by Marilyn Peh on

There are some things in life sure to make Singaporeans feel anxious.

The phrase “rising cost of living”, the unwelcome appearance of parking wardens, and even the prospect of being anywhere without air-conditioning.

Now, based on a recent survey by the Singapore Kindness Movement, there may be one more to add to that list – the fear of getting judged for being kind.

In the 2019 Graciousness Survey, it was found that factors like not having the time, and being uncertain of how to help, are key barriers to people being more helpful and gracious to others.

But what was surprising was another key finding in the survey that discovered young people in Singapore feared looking “stupid or silly” while trying to help someone else, with one in four respondents aged between 15 and 24 sharing this perspective. In contrast, just six per cent of those aged 55 and above expressed the same concern.

The Singapore Kindness Movement has raised the possibility that such a fear may apply more to scenarios where one encounters another person in distress, as opposed to simple everyday situations.

And that makes sense, because no amount of courtesy campaigns will save us if we’re thin-skinned enough to agonise over something as straightforward as giving way to other commuters.

At first glance, the easy inference from the survey may be that our youth are simply too passive or apathetic that they would let face be a factor in deciding whether or not to help someone.

In actual fact, however, I believe the fear of embarrassment or rejection isn’t actually exclusive to young people. We’ve all been in situations before where we second-guessed our own judgment, and as a result, held back from stepping forward to offer help.

As a daily commuter by train, I recall once offering my seat to an elderly auntie only to be turned down. Thinking that she was acting out of courtesy, I opted to stay standing, but this only resulted in a bizarre battle of wills, as both of us rode the whole distance from Serangoon to Dhoby Ghaut in silence, staring at a perfectly empty seat in front of us.

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Image Source: Shutterstock / Alen thien

Needless to say, the next few times I encountered other elderly folks who looked sprightly or energetic for their age, I found myself observing their body language for a bit before approaching them. Not because I wanted to avoid giving up my seat, but because I really didn’t want to sit through another awkward train ride if I were to be rejected again.

And then there is every commuter’s worst nightmare – the is-she-or-is-she-not commuter, where with a single question, you’ll either be offering a pregnant woman the option to have a safer commute, or very publicly insulting someone who had simply had a more sumptuous dinner that day than others.

While these are some everyday examples, ambiguity, and the fear of embarrassment, can pose real barriers for us wanting to do the right or kind thing.

This also applies to other non-public transport scenarios, such as fights in public, or even encountering potentially vulnerable individuals, like children or elderly with dementia, who may not vocalise their need for assistance.

The paiseh-ness is real, and honestly, it affects us whether we’re 15 or 35.

But if we let the sting of rejection intimidate us into avoiding being helpful to others altogether, that will leave many more elderly folks and pregnant women left to stand through whole bus or train commutes, and needy people left to fend for themselves.

So, I quite like the response a friend of mine gave, when we discussed a hypothetical situation of witnessing a couple engaged in an altercation, which could mean anything from just a typical lovers’ tiff, to a more serious case of harassment or domestic violence, and how best to respond to it.

Instead of walking away, or making assumptions about the situation, he suggested walking up to the couple, and simply asking them in a neutral tone – “Is everything OK?” Anyone caught in a vulnerable position could then raise the alarm, and if the situation was more innocuous that it appeared, the couple could let him know that no help was needed, and he would be on his way.

At best, he would have helped put a victim out of harm’s way. At worst, he would have been called a busybody. Put into perspective, that’s hardly terrible at all.

On my daily commute, I’ve since gone on to meet other commuters who turned down my offer of help, much like Serangoon auntie did. But for each of these encounters that, I confess, left me feeling a little silly, I’ve come to realise that there have been many more where a pregnant lady, or senior citizen, gratefully accepted the assistance.

With this newly-developed thick skin, I don’t even bat an eyelid now at the prospect of requesting another seated passenger to offer their seat to someone else in need, if I don’t have one to offer myself.

Once we realise that when someone else reacts badly to an act of kindness, it really says something worse about them than the person who made the well-meaning offer, it’s much easier to cast aside our fears and embarrassment to do the right thing.

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Image Source: Shutterstock / sasirin pamai

And at the end of the day, even if this isn’t enough to lessen your personal hang-ups about being helpful to strangers, at least take heart in the knowledge that your kind gesture comes from a place of goodwill, and that really is all that matters – being answerable to your own conscience.

Because knowing you did the right thing regardless of what others think of you, will always be infinitely better than walking away, feeling like you shouldn’t have.