2013年1月4日 星期五

Taiwanese identity

Below is an interesting article, published on 12/30/2012, written by Han Fook Kwang, past editor-in-chief of The Straits Times in Singapore. In it, Mr Han mentions the "Taiwanese identity" as being the basis of the civil-mindedness of the citizens of Taipei/Taiwan. The experience is apparently quite intense, Mr Han has to remind himself a few times that he is visiting Taipei, not Tokyo. 

Indeed, besides the examples cited by Mr Han, only in Taipei/Taiwan where people automatically step to the right side of the escalator to allow others through on the left side, not seen elsewhere in cities such as Tokyo, Boston, New York, and San Francisco. And only in Taiwan where you see kids say thank-you to the bus driver before exiting the public bus. 

Taiwanese identity, however, has always been there, it was simply forced underground in 1945-46 when Taiwan already had begun to modernize - only to re-emerge, but merely in part, in the late 1980s. It is still an undercurrent yet its presence is felt all the time, even by Mr Han, a visitor from outside of Taiwan. 
I couldn't find any public dustbins in Taipei where I was visiting about a week ago.

The city was clean and as well kept as any I have seen elsewhere.

But nobody throws rubbish here? What happens if you've a piece of tissue paper you want to get rid of?

Leave it in the pocket?

That's what the Taiwanese do, said my guide. They dispose of it when they get home so they can separate what can be recycled from the rest.

That's really impressive, I thought, especially considering how difficult it is to get Singaporeans to recycle their waste, let alone carry it home with them.

I had to remind myself I was in Taipei, not Tokyo where you expect the Japanese to be ultra civic-minded.

It was one of several surprises about Taipei and its people, which overturned my previous preconceptions about the place.

Truth is I didn't know very much about Taiwan, not having visited for more than 20 years - I was last there on a brief news assignment.

Much of what I knew came from reading the papers and watching the news on television, and it was mostly negative - the unruly politics, fist fights in Parliament, and headline-grabbing melodramatic elections (remember the mysterious shooting of then President Chen Shui-bian a day before the 2004 presidential election?).

There were other revelations from my visit.

At Taipei's MRT stations, commuters waited in orderly, single-line queues for trains, a sight you don't see here in Singapore, and their trains are just as crowded.

(Second reminder - it's not Tokyo.)

But the stand-out observation of my four-day visit was the service at restaurants.

It was better than Tokyo's.

These were not fine-dining places that I visited, where you expect service to be good, but popular ones such as Din Tai Fung and T.G.I. Friday's, both of which are also in Singapore.

I have never experienced such personal, enthusiastic and know-ledgeable service anywhere in the world - and from very young waiters barely out of school.

It was packed in Din Tai Fung, so you couldn't say the exceptional service was because it was a slow day there.

The issue of how to get Singaporeans to be more civic-minded has been an evergreen one because there are too many examples of bad behaviour which have gone uncorrected for too long.

Commuters blocking the way of those getting off the trains, diners not returning their trays at hawker centres and foodcourts, residents not recycling their waste, moviegoers using their mobile phones in cinemas. Many visitors have also commented that the city isn't as clean as it used to be and more people have been caught littering in public places.

The list goes on.

That's not even including how motorists behave on the road - top of my hate list being the way they accelerate instead of giving way the moment they see another driver signalling to get into their lane.

It's often said we're a First World economy but without the accompanying social graces, and that it'll take another generation before we get there.

It was such a refreshing change to visit a city where you could see a qualitative difference in social behaviour and attitude towards one another, and which was not so culturally or economically different from Singapore that it seems like an alien place.

It's how I feel about Japan - it sets a very high standard for courteous behaviour and public-spiritedness but Japanese society is hard to fathom and the social codes are so opaque to outsiders it seems like a world apart.

Singaporeans will never be like them, so there's no point studying how they do it.

But Taiwan is predominantly Chinese, and much more similar to Singapore.

It disproves the point that some people here have made that one reason for the mediocre service in retail shops and restaurants is that Chinese people are not known to be service-oriented, unlike say Thais or Filipinos.

Taiwan proves this wrong.

But if it was just about service, it wouldn't be such a big issue.

A Gallup survey put Singaporeans right at the bottom of 148 countries for lacking emotion and for being the least positive.

You could argue with the flawed way the survey was done, as many critics have done, but it still sucks to be bottom of the class.

More disconcerting was the finding of the World Giving Index two weeks ago that Singaporeans were one of the least likely people in the world (140th out of 146) to have helped a stranger in the past month.

As for giving money to charity, the score wasn't great either - 53rd, and way behind other South-east Asian countries such as Indonesia and Thailand.

I couldn't think of a worse dampener to the year-end celebrations.

Many reasons have been given for Singapore being so far behind in these softer aspects of our development.

Among several: Because we're a fast-paced, competitive economy in a densely populated urban city, people here have less time to be nice to one another. And that we're a society in which just a generation ago, many among our parents came from some of the poorest villages in China and India and who might not have grown out of their peasant habits.

But Hong Kong is just as compactly populated with immigrants from a similar background, yet it ranked 19th in the overall index, 95 places ahead of Singapore.

America is one of the most competitive economies in the world and was rated fifth.

I believe there is a common thread running through societies that do so much better than others in this area.

It has to do with having a strong sense of community and identity among the people, that they are in it together and so have to look out for one another.

It's like being part of a family, no one needs to be told to do his or her part for the other - it should come naturally because the ties that bind are as strong as Mother Earth.

When I asked a colleague who has worked in Taipei what accounts for the behaviour I observed there, she said there were many reasons, one of which was that things became noticeably better as a result of the civic movement during the years leading to the lifting of martial law in 1987.

Those were the years of political and social awakening in Taiwan when the people became more involved and participated more actively in the issues that mattered to Taiwan.

As a result, they developed a stronger sense of Taiwanese identity.

Their politics is often ugly and the economy has been sluggish for some time, but they appear to have made greater strides on the social front.

For Singapore, the challenge is greater than in a homogeneous society like Taiwan.

It is why all those top-down campaigns to get people to return food trays, stop littering, or move to the back of buses will have only limited success because Singaporeans don't feel strongly enough that they are one community and will look after one another.

That's the painful truth and acknowledging it is necessary before progress can be made.

Forging those bonds requires action, not words, from as many people as possible doing things for the common good, and not for themselves and their families. That means a much more vibrant civic society, one where Singaporeans truly believe they have an active part to play in shaping the future of this place.

The more civic organisations, interest groups, non-governmental organisations, charities and volunteers there are doing their bit in whatever area they are interested in, the greater will be this sense of community and ownership.

Conversely, if it's all done by the Government, the weaker the bonds.

But it also requires the Government to respect and support the work done by these groups.

There's clearly much more at stake than just uncleared food trays.

7 則留言:

  1. I do agree with the general impression he has of Taipei, but he might have a different impression, if he came to Zhonghe, where I live. The traffic in my neighborhood is pure survival of the strongest, you really need to be careful, that someone doesn't run over you, because they don't stop for pedestrians. If you live here longer, you see things a little bit more nuances. Btw, I also lived in Singapore for a short while. For me it wasn't that bad, but all in all Taiwanese are politer, but tend to be a little bit more reserved and shy with foreigners (especially when speaking English).

  2. Hi MKL,

    Mr Han is of course just a tourist from S'pore. I'll try to explain Zhonghe from historical POV:

    The area known as Zhonghe was actually all rice paddy fields up until the early 50s. The section near Taipei, Yonghe, was "developed" first to accommodate refugees from China in 1949. With subsequent increases in population, Zhonghe was then expanded into. Prior to 1945, the whole area was designated as the flood basin for Tamsui River which always overflowed during the typhoon season. It was never intended for people let alone cars. Actually, "develop" is too strong a word, there was no city planning at all, not in the 50s, probably not even now. And indeed, survival of the strongest is still evident today - Yonghe was where the first mainlander youth gang, known as the Bamboo Forest Gang, was founded.

    In S'pore, one pays through the nose for the privilege to drive. The traffic is not as bad as in Zhonghe, yet the drivers are no less aggressive. It seems that Mr Han is describing the consequences of the post-WW2 adoption of English education and with which the old Chinese tradition especially the politeness part was lost. In the 1980s, the Taiwanese still held S'pore in high regards, a mere two decades later, it is now reversed.

    Taiwan has retained not only the old Chinese values but also some of the post-feudal Japanese ways. In contrast, S'pore ditched the Chinese tradition, continued on with the British bureaucracy (complete with Singlish), now at loss as far as the cultural future.

    As to the shy Taiwanese: After years of diplomatic isolation, most are unsure of Taiwan's standing in the world. This will eventually change. Koxinga certainly was not shy in dealing with the Dutch in 1661/2.

  3. Personally I don't quite understand the vaunting of Tokyo that goes on in this piece - I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who finds the Japanese practice of waiting for the lights to cross even on narrow side-streets on which there is zero traffic slightly slavish. The 'shushing' that visitors face on the metro system due to Tokyo-ites love of silence can be oppressive. As a city Tokyo is over-large, with a transport system that might have been the best in the world in the 70's and 80's but is now somewhat creaking. Spending half an hour stuck in the dark on the Tokyo metro at rush hour when the train is so crowded that one can barely move was not a high-point of my year in Japan. I will say, though, that Tokyo did have it's up-side - seeing The 47 Ronin at the Kabuki-za before it closed for renovation (a friend in the production company got me tickets), drinking Nihon-shu in an izakaya in Ebisu, and the wonderful silence that descends in Shiba Koen at lunch time and in the Minami district towards sun-set. Over-all, though I preferred Taipei.

    Why? Well, the friendliness one finds as a visitor to Taiwan is quite simply the most admirable in the world. Taipei is a city of a reasonable size and isn't hard to get around, the transport system works, it's easy enough to get out of if you want to head to the hills for the weekend.

  4. "in the Minami district" - oops, I mean the Minato district, of course - specifically the shore-line around Shibaura.

  5. 芝浦 within the Port District? You are a truly a man of the world, FOARP. Having navigated through the maze known as Tokyo Station myself, I know Taipei Station is a far more welcoming place that reflects the friendliness of the Taiwanese.

    You know the story of the 47 Ronin? Very interesting. I happen to have received the descendants of the Hattori服部 family in Taipei a few days ago. The head of this family had provided assistance to the 47, twice, on the day of the action.

  6. Yup, I spent most of my time in Tokyo in Shibaura (芝浦) commuting from Nishi-Kasai (西葛西). I know something about the 47 Ronin - and the Kabuki play of it is a blood-and-guts story reminiscent of Shakespeare - but I never knew that it was actually a real story.

  7. You seem to be wasting time somewhere in east Europe? Asia is your true home, man.

    Yes, the revenge of the 47 赤穗浪士 (あこうろうしAkouroushi) is a real story, it took place on 1/30/1703. Ronin=浪人, not a proper title for them. Actually not 浪士, either. They were 義士. The blood and guts were seppuku ordered by the Shogun. The youngest was only 16.