The Furore Outside the Food Court

By now, you should have seen the video of an irate woman screaming at a food court manager. For added effect, lines like “I don’t want to understand!” and “It’s my money you know!” peppered the food-court drama. She demanded an apology.

Amidst the hype, the Internet critics general public chimed in. Criticisms came fast and furious. Ironic, given that if they said what they typed publicly, they wouldn’t be too different from the woman herself.

Opportunistic anti-government folks took the chance to link her to the ruling party. It was an opportunity too good to miss. With a few Facebook photos, they concluded – she’s a grassroots leader, part of the ruling party and therefore think they are “a special class above ordinary citizens”. It was a short-lived victory. Official responses clarified she was just an ordinary citizen.

One blogger then fervently opined “She is just a sad product of elitism in Singapore.” The Internet community gobbled that up.

What this woman did was certainly appalling and she deserves no sympathy from us. But it’s not just her isn’t it? The dining crowd, the person who took the video, all did nothing to put an end to it. It was the same when an accident happened in Yishun lately- the bystanders were all taking photos and it took a 12-year-old to go help the victims.

The inaction isn’t because of elitism. It also isn’t something new nor unique to Singapore. It has been studied by psychologists since the late 1960s – called the by-stander effect. Several factors influence this effect. The criticality of the situation. The ambiguity and consequences of action. The environment. Whether the person intervening will be supported. Or perhaps someone else would handle it (diffusion of responsibility). Then, there’s the cultural influences.

Essentially it’s our survival instinct at play when we make these assessments. The Singaporean calls it the “kiasee [scared to die]” attitude but is essentially our own risk-assessment exercise. We usually conclude that if we want to kaypoh and make judgments, we should do it later in a safe environment. Like on the internet.

That probably explained the furore outside the food court.