These unpleasant experiences made me realise how frightening it would be to live in a world without trust.
These infuriating brushes with swindlers dampened my trip in Vietnam. With a sceptical mindset, I grew more wary and began to distrust the people around me.
Wouldn’t it be great to be living in a society where people are truthful and sincere?
Sincerity and trustworthiness are traditional moral virtues revered by several societies and religions. They are the bedrock of a harmonious society, and the basis for a nation's survival.
A trustworthy and harmonious society can only be built if we are truthful to our parents, friends, colleagues and people around us. Also, a country can only genuinely prosper and survive if it has truthful, honest and trustworthy citizens as its government leaders.
Dishonesty can also harm a country’s reputation.
In November 2014, Singapore was gripped by the brouhaha over the infamous Sim Lim Square scam. The video footage of Vietnamese tourist, Mr Pham Van Thoai, begging on his knees at Mobile Air, a shop in Sim Lim Square, went viral and sparked a public outrage.
Mr Pham was asked to fork out an additional S$1,500 for a 1-year warranty package, after purchasing an iPhone 6 at S$950.
Following this outcry, Mr Chew Chiew Loon Jover, the former owner of Mobile Air, was convicted for a series of dishonest sales modus operandi involving 25 victims, amounting to a swindled sum of S$14,449. His salesmen were also charged in court for cheating.
Because of this unscrupulous tourist scam, the bad reputation of Sim Lim Square has gone beyond Singapore. China warned its citizens travelling to Singapore to be careful of shopping scams, according to a BBC report, and the mall is only rated two out of five stars on travel website TripAdvisor.
Nonetheless, these are all the black sheep among us. Generally, in my opinion, the citizens on this little red dot are sincere, honest and trustworthy folks.
All in all, Singapore is a harmonious society, though the number of scams (purchase scam, investment scam, credit-for-sex scams, Internet love scams, and lottery scams) perpetrated over the phone and on social media has more than doubled in a year, with 2,450 cases in 2015 compared to 1,015 cases in 2014, according to Minister of Home Affairs and Law Mr K Shanmugam in a written reply to Parliament.
Fortunately, except for a few pushy salespersons, I have yet to meet a swindler in Singapore.
My Unpleasant Experiences
My encounters with swindlers happened when I was overseas.
I am not trying to discredit the reputation of any country. It might be because, as a foreigner, I was an easy target for scammers.
Nevertheless, these unpleasant experiences made me realise how frightening it would be to live in a society that lacks trustworthiness.
Recently, while I was in Vietnam, I ran into not one but three scammers, who were out there to make a quick buck from tourists.
I stumbled on the first scammer when sitting outside the Vincom Center B Shopping Mall.
Just when I was letting my guard down, a ‘friendly’ shoe polisher appeared and reached down to brush my shoes, even before I had given any consent.
I thought: “All right, just let him earn, it may just cost a few Vietnamese Dong.”
He casually spent a few minutes giving new soles to the lower part of my shoes, while I waited helplessly. Then, his friend came and touched up my sister’s sandal hastily.
After finishing his superficial job, he cheekily asked me to pay VND900,000 (S$57)!
His shameless expression irked me. I chastised him for being a cheater. I refused to pay him the amount, and chased him away with VND200,000 (SS12.70).
He was really chuffed with his successful scam attempt and took the money with a grin. There was no sign of embarrassment written on his face.
Later, I came to know that these dishonest shoe polishers might be working under a syndicate as many tourists have experienced similar unwelcome encounters with shoe polishers in Hanoi.
When I thought the shoe polish scam was just an unlucky incident, I met a ‘fake’ taxi-driver outside ‘The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater’ – a tourist hotspot – the very next day.
At that time, he was lurking outside the theatre, waiting for his prey.
I had a strange foreboding that something would go wrong when he signalled us to board his ‘black’ taxi embellished with the words ‘Dragon Taxi’.
The skinny taxi driver had shifty eyes, and his mind seemed to be thinking of something else. However, as I was eager to go back to the hotel, I boarded his taxi without following my hunch.
Just as I was relaxing on my seat, my sister noticed the meter jumping from VND11,000 to VND20,000, and to VND40,000 in a short distance. Typically, the taxi fare from the theatre to our hotel costs around VND30,000.
I knew that we were trapped in a fake taxi with a tampered meter. I told him firmly to stop the taxi. Thankfully, he did, and I paid him VND50,000 ($3.15). Who knows what would have happened if he had declined my instruction, and robbed us instead!
After that ill-fated night, we only hailed ‘licensed’ taxis from either Mai Linh or Vinasun. We thought we would be safe this way, but we were wrong.
The next morning, we hopped into a taxi to the Ben Thanh market.
Upon reaching the destination, the young taxi driver furiously denied the figure shown on the meter, i.e. VND29,000 (S$1.85), and insisted that it should be VND290,000 (S$18.35).
He might be manipulating us by capitalising on our unfamiliarity with the denominations. I told him the taxi fares never went above VND100,000 when we were travelling around the city, and gave him VND29,000.
These infuriating brushes with swindlers dampened my trip in Vietnam, though I did meet warm and nice Vietnamese, particularly those living outside the city.
With a sceptical mindset, I grew more wary and began to distrust the people around me.
I started wondering: “Are the Vietnamese police doing their job to fight crime?”
I recall seeing a group of Vietnamese women displaying banners outside the People’s Committee Building in Ho Chi Minh City to demand redress for forced land seizure and police brutality. I learnt about their plight from a Vietnamese acquaintance after showing him photos of the protest.
Due to the government’s land grabbing policy, thousands of farmers have lost their cultivation land and houses, without adequate compensation.
I snapped the protest scene secretly using my smartphone. Just as I had anticipated, one of the many policemen convening around the petitioners discovered my surreptitious act, and stopped me from recording. Thankfully, I escaped without him confiscating my smartphone.
This serendipitous episode reminded me of Chinese petitioners arriving in Beijing to seek justice on issues ranging from corrupted officials, police brutality, government land seizures to unlawful religious persecution.
In a similar vein, forced requisitions of land and corrupted officials are a growing source of public anger against the one-party Communist governments in both countries, according to news reports.
The unjust land confiscations often go hand-in-hand with corruption; many local Communist Party elites are alleged to make themselves rich through their monopoly of land deals.
The authorities often turned a blind eye to these appeals. Some petitioners were even arrested in extra-judicial detention facilities, known as ‘black jails’ in China.
Curious about today’s Vietnam, I asked my Vietnamese acquaintance: “Is Vietnam that untrustworthy due to communist influence?” (In Ho Chi Minh City, I often came across ‘red’ communist propaganda.)
The award-winning ‘Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party’ states: “When the evil spectre of communism fell upon the human world, the Communist Party unleashed the scum of society and utilised the rebellion of hoodlums to seize and establish political power… By using the so-called ideology of struggle, that opposes nature, heaven’s laws, human nature, and the universe, it destroys human conscience and benevolence, and further destroys traditional civilisation and morality.”
I also asked my acquaintance: “Is protecting the political party the first priority of the Vietnam police, as opposed to fighting crime?”
“Yes, maybe,” my Vietnamese acquaintance replied. He mused on how the government has not created enough jobs for its people.
He also remembers being scammed by an old lady who ‘deliberately’ spilled her tofu and lay on the road helplessly. He took pity on her and gave her a few Vietnamese Dong.
Later, he read from the newspapers that an old lady had been exploiting people’s compassion to cheat them of their money.
“Nowadays, people don’t dare to help,” he said.
A Chinese Dilemma
An Epoch Times article entitled ‘To Help or Not to Help, a Dilemma in China’ discussed how Chinese netizens started a debate on guidelines by Chinese authorities stating how to assist an elderly person who has fallen in the street.
In recent years, there have been frequent reports of elderly persons falling in public places with no one helping them. They had often stopped breathing before the ambulance arrived.
Many Chinese people have become reluctant to help for fear of being sued by predatory elderly fall victims.
In 2006, Peng Yu assisted an old lady who had fallen in Nanjing. Instead of reciprocating her kind deed, the old lady sued Peng.
The fear of helping the elderly, in both Vietnam and China, is tragic. It underlines the effect of mistrust in society.
“This is the sad consequence of a corrupted [society with declining morals],” opined Chinese national Su Xi (pseudonym), a researcher at a local educational institution.
I didn’t come face-to-face with a swindler during my trip to China, because I joined a tour group. However, what I chanced upon were salesgirls putting on Oscar-worthy performances in ‘fire burning’ acts, tempting you to purchase ‘formidable’ creams to treat burns and pains; and tour guides bringing you to various shops (from jade and silk to tea) to solicit you to buy their products in order to earn commissions.
Also, we have too often heard of fake and poisonous products manufactured by black-hearted manufacturers, for instance, fake prescription drugs, poisonous milk powder, polished rice using industrial shortenings – and even fake monks! These, amongst others, are reported to be common phenomena all over China.
“In today’s China, fake products, prostitutes and drugs are ubiquitous. Corruption is rife, (and so are) conspiracies between officials and gangs, organised crime syndicates, bribery and even state organ harvesting,” said Su Xi.
She continued: “In China, as long as you are apathetic about politics and do not protest the CCP’s leadership, you could let your desires [run amok]; people would do anything to earn big money, thus resulting in a [society with declining morals].”
The ‘Nine Commentaries’ explains: “In the name of revolution, the Party could murder and starve to death tens of millions of people. This has led people to devalue life, which then encourages the proliferation of fake and poisonous products in the market. This has everything to do with the single-minded pursuit of material gain that comes in the wake of the destruction of the culture and consequent degeneration of human morality.”
“To date, the CCP has cracked down on almost all traditional religions and dismantled the traditional value system. The unscrupulous way by which the CCP seizes wealth and deceives people has had a trickle down effect on the entire society, corrupting the entire society and leading its people towards villainy.”
A troubling study by Simon Gächter and Jonathan Schulz from the University of Nottingham, published last year, found that participants living in corrupt societies were more likely to stretch the truth and bend the game’s rules to gain extra cash.
They measured ‘prevalence of rule violations' (PRV) by drawing on 2003 data on political fraud, tax evasion and corruption, and conducting a dice rolling game involving 2,586 people from 23 countries, including Vietnam, Morocco, China, the UK, Italy and the Czech Republic. These people were aged 22 on average. (Refer to Infographic 1)
Their study concluded that people living in corrupt countries whose quality of institutions was weak (marked as 'low'), such as Tanzania and Morocco, have a propensity to be dishonest. On the contrary, people living in societies with low degrees of corruption, such as Austria, the Netherlands and the UK, are more inclined to be honest.
‘Corruption’ includes bribery, cronyism, embezzlement, tax evasion and political fraud.
South Korea and Taiwan
Let’s look at a non-communist society like South Korea, where the world’s major religions, Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam, peacefully coexist.
In South Korea, rather than being scammed, I met many sincere and warm-hearted folks, who kindly extended a helping hand when I was lost.
Once, I asked for directions from a Korean ‘ahjussi’ (uncle), and he kindly escorted me to the place even though he was late for a meeting. I also met a taxi driver who helped me buy entrance tickets and directed me on the ‘right’ bus to Seoul.
My most memorable encounter was with a taxi driver who happened to be a devout Buddhist. He genially guided me to the different Buddha sculptures engraved on stones or cliffs spread across the Gyeongju mountainside.
After the trip, he profusely apologised in a letter written in Korean, saying how sorry he was not to bring me to the main hiking route to view these sculptures due to the climate. As I can’t read Korean, the Korean staff at the guesthouse kindly helped me decipher his letter.
Similarly, the beliefs of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism have been the backbone of Taiwan’s relatively stable moral system.
There is no language barrier in Taiwan, hence travel was easy and straightforward – but I remember once, when I whipped out a map, the bus driver and a passenger offered their help earnestly even without me asking them!
Sincerity, Trustworthiness, Honesty
Sincerity, trustworthiness and honesty among people create peace of mind and promote relationships of trust. These values are the basis of a sustainable, peaceful and harmonious society.
A lack of honesty and basic trust among people often leads to distrust, conflict, corruption and anxiety. Morality and social values will be lost in a society filled with deception. Consequently, the nation will be at the cusp of an invisible crisis, leading to possible national doom.
As English poet and playwright William Shakespeare famously wrote: “Honesty is the best policy. If I lose mine honour, I lose myself.”
A corrupt society with decayed morality cannot possibly provide security, no matter how rich it is.
If I can’t even trust my neighbour, and have to guard myself against any person on the street, wouldn’t life be tiring and insecure? Aren’t humans supposed to be truthful and help one another sincerely? Isn’t stability a main concern in our lives?
Moreover, a society of dishonesty is the stumbling block to investors, businesses, as well as government institutions.
Cherishing trustworthiness over money is being moral, and valuing money over trustworthiness depletes one's virtue and fortune.
The old expression ‘what you sow, you reap’ is very true. If one knows that in gaining something that doesn’t belong to us, one will end up accruing karma and losing our valuable virtue, nobody will dare undertake any dishonest act.