A National Inability to Resolve Conflicts

A lot of Singaporeans want a future Singapore that is more gracious. To me, that means that people in Singapore learn to deal with the different kinds of conflicts and friction that they encounter in everyday life. On a broader level, that also means the ability to deal with conflicts and frictions at broader, more abstract levels – to deal with things such as inter-ethnic and inter-faith conflicts. At some point, we ought to learn to deal with political conflict – if and when there are clashes between clashes in political debate in the public sphere. And there’s the global level, which is not entirely within Singapore’s control. I suspect that this national inability to deal with inter-personal frictions is part of the reason why public discourse is often naive and poorly developed.

In addition to thinking in terms of social scales (from interpersonal to between ideas), there’s also the conceptual element to it – there’s the matter of interpersonal politeness, all the way to the conceptual level of not taking offense, in having a generous spirit to accept criticisms, and to artfully deal with insults.

Graciousness is also an outwardly direct behaviour that can be independent of the personality and the moral values of the individual. And graciousness can be contrasted against duty – you can be a kind person, had be asked to do horrible acts on account of a professional obligation.

The abstract concept of graciousness assumes an other-directedness, in contrast to the self-directedness. Self-directedness say, “I want to have my way and you are blocking it. I expect you to move.”The other-directedness says, “You are embarking on a journey; I am also on a journey; let’s try not to get into each other’s way and work things out.”

I also want to compare concepts of graciousness with Singaporean’s kiasu-ness (or scared to lose) versus competitiveness. One variant of being kiasu is thought to be a kind of hyper-competitiveness in an assumed zero-sum context. One person’s loss is someone’s gain; better to be the someone who gains than to the person who loses. Competitiveness can be a lot of things – yes, one can assume a zero-sum game or a non-zero sum game; in a zero-sum situation, one can be unscrupulous and resort to all manner of things to get ahead; in a non-zero-sum game, competition and collaboration can exist side by side. Graciousness can be thought of as the manner in which we compete with one another. The environment can be hyper-competitive, but there are still rules even then. In personal situations, we might all be trying to get a seat on the bus, but there’s still the ability to be situationally aware of the elderly, the pregnant woman, the children in the immediate environment. One can still get ahead and ‘win’ against others; graciousness can still enter the picture nonetheless.

I think the graciousness that we all think about is a kind of altruism, the willingness to let others ‘gain’ at personal ‘loss’. I put these things in quotes, because that’s not the obvious way that people think about – I wait for others to leave the train first before I do – I ‘lose’ in the time I lost to wait for others, but that’s ok, because maybe I’m patient, I’m not in a rush, the seconds don’t matter, etc. I know that the people who are rushing are not really thinking about ‘winning’ at my expense anyway.

This willingness to, ‘let things be’ and ‘not to take offense’ are incredibly underrated things in the an era of political and social plurality. Of course there are red-lines which ought to provoke robust responses such as using legal instruments and community instruments. However for the things below that, there has to be a whole range of mechanisms that allow people the benefit of the doubt, to allowing them to understand the sentiments they have hurt, and to give the space for restorative and healing responses.

The other aspect in thinking about this other-directedness and altruism is to think about the perceptions of scarcity and abundance. The inclination to be altruistic is far greater in a condition of perceived abundance – when people don’t think they are suffering loss when they give things away. In a situation of scarcity-perception, giving things away becomes much harder.

Looking back to previous posts, the scarcity-perception comes possibly from history – that the move to material abundance did not take hold in previous generations, and the fact that a social security system remains limited. In a social context where people don’t feel secure with what they have, individuals might have collectively decided on the kiasu-ness and the self-directedness we see today.

These are just guesses.

*Update 21/4/2013: Thanks to Steve’s comments, I went searching for research on the relationship between generosity, income levels, and perceptions of ‘scarcity’ and ‘abundance’ however they are defined. I found that people of lower-income levels are more generous than the rich according to the proportion of their incomes they give. The Atlantic covered this sometime back: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/04/why-the-rich-dont-give/309254/

I’m still looking for the central fact that made me think about putting the sentence about scarcity and abundance – it certainly isn’t about material wealth, but about the perception of wealth and the anxieties associated. This is something I’ll probably get back to.


One comment

  1. Steve

    I disagree that in a situation of perceived abundance, the inclination to be altruistic increases.

    Having grown up in New York, I’ve got ample examples. My favorite is the typical scene of a homeless person asking for money on the subway. The majority of the time I’d observe people giving money, the givers were the least wealthy on the train. Those with Kindles, iPads, nice brief cases and expensive shoes were visibly holding on to every item of value.

    I’d suggest that the relatively low rate of non-profit activity in Singapore is another example of this. The “haves” far out-weigh the have-nots. You’d think there’d be more of an inclination to support people who need help. Why is it that a single woman who has a child isn’t entitled to a baby bonus?

    I could go on, but I’ll sum it up with a quote Nassim Taleb tweeted the other day: @nntaleb: You will never know if someone is an asshole until he becomes rich.

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