Privacy doesn’t exist in Singapore?

Very recently I was in a regular doctor’s office for the first time in a long time.  I was sitting next to the nurse’s desk, filling out required paperwork when another patient came in.  The nurse began asking them very personal questions and I awkward interjected that I’d finish the paperwork somewhere else so I wouldn’t intrude upon the other patient’s privacy.

“Don’t worry…privacy doesn’t exist here,” the Aussie replied which nonchalance.

It struck me as profound, both as a statement, and the utter lack of resentment in her tone.  Just…that’s how it is, and I’ve accepted that.

Back home, doctor’s offices are places where no private information is given in public.  Medications you’re on, medical history…all done in private.  In fact, a doctor’s office could get in a lot of trouble for talking about patient’s condition or medication regime or anything publicly, much less in public with that patient.

The thing is, disclosure is fairly endemic here.  A friend commented on his twitter feed that they could ask the applicants for a job to put down their weight.  Marital status, what your partner does, if you’re planning to have kids…all fair game questions in the interview process.  I’ve mentioned before that strangers feel empowered to hug Elanor, touch her, offer her candy…things that would have far more high strung parents in the US calling for police.  From what I’ve read in magazines here, “me” time isn’t really something that is part of Singaporean culture…the focus is wider; on the family, not the individual.

There are certainly positives and negatives to this lack of privacy.  I like that strangers in Singapore are looking out for my daughter and teaching her that most people in this world have good intentions.  I hate “stranger danger” and all that rubbish…most abuse (over 80%) is meted out by people the victim knows, not a random stranger.  But on the opposite side…I am extremely uncomfortable with sharing my medical history in a public forum like a waiting room.

When I brought it up to the doctor, he told me that in the future I could ask to be taken somewhere more private, which surprised me.  I had expressed my unhappiness with sharing private information and the nurse hadn’t offered to change the venue or even blinked.  But it’s worth trying in the future.

Part of me was in awe of the other woman.  Her utter lack of resentment and acceptance that it was just how things ARE here struck me.  That’s the sort of attitude I aspire to, but often fail at (I ended up in tears in the waiting room, which is why I addressed things with the doctor–it felt humiliating to share several details about myself that I am not comfortable talking about in the best of circumstances, which this was not).  I wonder how easily or hard won that nonchalance was.  Did she spend years fighting against the immoveable object only to finally surrender?  Or was it easier for her?

How long will it take for me to have that sort of acceptance?  As someone fiercely protective of my privacy, I don’t know…

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10 Responses to Privacy doesn’t exist in Singapore?

  1. bookjunkie says:

    I hate that they make you stand on the weighing scale and then loudly read out your weight amongst other things. It’s so humiliating with all the eyes staring at you. I hate also giving a urine sample. Ugghh….just the thought. I’d rather just be sick and stay home. Sometimes when I sit at the clinic I feel like I am getting sicker by the minute. The doctors have no qualms making you wait for up to an hour while they have a leisurely lunch or break.

    There’s just the tip of the iceberg. I never thought about it before, taking for granted that privacy is a luxury, but now I feel quite miffed by the lack of it. I am already pissed off by the rudeness I face by some doctors and staff at the clinics.

    Glad you raised this issue Crystal and sorry for going off on a rant. I’m hopeful that with more expats in Singapore, things we never noticed as sorely lacking, like basic privacy will be demanded and will soon become the norm in the future.

    • Crystal says:

      This is definitely a culture shock moment for me…

      I’m glad to hear that it’s not just us ang moh’s who hate it.

      • bookjunkie says:

        maybe that’s what’s holding me back from therapy sessions…the worry that the government can request for my records at any time. I find that highly intrusive and I just feel suspicious even if privacy is verbally promised.

        I will go one day though…

      • Crystal says:

        It’s one of the reasons I’m looking for an American therapist who’ll use Skype. That would allow me to have US patient/doc confidentiality while in Singapore.

  2. plumerainbow says:

    Dear Crystal, I really do sympathise with you. And it isn’t just clinic nurses, but any front counter staff, clerk etc who ought to know better and practise discretion. I have to tell you that the same thing happens at the US embassy! Visa applicants in the US are subject to probing questions asked in the open about their job, salary etc in full audibility of the others in the waiting area.

    if I may offer another tip to deal with this: the next time the nurse asks you something, and you can’t get her to step somewhere private, why not just write it down for her. At least others in the waiting room will not hear it…

    • Crystal says:

      I’m not surprised at all to hear the Embassy is no less discreet than anywhere else. Saddened, but not particularly surprised.

      Thank you for the suggestion. Honestly, I feel better understanding that it’s just one of those “how things are done” and I think I’ll be more prepared to handle it in the future. Being caught off guard was just…well, that…being caught off guard and a bit shocking. Like you said, next time I can ask for privacy or I can think to write it down instead.

  3. kierstens says:

    AMEN sister! The same thing happened to me at the gynecologist. I’ll spare you the details, but basically it was horrifying!!!!

    • Crystal says:

      You don’t even want to know what my bp readings look like…they’ve managed to give me white coat phobia or whatever it’s called when being in the office shoots your bp into the stratosphere.

  4. “I’ve mentioned before that strangers feel empowered to hug Elanor, touch her, offer her candy…things that would have far more high strung parents in the US calling for police.”
    “I like that strangers in Singapore are looking out for my daughter and teaching her that most people in this world have good intentions.”

    –> That’s so nice to hear. It’s funny, though, because we are generally a not-so-warm people when it comes to social interaction with adults. Even handshakes can get awkward!

    ” That’s the sort of attitude I aspire to, but often fail at ”

    –> I am sorry that you had to experience such poor service. Singaporeans have never been known for their customer service, much less things like client etiquette and privacy issues. 😦

    Yet I hope that you won’t have the same attitude as the Aussie lady, because expats in any country who say that aren’t usually the ones who accept it. Most of them really mean ‘it is just the way things are in this KIND of country, etc.’. That’s just my opinion. You have every right to demand for privacy, even if it is not the way things are done around here. As a foreigner the privacy that you are used to may not exist but as a customer and patient it still stands that you should be served the way you feel comfortable with!

    • Crystal says:

      I find that people are weirded out when I offer my hand to shake. Is there a better option that’s more respectful locally? I’ve been keeping an eye out but have yet to see people doing an alternative that’s appropriate in professional/first meet settings.

      The longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve learned how to play the game. That I can get a private discussion if I just ask for it. I’ve gotten much better at asking for what I think I need and trying to work from there. Of course, I sometimes fail as in this morning when we were trying to figure out a room situation for Rhiannon at KK, and they wanted to put her in a 4 bed room…I had difficulty getting them to understand that I wasn’t trying to be an elitist American expat–that I was genuinely fearful of Rhiannon’s already fragile health in a room with 3 other sick kids, given her age and everything. The most useful phrase I’ve made myself keep repeating in situations like that is “I think we’re miscommunicating” and trying to explain again.

      I agree that there is a slight “those” countries overtone in a statement like that. At the same time there are things that I just have learned to accept about Singapore…just as workmen in the US will give you a window for when they’ll arrive and then arrive late, in Singapore they give you a day and show up whenever they show up–early/late/whatever. Neither is optimal, both are just the way things are. Just as there are “rules” in the US that you worth with, I’ve learned to work with things like if I want ice in my beverage I’m going to have to specify if I’m at a certain type of restaurant (ie not western, and even then, sometimes), that substituting food or asking for an exemption is not going to get you very far in SG, and that you should accept taxi uncle wisdom and not argue with him.

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