Why Empathy?

Thank you for your comments and opinions. I understand why this article attracts as much criticism as it does. Many people are still angry at the posts made by Anton Casey. On first reading my commentary, many may have felt as if I was somehow sympathetic to his actions. I was not, for that would have been condoning his wrong.

To be clear, Anton Casey’s behaviour was not acceptable, and yes, it did anger me. It was anti-social and mean-spirited. He did not demonstrate any empathy towards those he mocked and he deserved to be firmly put in his place. And many of us did exactly that.

But clearly, this wasn’t enough for some. More than just rebukes and condemnation, we hounded and harassed not just him, but also the people around him. We made demands on his employer and even threatened his family with harm. That is what led me to write about the need for empathy.

Anton Casey spared no thought for the feelings of those he hurt. But have we not done the same? That was the point of my article. It was not a defense of his actions, but a question about our own. When did we become such an angry people, that we no longer have the capacity to reflect on whether we are answering a wrong with an even bigger wrong?

To affirm what many of you have fed back to me, showing empathy and kindness does not mean letting others walk all over us. We categorically reject unacceptable boorishness.

But I remain hopeful that we will rediscover our empathy, so that we will not over-react, and be more reflective of our own reactions, especially considering those innocent others around those who have done us wrong. That we don’t become vengeful and spiteful, for then, wouldn’t we end up harming ourselves?


  1. well said william...you took the words out of my mouth.

  2. The Anton Casey saga contains a number of important lessons, the least of which is: Be careful what you say on social media because, as Douglas Adams famously observed “Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.”

    Every conversation takes place within a context and both the context and conversation are interdependent. Furthermore, there are a number of social issues within Singapore which have not found a voice – there is a growing sense of unease as income disparities take their toll on people’s dreams – and so when someone like Mr. Casey makes a remark that appears to belittle the circumstance of others just to make himself look good, he provides the perfect lightening rod to the heavily charged atmosphere.

    Those who were surprised at the ferocity of reaction to Mr. Casey’s comments are arguably just as out-of-touch with sentiment in Singapore as Mr. Casey himself.

    There are similarities here with the recent riots in Little India: A man was run over and killed in a road traffic accident. This tragic accident provided the flashpoint for the riot. Who knows what the riot was about but there were enough people in the same place feeling the same thing at the same time for the situation to be dominated by the collective-consciousness of the mob. There were photos of a single man imploring the rioters to stop but that was never going to happen because there is simply no way to reason with a mob. Calm was restored when the crowd was dispersed but many people were left wondering “How could something like this happen here, in Singapore!?”

    For one reason or another, the socio-economic situation in Singapore (and in the rest of the world) is making people feel angry and this creates problems for Governments and law enforcement agencies because no-one knows where the next flashpoint will be. These angry people are, as individuals, perfectly capable of acts of empathy, kindness and compassion but if you get enough of them together in one place only one sentiment will dominate: Anger.

    The challenge now for Singapore as a nation is not so much ‘can Singaporeans be kinder’, but more about understanding this anger, where it comes from and how it can be managed for the benefit of society.

  3. Well-said Dr Wan. We need more seniors like you who have eaten more salt than rice to share your valuable views although some posters may find them bizzare and beyond understanding.

    I was trying to understand why the online posters behaved the way they did while reading the posts and staying as an observer.

    A few questions came to my mind.I was asking myself - Are we over generalizing the profile of the commentators? What makes us so sure they are all truly the voice of Singaporeans? I am sure Singaporeans are capable of maintaining our sanity and stay in harmony in face of an unfavourable remarks or a challenging situation, judging from past experience. For example, during the SARs epidermic and the haze period...good and kind things did happen.

    One thing about online posters, we may not be 100% sure of their true identity, given the recent fake 'Heather Chua' I am beginning to doubt that true identity of online posters.These keyboard warriors behind AC's saga will remain a mystery unless we can prove and be dead sure who they claimed to be.

  4. Dear Teresa,

    Thank you for your kind response. My apologies for the late reply. I will try to be more efficient in responding than I have been.

    You are right about not being sure of who these folks are. Social media is borderless anyway, and we can never be sure. In any event, they do have the right to speak their minds. My hope is that we can be more civil in the way we speak to each other. It will be wonderful day when we can agree to disagree without being disagreeable.

    If you have the time and are interested to know more about trolling which is a very negative way people interact on the social media, please follow this link:

    Have a wonderful day, and best always,
    William Wan

  5. Dear Emergentthought,

    Thank you for your response. My apologies for the late reply. I will try to be more efficient in responding than I have been.

    Yes, we can learn much from this episode as we can from others. The key is to be open to learn and change.

    I am cognizant of the fact that there are many reasons for the repressed and expressed anger. Some of these could escalate into cyber bullying. In my
    response to the call for more laws to curb such behaviours, I have suggested that we need to look at the root-causes. What you have suggested could
    well be some of the root-causes. Please see my article by following this link: http://kindness.sg/blog/2014/02/07/r%E2%80%8Boot-causes-of-bullying-must-be-found-to-deter-it/#.UxbgstL_BpA

    And yes, I do agree that these angry people are capable of kindness as individuals. I believe that kindness is in all of us – we just need to unlock it. If I did not believe so, I would not be driving the Kindness Movement because it would be futile.

    We will continue to have faith in the basic decency of our fellowship human beings and our faith will continue to seek understanding.

    Have a wonderful day, and best always,
    William Wan

  6. Dear Jason,

    Thank you for your kind response. My apologies for the late reply. I will try to be more efficient in responding than I have been.

    We will just keep on fostering a kinder and more gracious society. All we can hope for is that we will win one at a time. But fortunately for us, we believe that the great majority are kind but rather silent. I hope we
    can inspire the silent majority to be more engaged, and not shy away from stepping up for what is right and good for the nation.

    Have a wonderful day, and best always,
    William Wan


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