From Third World to First – to Third Again(?) (Sinkie’s Reflection on COVID-19)

Unless you have been living under a rock (or a nuclear bunker dozens of meters under Bukit Timah Hill), I am sure readers would have been keeping track of developments, or are at least aware of the Wuhan Virus, or as it is officially named now, COVID-19.

Anyway, we were referring to Singaporeans’ response to COVID-19. Where to begin? From the time the virus first made its way to the shores of our little red dot, we have borne witness to some truly shocking acts of social ugliness. From scalpers hoarding and then reselling face masks at obscene prices from the onset of the virus in Singapore, to the mad-max like scramble for food and paper supplies after the declaration of DORSCON Orange, and then the deplorable ways in which some of us have treated our healthcare workers and entire groups of people with the slightest association with confirmed or suspected cases (eg. VJC students being denied services by the public).

Before we dig into the baked potato of this piece, we need to address the works. Amidst all the furor and despair and anger at fellow citizens, I am sure you would have heard this term being bandied about: “Third World Mentality”. Maybe you have had that one insufferable act attas friend forward you this Straits Times article from last year with Tommy Koh lamenting that Singapore is a First World country with Third World citizens, and then gleefully gloating that he was right. Maybe you agree and point to the constant middle finger pointing at uncourteous drivers on our roads. Or you vehemently insist that Prof Koh is speaking from the comfortable vantage point at the top of his ivory tower, looking down on poor ordinary Singaporeans eking out a meagre existence from the soil.

So, what exactly is becoming of a “first world” citizen? And why on earth would the denizens of the Little Red Dot not be worthy of the title? We First World already right? Got Gardens by the Bay, got MBS, Airport Number 1, Airline Number 1, education system Number 1life expectancy Number 1… So many firsts in so many things.  

We are no longer a fishing village where people live in attap huts what, so Prof Koh, what do you mean by “Third world”??? So, Prof’s ideal is the “civic-mindedness”, and collective sense of responsibility and care for one another that is supposedly inherent in First World countries. Think the Japanese World Cup Fans cleaning up after themselves after matches, or their response in taking care of their own in the wake of natural disasters, as seen during the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake. Of course, they are not perfect, being guilty of casual discrimination during the current outbreak. Fear, uncertainty and anxiety is inherent in human nature in the face of scary unknowns, and there are few things more scary than a killer microorganism that you cannot see and can strike without you even knowing. The natural result is ostracism and rejection of the unknown, like outsiders, and to take all steps towards self-preservation. Even in supposed “First World Countries”, like the good ol’ US of A, profiteering, scalpers who take advantage of peoples’ desperate plight to make a quick buck were rampant during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, to the highest level of disaster relief and reconstruction contracting. At least here, the government is cracking down on mask profiteers such as retailer Deen Express.

On this topic, I am sure during this period readers would have seen the results with your own eyes, or even partaken in them. Take the hoarding and emptying shelves off supermarkets for instance. Enough Maggi Mee and toilet paper to ensure your digestive system goes through the same exact process for the next few years, and the almost overnight conversion of nurses from the object of pubescent teens’ lewd fantasies to the stuff of aunties and uncles’ nightmares. And masks. Oh lord, masks. For a few that were kiasu and lucky enough, they attained more to conceal their secret identities than Hong Kong protestors will ever have. 

I guess the issue, or rather the perception of Singaporeans having a “Third World” mentality is precisely because we seem to lack Prof Koh’s core definition of what constitutes a “First World” mentality: civic-mindedness, or our ability to care for and love fellow Sinkies through thick or thin. Maybe this is a result of the way Singapore society is structured and functions (I am not a sociologist, pls). But, we do seem to love stories of Singaporeans behaving badly. This is amplified by media, especially social media, highlighting negative stories and giving weirdos the spotlight, which then gives the impression that the actions of a few reflect the actions of the majority, which then spurs people in the middle/ on the fence to panic and engage in the exact same behavior. Call it herd instinct, group mentality, whatever. But it is a powerful force, amplified many times by Sinkies’ inherent Kiasu, Kiasi, FOMO nature. Even our neighbours up North (and invariably, ourselves) make fun of this quirky Singaporean trait when inevitably, the doomsday preppers head up North to raid for resources like the Vikings of yonder days.

But hope runs eternal for Prof Koh’s vision of Singapore. Even in these dark days, there are heartwarming stories. For every annoying auntie carting more Maggi Mee than she has hair, for every uncle wearing that kid-sized facial mask that is basically useless for him, there is a Singaporean who raided other countries for masks overseas to send back home to bolster supply. For every A-hole who mistreated frontline healthcare workers or refused to deliver much needed nourishment to them, there are the two girls who delivered breakfast to frontline healthcare workers and the corporation which galvanized thousands of drivers dedicated to bringing them home.

In short, the contention should not be that Singaporeans have “Third World” mentalities. There are both “First World” and “Third World” citizens in every society and the concepts are not mutually exclusive. A nation and its people are so much more nuanced and complex than just lumping them into barbarians and the enlightened. The challenge would then be to amplify and spread stories of good deeds, instead of focusing on the undesirable actions of a few and hope to normalize and inspire the middle ground to also act positively (on that note, why don’t people stand up for those being mistreated instead of just quietly filming and then posting with a long rant later?). Take this Nas Daily video on how Singapore fights COVID-19. The challenge would then be to live up to how we are portrayed in these videos. I have seen the arguments, what new immigrants are the ones behaving badly, not us, yada yada yada. Hello, if you have so much time to be on EDMW complaining endlessly, then go on the train and proudly stand up for some nurses getting bullied by morons. Who knows, BBFA might even get a girlfriend (But don’t touch the JC XMMs ah, unless you want to drink your next Kopi O in Changi).

So fellow Sinkies, in this time of (not quite so apocalyptic) uncertainty, let’s all care for each other and demonstrate that we are truly “First World”. As 小龙 said in his speech over the weekend, “This is what it means to be Singaporean. This is who we are.”

Make Grandpa Koh proud again.