The curious case of empathy and its glaring absence in Singapore

The curious case of empathy and its glaring absence in Singapore

by James Leong

What do the Monica Baey saga, Aloysius Pang’s death and a Japanese restaurant in Singapore have in common? None of them knows empathy.

I don’t like fussing over birthdays, particularly mine, but I do like Japanese food and found a restaurant inviting birthday peeps to eat for free on their birthday month —provided they dine with a paying guest.  The thought of inviting friends out of their busy work lunch schedules did not excite me after a friend turned me down because she is travelling.

Nonetheless, I decided to dine alone because it’s my birthday and I can cry if I want to. Please see the correspondence with the restaurant:

My XX  birthday is May 20 and I have signed up for your birthday voucher. However I understand for me to enjoy this free voucher I have to dine with 1 other paying customer.

Sadly I cant find anyone to join me on my birthday. I have visited your restaurant with my family on previous occasions and enjoy the food.

And crying if I want to could also mean getting get creative in being beneficial for the celebrant, the restaurant owner and one lucky stranger.

I was wondering whether you can help me enjoy my birthday. If you receive any reservations from other guests, can you please let me know so I can enjoy my birthday with this other paying guest? I will be happy to offset this guests bill by $10.

However, it was not to be.

So sorry, this free birthday lunch tray has be accompanied with a paying adult buffet lunch. I am afraid I cannot ask or offer other diners to dine with stranger as is not appropriate.

My birthday is only once a year, you cant help me?

He has to dine with you in same bill / table. Apology, is beyond me.

Stunned by their inability to grasp a business opportunity and free PR at no cost, I decided to push the envelope and turned cryptically morbid:

I guess it depends on whether you want to help? Surely you can ask first? If it’s a solo guest? We can eat at the bar. Can you at least ask your boss? Its my birthday, and I dont know if I can celebrate it again.

If the restaurant had agreed, they would have made me a regular for life and perhaps the paying guest too, who gets $10 off his bill because of this “stranger’s” birthday the restaurant deemed as inappropriate to be seated next to. The same request was made via their official email but either way it was “beyond them”.

The restaurant was not wrong to deny me my request. In fact, the only “crime” committed was their inability to see a business opportunity beyond its birthday promo terms and conditions.

However, I was more curious whether they truly understood the implications of my reply when I said, “I don’t know if I can celebrate my birthday again” which was greeted with silence and effectively ended the exchange.

It got me thinking about the value of empathy in Singapore. Does it exist? Do people even know what it is?  Does it have a role to play in society?

Then it got me thinking, too, about the anger surrounding the responses to the Monica Baey saga and actor Aloysius Pang’s death. Beneath the anger was really the injustice of it all, but I suspect on a deeper level the anger was directed at the glaring absence of empathy shown by the authorities.

Empathy is not sympathy. Empathy is the ability to enter a person’s world with focused intention to understand how another sees himself and the world around him.

For all the economic success that Singapore touts itself to enjoy, I wonder whether empathy belongs in any its narratives? The narrative that Singapore is small, lacking in natural resources and surrounded by nations bigger than us. Yet we have achieved against the odds and must and will continue to achieve.  Is it resilience and determination or plain “kiasu-ism”?

Either way is empathy relevant? Does it belong in the Singapore success story?

In the grander scheme of things, the restaurant cannot be faulted for denying the “dying” wish of a customer. It must continue to achieve and make more profits in a competitive F & B industry. NUS must continue to be seen as one of the top tertiary institutions of the region and the world, and the SAF must continue to be strong and safeguard resource-scarce Singapore.

I’m inclined to believe it’s less about Singapore being heartless and insensitive, as it is about her being clueless about empathy and caring with authenticity. Perhaps we just don’t know how to show empathy because it was never part of our value system.

Or is it because showing empathy is seen as a sign of vulnerability and weakness? Could it not be a sign of courage instead? Just look to New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern. She demonstrated empathy best in her responses and wearing of the scarf in the recent Christchurch attacks. Her empathy and authenticity earned the respect and trust of her own people and the world.

I will be celebrating my birthday with that same friend when she returns from her holiday. You see, she is a cancer patient living on borrowed time. She knows empathy and it will be a birthday to be remembered. It just won’t be at that Japanese restaurant.

James Leong is a private counsellor who addresses fear and anxiety at

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