“Manners maketh Man.” – The Vulgaria, by William Horman of Wykeham

Horman’s book was published in 1519 and stood as one of the great examples of quote-worthy volumes based on humanist principles. It was also one of the earliest mass produced books (by mass, we mean 800 copies). There are many memorable phrases in the book but none so recently popularised as the above, in the Hollywood film Kingsman: The Secret Service. I learnt in school that the meaning of this sentence was two-fold. The first was the obvious: manners make the man. How you behave demonstrates and represents the kind of character you are, though if you’re strict about it, ‘define’ would be the right word. 

The second less obvious meaning is this: that manners are made by man. We decide as a society what sorts of behaviour and attittudes are acceptable. The events of recent months would suggest we’ve neglected the second meaning for far too long. 

I’ve never personally been fond of apologies (pardon the digression, there’s relevance), something that I’ve often pointed out to my colleagues. Apologies are hollow words to act as a salve, after you’ve hurt someone. Why not simply avoid hurting someone in the first place, so you won’t need to apologise? That’s usually where manners come in handy. 

These days however, manners appear to be in short supply. Click on any frequently commented social media post and you’re bound to see a lot of vitriol and terribly unwarranted opinions in the basest of language. People aren’t interested in considering their words anymore. Tact, once considered a most genteel skill, has fallen by the wayside. 

There were the attacks on former Marc by Marc Jacobs model Nadia Rahmat; the nasty attacks on Miss Universe Singapore in 2013; Minister Tan Chuan Jin‘s suggestion that elderly folks collected cardboard boxes for fitness; MP Denise Phua’s suggestion that foreign workers are walking time bombs. Let’s not even start on the private social media groups that speak to specific agendas. Now there’s another: Alice Fong’s post-lunch outburst at a disabled cleaner. 

I’m not here to comment about Fong’s behaviour, but another social media post by a gentleman who will remain unnamed (he also appears to be a student) was raised to my attention by a friend. An image of the post is attached below. 

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I’ll allow for the fact that the gentleman in question is young and therefore may not realise that yes, in fact, disabled persons are given certain privileges in society by virtue of their disability, which ranges from being able to park in disabled spots to hiring benefits. But I’d like to address this post point by point. 

1. Sir, it is socially wrong for any person to scold another unrelated person under any circumstance and it doesn’t matter whether they are an employee, employer, a government leader, a social leader or anybody in any position in the world. It’s perfectly acceptable to reason, to explain and yes sometimes this can be rather vociferous, but no human being should have the right to put another person down verbally. It’s not OK regardless of whether the person in question is disabled or not. 

2. There is no special treatment granted in this case to Mr Png. He was simply doing his job, and as far as he could tell, Ms Fong had okayed his removal of the tableware. As he was disabled, he could not hear her comment and since he’s both deaf and dumb, unless he was looking at Ms Fong and reading her lips while clearing the table which seems unlikely, he would not have realised her request. This isn’t a matter of him not being able to do his job. If Ms Fong had simply waved her hands ‘no’ over the dish, it’s unlikely he would have taken it away. 

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A simple hand gesture like this would have likely done the trick.

3. No handicapped or disabled person I know has ever demanded special privileges or treatment for anything from boarding the bus to doing their job. None of them wish for you to feel liable for them. However, it’s generally considered well-mannered to show some patience and kindness to them, coupled with a healthy dose of compassion. If you don’t think that’s necessary, I would like to welcome you to discover the difficulties of living without one of your senses by wearing a blindfold for a day. 

It’s sad that we are inducting the younger generation into an attitude of callousness and an almost ruthless black-or-white scenario where if you’re deemed unable to fulfill your role, you should be put aside. And while I understand the gentleman’s meritocratic intent (it’s after all what we’ve been taught to follow, a performance-based reward system), I would like to remind him and all Singaporeans that our country’s pledge reads “to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality”.

Equality here doesn’t simply mean treating everyone as equal, or at least it shouldn’t. It means to bring everyone up to an equal footing so that they can achieve the same level of happiness if they work towards it. For those of us who are prejudiced, stigmatised or rearing a younger generation, you may want to consider this: if one day, you were to become handicapped, would you want to be yelled at by an irate customer and told that you should rely on handouts to live? 

P.S. The opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author and none other. 

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We Live in an Uncivil Society
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