ITALIAN-Americans have “forget about it”. Singaporeans have “hey, hello”. They essentially mean the same thing, which is anything you’d like.
As Johnny Depp explained in Donnie Brasco, “forget about it” can be an exclamation to describe greatness, awfulness, the mundane and the miserable. It can convey anger, frustration and a warning. Occasionally, “forget about it” also means forget about it.
In Singapore, “hey, hello” is a warning, a distress signal, a call for attention, a sarcastic rebuke, a putdown and a pick-me-up. It’s a reminder to do something or a reminder that Manchester United are terrible. Occasionally, “hey, hello” can also mean hey, hello.
This week, the fabulous phrase was used to glorious effect during an inglorious incident. In a viral video, a person was caught on camera attempting to prise open the doors of an MRT train. The scene was so dramatic that Singaporeans - with no thought for their personal safety – bravely hit the record button on their phones.
And then, as the person actually began to part the doors, a male voice issued that uniquely Singaporean warning.
And I laughed out loud, not at the seriousness of the situation, obviously, but at the wonderful daftness of that phrase.
I was desperate for the person to turn, with fingernails still gripping the sides of the MRT doors, and say, “Oh, hello. How are you?”
Struggling with social responsibility
Of course, the male voice must be commended for doing something. The trusty “hey, hello” is at least an intervention of sorts, a verbal call to arms for anyone looking to step in. The “hey, hello” demonstrates a degree of self-responsibility that the other one obviously lacks.
You know the other one. It popped up in the other viral video, as the nation watched in horror as a rat attempted a twitching move not seen in public since I gave up drinking cider.
In the video, the rat is seen lying on a tray in an Orchard Road food court, not the first visitor to be floored by food prices in Orchard Road.
Fleeing footsteps are held. People scream. And then, inevitably, those words are uttered.
Can Somebody do Something?
Like what? There’s not a chapter in the crisis management handbook on what to do when Ratatouille confuses himself for James Bond and free falls without a parachute.
What were diners and cooks supposed to do? Eat with umbrellas? Send out a weather update? Cloudy with a chance of rats?
But this was no laughing matter. This was a serious incident beyond a mere “hey, hello”. A dazed rat performing Riverdance on his back needed somebody to do something.
The question reminded me of a classic scene in Jaws. When the great white shark enters the pond and pandemonium ensues, a voice can be heard shouting, “doesn’t anybody have a gun?” A dereliction of one’s civic duty has never been a problem in the United States, only the absence of a .44 Magnum in someone’s Speedos.
In Singapore, we’re still struggling with the civic duty bit, the social responsibility stuff. Should the Little Red Dot ever face a foreign invasion, there’s always the concern that half of us will stand our ground, on the beaches, and cry, “Can somebody do something?”
And the other half will be using phones to record the invaders crossing the Causeway.
Of course, there’s a reluctance to intervene. In challenging encounters, the personal, physical and legal repercussions of getting involved cannot be underestimated. Growing up, there was this elderly woman who used to engage in sexually awkward conversations with strangers in the supermarket. Her anti-social behaviour was disturbing. But what could I do? I was a child. And she was my grandmother.
I’d like to think I would’ve offered discreet assistance with the person attempting to open the MRT doors, even though no one came to my aid when I ran for a London train as a teenager and got trapped in the closing doors, my lanky arms and legs flailing like a praying mantis. But the twitchy rat? Not a chance. I suffer from musophobia, an irrational fear of rodents. I would’ve thrown women and children at its twitching feet.
Waiting for others to do something
But the two viral videos raised two broader issues: our perceived lack of social responsibility and our response to anti-social behaviour. In extreme circumstances, we might muster a "hey, hello", but mostly we’re waiting for somebody else to do something.
It’s not a new discussion. In April, the results of the fifth annual Public Cleanliness Satisfaction Survey 2022 were released, which revealed that 95 per cent of all respondents returned their trays and crockery at coffee shops in 2022. This figure was a 46 per cent increase from the number in 2021. Incidentally, a fine was introduced at the start of 2022 for those who didn’t clear their trays.
We’ll always do the right thing, if we know we’ll get fined if we don’t.
In the same survey, 77 per cent of respondents believed it was the government’s responsibility to keep Singapore clean (an increase from 73 per cent in 2021). Couldn’t the lucky residents of the world’s most cleaned city just take our rubbish home with us? Nah, it’s easier to gather around those overflowing bins on Saturday afternoons and give a stirring rendition of our other national anthem: Can Somebody Do Something?
Outsourcing is so deeply ingrained that the belief persists that others should intervene and take action, even when it’s a struggling person trying to open the doors on a moving train. Anti-social incidents are not our problem. They belong to those unnamed somebodies, always on standby, waiting to do something. So we’ll retreat and post videos for the court of public opinion to ridicule and condemn without any real awareness of the individual’s situation. It’s so much easier to pillory or patronise on social media platforms.
And then what happens? The anti-social behaviour is either stigmatised or ignorantly diagnosed, which could be the wrong judgment in both cases. We don’t know. Because we don’t get involved. And empathy is always difficult without engagement.
Whether it’s helping a family deal with a rat on their food tray, cleaning away our own food trays or assisting a distressed person on an MRT train, the appropriate responses are delicate, complex and by no means fool-proof. There are many ways to offer assistance, but recording sneaky videos and posting them online for hits and giggles isn’t one of them.
Hey, hello. We can do better than that.
Outsourcing is so deeply ingrained that the belief persists that others should intervene and take action, even when it’s a struggling person trying to open the doors on a moving train.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.