Fantasies Aloud
This should be familiar to all of us if we remember what it’s like when we were 16. We had a lot of dreams and fantasies but we had very few means to fulfill them. So we talked to our closet friends and made those dreams sound like they were going to happen. Such dreams may include dating the prettiest girl in school, being rescued from drowning and given CPR by the charming Chemistry teacher, or some crazy plot to get the discipline master fired. But it’s all talk only. By the time they NATO guy leaves school, he still hadn’t spoken a single word to his dream girl. The girl who had a crush on the Chemistry teacher didn’t even know if he was married. The stooges’ plan to fix the discipline master require technology that work only in the movie Home Alone. Perhaps it’s just as well. It’s best that NATO guy never finds out that prettiest girl is now an auntie. NATO girl is also better off without being rescued by Chemistry teacher. Wearing a smelly denture, he is unlikely to have given a very good CPR.
Dreams are easy to describe, difficult to construct out of thin air. We can spin a tale any way we want. The characters in real life are not so co-operative. Not surprisingly, few of us actually did something about those fantasies. It takes a lot less energy to talk about dreams than to work on them. However, there are a few obstinate souls out there. I was one of them. I didn’t just dream about being a writer. I actually became one.
My 12-year-old’s fantasy is to live in a bungalow. I can’t remember the floor plan he described in great detail, but it seems that he has a pretty good idea what he wants. The only trouble is, that bungalow is quite unlikely to be built in Singapore.
2. Armchair Critics.
“So stupid, just drop a nuclear bomb on ISIS.”
Have you heard this one? These folks have existed since our mammoth-hunting days. Yes, I’m talking about the one standing above the heat of the action, scolding everyone for not sharpening spears, bringing more rope and knives. Yes, we’ve all seen or even worked with “leaders” like that in our lives. Some of these folks are already leaders at the start of the game. Some rise to the occasion and take on the role when the team runs into a problem and shout “I told you so.”. I believe it’s one of the main reasons people quit their jobs. Interestingly, there are people who remain friends with these armchair critics. It beats me how these clueless people can derive pleasure from being directed by an equally clueless guy.
Before Google, many pseudo-experts were having a field day and deceiving millions with copy-and-paste. Some were giving investment tips and market predictions which the gullible took as god-sent. I was one of the first among my peers to call the bluff on these plagiarisers by inserting a unique phrase into Google search.
3. The Business NATO
You may or may not have encountered this one and the “business NATO” may not be someone involved in business. It could be a not-for-profit fundraising project. It could be grand expedition or groundbreaking undertaking. We present a humble concept to them. They suggest that we turn our molehills into mountains. They like our plan, but they think we should think bigger and bolder. With added confidence, we proceed to push the envelope and puff up the budget. We think we’ve got the dream team in place, but when it’s time for action, these folks become uncontactable.
Because my book Leaving The Pain Behind involved a lot of collaboration with models, tattoo artists etc, it was also in this project where I met the most NATOs in this category. I’ve written about the experience in my Facebook notes. Suffice to say here that the people I ended up working with are none of the people I started working with. Being a man of action, it had all been a very frustrating experience for me. No wonder so many projects are going solo.
Yes, it takes a lot of effort and courage to get off the couch and start doing something different. Those of us who have dreams, plans and the drive to go hands-on must remember that we can’t pick our partners and associates based on the enthusiasm they show us.
4. Facebook Likes
By now, every business that has a page on Facebook should have come to the realisation that Facebook ads and a huge number of fans don’t mean anything. It’s too easy to hit the like button. Some do it not because they really like your status update of new photo but because they want to get noticed by other fans on the page. Similarly, replies like “take care” are as meaningful as the “have a nice day” that the checkout girl says to every customer.
Some people ask me why I never fall ill. Well, I do catch a cold from time to time, but announcing it on Facebook invites a reply I really hate:
To me, that’s worse than not saying anything. It means:
“Actually, I’m not interested. But since you told me, I’ll just do the proper and polite thing.”
Besides “take care”, there are a lot of fake stuff on Facebook. Anyone who has met up with online friends will know that many of the characters we find on Facebook are not what they are in real life. Of course, even before Facebook, online forums have been full of rather impressive alter egos of common folks like you and me. There was one claimed to be a billionaire who had made billions from equities. There was another one who kept bragging about his connections in high places. One woman told intriguing stories about all the men who tried to hit on her. A meeting in person suggested that she was probably fantasizing.
5. The NATO Activist
There are many way by which we can show our concern for the environment and the less fortunate. Star opposition politician Nicole Seah tried to be honest about it. She ended up burned out. Real work is important. So are delegation and publicity.
On April 10th 2015, a client service manager for Guide Dogs Association of the Blind by the name of Ms Cassandra Chiu tried to enter an upmarket store in Ngee Ann City with her guide dog. She was stopped and verbally abused by the security guard. She resigned from her post and an outpouring of sympathy hit social media. The lynch mob, comprising mostly of virile youngsters waiting to enter their favourite pub or students “resting” in between stacks of homework, expressed their “anger” and “indignation”. It’s an impressive show of sympathy, but I doubt many of them are volunteers at Singapore Association For The Visually Handicapped.
Nevertheless, the company took their “sentiments” so seriously that it fired the poor security guard. This is not the first and it won’t be the last time someone loses his job because of public outrage. But how “outrageous” is this show of sympathy. It is easy to appear righteous and say the right things. It’s easy to show your displeasure when it appears that a vulnerable individual has been bullied. It’s not so easy to show sustained concern and help the visually handicapped in more tangible ways. Let’s not fool ourselves that the anger observed on social media is any indication of how caring people are towards visually handicapped people.
The public reacted in a similar way when Roy Ngerng et al were accused of “heckling” special needs kids. It was a golden opportunity for their critics to nail them. The response was so overwhelmingly against Roy Ngerng et al because it was yet another excellent opportunity for the average Ah Beng and Ah Seng to appear as model citizens by coming to the protection of these vulnerable children.
But what would their reaction be if one of these special needs kids were to step on their foot? What if they encounter one of these special needs children repeating their order 100 times at the counter? What if they talk to themselves or keep spinning around on the MRT? I’m qualified to answer that. They show impatience, disgust and some may even scold the parents of these kids for not teaching them properly or not keeping them at home.
Frankly, I’m not surprised if Roy Ngerng et al actually care more for these kids than their detractors do. All this “public outrage” should be put in perspective and taken with a pinch of salt.
6. Indian Chiefs At Home
I’ve touched on the topic of Indian chiefs a few years ago. Let me bring the subject a little closer to home – literally.
It can be quite a challenge to shun NATO people when they are our spouses and parents. These are the people who seem to know how to do things better than you can but somehow decide to let you do it. This is still not to difficult to understand. They don’t want to get their hands dirty. They don’t want to take the blame in case something goes wrong.
But what about folks who do exactly the same things that they scold you for doing. At one moment, they may scold you for spending so much time in front of the computer (even when you’re a writer). The next moment, they spend the whole night watching videos on their iphones with the external speaker volume turned to maximum. And that’s about the only thing they do when they’re at home. Even busy writers take time off to tend to their kids.
It’s right not to let kids spend too much time on video games. But there are parents who simply give an instruction like: “Don’t let the kids play so much video games.” without even looking up from the screen of their own iphones. It may sound funny and scenes like this are often used in sitcoms, but when it keeps going on in your own home, trust me, you won’t laugh.
With the kind of curriculum being thrust upon our kids these days, it is quite understandable for parents to engage private tutors. The parents themselves may be professionals, but scoring points in the current system may be out of their league. But while tutors can handle the nuts and bolts of answering questions set by people who belong in mental institutions, parents still have a part to play. They still need to show some emotional support for their stressed and anxious child. If I were a child in this situation, I would want my parents to show me that they are in this with me and not set targets based on how much money they have invested on tuition and reference books.
“Why aren’t you studying? Don’t stand behind me. It’s not good for my mahjong game.”
No, I didn’t attend any school for parenting. This is something I “pick up” instinctively. A child’s failure is also a parent’s failure. Strangely, some parents act as if they have already done their best by paying for tuition. If the child still doesn’t do well, they start a length postmortem. It’s the child’s fault, it’s the tutor’s fault, the husband’s fault, the in-laws’ fault, the maid’s fault but never their fault.
It’s not difficult to understand how NATOs come about. It’s always easier and safer not to do something than to do it. When you have a crush on someone, rejection is a real possibility. Talking about doing it or letting others do it gives one plenty of authority to criticise. You could be a teacher who sets very high standards for your students.
“Can’t even answer such a simple question. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
What your students may not know, is that you’re just a NATO teacher who has been given all the answers from the very beginning. The online environment has made it a lot easier for one to NATO through life, but bear in mind that no matter which type of NATO you are, someone somewhere is going to call your bluff somehow.
© Chan Joon Yee