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Asian times

“Dude. You know what your problem is? You’re too punctual.”

I’ve never imagined that punctuality was a problem. Yet, my friend’s words – he was probing the root of my grouchiness after I had waited 45 minutes for him – cut true. In a nation of chronic belated-ers, the punctual are aberrations and abominations.

Already, I hear the belated-ers cheer, “Of course! YOU SHOULD LEARN TO BE LATE! I can’t just put my things aside just to meet you!”

And we do learn. We learn that we can waltz in unapologetically without censure – it happens only if you look guilty; we learn to anticipate the arrival of the worst belated-er so that they, not us, are the first to arrive; we learn to lie on our handphones. Here’s an example: “Oi Edwin? X. I’ll be late by ten minutes. I’m on the way.” But X has just stepped out of the front door and is far from getting there.

In fact, an editorial in the Sunday Times (a March weekend) asserted that handphones destroyed punctuality, eroded discipline and screwed over our time management. We can call our appointments anytime (usually ten minutes before we’re due) and shift it backwards – as shown earlier. No need to panic. Conversely, without her handphone, the writer was on time for all her appointments. She was panicking over missing her appointments. The editorial suggested that the fault belongs to the damn handphone.

Bull crap.

The truth is: we’re Asians. And Asians aren’t very punctual.

Howls: “How can this be? Look at Changi airport! It’s first-class and everything runs on time! Look at the buses and trains in Thailand. They’re on time! Malaysian buses run on time! How dare you say Asians are not punctual!”

But these are businesses. And time-sensitive businesses too, where delays mean less money. Knowing Asians; money-making takes priority. Also, I’m not talking about businesses. I’m talking about ordinary appointments with ordinary folks: going to a movie, getting dinner, going for drinks, or a book-club discussion. 

That’s where we fail to keep time. Much of it can be traced to our cultural attitudes. South-east Asians are remarkably laidback. Each country has a mantra for it: Malays say, “Relac.” Thais say, “Sanuk.” Laotians say, “Sabai.”

It’s common to see south-east Asians sway on hammocks, lounge on verandahs, sip coffee and chat away the afternoon. It’s also common to see lunch extending into dinner and supper. We’re so laissez faire that we move as if we’re wading in molasses. We do not hurry through everyday living. Also, our timeliness is taken quite lightly and with a large pinch of salt. 

“It can’t apply to Singaporeans! We’re cosmopolitan! We don’t have our own word for being laidback! We’re very advanced (in a very western way)! Everything runs on time!” 

That’s all quite true. But despite our ‘supposed’ advancements, we are still Asians; immigrants from regions who like to take it easy. So, culturally speaking, it seems that Singaporeans are cursed to be chronically late except for the few aberrations and abominations.


Tips on being punctual:
Following these tips might turn you into an abomination! 

  1. Public transport never seems to run on time when you’re running late. Add 15 more minutes if you’re going to take public transport.
  2. If you walk to your destination, add another 10 minutes. Walking can be deceptively slow. 
  3. If you are going to be late, call up the person as soon as you can! Please do not call them 10 minutes before appointment time and tell them that you’ll be late for half an hour! They have lives to lead as well!
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