Are Singaporeans whiny?

According to Agung Laksono, Indonesian Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare, “Singapore shouldn’t be like children, in such a tizzy”. His remarks sparked outrage on the internet, as Singaporeans felt it was unnecessary and unprofessional to criticise their reactions over one of the worst bouts of haze we’ve ever seen.

A few days later, other Ministers joined in: Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa said the Indonesian government would not issue an apology and Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Jero Wacik declared that “(…) you go through good times together, don’t make noise to the world when things go bad. It’s just like husband and wife, don’t take your quarrel outside”.

Were they right in pointing out that we should have worked hand in hand to resolve the crisis before looking for culprits, or should they have gracefully accepted the blame and reassured neighbouring countries of their efforts and intentions?

If President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s official apology is any indication, it seems like the latter response would have been the more appropriate one.

Especially considering the restraint and decisiveness our own political representatives showed; Prime Minister Lee responded by declaring he refused to engage in “megaphone diplomacy” and instead urging all concerned officials to work “towards solving the problem rather than exchanging harsh words”.

Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam echoed this sentiment shortly after, declaring that it was “not so productive to be trading accusations”. In response to Natalegawa’s refusal to apologise, he said that Singapore wasn’t looking for an apology, but for the problem to be solved.

Shanmugam also mentioned that he would be bringing up the haze issue at an impending ASEAN ministerial meeting in Brunei by pointing out that Indonesia remains the only ASEAN member state which hasn’t ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (since 2002).

He added that the Attorney General would be looking into actions Singapore could take against unscrupulous companies found to have “contributed in some way” to the problem. This was in response to Laksono’s blaming the haze on companies owned by Indonesians, Malaysians, and Singaporeans.

So why would SBY’s Ministers go out of their way and intentionally rouse spirits with such harsh words?

One possible reason could be the fact that the Ministers resented being called out in front of the international community. “Saving face” remains a key preoccupation of Asian public figures, especially when it comes to political figures whose every action and word are studied, analysed, and sometimes contested.

Even if they weren’t personally accused of being behind the haze situation, the Ministers may have felt personally attacked and may have reacted in a panicked frenzy to deny any wrong-doing.

They are, after all, human.

Another possible explanation could be as plain and simple as the opportunity of political advancement. As George W. Bush knows so well, nothing says “leader” like presenting oneself as brash and courageous in times of crisis, especially if said crisis is under meticulous international scrutiny.

The problem is that one man’s opportunity to shine can be another man’s downfall. The only way to look genuinely determined is to be determined against something, and in this case this “something” was our little red dot.

In such a scenario, looking down upon Singaporeans’ attitudes is a way to elevate the status and the credibility of whoever is doing the looking down.

A third possibility – one that may not be pleasant to hear – could be the fact that maybe our attitude may have been somewhat troublesome to our neighbours. Let’s face it, we are indeed a whiny bunch.

Our young nation hasn’t gone through many traumatising historical events and we have reached incredible material comfort in very little time. Most of Singapore’s young haven’t gone through life-defining or life-threatening struggles (no, NS and queuing up for Hello Kitty dolls don’t count), which means we are prone to making a big deal out of things that other nations may wave off as simple inconveniences.

Add to that the fact that our unparalleled adoption of social media has made us prone to vanity and self-centeredness and the fact that kiasuism is rampant in our society, and you’ve got a recipe to unnerve even the most patient of political figures.

Does that justify or legitimise Indonesia’s inappropriate reactions to our worries? No. Does that mean we should take this opportunity to take a long look at ourselves and reassess our priorities? Definitely yes!

For instance, no one in my immediate circle of contacts paid any attention to the tragedy of the haze claiming its first casualty in Malaysia last week…

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Najib A.

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