Change the Way Technology is Used

People sure seem a lot friendlier nowadays.

Ever wondered why strangers around you suddenly become overly sociable and courteous during this time? They seem to be able to do what countless years of courtesy campaigns complete with that hermaphrodite lion mascot couldn’t convince people to do. Random acts of kindness and consideration seem spontaneous it makes you wonder if there’s a need for the Singapore Kindness Movement. The cleaner who works all year with a scowl, now smiles from molar to molar and the normally half-asleep power-crazy security guards, armed with a clipboard, and using it like a weapon of mass destruction, now waves at you like a long-lost relative when he sees you a mile away and leaps to hold doors open and press lift buttons for you.

Well, I think I know why.

It is customary during the Chinese New Year period to give out little red packets of cash to friends and relatives. This “good luck” money, called Ang Pow in Hokkien or Hong Bao in Mandarin is very much a part of Chinese culture here.

In addition to relatives and friends, these little red packets of cash are often also given to janitors, domestic helpers, doormen, taxi drivers, service people, even workers in the local kopi-tiams that you frequent and – according to your generosity and cash flow – to just about anyone you wish to acknowledge or bless.

But recently the very clever bright sparks, smart alecks and geniuses at the Development Bank of Singapore have developed an app called DBS PayLah! which you can use to give what the bank refers to as “eAng-Baos” to relatives and friends virtually.

The idea is not new actually – China’s messaging app WeChat already started something similar last year. DBS is just being a copycat here.

Technology is a fantastic enabler and has served to disintermediate many unnecessary predatory middle-men. We all now enjoy the convenience of going online to choose our own flights and make our own airline and hotel bookings, for example, and often at very competitive prices and enjoying great bargains.

But imagine not being able to give or receive Ang Pows!

Some traditions are best left untouched – Chinese New Year is the time for family reunions, of visits to friends and relatives, of loved ones getting together to share meals and to fellowship, and yes, it’s the time to give and receive Ang Pows. Those who remember the joy and happiness that accompanied Chinese New Year when they were kids don’t want to deprive the future generations of similar experiences.

But in the past few years, elders have bemoaned the fact that many younger people have chosen to go away for vacations during the Chinese New Year period and skipping reunion dinners and visits entirely or of being stylish by dressing completely in black, which for some strange reason, is considered chic and fashionable nowadays. (Even waiters and waitresses are dressed wholly in funereal black in some eateries, which to me is such an awful color for restaurant staff.) So if the tradition of Ang Pow giving is also gone the way of fire crackers – firecrackers, like chewing gum are banned in Singapore – it will surely make many people like me sad at the further erosion of age-old customs and cultural mores.

Some xenophobic Singaporeans are even suggesting that something as insensitive and horrid a concept as eAng-Baos can only be because DBS’ CEO is a non-Singaporean. (Yes, strange as it may seem, there isn’t a Singaporean who is capable of running the bank, which makes me wonder how it is that this country is still functioning given that “foreign talents” and non-citizens aren’t allow to be part of the Singapore government, and thank goodness for that or we’ll probably outsource our presidency to India or the Philippines or some other country.)  Now, I don’t wish to speculate or to enter into a discussion over something I have no intimate knowledge about but I for one, don’t think virtual Ang Pows is necessarily a good idea at all.

Technology makes things happen, but it is not something positive if it destroys a culture or negate parts of it.

Unless you want a Chinese New Year during which people send their avatars to sit down for a virtual reunion dinner, a New Year during which nobody visits, no New Year cards are sent by snail mail, and people stay wherever they rather be, glued to their smartphones, and sending text messages and eAng-Baos through cyberspace, it’s best to let certain things remain status quo.

True, change starts with you. The decision not to change also starts with you. I hope you won’t change the tradition of giving real Ang Pows.