During a trip to Australia via India and Thailand several years ago, I stopped over in Singapore, and in doing so realised the true meaning of the Valentine message.
Singapore is a steaming city-state of some five million ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians with a generous helping of western expatriates, and I had thought the sights and smells of the ‘Lion City’ would have been the perfect adieu to Asia. I thought it would provide a new adventure, teaching me some valuable lesson in life that I had failed to see, and providing me with the feeling that Holden Caulfield called “some kind of a good-by”. But Singapore was a disappointment.
The definitive characteristic of Singapore for me was its sterility: an oily cleanliness, like a machine that was worked hard but maintained in prime condition. I had left the warmth and chaos of India, and the lush greenness and smiling faces of Thailand for the Asian equivalent of a doctor’s surgery.
Though my low-budget hostel was shabby, every surface shone from dedicated scrubbing. The bathroom floor, moistened by showering backpackers, never dried out during the humidity of the day, but it was spotless. Even the markets of Chinatown were orderly and clean, and the hubbub restrained.
This restraint is assured, I learned, by a conservative ethos running throughout Singaporean society. Focussed on stability, the country is regulated by strict laws coupled with severe punishments – the death sentence for drug smuggling, for example, or the prohibition of…chewing gum. Littering, especially of the sticky kind, is a serious offence. Once a centre of global and local trade, the economy is now based on financial services, and Singaporeans are quite wealthy and enjoy a high standard of living. But apart from a small number in parks and bars, I only saw Singaporeans doing two things – working and shopping.
Shopping ’til you dropped seemed the social ritual of the young, which they performed in vast numbers in enormous shopping malls in the evenings. Cold despite the crushing heat, strongly secular and consumerist, downtown life seemed a hamster’s wheel in an immaculate cage. After a few days it even became depressing, so much so that, two days later, I rejoiced at a sight so common in other lands: a takeaway bag and paper cup from McDonald’s, abandoned as litter on the footpath. The first litter I had seen in Singapore, it seemed almost an act of civil disobedience, something Winston Smith in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four would have approved of.
So I felt, as I sat in the departures lounge the next day, as if I had missed an opportunity, or failed to learn something Singapore had to teach. I picked up a forgotten newspaper that lay on the airport lounger beside me, and an article caught my eye. The title promised Singaporean women how to find “The One”; the man of their dreams. Whatever their values, it seemed Singaporeans were actually concerned with the same problems as elsewhere.
The article drew on an ancient story from the Bible, that of Rebekkah. The story recounts that Abraham had decided to find a wife for his son, Isaac, and despatched a trusted elder to find the right girl. According to the article, the elder had set off into the desert with his camels without knowing what exactly he was looking for. A girl of beauty? Of appropriate lineage? In a moment of clarity, he realised that if he could find a woman who would not just give him something to drink, but water his camels as well, he would have found a good match for Isaac. After wandering fruitlessly for many weeks, he arrived at a well in the evening, where a beautiful young girl was drawing water. Asking her for a dipper of water to quench his thirst, she gave him to drink before offering to water his camels. That was her parent’s house on the hill, she said, and he was welcome to have something to eat, and to stay with them for the night if he wished. Moved by her extraordinary compassion toward a complete stranger, he accepted, and after telling her parents of his mission, he brought Rebecca back with him to become Isaac’s wife.
“What is the rarest of human qualities in the world of today?” asked the writer. “It is kindness.”
The article urged readers to look beyond beauty, wealth and other superficial measures and to look at the heart of the other. “The next time a man takes you to dinner,” it said, “pay less attention to how he treats you, and more to how he treats your waitress.” To find someone to spend your life with who is truly kind and giving is to be fortunate beyond measure, it said, and to recognise them is to be wise.
I boarded my plane with a grin, eager to use this advice to the full, and find a girl like Rebecca. As time passed, I realised that kindness is a characteristic that sets good people apart from all others, whatever their relationship to us.
Because I believe in destiny, I later realised that, if we are searching for someone, they are certainly searching for us too. We can make their search a lot easier if we are kind ourselves. If our every thought and deed is one of kindness, it will be seen. It will be appreciated. And someone who knows to value kindness will be moved by it. And “The One” will find you.
Sometimes you have to travel half-way around the world to learn the simplest and most fundamental of life’s lessons.
Thank you, Singapore.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.