Last week, a young Singaporean by the name of Sheryl Chen was applauded for her display of courage and good judgment in intervening in a xenophobic episode.

On Facebook, the 22-year-old penned an angry but thoughtful account of how she stood up to a “Chinese uncle” who berated a migrant worker for speaking on the phone on the bus.

The incident happened as the Tower Transit Service 41 headed towards Toh Guan. The migrant worker tried to explain that he was free to use his phone in a public space, but the aggressor went on to hurl abuses, insisting that the worker should “know his place as a foreigner”. He also demanded to be respected as a senior person.

Singaporeans may not be a vocal and assertive lot, but there are times where it is imperative that we speak up and take a stand, as Chen demonstrated.

Upon realising the other passengers were fully cognizant but not coming to the worker’s aid, she decidedly stepped in and politely told the aggressor to calm down. With the help of another worker, she prevented a fight from breaking out between the two.

Chen may not have saved lives from burning buildings, but she is definitely a hero in her own right. In recognising her responsibility not to stand by silently, she gave voice to a disempowered, marginalised community and restored dignity.

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At the SKM’s ‘Happy Go Round’ event held at Tuas Dormitory in 2015, migrant workers and locals seized the opportunity to make new friends and bridge the invisible divide. Image Source: Singapore Kindness Movement

“Singaporeans, you are really so ugly.”

While I don’t fully agree with her ending statement, it does point to a sorry state of affairs. Not only did the shameful xenophobic tirade reveal a deep-seated sense of superiority, I am also baffled by the indifference of the other passengers.

Surely they were not blinded to the injustice and pain being heaped upon the victim? They might even have been up in arms if it was a video of the same incident they saw online. But why did they not see the need to help there and then?

This would not be the first time that Singaporeans stood frozen in an episode of bullying and aggression. A video that surfaced last year of a man accosting a teen over an offensive T-shirt revealed that only one person stepped in to defuse the situation.

When interviewed, the intervener, Muhammad Hanafie, said he stepped in as he feared the aggressor “would get physical” towards the victim.

Underlying Chen and Hanafie’s responses to their respective situations is a sense of frustration towards injustice being played out before their eyes, as well as the inaction of the public. Hanafie said he was disappointed that no one else came forward.

The hesitance towards standing up to a bully is perhaps understandable. There is always the fear of further provoking the aggressor and subjecting oneself to physical threats, as well as the belief that someone else will do it – a perceived diffusion of responsibility.

But by rubbernecking, our tolerance is interpreted as encouragement and silent approval towards the act of bullying. As bullies crave an audience, they can really be egged on by our silence.

The fact that we look to others for signals on what to do in such situations can perhaps work for us. The next time we see someone working up the nerve to mediate, take that as a positive cue and feel empowered to do the same.

If unsure of what to do, we can turn to the next person and work out a plan together. Studies have shown that safe and correct intervention can stop bullying within 10 seconds more than half the time. There is a higher chance a bully will stop if others openly display disapproval.

Effecting change is hard. It does take pluck to speak up against something that is wrong, more so in a very public place.

But the moment we shake off the initial fear and start to believe that helpful bystanders can make a difference, as Chen and Hanafie did, change begins.

Top Image: Flickr