My friend Dr Dominic Leung was making an unusually long and serious comment on Facebook about disadvantaged people having a sense of entitlement. I was somewhat amused when this morning, an example of that phenomenon he was commenting on virtually slapped me in the face.
I was cooking a pot of sayur lodeh when I suddenly realised that I had forgotten to buy coconut milk. So I turned down the heat on the stove and rushed to the minimart opposite my block to get a packet of coconut milk. As I was entering the minimart, an auntie who was shuffling slowly towards the entrance was blocking my way. She appeared to be in her 60s (about 10 years my senior), but her gait seemed to suggest that she had suffered a stroke. As I overtook her on her right, I felt my left toe (I was wearing sandals) brush lightly against her right foot. I’m very sure that I didn’t actually kick her or stepped on her foot, but I apologised anyway.
I don’t think I need to describe how she shouted and screamed at me and made a scene at the minimart. I’m sure you can imagine that. For someone so frail, she sure had a powerful voice. What’s more, she accused me of stepping on her foot. My foot. Pun intended. But the folks at the minimart seemed to believe every word the auntie said. The impromptu jury was looking at me like I was some villain who made a living out of bullying helpless aunties. I quickly grabbed my packet of coconut milk and made my exit before people in the crowd could start playing hero by checking the lady for injuries (which she may already had) or stop me to demand for compensation. If I stayed long enough to irritate the crowd, they may even call the police!
Many years ago when I was travelling on the Silk Road through China, I accidentally bumped into a man on the streets of Urumqi. He dropped a tiny glass bottle on the floor and scolded me for not watching where I was going. He then demanded for Y100 as compensation. That was his medicine – or so he claimed. I refused as I knew it was a setup. Two passerby, probably his accomplices, confronted me and accused me of bullying an ethnic minority. I told them I had friends at the local police station and asked them to accompany me there to negotiate the compensation. They scattered.
Later at Tianshan, I came across several travellers, some foreign, some locals from Beijing and Shanghai, who had similar experiences while travelling in impoverished inland provinces. One trick was to bandage up a foot or arm, bump into the victim, then show that blood has soaked through and ask for compensation. Luckily, the majority of seasoned backpackers and the local population are aware of such scams. They prefer to mind their own business; not because they don’t care about the “victim” but because they don’t care about you. They’re not very helpful, but you won’t find a lynch mob upon you if you’re just an innocent, potential victim of a scam.
Back in righteous Singapore, the thought that I might have had a narrow escape at the minimart today still haunts me. The passerby here are getting more and more “helpful” and enthusiastic to play hero, especially if it’s just keyboard heroism. And unless enough people end up in such difficult situations where you have an apparently weaker person accusing you of causing hurt, there will be many people out there who are denying the fact that we have a problem. We live in an age, not very different from paleo times, when crowds make quick, impulsive judgements and pounce on the accused. Even when the offence does not result in any tangible or probable damage, people call for a virtual stoning session. Why?
A few days ago, when I visited a friend of mine at his clinic, an apparently well-educated man came in and angrily showed pictures of his wife’s denture on his mobile phone. Mr Angry complained that a metal clasp had broken and his wife had probably swallowed it. He claimed that she couldn’t eat and sleep after the incident and insisted on the dentist sending the denture for testing for toxicity and structural defects (at the dentist’s expense) before he made a complaint to every authority he knew. The concerned dentist asked for his wife’s particulars so he could retrieve the records. Mr Angry refused to give any particulars. He went on making his threatening speeches until he was tired of repeating himself.
It was my friend’s to lose sleep. Fortunately, on the next day, Mr Angry’s wife showed up. She revealed that the denture was already very old and she had no problems with it. However, her husband got retrenched recently and suffered from depression. He went online anonymously to pick fights in all the forums he frequented and tried to find fault with all his purchases. Mr Angry also troubled the police on a few occasions when he witnessed “crimes” being committed. Mrs Angry further revealed that her husband used to be holding a very senior position in the corporate world. Retrenchment was a blow to him and unable to exert his authority, he plays hero in other ways.
Imagine yourself reading Mr Angry’s posts online. Without knowing his background and his state of mental health, would you take his postings seriously? Sadly, many Singaporeans are not as street smart as their counterparts in China. They take things at face value and perhaps with issues of lost power or authority themselves, they eagerly partake in virtual stoning sessions.
We shouldn’t discuss court cases which are ongoing. Criticising official judgements and protocols is also not good for our health. But one glaring public phenomenon that we’ve been seeing these days, is the blood-thirsty, vindictive posture adopted by so many supposedly mature adults against maladjusted kids and untactful security guards. Are you on the side of the auntie at the minimart or are you on my side? Well, you don’t have to be on either side. But I would like you to examine if the stand you take is based on emotions or prejudice against whom you perceive as privileged individuals. I would like you to examine if the punishment you prescribe is commensurate with the damage being done. To me, graciousness brings along compassion and magnanimity. Our strait-laced, “zero tolerance” society simplistically defines graciousness as giving up a seat on the MRT. A kindness movement cannot succeed if we seize every opportunity to play the easy hero and stick to our narrow definitions of right and wrong.
Finally, we cannot talk about realising a truly Smart Nation vision without having a better understanding of the fallibility of humans and the necessity of the human mind to step in and pick up the slack from machines and technology. A Smart Nation is not one that runs on an ERP system that does the work for humans so that we won’t need any common sense anymore. A truly smart nation is one that is built on discerning and independent-thinking people who can show true graciousness. If machines turn us into sheep or wolves, then we should use these machines less. The Internet, social media in particular, is fertile ground for any call for justice to turn into a juggernaut. It’s dangerous to stand in its path even when you are the only one who is reasoning. While we cannot stop these juggernauts, we must realise that these are just electrons which spill out of the minds of bored, ignored and possibly depressed people who want to be easy heroes. Let’s not take them too seriously.