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Commentary: Trained by rules or basic decency? What our reactions to viral tray-clearing couple reveal about ourselves

Many were quick to applaud Ms Grace Ke and Mr Joshua Kho for clearing their trays at a Malaysian eatery, but more were quicker to attribute their actions to a perceived conditioning by our nation’s strict cleanliness rules.

WHAT ARE WE ‘TRAINING’?

No society is perfect. Inequity and disparity will always peek through the cracks, and these cracks cannot always be smoothed over with one-size-fits-all mandates. 

But placing our own comfort as our sole priority is no solution either. On the contrary, it can often wind up being a disservice, both to ourselves and those around us, especially when it comes to public spaces and resources. 

“My mum’s philosophy is to ‘leave it better than you found it’,” explains Ms Ke to TODAY. “It’s just really basic human things that both our parents have instilled in us.”

To be sure, the question “Why are we being told?” is always a helpful one to ask — as long as that’s not where our train of thought grinds to a halt. 

Scepticism, in healthy doses, undoubtedly has its uses. But deploy it on impulse too much and, over time, cognitive muscle memory can start kicking in too hard and too often. 

In effect, we are indeed “training”: We train ourselves to stymie our own critical thinking. We practise sanding down our sense of compassion and empathy just so we can feel, for five minutes, that we’re “sticking it to The Man” or defying the powers that be. 

Before we know it, we may start to find ourselves lashing out instinctually against any and all fresh guidelines and regulations — including the ones that serve to benefit us most. 

But is this the best way to live among other humans?

In its annual Graciousness Survey, the Singapore Kindness Movement found a 7 per cent drop in Singaporeans’ overall satisfaction of neighbourliness in 2023 compared to 2022. Disputes and dissatisfaction between neighbours typically arise over issues pertaining to the disruption of quiet and cleanliness — second-hand smoke, for example, or noise. 

The top reason cited by survey respondents (42 per cent) for not informing neighbours of such inconveniences? “It is only for a short time; I didn’t think it was necessary to inform my neighbours.” 

Clearly, much of inconsiderate behaviour is driven not by malicious intent, but simple negligence. People don’t want to be unkind to other people; they’re just not thinking about being kind.

If a formal rule is what makes us think twice about leaving our own post-meal waste behind to greet the next diner, or bringing pungent foods into enclosed public transport spaces, or running the risk of injuring pedestrians with a personal mobility device — is that really so bad? 

One need only look at the responses to the footage of Ms Ke and Mr Kho’s tray-clearing act: “So many people on the bus/MRT don’t say sorry when they bump into you or step on your foot by accident,” complains one commenter.

Here’s hoping we don’t need a fine to remedy that one. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Melissa Lee Suppiah is a deputy editor at TODAY where she oversees commentaries.

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