We must not allow by-stander apathy

Updated: 2017-02-20 10:08

By Paul Surtees(HK Edition)

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Paul Surtees expresses concern at people using smartphones to insensitively record accidents and also offers some solutions to the problem

The recent shocking arson attack in an MTR train in Hong Kong caused us all to consider just what additional steps the railway operator now needs to undertake to make our journeys safer. Another shocking aspect of this terrible incident was the apathy of eyewitnesses to this and other incidents.

A couple of months ago I witnessed a traffic accident on Hong Kong Island. A motorcyclist, who had just jumped the lights, was knocked down by a delivery van. He was rendered prostrate and unmoving in the middle of a busy road, near his dented bike. There were a good number of people in the vicinity, with some of us attempting to direct the still-flowing traffic around him, to ensure no passing vehicle would run over his unconscious body.

In those initial minutes between the crash and the arrival of an ambulance and police response team, the conduct of some nearby pedestrians was dreadful. As the poor man lay dazed and bleeding in the road, several people approached him, but not to offer any help or even - on a cold night - to cover him with a blanket or coat. Instead, their objective was simply to capture images of this bleeding accident victim on their smartphones! One was even taking a close-up view of his damaged head, until I used very strong language to send him on his way!

We must not allow by-stander apathy

In another similar incident, a rather rotund old American lady I know told me that she slipped at the entrance to a smart hotel. She was left rolling on the ground as several young men took phone images of her sprawled on her back but didn't offer help. The onlookers' total lack of concern, she said, was far more distressing than the fall itself. Eventually, hotel doormen came to her aid.

And now we turn to the firebombing incident on board an MTR carriage last Friday. Apparently there were several sets of fire extinguishers on the stricken train, though nobody thought to use them to douse the flames. All the passengers on that crowded train were trapped inside a burning train that was itself in a long tunnel under the sea, though only one carriage was actually alight. Yet earlier use of the on-train fire extinguishers could have controlled the fire in that stricken carriage and prevented the spread of the noxious fumes along the length of the rest of the train. When the train arrived at Tsim Sha Tsui Station, most passengers made a beeline for the exits, but still none seem to have the presence of mind to use the fire extinguishers - though some valiant passengers did use their coats to help douse the flames on the clothes of several fellow passengers aflame.

Consequently, images online show quite a few passengers clustering round the doors of the burning carriage to take pictures on their phones, with some of the younger ones actually entering the carriage as it was still alight to get closer pictures of the crime scene. Again, most eyewitnesses seemed more interested in recording the accident on their smartphones than helping to douse the fire using the extinguishers within easy reach.

Curiously, it is in those so-called more advanced societies where the most shockingly callous incidents of bystander apathy syndrome appear most common, whereas in supposedly more backward underdeveloped countries people seem more inclined to help their fellowmen in distress. One just can't help asking whether in our material "progress" we have sacrificed something more valuable in the process - ie, "empathy" for our fellowmen.

One distinguishing feature of our famous Lion Rock spirit can be encapsulated with the esprit de corps of "one for all, all for one". We need to recapture this social contract which shines through all successful civilizations throughout history. It is to be hoped that whoever wins in the current Chief Executive election contest will make a deliberate effort to resuscitate this community spirit which marked Hong Kong's earlier phenomenal successes, in place of the current generation's obsession with modern gadgetry and its indiscriminate use.

Contrast that with earlier generations of Hong Kong residents of poorer social strata who would help each other when in need without hesitation. In so doing they overcame all manner of adversity including homelessness, abject poverty, unemployment, family loss, refugee status, illness, and much more.

We are now witnessing the irony of seeing these sophisticated handheld devices, which are so captivating and addictive because of their convenience and multi-functions, distorting the current generation's sense of priorities and propriety.

The question now is what can be done about this abnormal and worrying phenomenon. To start with, let's hope both our government and community leaders, schools and parents, will make a joint effort in encouraging a rejuvenation of our former community spirit of mutual concern. Proper use of smartphones is but one aspect of this larger picture. It's time we got our priorities right!

(HK Edition 02/20/2017 page1)