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Building Empathy In Singapore

“Instead of the age of introspection we need to shift to the age of outrospection. And by outrospection I mean the idea of discovering who you are and what to do with your life by stepping outside yourself, discovering the lives of other people, other civilisations. And the ultimate art form of the age of outrospection is empathy” (emphasis mine).

This was how Robert Krznaric, President and CEO of YOLO Medical, Inc., started his presentation on “The Power of Outrospection”. A friend had pointed me to the fascinating RSA video (above), as Mr. Krznaric explores the power of empathy in generating social change (or a “revolution”, as he proclaims).

One could argue that our education system is not oblivious to the importance of developing empathy from a young age.

In the video, he discusses the definitions of empathy, the positive characteristics of empathic individuals (to communicate effectively, to accept differences, to develop a certain curiosity), and also throws up activities that could foster greater empathy within and between communities.

And one could argue that our education system is not oblivious to the importance of developing empathy from a young age. The Community Involvement Programme (CIP) and Service Learning (SL) projects were meant to achieve the same objectives as George Orwell’s adventures, as he was “tramping on the streets of East London” (detailed in “Down and Out in Paris and London”), to experience what it was like to live on the edge of socio-economic margins. While not on the same scale (here), it was hoped that the volunteer stints would allow the young participants to be more compassionate, and more aware of the struggles of the less-privileged (beyond their little sanctuaries). After all, these first-hand experiences can never be replaced by the mere reading of texts.

While CIP and SL has compelled schoolchildren to at least do something, there is often reluctance and lethargy. Most – pragmatically – do not see the need to leave their comfort zones. This same pragmatism also inspires many to perceive community service as but another line on their glittering résumés. Oh and overseas engagements (and photographs) are bonuses (here and here).

And so the first thing would be to improve the way students serve in Singapore, or to be proactively involved in activism. But Mr. Krznaric offers more suggestions that could be applicable here.

When he speaks of “The Parents Circle” (which brings together “Palestinian and Israeli families who … have all lost members of their own families in the conflict) and the human rights movement against slavery, one could almost imagine the different Singaporean online communities coming together face-to-face for a proper conversation. More often that not, cyber-skirmishes end in the trading of barbs, vitriolic name-calling, and the customary blocking or banning of users (in other words, “moderation” which forecloses further opportunities for interactions).

Empathy can be built if we are willing to complement our keyboard exercises with a willingness to engage too.

Second, we could adopt the interesting concept of a “empathy museum”. Mr. Krznaric speaks of a global experience, for visitors to get a sense of what goes on in the various countries or impoverished regions. And while we could certainly do the same in Singapore (many of us do lack an awareness of the conditions abroad, such as the ramifications of a natural disaster or the wretched sweat-shops), we could even use the “empathy museum” to highlight the struggles that may be faced by on-the-ground citizens. The arduous construction site or tedious job of sweeping and clearing a neighbourhood; the unsightly and unhygienic dormitories of the foreign workers; as well as the experiences and inconveniences of living with disabilities or disadvantages. All these “to create the revolution of human relationships that … we so desperately need”.

Truly empathic communities in Singapore are still a long way away, but we had better get going.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


5 thoughts on “Building Empathy In Singapore

  1. Interesting. Actually, I think empathy is best “taught” through subtle channels and I think Singapore has done that very well through our education system by way of promoting an incredibly strong “school culture”. No where in the world has such a distinctive secondary/high culture as Singapore does – and many of us still reminisce fondly of our secondary/high school days despite all the failings of the academic-driven system.

    Because what I do remember fondly is school and class spirit that even going to an ‘elite’ school, empathy was nurtured when classmates helped each other out preparing for exams, mugging together, sharing notes, and stuff because the deep class spirit had everyone wanting everyone to do well. It’s like going through ‘suffering’ together! I think envy/jealousy is learnt or magnified when we enter college and university.

    Outside of the academic arena, as a school athlete, we cheer each other on during physical trainings – and we show up to support other sports during their competition – the high school sports scene in Singapore is second to none in the world. And I even remember for NAPFA, we would do extra laps with girls who struggle to finish just to cheer them on and so on. There was a lot of genuine helping each other out.

    So it doesn’t have to be distinctive channels like CIP but the fact that there is so much ‘elitism’, ‘social hierarchy’ and just a meritocratic education system presents itself a platform to nurture empathy. Because people are clearly divided but in this division, it presents each individual with a choice on how they respond/behave to those at the bottom of the food chain or the outcast so to speak.

    Even as I clocked so many CIP hours (just because social work is an interest for me since I was young) but to me, I find empathy was developed most apparently when I see school mates being bullied because they are different or at the bottom of the food chain – it presented me with the choice to either reach out to them and develop empathy through the experience or to ignore them out of fear.

    Now in the adult world, you find that true empathy takes courage. It often requires sacrifice.

    Most people are kind and good until it inconveniences or disadvantages them.

    So in a strange way, a meritocratic education system presents opportunities for Singaporeans to nurture empathy from a young age. (Though parents spoil it for us.) Of course I speak for myself and probably my school, but even as an educator in Singapore, I remember often exploiting the hierarchies to nurture empathy amongst my students and I noticed students loved it – because for once they learnt something human in school.

    Just my two cents! 🙂

    Posted by jn (@fivetwosix) | July 12, 2013, 9:06 am
    • I like the point about school culture, heh (in retrospect, this cannot be more true). But maybe we need the distinctive channels, because many of us (I’ll probably concede this too) have grown to be so comfortable with what we have within our little sanctuaries, that these little trips beyond our comfort zones will do as much good (as they have done for me).

      A little anecdote I always used to share is one of my personal journey. When I first started doing CIP/SL, I did them very pragmatically. It was very self-serving: I was thinking about how I could be featured on the papers, be recognised for my work, add another line on my resume, look like a great volunteer and humanitarian. Very silly on hindsight, but the learning process has been immense. Interacting with different people, learning about my own biases and stigmas, and then growing.

      I suppose my takeaway is that we all have our own ways of building empathy. But for those who might be oblivious / apathetic / lethargic, having things like the school programmes and “empathy museums” could do them some good 🙂

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | July 12, 2013, 11:47 am
  2. Empathy is one of the hardest traits to pass on to the next generation.
    We are too comfortable, no need to worry about roof, food, war etc.

    In my own opinion :
    Indifference (bochap) is Empathy’s worse nemesis.
    Kiasu and Kiasi are negative traits which promote “me-first” culture.

    Stop chopping tables with tissue paper, everyone hold the lift for the next person.
    We can afford to be more generous with “Good Mornings”, and “Thank Yous”.

    When society become more gracious, Empathy will have more breathing space.
    And it is easier to start with the young 🙂

    cheers, Andy (SengkangBabies)

    Posted by Andy Lee | July 12, 2013, 9:56 am
    • Start small, that is! Small actions and gestures will be perceived as being more manageable perhaps, as opposed to grander schemes of “empathy museums” and community projects (they are very much complementary, though)!

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | July 12, 2013, 11:41 am
  3. Kids (or school going children) learn more from what their parents or teachers or any other adults DO, rather than say. I have 2 at home, it’s really hard at being an example, but really easy to teach it until they ask the difficult question – “why aren’t you doing it?”. Having said that, I rather still have “enforced” exposure in schools than none. To really get going, start with ourselves and hopefully the adults around us.

    Posted by sbksim | July 14, 2013, 4:08 am

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