Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Merry Christmas!

Two simple words but for many Christians around the world, they speak volumes. For them it is a very significant time in their religious calendar as they celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ whom they worship as the Son of God, the Messiah and the Saviour of the World.

Two minutes ago, I received this email from a Hindu friend:

“Regardless of one's religion, Christmas is a time for counting our blessings and offering thanks! I am blessed to have known you. I wish you and your family Merry Christmas, Happy 2013 and HAPPINESS always!”

I am glad that in our multi-racial and multi-religious nation, we are able to join our Christian friends in their celebration regardless of our own faith traditions. As Singaporeans we celebrate each other’s special holy days including Deepavali (Hindu), Vesak Day (Buddhist), and Hari Raya Puasa (Muslims). These holy days are gazetted public holidays for all Singaporeans.

About this time last year, I read a piece by the Sultanah of Johor, Raja Zarith Idris titled Mind Matter. In part, it reads,
During the days before Christmas last year, I wished my friends who were celebrating it “Merry Christmas" in much the same way they would wish me "Selamat Hari Raya" or "Happy Eid”.
When I was at boarding school in England, I had to go to church every Sunday because it was part of the rules. My father advised me to consider it as part of my "education" and he had no doubt that the experience would strengthen rather than weaken my own faith.
I was able to see the similarities and differences between Christianity and Islam. I learned more than the average Malaysian Muslim would about Christianity. I learnt that just as we Muslims categorise ourselves according to the four different schools of thoughts of the four Imams (Imam Malik, Imam Al Shafi, Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Ahmad Abn Hambal) and are either Sunnis or Shias, so Christians too are divided into different sects or churches.
Going to church did not make me less of a Muslim when I was a young girl, and neither does saying "Merry Christmas" make me less of a Muslim now. My faith has not been shaken just because I wished some friends a time of joy with their families. Neither will I suddenly suffer from amnesia and forget what my religion is.

What I do not wish to forget, however, is that there are good, kind people who are not of the same faith as me.1

More recently, Ben Stein, an American broadcaster read something similar on CBC Sunday Morning Commentary. In part, he said,
I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees, Christmas trees. I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are, Christmas trees.
It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, 'Merry Christmas' to me. I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu . If people want a creche, it's just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.2
These are very encouraging and inspiring attitudes towards the practice of religion in an increasingly troubled world. It goes beyond tolerance of each other’s faith. It respects and encourages a common humanity of diverse faith within which we find that we are all, as Ben Stein puts it, “brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year.”

I have always enjoyed being invited to celebrate Deepavali with my Hindu friends, Vesak Day with my Buddhist friends and Hari Raya Puasa with my Muslim friends. I have also celebrated the Passover Feast with my Jewish friends in North America and the UK. In the UK I was mistaken for a Jew because I could read some Hebrew and could follow the printed order of worship.

In my passion for a gracious society, I believe that religious people can play a very important role. It is my submission that we should go beyond tolerance to active recognition that kindness is the golden thread that runs through our diverse faith.

The Sultanah pointed out that Harun Yahya, the Turkish writer (he was named as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre of Jordan ) noted:"Islam is a religion of peace, love and tolerance".

The Dalai Lama has said, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”

According to the Bhagavad Gita, “ The concept of harmlessness towards all has been created by Me alone.”

In the Jewish tradition, the greatest wisdom of all is kindness.

The Christians are exhorted to “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” (Eph 4:32).

And finally there is the Golden Rule through the diverse religions 

  • “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Udana-Varqu 5:18 –Buddhism). 
  • “Blessed are those who prefer others before themselves” (Baha ’ u ’ llah Tablets of Baha ’ u ’ llah 71 –Bahai). 
  • “In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief regard all creatures as you would your own self”(Lord Mahivir 24th Tirthankara- Jainism). 
  • “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbour. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary – go learn” (Rabbi Hillel to Shammai Talmud Shabbat 31 A- Judaism). 
  • “No one is a believer until you desire for another that which you desire for yourself” (Sunnah- Islam). 
  • “Be not estranged from one another for God dwells in every heart” (Sir Guru Granth Sahib –Sikhism). 
  • “Human nature is good only when it does not do unto another whatever is not good for its own self” (Dadistan I Dink 94:5 - Zoroastrianism
  • "Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you" (Chun-tzu – Confucianism). 
  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Jesus Luke 6:13 – Christianity

Since kindness is the golden thread that binds us together, it would be a wonderful common platform for people of different faiths to collaborate in kind acts for the common good of all people, without regard to race or religion.

Merry Christmas!
Merry Christmas from the SKM team

1 – The article, Season of Goodwill by Raja Zarith Idris, was first published in The Star (Malaysia), 9 Jan 2011.
2 – Ben Stein was reported to have read out these words on CBS Sunday Morning, 18 Dec 2005.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Out of the Mouths of Babes...

On the basis of some recent studies, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom concludes that humans are born with a hard-wired morality. He thinks that a deep sense of good and evil is bred in the bones. Experiments with babies and toddlers found that they are able to judge goodness and badness in the behaviour of others. Researchers also found them desiring to reward the good and punish the bad. They even act to help those in distress and they feel guilt, pride and righteous anger.

These tentative findings are encouraging for those of us who believe that given the right role models and education, children will become kind and gracious adults. They show that babies and toddlers are sensitive to third party interactions of a positive and negative nature, and according to Bloom, this influences how they behave toward others and later on, how they talk about them. They are useful moral foundations, to say the least.

For a year now we have published a newsletter for the primary school children called Kindsville Times. Our many fans include a 10 year-old who writes: “I love your issues.” In each edition we introduce Singa and his friends, teaching our young readers values such as gratitude, empathy, compassion, generosity and so on. We encourage them to write to Singa about their actions, and here is a sampling of the more than 150 received so far:

A letter from a 7 year-old:

Another 7 year-old drew a basket of compassion. Notice that it is very inclusive: “mom, dad, sis, bro, aunt, friends, needy and animals”:

An 8 year-old created the following:

Here is another drawing by a 9 year-old. There are 3 scenarios. First, there is a girl crossing the road when the “green man” is on. In the middle is an old lady who says “It’s so heavy”. And the 9-year old says, “I’ll give you a hand!” Her friend Charleen chimes in, “I’ll give you a hand!” And lastly, there are 3 passengers seated in a MRT train, I presume. One is sleeping, another man who is labelled “Father” in the middle, and a woman labelled “Passenger”. There is an old man standing and holding on to the vertical bar. The “Father” says, “You can have my seat”, and the old man responds, “Thank you.”

Here is another drawing by a 10 year-old:

An 11-year old writes about her feeling of sympathy and anger when she witnessed a particular unkind situation:

A 12-year old came up with a simple 3-step to Kindness program for our consideration:

Kindness is not only a language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see. It is also the language of children. They are born with a sense of kindness in their bones and they can teach us more than a thing or two about kindness.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Cleaned City Is Not a Gracious City

My friend Liak Teng Lit is right to say that we are a cleaned city and not a clean city. In fact we are not even a thoroughly cleaned city. A few weeks ago, I joined a number of community leaders and concerned citizens on a Saturday morning to do some litter-picking. There were 82 of us. Armed with a garbage bag and a picker each, we fanned out into the vicinity of several blocks of HDB flats. Within less than 2 hours, we returned with bags full of garbage.

With community leaders and concerned citizens
We found them under bushes, beside parked cars, at the children’s playground, on and around benches. There were rusted cigarette lighters, small bottles filled with stagnant water, broken glasses, styrofoam and plastic cups, drinking straws, paper bags, plastic bags, tissue paper, etc etc.

Picking up litter
What is most troubling is that in some cases, the garbage bin is only a few steps away.

Last night my wife and I ate at a hawker center. There is in fact a tray return point though it is not too conspicuous. We sat near the tray return point and ate our food. I neatly collected the crockery in the tray and brought it to the tray return point, only a few steps away. We went for a stroll and about an hour later, we came back for our dessert. To our horror, the same table we left cleaned was by then piled up with fish bones, prawn peels, and other assorted food bits. The table was a mess with chilli and other sauces spilled all over the table top. Some of this liquid mess was dripping down the edge of the table, and on the floor there were a few pieces of fish bones.

And the tray return point is only a few steps away.

What can we say about such anti-social conduct?

The first thing is that in both cases, the folks who left garbage on the playground and in the bushes and those who left the table at the hawker center in a dirty mess have committed essentially the same anti-social act. They are all litter-bugs. I fail to see the difference between littering the ground and littering a table. Both are littering.

Second, both are guilty of inconsideration. With the army of cleaners at work every day, it is likely that those who enjoyed sitting on the benches at or near the playground found them cleaned but left them littered. In the same way, those who used the tables found them cleaned and left them littered. If they had been considerate, they would have thought about leaving it clean for the users after them.. But they thought only of themselves and not of others. As long as they get to use and enjoy the facilities, it does not matter whether others could enjoy the same after them. That is what being inconsiderate is about. To the extent that they are inconsiderate to others, they are being unkind, for kindness is about being other-centered. And they most certainly project our society to be not just filthy and unhygienic but also ungracious.

Third, both are being unkind not only to other users after them, they are also unkind to the environment. Our environment is very fragile. We see its mega effect in climate-change resulting in drought, floods, tsunamis and other natural disasters. What we do not realize is that by being unkind to our immediate environment, we are also inviting disasters, though on a different scale. By creating opportunities for mosquito larvae to spawn, we are waiting for dengue fever to happen. By leaving fish bones and half eaten food exposed for too long, we are inviting crows and other pests to pick at the leftovers and thus waiting for food poisoning to happen. By not taking care of our immediate environment, we are contributing to decay and death.

And I am not exaggerating for that is precisely what we are doing. Consider for a moment that we do not have cleaners to clean the grounds or helpers to clear the table. We will be transported back to a third world condition where we will be struggling to overcome potentially fatal illnesses and diseases resulting from living in unhygienic environments. We cannot afford to take our present hygienic environment for granted or assume that the authorities can regulate this all the time.

So what can we do about ensuring a sustainable hygienic environment for ourselves and for the generations to come? Let me suggest three simple ideas:
  1. Be considerate. Think of others. “Do to others as you want others to do to you” is still a piece of ancient wisdom for today. Be considerate of others means in this context, leaving the place cleaner than we found it so that others after us can also enjoy what we had just enjoyed.
  2. Take ownership. Ask yourself some simple questions. Would you have littered in your own home? If you see garbage lying around in your own home, would you leave it lying there? After a meal at home, would you leave your dining table in a mess with all the bones, leftover food and spilled sauces? The answer is obviously no. That is because you are house-proud. And you are house-proud because you have a sense of ownership. So why not take ownership of our public grounds and public eating places? Take pride in being a stakeholder of a clean and green home we call Singapore.
  3. Speak up against inconsideration. If you make a decision to be considerate to others, you should also expect others to reciprocate by being considerate as well. If you are considerate you have earned the moral authority to speak against those who are not. You can challenge them to be considerate because it is expected of them. But of course, you must do it in a gracious manner.
Be considerate and expect others to be considerate. That is the key to a truly clean and green home where we can take pride in. This is our home and pride of ownership must begin with us.

It wouldn’t be so bad being a cleaned city if it wasn’t totally dependent on 70,000 cleaners, but because 5 million residents have taken ownership to be kind, gracious and clean.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Kindness in the London Tube

I am writing this from London where I am chairing the 7th General Assembly of the World Kindness Movement. 12 members from 9 countries are represented here. Some folks at home think that only Singapore has a kindness movement. Let me assure you that the 12 movements represented at this Assembly is only a fraction of the numerous kindness movements in the world. At this Assembly, we hope to come up with a strategy to onboard more members from around the world. When we are able to join the dots represented by the movements with the common goal of spreading kindness, we can make a difference in inspiring a more peaceful world.

My first visit to London was in 1973 and I remember how impressed I was with the London Tube when Singapore was still decades away from having our own MRT. 2 days ago, I took the Tube downtown. It was not crowded as it wasn’t during the peak hours. I noticed that there were signs identifying priority seats, almost exactly like what we have in Singapore except that the signs were also imprinted on the cushions of the designated seats.

A young man boarded my cabin, avoided seating on the priority seat and sat next to it. A couple of stops later, a young lady boarded and even though there were other seats available, she chose the priority seat that the young man kept opened for those in need. As soon as she sat down, she was absorbed with her smart phone. So what is new under the sun?

Interesting signs in London
At Baker Street station we saw a number of interesting signs including “Please stand on the right”, “Take extra care with children”, “Dogs must be carried” etc. Since the London Tube has a much longer history (opened in 1863, it is almost 150 years), you would have thought that commuters should know what to do after all these years. Well, the truth is that commuters in London are no different from those in Singapore. They need to be reminded too. We do share a common humanity.

At another station, I saw something much more interesting – “Art on the Underground” featuring “Acts of Kindness”. The poster reads, “Acts of Kindness is part of Art on the Underground’s Central Line series of temporary commissions throughout 2011 and 2012. The series is supported by the National Lottery though Arts Council England.” It further announces that “Artist Michael Landy’s project Acts of Kindness is a celebration of generosity and compassion on the Tube. Look out for stories appearing in Central Line stations and trains”.

Artist Michael Landy’s project
Acts of Kindness
The project encourages commuters to send stories of kindness. “Have you seen someone being kind-hearted on the Tube? Did someone do something kind for you? Did you help someone out?” it asks encouragingly. “No matter how small or simple your story, Landy wants to hear it” it appeals.

I thought to myself, what a brilliant idea. With 1.2 billion passengers in 2011/12, there must be many kind stories to tell. Telling positive stories of kindness resonates with me because we need to be reminded that while unkindness often captures the imagination of the press and the public, it is still by far an infraction of the minority. I wish the project every success it deserves.

That same evening, I took the Tube to visit my god-daughter and her family in another part of London for dinner. It was during peak hours. Standing on a very busy platform, I asked a gentleman to confirm if I was standing on the right platform. Without saying a word, he pulled an Underground map from his vest pocket, studied it intently as the print is rather microscopic, and then turned to me in response, “Indeed, you are, old chap! It’s nine stations away. Have a jolly journey, old chap!” I smiled and thanked him. “A jolly kind chap,” I thought to myself.

The train soon arrived and it was crowded. I notice that there were no lines drawn on the platform for queuing, but nobody blocked the entrance when the doors were opened. People were streaming out without anyone trying to push in. We all got in all right, but every seat was taken. A young man was reading his evening free papers. When he lifted his head momentarily and saw me, he immediately jumped up from his seat and offered it to me. I accepted it gratefully. He smiled, and continued to read his papers standing up.

I met up with some friends the following day. Jimmy is an Asian Londoner visited Singapore last month. When I recounted the story of the young man who gave up his seat for me, he said, “Did I ever tell you that my wife and I took the MRT every day for 16 days when we were in Singapore? And did you know that every day for 16 days, we always had a seat because there was always someone who offered a seat to us?”

What can I say to that? Common humanity? There’s nothing new under the sun? Whatever it is, I am ever convinced that the milk of kindness is in all of us. Look around us, and celebrate what is kind; let that contribute to the joy of living.

Please stand on the right
A little courtesy won't harm you

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Young people are kinder than you think!

According to the Graciousness Index released in March, Gen Y (16-29 years old) have exceeded all the other generations in their sensitivity to kindness. As if to confirm this as a fact, PM Lee identified a number of Gen Y activists who are champions of kind acts, including Mohammed Farhan, the founder of Voluntaries. We honour all of these and others too many to mention, and in particular, we are very proud of Farhan who is one of us in the SKM family. He was our intern on two occasions and was also a part-time staff member.

Recently, several groups of JC students from Pioneer, Victoria , Hwa Chong and Raffles called on me to share their ideas how we can inspire a kinder and more gracious Singapore. These Gen Y representatives are bubbling with exciting ideas to deal with the reality that many commuters are not aware of the needs around them. Gen Y are not only sensitive to the need to be kind, they are also prepared to give the benefit of doubt to those who are not giving up their seats. It is their view that these commuters are self-absorbed and therefore not aware of their surrounding rather than that they are not willing to give up their seats.

One group came up with a retractable seat idea on the MRT. Commuters with a special need like pregnancy, or old age or otherwise in need may register with the appropriate authorities and be given a card which he or she can use to tap in order to use the retractable seat. When not in use, it will provide standing room for commuters. Another asked, “Why not tap the card and an announcement would automatically be activated announcing a request for a seat?” Yet another suggests that when commuters step into the alighting area of the platform when the train arrives, it will activate an announcement requesting them to give way to those alighting by standing to the side.

These young people are sensitive, creative and inventive. Contrary to some perceptions, I am convinced that they are inherently kind. In fact, the assumption made by many that just because Gen Y is internet savvy, it follows that rude and ungracious netizens must necessarily be members of Gen Y. I do not think that it necessarily follows. Judging from what we experience outside the virtual world, I dare say that the small number of cynics among us are much older than the Gen Y.

Our young people are kinder than you think!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Fireworks of a Different Kind

One of my current pet peeves is how the media today, be it traditional or social, makes it look like Singapore is full of racist, xenophobic and unkind people. Some have even wryly noted that the existence of the Singapore Kindness Movement is proof that Singaporeans need someone to teach them to be kind.

The recent example of the video of the NUS/SIM boy making its round on social media, drawing much anger from netizens, is indicative of this. Yes, the student said some unfortunate things, but many comments from keyboard warriors were equally unkind, if not worse. When the boy’s actions and the subsequent reaction are viewed in totality, it makes Singaporeans look like angry, petulant children. The story even made it to the mainstream media, which further sensationalised the issue.

Some will justify the reactions to say that we must fight fire with fire, but I’ve been brought up to think that the best way to fight fire is with water.

Fireworks at the Marina Bay Floating Platform
On a happier note, last week, my wife and I took our teenaged grandchildren to the NDP. We boarded the MRT from Novena. My wife found one available seat. Jeffrey, his wife and his young son were taking up three seats. He made eye contact with me, took his young son and seated him on his lap, and offered me the seat. I thanked him and sat down. We chatted and found out that he too was going to the parade. I gave him the kindness card.

At the floating platform, I was seated next to Jeremy, another younger gentleman. Seeing me fumble with the clappers, he offered to inflate them for us. It was quite warm and the middle-aged lady seating in front of us was fanning herself. I looked into the fun pack but could not find the fan. I asked her whether it is in the bag. She replied in Mandarin and offered to find the fan for me. She did. I thanked Jeremy and the lady, and gave them both a kindness card each.

When I first took on the assignment to drive the Kindness Movement, I was told that it is a thankless task. Sixteen months on, I have found the going uphill but not altogether thankless. There are many who are very thankful for the work we do. For every negative or cynical response, there are many more positive encouragements and suggestions.

Studies have shown that people remember negatives more because we generally tend to take good things for granted. Negatives tend to be sensational too and they get more “air time” than positives. Not unlike the local debate on foreign talent or people making regrettable remarks online, when a silent majority says nothing, while those who are angry make all the vitriolic noise. As such, it is easy to have the impression that Singaporeans are generally not kind.

This is not to say that the unhappiness is without basis. That is the reason why I am in support of the upcoming national conversations. My only caveat being that these should indeed be true dialogue - not one side imposing their views on the other, and this applies both ways. Not listening is unkind too. When people believe that their views are being genuinely considered, passionate and even heated debate can be conducted in a civil, respectful and gracious tone.

I have reason to believe that the majority of our people are inherently kind. However, they need to be affirmed and encouraged to express not just their angst, but also their kindness by their action. Hence we created a card that says, “Thanks for being a great example for others. Here’s a kindness card for you and hope it inspires you to keep the kindness spirit going…”

The Kindness Card
So as the smoke settles from the NDP fireworks, by all means let us engage each other in an honest and spirited exchange, even disagreement. But let's not be disagreeable, throwing virtual rocks at each other. Let's rock the kindness instead.

Rock The Kindness by Blessings in a Bag

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Is priority/reserved seat an entitlement?

Photo: I don't like to squeeze on the MRT Facebook
Last week, I took the MRT and it was quite packed. I am a senior citizen and I had hoped that someone would be kind enough to offer me a seat, as has happened before. But not this time.

I was standing in front of a younger lady who was seated on the priority seat and busily engaged with her smartphone. I tried to make eye contact with her but chose not to verbally request for the seat. I took the opportunity to do a personal experiment. She looked up at me momentarily, but quickly returned to her smartphone. At the City Hall MRT, we both alighted. I gave way to her as she made her exit and I followed. Quickening my steps, I caught up with her, smiled and said, “Good morning. May I ask you a couple of questions?” She returned a smile and said, “Sure.” I asked her if she would give up her seat to someone in greater need, like a senior citizen. And she replied, “Of course, I would.” I then gently announced that I was the Senior Citizen standing in front of her. In obvious shock and embarrassment, she said, “I am so sorry!!! You do not look like a senior citizen. If I had known, I would have gladly invited you to take my seat. I am really really sorry.” Her sincerity was fully evident in her profuse apologies. I smiled and said, “Thank you, that is what they all say about me. No worries.” I then asked her if she would give up the seat for me if I had requested for it. “Of course,” she said. “ I would have... without any hesitation.” And she continued apologizing. I thanked her for her responses and we walked together towards our offices.

We’ve read or watched Stomp videos of situations similar to what the younger lady and I were in, and those didn’t go well. If I had curtly demanded the seat, I would have either made her lose face totally, or worse, possibly triggered a defensive-aggressive response. So while we might be well in our place to expect the priority seat to be given up for us who are identified as needing it more, we can also ask nicely and without prejudging the person occupying the seat.

My experience reinforced what I believe about our people. We are essentially kind. People do not act graciously because they do not know or are too caught up in their busyness to be aware of the need. If they knew, they would respond. This is why we keep reminding people and we know that many are responding. We need not prejudge, we can do our part by assuming the best of people. Chances are, people will respond according to what we think of them.

Kindness is all about being other-centered. It is a value that should be inside us. But to look out for or not prejudge others, we need to consciously make an outward effort and take some time. And that only takes a moment. That’s why we say, there’s always time to make someone’s day.