Confessions of Singa's manager: He culled beloved courtesy mascot to grow kindness in S'pore
He let Singa the Courtesy Lion go.
A familiar sight on trains and buses until two years ago, the three-decades-old mascot of the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) was "fired" by this man, Mr Cesar Balota.
Mr Balota, SKM's marketing strategist who is three years into the job, admits that he got flak for it.
"Bring him back", one angry e-mail read.
"You killed a national icon", said another.
Several people in SKM's governing board also voiced their concerns about the long-time face of the organisation effectively losing its job.
Mr Balota, 59, says: "It was a carefully considered initiative. It was probably the most controversial and memorable thing we've done since I came on board."
Despite the angry sentiment, he stuck to his guns.
The naturalised Singaporean, who hails from the Philippines, says: "The purpose was to get people talking about kindness. That was the message, and I think we did it."
The idea to retire Singa came during a coffee-table talk between him and the general manager of SKM's public relations agency.
At that time, an SKM survey showed that the people here were less gracious than they had ever been in the previous five years.
He says: "Singa was known to many, but he was dwindling in relevance. I wanted to change that.
"Hence the idea to have Singa resign."
The mascot said in a letter on SKM's website and Facebook page that it had thrown in the towel because it was "just too tired to continue facing an increasingly angry and disagreeable society".
The reason? "Singa wants people to stop relying on his image. If you want a kind society, we have to start with ourselves," says Mr Balota.
Putting the final nail into Singa's coffin, he says: "He's not coming back."
It is not the first time that Mr Balota has been put on the spot.
His current job as associate general secretary means he is responsible for SKM's image - branding, advertising and public campaigns.
There are those who say it is preposterous for a "foreigner" to tell Singaporeans what graciousness - a nebulous concept - means.
Rebutting such comments, he says: "Kindness is a universal value - it's not Singaporean, or Filipino, or Western... It's something human."
He was posted here by a former company more than 30 years ago, uprooting him from his birthplace in Cebu, the Philippines.
The first thing he noticed was a "perceived curtness" in the way people talked.
He recalls: "It seemed rude and very staccato-like, but it's a different accent that I got used to."
He also quickly learnt about the different sensibilities between Filipinos and Singaporeans.
In Manila, men protect their women in ways that he describes as "chivalry", such as always walking on the side closest to traffic.
But in Singapore, he was initially confused when he saw men sitting down in public transport while women stood.
"I realised that people just think differently. Here, I'm told women don't necessarily agree that they must always have a seat on a bus.
"So, it can get awkward when I give up my seat to women."
Rather than be offended, he makes it a point to learn from the behaviour of Singaporeans.
After all, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
The solution, he says, is to "sit at the window seat while riding a bus. That way, I don't feel awkward."
He learnt how to be Singaporean during his weekly tennis sessions with his next-door neighbours and through church friends, picking up advice on food, language and culture.
With two grown-up children and a wife, Mr Balota believes he has integrated well here.
"I flit quite easily between 'native Singaporean' friends, Filipino friends and friends of other nationalities... If I look back, the things that I had to adjust to were very trivial indeed."
SECRETS OF THE TRADE
1. You can't teach kindness. What you can do, however, is more of prompting, questioning and encouraging people to reflect on our behaviour.
2. Target the leaders. Many have said they look to their superiors to determine how they act, so concentrating on the supervisors and bosses is a good way to get the message across.
3. Identify what is stopping people from expressing graciousness. Social pressures such as competition, change and conflict can make you disagreeable in your outward behaviour, even though you believe in kindness.