Like many other Asian countries, Singapore upholds the value of harmony higher than that of individual expression and desire.
Just look at our local TV Channel 8 shows which are predominantly based on family ties versus the soul-searching individual journeys of American protagonists.
The Asian way
Singapore millennials are brought up in a society that rebukes and ostracises people who say something non-uniform with what is socially-acceptable, even if it’s technically correct – remember arguing over why 5 x 3 = 5+5+5?
The unspoken rules are: don’t be the smartass to challenge something that works, don’t challenge authority and don’t speak up unless you have proof you’re right.
The Western way
Since we were young, Singaporean millennials consume hours of Western culture, which promotes self-actualization and a desire to be different from the crowd.
We are encouraged to challenge the system, buck the trend, break the rules, speak our thoughts, or die with regrets.
But our reality is so often disjointed.
How often do we actually experience the success, redemption and enlightenment that Western culture promises us, when conversely our society discourages experimentation and insists we follow the tried and tested way?
We are searching, always searching, to belong
We spend a good part of our lives searching for others who can accept our individual quirks and niche interests.
Cosplay, science fiction book clubs, progressive rock fanclubs, extreme vacationing, cat-feeding societies, street protesting cliques and more.
Even when we want to express our individuality, we seek to be accepted by others whose favour we crave.
Singapore is a repressive state of non-emotion
In Singapore, if you have a beef with something e.g. discrimination, the argument from the authorities will usually be full of logical, indisputable facts, and advice on the appropriate channels for redress (effective channels or not, it ‘depends’ on the individual).
The turbulent emotion that wracks the psychological stability of the person facing the issue is rarely addressed, for the state sees emotional problems as the responsibility of the individual and his family.
When we are stressed over cost of living, we get bombarded with facts of how we have $2 chicken rice, ComCare, MRT, decent HDB flats rather than slums etc etc.
When we complain about job discrimination and unsafe workplaces, a tirade of TAFEP and Work Safety and Health advertisements ‘should’ pacify us.
When we feel lonely, unhappy, on the verge of breaking into tears, everyone looks at you like why are you so weak, so useless, that you’re unable to control your emotions, why are you making everyone else feel uncomfortable?
Do we know sympathy from empathy?
How many of us dig beneath the surface of sympathy to empathize with the person beneath?
Before I watched this video, I couldn’t really distinguish the significance between having sympathy or empathy for a person.
For example, sympathising with a mother who miscarried may lead us to say well-intentioned but hurtful words such as “at least you’re still young”, ” it wasn’t even past the first trimester ” or “you’ll be fine after you get pregnant again”.
Empathy is understanding the emotional state of a person and responding to his or her needs. This mother doesn’t need your pity. She may just need a listening ear, or someone to show care to her instead of harping on why her dead foetus isn’t an important thing to be upset about.
Sometimes even not talking about the painful topic and just spending time with her in comfortable silence helps her to feel less alone in a cruel world.
School can’t teach us empathy, the government can’t do so either. It’s something we have to learn, how to look out for each other and not depend on the authorities to do so.
Sympathy is easier to dispense than empathy, which usually requires in depth understanding of the person’s condition.
Actions based on sympathy makes you feel like you did something good for the person when you may have actually not
A person sympathetic with the low income may think that payouts are the best way to help them. An empathetic person finds out what’s blocking the low income from fulfilling their dreams (such as lack of skills) and helps him to overcome them.
Sympathy for the disabled may make them feel even more inferior and rob them of dignity. Empathy is giving them a chance to reach their full potential and not setting preconceived limits. Watch the inspiring story of Jennifer Bricker below.
It is human nature to be sympathetic, because you feel really bad for the person. It takes a bit of practice and exposure to understand how to be empathetic, sometimes I also can’t get it right too.
I’m hoping there’ll be more conversations on understanding the perspectives and emotions of each other, so that with more empathetic peers, Singapore won’t have such a repressive attitude to the freedom of emotional expression.