Culture of Fear

It could be argued that, aside from cleanliness and safety, the next most prominent trait of our tiny little island nation is fear. Not some kind of paranoid delusion, of course, but more of a set of quirky worries that exert subtle force upon our psyche.
Fear can, of course, be a motivating factor, or paradoxically, it can be a hindrance. How do the things that give us the heebie jeebies add another distinctive facet to the Singaporean face?
And what exactly scares us? Well, keep your cool and don’t freak out, as we take a look at some of our most prominent and idiosyncratic fears.
Fear of Getting Caught (Pantsdownophobia)
We’ve come to embrace Singapore’s overabundance of fines and penalties with something of a tongue-in-cheek mentality, making T-shirts with caricatures of the (many) ways in which we can be reprimanded. But laughing it off as part of our culture doesn’t really stop us from committing these offences constantly … then going to any means necessary to avoid getting caught.
“I had this friend who was fined for jay-walking. Can you believe it? Jay-walking!” says Rachel Chua, a 27-year-old teacher. “He tried sweet-talking the traffic warden, and when all else failed, he just argued with him. This went on for a good half an hour and in the end, he had no choice but to part with $20 and pay the fine.”
Arguing is one thing, but elaborate schemes to avoid being found guilty are another altogether. The great irony, of course, is that most Singaporeans will go to unbelievable lengths to avoid being caught when, in retrospect, simply obeying the rules would be a whole lot easier.
“My motorbike was parked on the pavement and I received a fine,” relates a 20-something civil servant that would rather remain nameless. “I went to appeal and told them this huge story that … may or may not be true,” he says with a smirk. “I said that my tire was punctured and after pushing it onto the footway, I had to look for a public phone to call the towing service because my handphone’s battery was dead.”
“Not only that, but I completely turned the tables on them and questioned them as to why their officer didn’t have the initiative to see that my rear tire was punctured and that I did what I did so as not to obstruct traffic!” he concludes his story triumphantly.
Cheryl Chin, a 25-year-old corporate communications executive adds, “When I was way too young to get into clubs, I tried to fool a bouncer that I was perfectly legal. And when he checked my IC, I ended up flirting with him till he let me go. At least he was half-decent looking.”
But could this fear stem from personal flaws more than any kind of punishment? “I think a lot of people just don’t like to admit that they screwed up. Most people won’t take responsibility for their own actions,” says Chin. She then adds with a wink, “Either that, or getting a fine just really sucks because we could’ve spent the cash going clubbing instead.”
, Culture of FearFear of Ghosts (Phasmophobia)
The fear of ghosts or the supernatural (clinically known as phasmophobia) has become completely interwoven as a huge part of our culture, thanks in no small part to a healthy diet of ghost stories told about haunted haunts and spooky National Service camps, as well as shock-a-minute gore fests of Hollywood and Asian horror flicks.
“Just look at the pulp fiction industry in Singapore. We’ve got tons of drivel and purple prose about ghosts and cults from the 1980s till now which continues to dominate local literature—and in so doing, our collective imaginations, our paradigms of thought—about ghosts,” says Tan Shao Han, a member of the Singapore Paranormal Investigators, a team of volunteers who explore, collect and share information regarding the supernatural culture. “We have an obsession too with labeling such things as being ‘True’,” he adds.
Be it the old Changi Hospital or Pulau Ubin or even a large longkang located in some deserted part of an older housing estate, Singapore has a rich and long history of supposed haunted spots and superstitions to deal with the spirit world. For instance, you’re not supposed to place your chopsticks in a bowl of food, or else you’ll attract spirits which may think that your chopsticks are actually joss sticks. And some of these don’t even deal with spirits per se. You shouldn’t, for example, stack your plates up, as it means that you’re going to stack up your debts.
But why do we even keep up this so-called mumbo jumbo in a world that’s increasingly being permeated with logical thought … or, as a lot of skeptics would refer to it, common sense?
“Such fears allow us to articulate ideas and express opinions about things which are confusing and bewildering in our experiences of living in the modern world,” says Tan. “For example, what can individual Singaporeans do when big multinational corporations decide to relocate their factories away from Singapore, and lots of blue collar workers lose their jobs and get retrenched? What can old coffeeshop uncles and old aunties do when they lose a huge chunk of their lives’ savings because some trader in some bank across the Atlantic gets his panties in a twist and does some act of corporate ninjitsu?”
He pauses briefly, then answers, “They can pray. They can blame such things on demons, on karma, on bad luck, on ancestral curses. If your fellow man won’t listen to you, and won’t give a damn, then you ask the spirits and the gods.”
So, to some degree, this phobia seems almost necessary to a lot of Singaporeans. But, what happens when the modern way of thinking catches up with our fears of the supernatural? Will we finally see our ghost busted in a fury of scientific thought?
Tan answers this simply and cryptically with a quote from legendary horror author Howard Phillips Lovecraft, “That is not dead which can eternal lie. Yet with strange aeons, even death may die.”
Fear of Something New (Kainolophobia)
It’s a disturbing trend that some of our most popular television shows are badly disguised riffs on talent-scouting reality programs from the US. And it’s not like this is a new trend either. A large proportion of our favorite TV shows are spins offs of our more popular Western counter-parts, with a bit of local flavor thrown in for good measure.
“Singaporeans are certainly clever magpies,” says Dr. K K Seet, a senior lecturer and Founder of the Theatre Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore. “Far from being insular and solipsistic, they travel a lot and poach ideas from here, there and everywhere, which they then modify for the local cultural and geopolitical landscape.” He continues, “Having said that, the question is also premised on the assumption that there is a clear distinction between the original and the derivative, which then prompts one to ask if there is anything that has not been done already or thought of before, in the historical trajectory of ideas.”
So, why are we gripped by this hesitance to embrace anything new? Seet connects it to a fear of failure. “Singaporeans recycle because they are afraid of making mistakes and taking risks—that would cost them financially, I daresay, being the pragmatic, materialistic lot that they are, with the perennial ‘siege mentality’—but would rather benefit from the erroneous ways of others,” he elaborates. “But they are equally keen to be the ones with the innovations, for example, being the first to serve free drinks on the national airline or being the only country to wage war on chewing gum.”
Interestingly enough though, the country’s most prominent rebel X’ Ho seems to have a more optimistic point of view when it comes to originality in Singapore. Referring to the popularity of such shows as Singapore Idol, Ho refutes, “That’s an international phenomenon. That happens everywhere else.” He continues, “We are in a phase where we’re Remaking Singapore. Because of that, there are a lot of new ideas being talked about now. We finally know that the old ways don’t work. “
There is hope after all. But what can we do to reach out to the new a little more than we already are? “Stop being creatures of habit or robots of routine,” says Seet. “Jettison that parochial mentality. Learn to be less kiasu. Accommodate change and embrace the unfamiliar by being less cocksure and more receptive. Most of all, be prepared to forgive and forget.”
, Culture of FearFear of Expressing Opinions (Doxophobia)
Singaporeans are certainly an opinionated bunch. Heck, any taxi driver can demonstrate this, given a long enough trip. We have thoughts about everything from politics to fashion. It’s a waste that we’re afraid to express them out loud or stand by them.
“Singaporeans lack the proper vocabulary to say what they think. If they could express themselves better, they’d probably be more inclined to speak their mind,” says Linz Chew, a 27-year-old business development manager. “A bigger problem, I feel, is that they don’t have the experience. They need to travel more, see what life is like overseas and see the difference. Maybe then, they’d have lived enough to think differently”
“Most of us have never really been encouraged to see speaking up as a good thing,” says Kirpal Singh, poet and an associate professor in creative thinking at the Singapore Management University. “If anything, it’s always been drummed into us to ‘speak when you are spoken to’ and ‘don’t try to be too smart’. Society, thus, doesn’t really approve of speaking up.”
“They’re afraid to be the subject of ridicule,” agrees Jayshree Selveraj, a 24-year-old trainee teacher. “They’re just not confident enough to express their opinions, because they don’t know if they’re right. This is probably why they prefer to just keep to themselves, as if it’s better to be quiet than to be openly wrong.”
Of course, a lot of people could blame this fear of expressing one’s opinions—clinically known as doxophobia—on some unseen, looming powers that be. The most recent example of this was during the General Elections where many people grew somewhat anxious that our choices were being monitored via the voting slips’ serial numbers. Fear set in and, substantiated or not, it colored some opinions of which box to draw that X in.
This fear-driven lack of conviction only drives Singaporeans to become habitual fence-sitting flip-floppers. We’ll never really take a stand unless it’s a remotely popular one, so it just morphs from being an opinion to being another voice in a crowd.
“People are generally judgmental, so they keep quiet because they’re afraid that they’ll be judged themselves,” explains Chew. “It’s more self-censorship than fear of any actual backlash that keeps them from taking a proper stand.”
“This fear is largely self-imposed,” agrees Selveraj. “It’s a matter of self-confidence. Society isn’t completely blameless though. People react to the environment that they’re in and if the environment itself isn’t conducive to be opinionated, they won’t be.”
“I think by the time we are able to make such a decision—to decide if we ourselves want to speak up—the conditioning has already predetermined the decision-making frames,” says Singh. “Education is the main culprit, I think. And behind education, of course, assumed cultural norms and mores which perhaps may have been good for another time and another place, but which are outmoded and no longer appropriate for today’s globalized world. Having said this, I must say that, yes, for some it is self-imposed, just like some of us fear poetry and so never attend any poetry reading!”
In recent years, the newspaper forums have been the main place to share your thoughts on matters that mean something to you. But, with the advent of web logs (or blogs), we’ve found ourselves a new outlet for our voices. Their credibility, however, does come into question, considering that the majority of people use their blogs for nothing more than talking about their exceedingly hum drum daily lives. And it’s not like these arm-chair commentators ever put their real name to their thoughts, more frequently preferring to hide behind pseudonyms.
“I don’t like the idea of hiding behind a screen name to throw out an opinion,” says Chew. “Take some responsibility for your own actions.”
“The Internet is a very complex area of discourse,” says Singh. “Yes, it can be viable and the tendency for many to use it for articulating opinions is very good. However, mostly, because of this enormous diffusion, it is very hard to get to know what is being said over the Internet. In this case, it is perhaps not very viable. I mean, most of us still only get to hear or know something is on the Internet through other media or through emails or word of mouth.”
But, to look at things more optimistically, as we said earlier, Singaporeans are an opinionated bunch and with some persuasive cajoling, they can be convinced to come out of their shell to some degree.
“It’s something that starts from very young,” said Selvaraj. “You have to grow into it. Being opinionated is an acquired behavior.”
“Mix with those who do speak up, read about confidence and self-articulation, write and speak at every opportunity,” encouraged Singh. “Speak to friends or family members about issues you think are important.”
Chew’s solution, however, is a lot more straight forward. “Try getting a proper hobby,” he says simply. “Opinions come from knowledge, so Singaporeans should try getting out a little more,” he adds.
, Culture of FearFear of Failure (Kakorrhaphiophobia)
Legendary comedian Mel Brooks once said, “As long as the world is turning and spinning, we’re going to be dizzy and we’re going to make mistakes.” It happens to even the best of us–we are all bound to fail and falter sooner or later and it’s all part of learning our way.
When asked if he thought that failure was a necessity in life, K F Seetoh, founder of the food-loving company Makansutra who’s also faced his fair share of failure in previous business ventures, replies, “If you are blessed and lucky to the bone … no.” He continues, “Otherwise, a bitter yes, as it helps you savor what sweet little success that comes. “
This begs the questions as to why we’re so afraid of it. Kakorrhaphiophobia, or the fear of failing, seems to be limiting us as far as what we can accomplish. This fear could potentially keep us from doing something new or different, simply because we’d be worried that we might screw it up.
It seems to start from a very young age, with parents badgering their kids to excel immediately in every one of their endeavors. Heck, don’t fall off the jungle gym, you might hurt yourself! Failure already in our formative years, it seems, isn’t an option. And, if you start working for a boss who looks like he could snap you like a twig and is stressed out enough to do it, messing up looks less like a chance to learn than a one-way ticket to a pink slip.
“It is seen as the end of the road all thanks to our world-class-or-bust mentality,” says Seetoh. “But for those nifty ones, failure is but a milestone tulip on the way to success. I once read—I forget where—‘he who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day’.”
So, for a man who has faced this crippling phobia and walked away the victor, what has Seetoh learned from his own experiences with failure? “A lot more about the true essence and form of success,” he says, then adds, “usually the humbling and simple truth.”
And that humbling and simple truth for Seetoh was simply that shit happens and there’s nothing to be afraid of. But don’t forget to learn your lesson from it, whatever that lesson may be.
“You take the best of failure—that little spark of light and hope in its dank darkness,” he says, “and get on with it.”
, Culture of FearFear of Losing Face (Paisehobphobia)
Your neighbor’s got a sweet new car? Better get a faster one! Your brother’s kid earned three ‘A’s in his PSLE? Well, damn, your kid had better score four. After all, you absolutely, positively can’t lose face now, can you?
Think about what horrible things could happen if you did! Like … well, as it turns out the worst side-effect of losing face is simply that … you just lose face. But what exactly does this rather vague term ‘face’ refer to?
“I personally feel that losing face, or saving face, is much the same as having respect for one another,” explains Raelene Tan, an author and etiquette consultant. “This should come naturally. To have ‘face’ means sticking to one’s principles. If one does not respect the dignity of others, it means losing ‘face’. Some foreigners lack understanding of the Asian mind—perhaps ‘face’ is somewhat akin to the Western expression ‘Keeping up with the Jones’.”
Whatever it really means, it’s clearly something that a lot of people not only revere in Singapore, but are absolutely mortified by.
“Even before a child is born, expectations are already placed on him or her to be successful, just so the parents can show off. It’s not so much about happiness anymore. Says Wang Tingxi, a 24-year-old freelance art educator. “People just need to show off to their own parents, their siblings, neighbors and friends.”
“It’s become some kind of social stigma,” says teacher Rachel Chua. “Supposedly, if you aren’t the best, it even reflects on how your parents raised you and what they taught you. In this society, losing face is seen as the equivalent of being stupid.”
So, where exactly does this—one of the most prevalent phobias in Singapore —start?
“Perhaps it begins with peer pressure. People, in general, like to be seen as having ‘arrived’ in society, no matter how humble their backgrounds,” says Tan.
To anyone who doesn’t value the concept to the extent that a lot of others do, the levels in which people have gone to preserve their face may seem almost cartoonish and quite ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still happen.
“There is an oft-told story of two neighbors,” relates Tan. “One neighbor had a car with air-conditioning, the other neighbor’s car did not have that added luxury. Whenever the latter drove to or from home, all the car windows would be wound up, to give the impression that they, too, had an air-conditioned car.”
A matter of values or simply just show-boating? That’s really up to the individual—just so long as they look don’t look bad in front of everyone while they’re trying to figure it out, of course.