ONE evening a few weeks ago, as I was walking through the Masjid Jamek train interchange something stopped me in my tracks. A family of three – I presumed a mother, father and child – had stopped right at the top of the escalator next to the stairs. The woman was on her hands and knees and the man was trying to pick her up.
I stopped and asked if they needed help. The husband reluctantly assured me that they were okay.
The wife had slowly propped herself up against him, her face grimaced in pain and that’s when I noticed an unmistakable baby bump. The child, meanwhile, had dropped his plastic bag of toys, and was whining for his mother.
I helped to get her to sit at the top of the stairs next to the escalator, her arm around my shoulder damp with cold sweat.
The man told me, in a Filipino accent, that they were on their way home close to the Putra World Trade Centre. The only thing I could think of offering was a bottle of water.
“Yes, please,” he replied, his eyes showing a hint of relief.
I ran out of the station to inform the staff about the incident, and was told that there were no security personnel around to help. I made a beeline for the first convenience store I saw and grabbed a bottle of water and 100 Plus, and when I came back I saw the family stumbling out of the station.
I helped hail them a cab, and gave the couple a hug before seeing them off.
“God Bless you!” the mother managed to say. I hope it didn’t show, but in my head I wasn’t sure how to respond.
I continued my journey home from the interchange, recalling what had just happened. In the short time that I was around to help that family, dozens of people had passed the same spot and none had lifted a finger to help. Only one elderly woman stopped to find out what was happening, but she spoke in Cantonese, which I couldn’t understand.
I resumed my journey home on the train. I normally enjoy being in the company of other commuters but that night I felt awfully lonely in the packed carriage. I felt isolated, almost betrayed. And then the worst thing happened. I started judging others.
“Would you have helped? Would you have helped?” I locked eyes with people and asked in my head.
I did not think twice about reacting, so it makes me wonder how others did not, if it was the “bystander effect” – related to the diffusion of responsibility (do look it up, it is an interesting phenomenon) – or out of distrust, or worse! That people did care, but made that active decision to stay out of other people's business.
Afterwards, I felt bad for the mother’s last words to me. Someone like me should not be so rare that I should be blessed. I merely went on autopilot, the basic objective being to offer help because it was needed.
I opened up about this incident to a good friend of mine, Ashaari – a well-read fellow who happens to be formidably attuned to human emotions. He explained a theory that people empathise with the emotions of others.
Meaning, when we see someone being happy, a part of us intrinsically feels happy too. However, the upbringing of many of us is so individual-oriented that unless we know of a person as a friend or through kinship, it is less likely we will react, let alone act upon, the emotions of others. He called our personal distractions “the dust of everyday life”. If awards existed for most melancholic phrases, Ashaari would need a new mantelpiece.
I now recall my father being an advocate of capitalism, always trying to drill into me the importance of putting myself first. I am glad I never understood it, that I habitually check for the specks of dust that may cloud my vision. I’m glad that it keeps me curious about the people I meet fleetingly, for acknowledging lives beyond the faces; that these people are also fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, friends and partners, who laugh and cry and worry and love.
Should any of us be the ones to fall at the top of an escalator, it would be great for help to be provided not out of luck, but because we are important as individuals. I don’t know about you, but I find it cool to realise that the only things that keep us separated on this earth are houses.
> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.