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Saturday June 30, 2012

Singaporeans teetering on a short fuse

With 5.2 million people living on a 700 sq km island, Singaporeans are feeling the pressure.

AS the pressures of life in Singapore go up, people’s tempers seem to get shorter.

Law-and-order Singapore is experiencing a rise in social friction with more people involved in quarrels and fights on its overcrowded streets.

Society is by no means tearing at the seams, but the pressure-cooker life is beginning to leave a mark on people used to the good living and in a way the Government may not have foreseen.

Many citizens prefer the Old Singapore that the first-generation leaders had shaped during the first 30 years of independence although it was poorer and smaller.

For them, the transformation has brought more dollars to their pockets, but also too many hardships. More Singaporeans seem to be losing their cool, blowing up in public at the slightest disagreement.

In perspective, the majority of Singaporeans remains friendly and law-abiding.

However, the rising costs of living, the over-crowdedness and constant worry about losing jobs to “cheaper-paid” foreigners are taking their toll on people’s mental health.

Not all who flare into violence, of course, or who pick a fight with others are victims of the tougher environment. Some people are just bad apples. But the rat race is the level of stress.

Part of the cause is the mass intake of foreigners who came with their own cultures and habits that conflict with that of the locals.

In the first three weeks of June, some 10 cases of public quarrels or fights were reported – sometimes over minor reasons. Many were filmed and put on the Net.

In one, a 20-year-old man beat up an elderly person whose backpack had bumped into him, inflicting multiple facial injuries on the senior. Earlier, two men fought in a bus over a seat.

While this was going on, a war of words broke out between Filipinos and Singaporeans on Facebook, with both sides trading insults.

Another online quarrel also broke out between mainland Chinese students in Singapore and the locals.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Singapore-foreigner conflicts made up one of his major concerns. Millions of dollars are being spent on social activities to welcome foreigners.

More recently a student from India was taken to hospital after someone from a block of flat poured hot curry on him. Residents were apparently annoyed by late-night noises made by the hostel tenants.

Two really bad cases particularly stirred the nation:

> A young man threatened to slap a 76-year-old old woman, then pushed her down a public bus because she had pressed the bell at the last minute. He later apologised saying he suffered from depression.

> A man beat up a pregnant woman, who hailed from Henan, China, and stepped on her belly after she accidentally splashed spicy soup on his face.

An elderly woman scolded a young woman who had given up her seat to the former on the MRT. This started a quarrel which went viral online, getting 70,000 views.

Days later, a Singaporean firm director punched a Briton when he accused him of cutting a queue and hurling racial remarks at him.

To be sure, these are the equivalence of the one plane that crashed out of 90 which landed safely, meaning only bad events made news.

But with 5.2 million people crammed into this small island, the aspiration for a gracious and civic Singapore that Lee Kuan Yew wanted to see appears to be harder to achieve.

A Netizen commented: “It is rather difficult to be gracious with so many people packed into one place. My friend remarked to me: ‘It is suffocating to live in Singapore’.”

A global survey called the Happy Planet Index has put Singapore a lowly 90th out of 151 countries in terms of governments providing long, happy and sustainable lives for their people. However, it came out ahead of another rich but overcrowded city, Hong Kong (102th).

Meanwhile, the level of job satisfaction among Singaporeans is judged to be the second lowest in the world, according to a global research by Accenture.

Are all these factors responsible for the declining behaviour of Singaporeans?

The island city has a modern history of less than 50 years, not enough time to crystallise this into a civic, refined society.

“Singaporeans may be richer, smarter but often short of being a truly developed people,” said a schoolteacher.

Over the years, the level of graciousness has generally improved, but lags far behind the pace of economic progress.

Over-crowdedness and tight living is believed to be a major cause of public frictions. People here fight fiercely when they think somebody has intruded into their space – whether on the road or their home.

Often, a quarrel over a parking lot can turn an educated adult into a raging, screaming boor. Women are frequently involved.

“In fact, many a refined Singaporean in the eyes of his family can transform into a raging monster when he gets behind a car and feels victimised,” said a driving instructor.

The level of anger – and graciousness – generally differs between small over-crowded cities and rural areas with vast space and greenery, observed a sociologist.

Singapore is a very stressful place, more people are stressed over money, studies and work, so the frustrated take it out on others, said a young lady.

“With the dense population, a gracious society seems more far-fetched now.”

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