What would you do if you see a stranger in tears on the MRT?
Would you reach out to ask if he or she is okay or mind your own business?
In January, a 23-year-old Singaporean Chinese woman noticed an Indian man crying silently on the train and decided to take a seat next to him and ask him if he was okay.
“He was trying to hide it but it was clear to me,” she wrote in an anonymous post on NUSWhispers.
When he did not respond, she decided to comfort him with a hug. This act made the man cry even more, but the woman said it didn’t bother her as she was concerned that he might do something drastic. She continued hugging him for the rest of the journey.
Later, the man told her that he was planning to end his life that day due to familial and financial problems.
She wrote: “He said he did not know nice people like me existed. He said he sees the world differently and he will now try to live and press on.”
Many have lauded her act of kindness.
Netizen Gregory Phua wrote: “You saved his life, and showed him his grief can be filled with care and concern. You are a wonderful human, a person with great compassion and empathy.”
Faith in humanity restored. End of story. Right?
Negative comments from friends and family
While the act of saving a stranger’s life made the woman feel good, she shared that her family and friends did not approve of her actions.
They made comments like, “What if he molested you?” and even made references to his race.
She wrote: “I feel sad getting all these negative comments. I would have given a hug no matter who it is… Race is also not an issue for me.”
Online responses were mixed too, with some asking the woman to be cautious for her safety, not just because of her gender, but especially during Covid-19 when we should practise safe distancing.
Some also commented that it could be a scam. Cases of men with ill-intentions on the MRT are not uncommon, they said.
Netizen Law Ong wrote: “Just thinking what would happen if he is not genuine and then you may feel hurt and bitter which will then lead to one less kind person on earth… I am sure there are other better ways to reach out 😄”
To be or not to be kind
While the answer to this situation is not clear-cut and our responses would depend on our personal level of comfort, I’m heartened that the woman cared enough for a fellow person to reach out to him in a way that she felt was right.
Look at it this way: When someone suffers a stroke in public, the obvious thing any passerby would do is to assist the person or call for help. After all, it is a life-and-death situation.
But what if that someone is depressed and thinking of ending his life? It is also a life-and-death situation – just one that isn’t immediately obvious. One might not even realise that until it is too late. It could be a stranger, a colleague, a friend or even a loved one.
That said, let’s not be too quick to judge those who urged caution against reaching out. I’m sure her family members and friends were coming from a place of concern (not the racist comments, of course!) and had her well-being in mind. This too, is kindness – caring and looking out for those we love.
Kindness is also protecting ourselves and not putting ourselves in situations where we might be taken advantage of.
While Singapore is a fairly safe country, there have been instances overseas when I’ve learnt it does not pay to be kind.
Several years ago, in Paris, when I was still a university student, a friend and I were walking to our apartment (in a relatively safe neighbourhood) when we were approached by a young boy, barely in his teens, who asked if he could borrow our phone to make a call. Naturally, wanting to help the boy, my friend agreed.
Once he got hold of her phone, he took off! We were dumbfounded and left panting, after we unsuccessfully tried to chase after him.
In hindsight, we realised we were too trusting and learnt our lesson the hard way. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
When doing something kind for someone, context also matters.
What if the roles were reversed and it was a man who saw a young woman crying on the train? Would offering a hug be acceptable, even with the right intentions?
A male colleague shared that he would go up to her and say: “Excuse me, are you okay, is there anything I can do for you?” But he would make sure not to touch her to avoid any misunderstanding.
In this digital age, there is a prevalent fear that someone could take a picture or video – incriminating or not – anywhere and post it online.
According to the Graciousness Survey 2019, one in four young people holds back from showing kindness in public because of fear of being embarrassed.
It is sad that we need to second guess ourselves when we want to do something kind for a stranger. But reality is such.
Self doubt is real
In every potential pro-social behaviour, there is a split second when you decide whether you are going to help or hold back.
Social scientists explain it this way: When individuals contemplate assisting someone else, they calculate the personal rewards of helping, compared to the drawbacks of offering help. In this personal cost-benefit analysis, if the emotional or psychological costs are deemed too high, such as when they feel overly threatened, insecure, or do not feel personally accountable to offer help, they will be less inclined to help.
In other words: How much does it cost me and is it worth the trouble?
To put it simply, what goes through our minds could be: “Is it safe for me to chase after that thief who ran off with the woman’s phone?” (consideration for personal safety)
“What if the uncle is not really blind? What if he will use my money to fuel his gambling addictions?” (fear of getting conned or concern over “solving the wrong problem”)
“I’m running late… surely someone else will step in since there are so many people around who could help.” (the infamous bystander effect)
This doesn’t mean that everyone is simply out for themselves and altruism only exists insofar as it makes us happy. This is taking an overly cynical view.
It just means that no matter what we do, unconsciously or not, depending on our personal moral compass, we do make a decision – a choice when it comes to helping others.
Making the difficult choice
To the woman on the train, I’d like to say: Despite these doubts at the back of your mind, you made the difficult and more selfless choice.
You do not need to seek validation from others for anything, more so for doing something kind.
You’ve saved someone’s life from simply reaching out – how many people can say that?
You didn’t look at his race or age, but saw him as a person, and that’s refreshing.
Trust your instincts. Don’t let the negativity of others cloud your judgement.
But don’t forget to look out for yourself too, just as you look out for others.
I thank you for showing us what a simple act of kindness can do, and for going a step further when many wouldn’t.
And I thank you for making me think about what I would do, if ever I am faced with the same situation.