Thursday, October 11, 2012

Rudeness is not a crime

The coat of arms of New College, Oxford


This is the motto of William of Wykeham and since he's 
the founder of New College, Oxford and Winchester College,
it's also the motto of both these ancient and renowned institutions.

I've always thought manners meant everything.  I used to think that when it came to manners and etiquette, we were all brought up in precisely the same way.  Of course I knew there were rude people but these were not people in my circle of friends and relations.  If I came across a boy at school who used swear words, the naive bigot in me would probably say that he didn't come from a good Christian family and hence his language.  I don't mean it in a snobbish way.  Realistically, "hell" and "damnation" wouldn't mean a thing to him whereas boys who grew up in a devout Christian environment should arguably be more careful about using such words, or so I thought.

I remember my first shock when the leader of my Christian group in Varsity Christian Fellowship (VCF) in NUS used "damned" as a substitute for "very" all the time.  He would speak of his girlfriend as "damned nice", God was "damned good" to him and I would wince every time he became descriptive although generally, he was a man of few words.  Presumably,  he would have been brought up in a pious Christian home and yet he gave no regard to his choice of words which of course had huge theological implications.  At the same time, in the communal hall of my university hostel, I would hear other students using the Hokkien expression "si bei choon" when someone accurately shot a chip into a hole in one of the four corners of a carom board.  Where I came from, such an expression would be denounced by anyone within earshot.  Much later, I heard much worse expressions which I subsequently learnt was rather common in Singapore, such as "wa lan".  I have heard this particular foul expression on the lips of women as well.

I don't normally go to the movies but on the few occasions that I did, I would hear shocking exclamations eg. "Jesus f____ Christ" and other vile obscenities so much so that Hollywood would have us believe that that's normal American speech.  I sometimes ask myself if I am so out of touch with reality that I'm unable to accept profanities which have become very much a part of our daily lives.  Over the years, I have learnt to maintain a placid expression whenever I hear swear words of all kinds and in all languages.  It is clear to me that most people who swear do so to get a reaction from their listeners and I refuse to give them gratification.  People who resort to obscenities to get some recognition should not be humoured.

Amy Cheong's low and vulgar posting on her facebook is one such example.  For those who are not familiar with the Amy Cheong affair, please read this.  I'm sure she got more attention than she bargained for.

But profanity is not the only offence against good manners.  Amy Cheong's post which showed a total disregard for the poor in our community is an example of the poor taste and bad manners exhibited by many in Singapore.  Bad behaviour and rudeness are not confined to any one country.  Amy Cheong  is an Australian by citizenship.

But there's something to be said about rudeness in Singapore.  My neighbourhood is almost like a mini-United Nations in that people from all over the world live here.  But I can easily tell a Singaporean from a person of any other nationality even without looking at him or her.  There is in some Singaporeans this strange but characteristic reluctance to greet others.  From my experience, they usually don't initiate a greeting and when greeted, they are sometimes reluctant to return the greeting.  I do not see such rudeness in non-Singaporeans.

This refusal to greet is a phenomenon I first encountered when I used to run a lot and was training for the marathon.  It is common for runners to greet other runners when they see one another while jogging on the road.  It can be a simple wave of the hand or if you aren't too tired from the run, a "Morning!" or a "Hi".  When I say it's common, I mean it's common anywhere on our planet except Singapore.  There were many instances when the Singaporean runner would stare at me and he would sometimes even stop running and look at me as soon as I gave him a simple greeting or a friendly wave of the hand.  I used to wonder why they did that until one day, a runner did precisely the same thing when I gave him a friendly wave but this time he asked, "Do I know you?" Only then did it dawn on me that some of these Singaporeans are frugal with their greetings; they are reserved only for those they are familiar with.

JM Coetzee, the Nobel Laureate, wrote about this in one of his novels.  In his story, the narrator usually meets two Singaporean female students in a lift in a block of flats in Australia where the novel is set and he greets them every time he sees them.  The girls never respond to his greeting.  The narrator attributes this strange anti-social behaviour to the autocratic rule of the Singaporean government but I think that's totally wrong.  On the contrary, the Singaporean government has tried very hard to make the people more courteous.  Singapore is probably the only country in the world that has government-held courtesy campaigns.  You can't blame the government for everything but the West is very quick to do just that.  To them, it's always the fault of our government, whatever it may be. 

I'm about to say something that may be taken to be racist but since it's against my own race, I don't think anyone can blame me for it.  The discourtesy I talk about only applies to the people of my own race.  I have no problems with the other races in Singapore.  From my observation, the reluctance to greet is a problem I only encounter in Singaporean Chinese.  Malays and Indians are extremely courteous. 

There are other forms of rudeness.  Just recently, I was at a lunch with a group of strangers.  I can't give details of this lunch because I don't want anyone at my table to know I'm talking about them.  The people at the lunch were not the sort of people Amy Cheong would scoff at.  They were well-heeled and unlike Amy Cheong, probably did not know a thing about housing board flats or weddings held there.  They were all Singaporean Chinese.  When the shark's fin soup was served, my attention was engaged by a waitress who wanted to be sure that I was the one who had asked for a different soup since I have personal objection to the shark's fin industry.  Although I was busy talking to the waitress, I thought I heard the sound of someone slurping his soup but I dismissed it from my mind as something fanciful and improbable.  When the waitress had gone and I was left with my soup, the sound of slurping became unmistakeable.  It wasn't just a single isolated slurp but a chorus of slurping, with varying length and intensity.  I was too embarrassed to look and see who it was but I could tell from what I could hear that quite a few people were slurping up their soup noisily.  The chap seated next to me was at least polite enough to drink his soup properly.  I had to time myself so that I would only bring the soup to my lips when I was sure there wouldn't be anyone else doing that.  I didn't want the guy next to me to think the slurping came from me.  Obviously wealth has nothing to do with good manners and Amy Cheong's mockery of poor Malays who could not afford expensive wedding celebrations only goes to show she's got it all wrong.  It's the rude people one should make fun of.

Rudeness is something we can't talk about openly.  I couldn't tell the people at my table that they were rude or advise my Singaporean neighbours to be more willing to greet the people they meet because to do so is itself rude.  It's only something you can rant and complain about in an anonymous blog like this.  It's the duty of a person's parents to teach him or her proper manners and sadly a lot of parents must have failed in this fundamental duty they owe to their children.

Amy Cheong's facebook post was exceptionally rude.  Unlike poor table manners which will result in mere embarrassment to those at the table, her post was hurtful to poor people generally.   To say that the poor should be banned from getting married is worse than being merely rude.  But however we see her post, it still comes under the category of rudeness.  Aggravated rudeness, if you like, but still rudeness.  Rudeness is not a crime.

All this talk about the police taking action against Amy Cheong is unnecessary and may only serve to put Singapore in a bad light.  We aren't a police state and rudeness however hurtful is not a crime.

Our Penal Code has been amended to include a section which many have argued would enable Amy Cheong to be charged with an offence.  But there must be a "deliberate intention of wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person" before the Penal Code can be invoked.  It's very hard to pretend that what she posted had that deliberate intent.  Like I have argued in my previous post, she was more contemptuous of the poor and her rant was directed more against poor Malays than against Malays generally.  She's more an uncouth snob than a racist.  She's terribly rude and ill-bred but she's committed no crime.  Let's be very clear about this and not get carried away.


  1. Rudeness isn't a crime. I was shocked today to basically be told by a Singaporean that it is a crime to be rude and that Amos Yee deserved to go to jail. I'm a Christian and while I thought he was quite crass I agreed with a lot of what he said and didn't find it offensive. I don't live in Singapore but from what I've heard so far about Singapore it sounds like a dictatorship where everyone lives in fear of the State.

  2. I have a blog post that examines whether what Amos Yee said about Jesus was really incorrect:

    You can't be further from the truth if you think the Singapore government is dictatorial and everyone lives in fear. As things worsen in Europe and elsewhere, everyone seems to be more than willing to give an arm and a leg to live here.