Asian and European standards of safety

“Don’t go there, it is not safe.” How many times have your wanderlust been strangled by alarming news headlines, by overwhelming crime statistics, or by your family and friends’ not-so-positive travelling experience?

I have been told to avoid certain places even before taking my first step abroad. Yet I never get tired of such security education from my parents, understanding how difficult it takes for them to get visas if I encounter any risk far away from home.

Still, they do not object me traveling solo to Hong Kong, Singapore, Zürich and Vienna, all of which are among the safest cities on this planet. Two of the cities are in Europe and the others are in Asia, but both have statistically the same crime rates. But do you really feel safe in the same way? Well, probably not.

Security doors at a transit terminal in China

Although the European public transportation networks may be as convenient as Asian ones, it took me a while to get used to taking trains and metros here. First of all, I never dare to go too far on the platform, seeing the train track just a few steps away from you with nothing in between.

How about someone falling onto the track, or in the worst case, being pushed off while the train is approaching? Although bad news is rare in the European cities I have visited, I find it hard to understand how a high level of safety can be maintained without incident prevention.

By contrast, a subway station in Munich

Asian governments, on the other hand, have considered such risk long ago and equipped every single platform with security doors, which only open for passengers after the metro is completely stopped and ready for boarding. The recently-launched metro system in my Chinese hometown is even implementing security checks before one can enter the station.

As security lines usually take time, my parents often urge me to get to the station early enough before departure. And that is exactly what I did when I travel from Switzerland to Germany: I arrived at Zürich Main Station at 9:25am for the 10am train. My Inter-City Express train from Germany was already waiting there. I squeezed my luggage in and found a seat where I could keep it in sight. Still, I felt that something important was missing: the security check.

With much more transiting passengers with luggage on such an over-4-hour, cross-border train, how to ensure that nobody hides any hazardous items in the suitcase?

Some readers might start wondering: Is China very unsafe since you looks so alerted, maybe over-sensitive? While I am not overhyping my country, China’s current murder rate of 0.8 per 10,000 habitat suggests the opposite.

Terrorist attacks, though happened before, have become rare nowadays with zero-tolerance-policy on guns and drugs (even knives are regulated in some cases), high coverage of surveillance cameras in public, as well as security control on public transportation. Capital punishment on violent crime suspects is still prevelant in China as well as other Confucian Asian countries like Japan and Singapore – especially the latter, whose entire law system is built on the Broken Window Theory* – which harshly punish even minor misbehavior like spitting and littering.

Such laws have cut down the murder rate by more than half in both China and Singapore in the past two decades, although they have been criticized as authoritarian.

While I feel safe in my home country, I also feel safe Zürich and Vienna. During my stays in both cities, I have walked alone to my hotel after 10:30pm, a “sleeping time” when the streets are rather empty with most stores already closed. Still, I ran across a few passers-by who were also on their own, if not too many. Everything was fine, except it was a little bit too quiet for me.

In contrast, I was so immersed in the light shows at Gardens by the Bay in my first night in Singapore until I got a call from my parents: “It is already 11pm, why are you still outside?” “Hey mom, this is Singapore. Nothing to worry about.” “I know, I am just to make sure that you are not too tired, since you just got here this morning from Los Angeles.”

The night life in any Asian metropolises will easily make you forget how late it is. Neon lights make the cities as bright as daytime, with open stores after 12am and the last bus or metro full of people. It somehow conveys that the surrounding is generally safe–Otherwise, people would avoid here. With “more eyes watching you”, it is also harder for wrongdoers to get away.

That is why I feel less comfortable walking with no one around, especially late in the night: If anything bad happens, nobody would know and nowhere you can turn for help. Therefore in the first few weeks, I would rather bike than walk after it got dark, even for somewhere as close as 100m.

Still, my concern arises  when I see the apartment building gate often left open, with only one dim light at the bike parking place, not to mention any security cameras.

Yet my bike still stands there every morning, by the side of my neighbor’s motorcycle which even unlocked. It also astonished that dashcams, a tool critical for identifying who is liable if damage occurs, was not available in Germany until 2 years ago.

“It is Germany, we don’t need that (preventive methods).” My landlord said. As I have lived here longer, I gradually understand her words, and the core of the European safety.

It is trust. The mutual trust that I received from the locals’ helping hand. The mutual trust that everyone obeys the moral principle even if the rules are unwritten. Such trust does not fade away too much despite the refugee crisis and a few following incidents, while Europe (at least the Germanic region) still stays safe by international standards.

However, it takes time to establish trust. Even for China, the security regulations have take the country decades to attain high social stability today. It is the gap between “trusting the authorities” and”trusting the human self-discipline” that sometimes leads to a sense of insecurity ,especially when the lawful enforcement is less prominent.

Here is the difference: You will be safe in Europe, because everyone trust each other. You will also be safe in Asia, because anyone dares to hurt you will be severely punished.

It is hard to conclude which system works better. What we’ve known is that even in 2016, the most unsettled year for Europe, Zurich still maintained the same murder rate as Singapore (0.3). However, the mass shooting in New Zealand earlier this year somehow showed such mutual trust could be fragile as the opportunity cost of crime is too low.

It remains unknown if Europe will adapt the stricter security control as in Asia in the wake of past attacks, or if Asians will develop mutual trust after the society being successfully regulated.

Nevertheless, you will feel safer as you become a more sophisticated traveller. The true safety does not lie on either of the continents, but in your common sense that needs exercising as well.

5 Tips for travelling alone safely:

  1. Don’t save money on hotels in bad neighborhoods (although they are often  cheaper). If possible, search for somewhere easily accessible to public transportation or your private vehicle (depending where you go) to minimize walking time alone.

  2. Insecurity can often be sensed: Is the surrounding run-down with damages left unrepaired? Have you noticed any unpleasant smell or any trace of alcohol and drug abuse? The Broken Window Theory applies here too.

  3. Be equally cautious, no matter where you go and who you meet. Share your itinerary to trusted ones, especially if you are taking rideshare  or staying overnight.

  4. In any cases of emergency, they are able to give the most timely response.

  5. Tourists are often vulnerable targets due to their unfamiliarity of the

surroundings. Plan your trip ahead, know exactly which direction to go will help you walk around more confidently.

*Broken Window Theory: If a broken window remain unrepaired, soon other windows will be broken too, leading to a rising chance of household burglary. Likewise, any inconspicuous misconducts, if unregulated, will easily be imitated and lead to larger anti-social problems.


Yuwei Liu is senior majoring in International Business with and emphasis in German and Western Europe participating in the IB exchange program in Reutlingen University  Baden-Württemberg, Germany for the fall semester. 

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