Today, I went to the post office and learnt something more of the nature of the Singaporean people.
The post office is just like Singaporean banks: prone to long queues and slow service. Today, however, the post office staff excelled themselves. They seemed to be competing with each other to do as little as possible to while away the hours - and get paid for their time. I only wish they were actually paid for what they do.
When I arrived at Killiney post office this afternoon at 4.40 pm, there were five post office staff present. That seems a reasonable number. Oddly, however, only one of them seemed to be attending to customers. The others had adopted various postures of idleness. There were two people sat behind the counter - one serving, the other hiding behind a sign that said their position was closed.
The queue wasn't a long one but it was a very, very slow one. There were only about four people ahead of me in the queue - but it was a full twenty to twenty five minutes before I got to the front of the queue. That is far too slow, for so few people waiting.
As I waited, gradually more stations were opened. First two, then finally three. (That still left two staff doing apparently nothing, of course).
However, this did not seem to speed matters up particularly. I waited at the front of the queue for a good five minutes before something both bizarre and unwelcome occurred.
A very large woman (larger than me) wearing bright yellow, one or two places from the back of the queue, gestured to one of the post office staff with two objects in her hands. He was the man at the "Speedpost" counter. (I know it is a funny name for such a slow postal service!) He had been serving general customers as well as "Speedpost" customers. He looked at what was in her hands and gestured that she should come over to him.
I was shocked. I had been waiting in the queue for far too long - and so had everyone else - yet this woman from the back of the queue was being gestured to come forward to be served immediately.
He attended to the objects she held. Then she presented him with a huge pile of bills that I had not previously seen. (Bills can be paid at Singaporean post offices). She proceeded to pay each bill, one at a time.
I looked at this scene in amazement. Others too had seen her jump the queue and get served without having to wait like everyone else. However, I was particularly irked since she had taken what should have been my place.
What I was more amazed by was everyone else's reaction. Though what this large, yellow lady had done was unjust to all who had waited for perhaps 20 to 30 minutes in the queue, no-one, absolutely no-one said anything. They all accepted this injustice in silence.
I saw in their silence a more general tendency not to speak out. A nation of people who won't speak out on the little things, won't speak out on the big things, either. Here was a nation of people that anyone, absolutely anyone, with a bit of nerve, could treat unjustly - and no-one would say a word. They would accept the unjust circumstance, rather like they accept the rain - as if it is something about which they can do nothing.
As I watched their communal silence, and their evident communal awareness that someone wasn't playing fair, I grew ever more perturbed. There was something unnatural in the way they accepted her selfish action, without comment. The natural response of most people would be to complain to the woman or the staff member who had served her. Such a response would be prompted by emotions innate to all humans, everywhere. Yet, those emotional responses were either absent from, or not expressed by, these Singaporeans. I wondered, then, what had been done to these people to make them so suppress their natural response to injustice. It seemed as if they had deeply imbibed the lesson that silence must be maintained in the face of all that is wrong with the world. It was most odd.
Finally a counter became free and I was served. It took no more than 45 seconds to attend to my simple task - though I had waited at least half an hour to be attended to.
As I was leaving, I approached the staff member who was still busily serving the queue jumper.
"Why did you let her jump the queue?" I asked him, in a voice loud enough to be heard by all in the room, but not so loud as to be unrestrained.
He stared up at me in silence.
"Don't you know it is bad manners?", I continued.
His silence remained unbroken.
"It shouldn't be allowed. It is unfair on everyone else."
His grey hair framed his uncommunicative face, but he refrained from speech.
Interestingly, the woman who had queue jumped said nothing either. Surely, she knew that what she had done was wrong.
Somewhat depressingly, the whole queue of customers looked on, in silence. Not one person took the chance to join in, in support. Not one person joined me in voicing a complaint. What is the point of standing up for a people who will not stand up for themselves? It is a thankless task. These people didn't even speak up for themselves when someone else had stepped forward to do so (providing them an example) - not even that could prompt them to speak.
The funny thing is, from the way they maintained their silence when I spoke out, it was almost as if I, too, was breaking a social rule when I complained - the one that said: "Don't speak out, no matter what!"
I left Killiney post office with a much lower opinion of its staff - and a better understanding of the Singaporean people.
It is clear that something in the culture here denies the natural responses of all humans to react to injustice - on both an emotional and intellectual level. The natural emotional expressiveness common to all humans, is stifled here.
In the western countries I have lived in, I would have expected the customers in the queue to berate the woman for jumping the queue, at the very least. It is likely that an arguement would have ensued. In some countries, it is even possible that that arguement may have become physical. I would also have thought that the staff member would have scolded her and sent her back to the queue. This would have been a typical outcome for her attempt to jump a half hour queue, at the expense of everyone else. However, nothing happened apart from a sullen silence from all who were present.
I would welcome comments from Singaporeans themselves as to what urges them to silence in situations when people from virtually everywhere else in the world, would speak out. I am sure a lot of people would be interested to know.
(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and one month, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and seven months, and Tiarnan, two years exactly, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html
I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)
Labels: conformity, injustice, Post office, queue jumper, repressed emotions, selfishness, Singapore, SingPost, unnatural silence