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.