Do you live in Misery City?

“We got on with life on the immaculate island, where social housing estates look like spotless toy towns, crime is pretty much non-existent and you can get a delicious bowl of noodles for $3 (£1.50). If we were living in the misery capital of the world it certainly was not affecting our own sense of happiness.”

Charlotte Ashton’s Viewpoint article reminds me a bit of a scene in Bride and Prejudice – a film for which I will make no apologies. In it, Aishwarya Rai’s character and “Darcy”, an affluent Euro-American, are lounging by the pool of a luxury hotel somewhere in Goa, when they get into a tiff about how Darcy is enjoying India only because he hasn’t had to deal with any Indians. His India is “five-star luxury, with a bit of culture thrown in”.

Darcy – like poor beleaguered Anton Casey, or less-beleaguered Jayant Bhandari – might be considered an ass for both desiring and conspicuously managing to insulate himself from the stench of the less fortunate masses. Ashton’s opinion piece contains no such snobbery. She uses public parks, takes public transport, and eats at hawker centres – not bad for an angmoh already. Yet in a way her piece is part of the same conversation we’ve been having about the Darcys and Caseys of the world – a point which many of the impassioned responses to her story have overlooked.

Ashton spends the first half of her article arguing that her personal experience of a happy life in Singapore – enjoying its facilities, having various pleasant interactions with its people – belies various rumours and surveys that suggest that it’s an unhappy place.  In the second half, her happy life in and positive view of the city become tarnished, when no one helps her when she’s pregnant and clearly unwell on the MRT. So far the main response to this, both from ordinary Singaporeans and concerned government officials, has been been to defend most Singaporeans as “gracious” and “considerate”, and/or to encourage us all to try and be more courteous and caring regardless, perhaps with the encouragement of Singa the Courtesy Lion.

We’ve also asked questions like: Was Ashton mistaken in tarring the whole country with the same brush, based on a single unfortunate incident? Was it perhaps a misunderstanding, or some misguided desire not to interfere with a stranger’s personal discomfort, that was to blame for the apparent lack of compassion? Can Singapore muster enough counter-examples of kindness to dispel Ashton’s accusations?  Is “misery” too harsh of a judgement, when we are probably no less unkind a place than many others in the world?

This completely misses the point.

Of course we shouldn’t just stand and stare when someone is close to fainting on a train. That goes without saying. It might be slightly more interesting to ask why no one on that train felt able or willing  to help Ashton – which Ashton herself does briefly (is it materialism? The rat race? The mysterious thing we call “Confucianism”?) towards the end of her article.

But I think the most interesting aspect of Ashton’s piece – the part most deserving of passionate public attention and debate – is the difference in the way she accounts for her Happy Singapore in the first half of the story, and for her disappointment in Misery City in the second. To put it harshly: Ashton was unhappy because she expected the Singaporeans around her to see and react to her need for compassion, and they did not. But she was happy in our city first, not because she saw compassion in Singaporeans, but because she did not see the need to feel compassion for them.

It was enough in Ashton’s calculus of the happy life that the seventy-year-old uncle who made her pineapple juice had a smile on his face when he served her, whether or not he worried at night about saving enough money for retirement. It was enough that she saw no vagrants to spoil her enjoyment of our pretty public parks. I don’t know where or how often she took the train or sat down at a hawker centre, but I wonder what she made of it, if or when she saw someone’s grandma (or perhaps no-one’s) trying to sell strangers tissue. I wonder, when she enjoyed those $3 noodles, if she realised that there are hawkers who’ve had to shut down or move out of their place of business because, though their sales are excellent, their rents keep going up while their wages stay down.[1]

I am by no means saying that Ashton had no compassion for these people – I wouldn’t dare. Had one of her service workers shared with her that they were having a hard time, I am sure she would have responded with more kindness and competence than I. I am however saying that it sounds like the happiness Ashton enjoyed in Singapore had less to do with compassion than with privilege. Or, rather, it had to do with the way privilege allows us to be relatively blind to (or, in severe cases of Darcyism, obnoxiously heedless of) the suffering or compassion-needs of others. The privilege of oblivion – which Ashton perhaps began to lose when she found herself in need of compassion in Singapore – is what lets people live in Spotless Singapore without also living in Misery City.

Who lives in Misery City, and who doesn’t? Singaporeans sometimes simplify this question by resorting to binaries – pitting locals against foreigners, for instance; or “heartlanders” against “cosmopolitans”; or even the poor and middle-class against the super-rich. Focusing on these divisions and inequalities can be powerfully illustrative – “economic ghettoes” are a growing problem in our country, and the difference between Sentosa Cove and Circuit Road is almost morally absurd. But I think Ashton’s article gives us two reasons to think a little differently about the matter.

First, it reminds us that privilege is a spectrum, not a binary – it can be had by journalists and dental technicians and musicians and lawyers, as much as fund managers like Casey or global tax-rate shoppers like Eduardo Saverin.[2] Secondly and relatedly, it shows that a life of privilege is as much a way of seeing and being in the world, as it is a function of your bank balance.[3] NMP Laurence Lien, who comes from a billionaire banking family but gave up a career as a senior civil servant to do non-profit (and, more lately, political) work, might perhaps be an honorary member of Misery City,[4] because he not only sees but lives and works with those in it, to try and make it a happier place.

Conversely, I earn quite little as a graduate student, but I re-create Misery City whenever I fail to love and respect the maid who works for my family; and I desert it, perhaps, when I decide that the best use of my hundred-dollar-a-year raise is to buy myself a new watch.[5]

In any case, a more just and compassionate Singapore will come neither from polarising (and xenophobic!) rhetoric, nor from cosmetic attempts to cover up social distance and economic inequality by preaching “courtesy”, or improving our PR, or making laws to keep beggars and homeless people off the streets. But it may begin with an acknowledgement from those in power and with privilege – this means you – that the compassion deficit that is truly threatening the moral and social fabric of the nation is not the one that comes from rude, uncivilised people who spit on the ground or fail to give up their seats on the train, but the one that comes from those determined to see and to make for themselves nothing more than an immaculate island.

[1] See here.

[2] Or perhaps Saverin will prove me wrong and put his 20% saving in income tax and 100% saving in capital gains tax back into Singapore by investing in local businesses and charities.

[3] This also addresses the stupid question of, “Some ‘poor’ people are very happy leading a simple life, and some rich people are miserable, so what’s the problem?”  There is a great difference between a person – or a people – deciding to be happy (and compassionate, and virtuous) in the face of acknowledged suffering and injustice, and people who are happy because they don’t see specific forms of unhappiness in the lives of others.

[4] $1.15 billion, to be exact; so then again maybe not.

[5] This is, I think, a more compassionate framework within which we may critique the handbag choices of MP Tin Pei Ling.  But John Howard Yoder might disagree.

Submitted via Readers’ Contribution