Why Singaporeans criticise and condemn

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By Augustine Low

Emotion can be a powerful thing. But it is also a double-edged sword.

A 2012 Gallup Poll suggested that Singaporeans were the least emotional people in the world. It painted a picture of Singaporeans as robotic and dispassionate.

On the other hand, South Koreans prize their emotional temperament. There is heavy emoting on Korean film and TV. In sports, Korean passion is unmatched – even die-hard European soccer fans were astonished at the ebb and flow of Korean emotion for the game during the 2002 World Cup.  And in politics, debates frequently descend into shouting matches or even brawls at the National Assembly.

It all came to a boil in the aftermath of the Sewol ferry disaster. There was unrestrained fury at the government. Victims’ families vented their anger and frustration, throwing water bottles at the Prime Minister and hurling abuse at the President. They also denounced rescue efforts, officials and journalists. Some families even hired their own divers to look for survivors, angry with the slow progress made by government-hired divers.

The country’s highest circulation newspaper gave an analysis of what has transpired.

“These terrible tragedies keep happening because Korean society has focused only on fast progress, while treating safety regulations as a hindrance,” said the Chosun Ilbo. “The government, businesses and the whole of society need to reflect on these fatal shortcomings . . . we are ‘palli, palli’ (‘hurry up, hurry up’) people and we have done so much in a short period of time.”

Both locals and expatriates also see a hardware-software mismatch in a country whose stunning transformation from war-torn, peasant backwater in the 1950s to high-tech industrial powerhouse in the 1990s took just four decades. While South Korea’s manufactured goods and high technologies are impressive, some procedures, systems and mindsets lag behind.

Singapore, like South Korea, has also come far in just four decades.  There are lessons and parallels we can draw, especially the recurring lapses in safety and security, the strain on transport infrastructure and the stresses caused by the huge influx of immigrants.

Singaporeans have for sometime now felt that to ‘hurry up, hurry up’ all the time, to seek progress at all cost, could lead to unintended consequences.

In essence, not habitually giving vent to emotion can be a saving grace for Singaporeans. It helps to temper passion with reason. It helps that we unleash criticism and condemnation at the authorities or the government for a reason, and not hold them accountable for each and everything gone wrong.

Singaporeans may not be an emotional lot (although it is far-fetched to say we are the least emotional people on earth).

But when the gloves come off, it is not because Singaporeans simply love to complain, as the government has said numerous times. More often than not, the complaints and criticism come with good reason and good intention. We ought to at least give ourselves credit for that.