The Illusion of Safety

One Malaysian once remarked, "Singaporeans do not know how to cross the road." Upon confrontation, the Malaysian simply said, "Come to Malaysia and see how Singaporeans freeze at the sides of the road." Unfortunately, the cocky chap from Boleh Land was right because I found myself hesitating when I needed to cross the roads there. My countrymen will be similarly petrified at the road sides in the busy cities of Vietnam or Thailand where there are often no crossing buttons to press or overhead bridges in sight. This example, along with countless of other little things add up and contributes to the illusion of safety that exist as a state of mind of the everyday Singaporean.

In the past 7 days, I set foot on the soil of 3 different countries. Perth, Singapore and the notorious Johore Bahru of Malaysia. I had never walk on any street in Perth at night before. That was because I never felt safe about doing so. Does this mean that Perth is unsafe? In my mind, yes. Logically, no. In reality, any one of us can be endangered or killed anywhere, anytime. Statistically, the percentage of people who have motive to harm someone they do not know on the street should not vary very much across any normal country in peace. Thus in Perth where there are an average of 285 human living in a 1km by 1km square, the odds of a night walker like me meeting a violent lunatic is considerably lower than in Singapore, where there are 7315 people living in the same amount of space.

I think the illusion of safety in Singapore isn't doing us Singaporeans very good. So much so most of us are simply unequipped with basic common sense survival skills. We take for granted our food will be clean and safe for consumption, cars will always stop on red lights, our water will always flow out from our taps or perhaps the worst of all, our government will always do the best for its people. When things do not happen the way we expected, we make a call or write a letter to the relevant authorities and watch them make things right. Sometimes a problem can be as simple as placing a piece of strong plank over a slippery slope to serve as a temporary ramp until work is done on it. That could save us a lot of unnecessary problems such as old folks on wheel chairs falling flat on their faces and getting dentures stuck into mud.

As I walked along the streets of JB, I found myself making paranoid glances over my back periodically. Funnily, the Malaysians I interacted with gave me warmer responses than my little walks on the streets of Singapore. The stigma of dangerous Malaysia has always been deep, each time renewing for the stronger with new tales from someone you know who know someone who got their cars stolen in those mysterious manners that makes David Copperfield looks noobish. You will be surprised you will not be able to convince many Singaporeans to walk on the streets of JB alone even if you promise them a free meal at the end of it. That is how bad our natural survival instincts have been stripped along the years, so much so we do not have the basic skills or perception to manage the idea of danger properly. While most Singaporeans think Malaysia is a dangerous country, Malaysians probably think Singapore is a safer country. A safer country, not a safe country. Note the difference.

The false sense of security is simply a subset of safety. That explains why I still receive emails from Singaporeans seeking advice for the strangest of questions that do not really require any answers. This also answers why Singaporeans feel so insecure about the world outside Singapore. If you ask me, there is nothing safe and secure living in an environment where our senses are constantly shaped and warped in a manner that makes us irrelevant to the rest of the world. Just imagine being the only audience that can only remain rooted to the seat when they announce the show is over and everyone else naturally make themselves to the exits without thinking much about it.


  1. Agreed. It's not that other countries are dangerous; it's that Singapore is too safe.

  2. Perth is actually really safe at night. I've taken the last bus home on numerous occasions. Sure, there are the occasional drunkards, but since the roads are almost empty at night, it makes it easy to spot from far "potentially dangerous characters" too.