It was just another weekday afternoon. A typical rainy December one in fact. I was just having lunch at a nearby Macdonald’s, seated right across a short pedestrian crossing where people-watching was basically what kept my eyes occupied while my mouth got busy with the burger.
As pedestrians walked right to the edge of the crossing, most would simply wait obediently for the green man to appear before trotting to the other side. If I had been watching this herd behaviour before my Paris getaway, there wouldn’t be anything peculiar here, but I did and boy…oh…boy…the social differences between the Parisians and Singaporeans were evident.
As I sat there for the next 20 minutes, more than 40 people came and went across that street. Out of these, maybe about 5 – 8 of these pedestrians jaywalked. I know…you might be thinking….what’s the big deal right? Well…the thing is the green man would only light up for about 14 seconds but the wait for the red man to switch to the green would last approximately 26 seconds. (Yes. I counted.) This means that 80% of these pedestrians would rather wait for the ‘all clear’ to cross the road, even if waiting for the green man takes twice as long as crossing the road with him lighted. Mind you…there were several occasions when this two-lane road that spans only about 8 metres had NO CARS on both sides but yet the majority of people waited! WTF?
Such a structured, compliant behaviour is almost non-existent in Paris. Jaywalking is the bleedy norm! In fact, by not jaywalking across an ordinary street in Paris would make you look like an idiot. Can you imagine what a fool you would be if tens of Parisians crossed the road in front of the red man and you’re there on one side happily waiting for his green buddy to appear?
And then, my memory came rushing back. Months ago, while taking CF around the island, the following conversation took place.
Me: “Hey the pedestrian crossing is quite far. Get ready. We gotta jaywalk.”
CF: “What? Jaywalk? What’s that??”
Me: (Stunned) “Ermm…this means we have to cross the road illegally.”
CF: “Illegal?? We cross like that in Paris everytime. In fact, in French, there’s no word for ‘jaywalk’.”
Me: (Stunned again)
Subsequently, with the help of Google Translate, I verified her words and it’s true! The word ‘jaywalk’ does not exist in the French vernacular!
When I got to Paris eventually, within only a couple of days, I got Parisian-ised. Jaywalking was fun! At first I jaywalked across pedestrian crossings but by the second week, to hell with the stupid traffic lights! Daddy was gonna cross wherever he sees fit and reasonably safe even if there were no pedestrian crossings.
Behaviours are often the result of our values and beliefs. These inner concepts can be influenced by history and government policies. Case in point – Singapore. Due to our need for rapid economic progress in the 70s – 80s, socialistic campaigns were being broadcast to convince Singaporeans that teamwork and conformity is the way to go. Global companies were pulled into the local landscape on the promise of a docile, obedient and diligent workforce that will never go on strike. After two decades, I believe that our ability to conform has reached celebrity status.
No doubt, such a team-based culture did contribute to our present economic success and stability. However, these same values were gradually transferred to the next generation that is unfortunately born into a world where demands have significantly changed. Though it is still comforting to know that new policies are being introduced to breed local entrepreneurs, instill creativity and encourage critique.
Interestingly, while the typical Singaporean lies stuck with mental boundaries, the Parisians have long operated with individualism hundreds of years ago.
From jaywalking to the freedom of expressing oneself through graffiti in the Metro, Paris boasts of originality and a tinge of rebellion. Not that I personally approve of train strikes and ‘art’ being displayed on public property, but the mindset of a Parisian is almost the opposite of the Singaporean.
While we operate with the question “What can’t I do?”, the Parisian would think “What can I do?”
While we ask “Why?”, the Parisian would ask “Why not?”
The list would go on. My point is that sometimes Singapore is like a country sitting inside a petri dish. We have successfully engineered safety and structure to a level that borders on boring and predictable. Perfection is not Singapore. There exists a world out there that so much can be learned. Having been exposed to the unique individualism of Paris, I have started to appreciate a little non-conformity once in a while.
And I did, as I took my place on the sidewalk after lunch and sauntered across the road in full view of the angry red man. Not that I cared. 🙂