Sunday, April 17, 2011

Five Stupid Things I Hear, Pre-Election

In the lead-up to the General Elections, I have heard so much complete and utter rubbish that is routinely prefaced by "Everyone knows that..." It's not stupidity, just a lazy reluctance to think. Most people would rather be parrots than human beings.

I can't blame them, I suppose - it's hard enough working to stay alive (and it's very convenient for the establishment, since people who are slaving away don't have the time to read or think or ask too many questions). For fear of blowing a blood vessel, I tend not to discuss politics with acquaintances or family members - but I do listen to the things they say when they think everyone around agrees with them.

1. At least we Singaporeans own our HDB flats!

My parents like to say this with justifiable pride. But then again, they bought their first flat in 1985, when the average loan could be paid off in 10 years. It will take me 30 years before I can sound similarly smug about being a home-owner. Also, technically, I'll own a 99-year lease on a flat, not the flat outright. If you think that's a fantastic deal, I've got some magic rocks I'd like to sell you.

2. Singapore's GDP is high, so our country must be doing well.

I love this one, especially when it's voiced optimistically by members of the middle and lower classes, who feverishly polish this factoid like it's a national trophy (one that, unfortunately, doesn't have their names on it).

The 2009 UBS Price and Earnings study already pointed out that despite our high GDP, Singapore's unusually low wage index of 31.3 puts us on par with workers in Moscow. Translation: Singaporeans are making money, but only a small group of people receive most of it - and chances are, they're not you.

3. If you're not happy, you can always migrate overseas and be treated like a second-class citizen there.

This one combines hostility to criticism, xenophobia and an insufferable air of superiority all in one statement. Often, it's accompanied by a story of racism experienced abroad (usually in Australia, holiday destination for hordes of middle-class Singaporeans). Yes, I experienced racism while living in Melbourne, but I also experienced friendliness and genuine warmth.

Which, amazingly, is just like Singapore itself! Life here isn't a chocolate box of 24/7 multi-racial and multi-religious harmony. Try holding hands with another local of a different race, and count how many stares you get. It's hard to feel like you belong if so many others don't think you do.

4. So many foreigners want to come to Singapore, that proves we're good!

Assuming these foreigners aren't here to gamble or shop, it's strange that people who complain about the influx of foreign talent are also the first to take a perverse pride in Singapore's attractiveness. This one is pretty easy to deal with: we attract mostly foreigners who come from shittier places with fewer opportunities, full stop.

The rest come here because of the requirements of their careers, or because they're rich and selfish enough to want a tax-free haven. The Merlion looks pretty good when you're coming from a farm in Vietnam or a small town in the Philippines, but if you're lucky enough to hail from Sydney or Chicago, you wouldn't even think of it unless absolutely necessary. We're not cool, and nobody thinks we're hot enough for a second date.

5. Our society is meritocratic, just study hard and you'll succeed.

Finally, the one that annoys me most of all. Nobody starts out on equal footing. A kid from an upper-middle class background will have his own study table, stacks of assessment books, host of private tutors and expensive enrichment classes. He has parents who will take him abroad, buy him a nice suit for interviews and arrange internships through friends and business connections, no matter how unmotivated or lazy the child is.

In comparison, I once came across a 13-year-old who managed to go half a school year without a Geography workbook. His overworked, low-income parents didn't know he had to buy it, and his teacher didn't give enough of a shit about him to even collect his homework (no doubt writing him off as 'hopeless'). I bought him the book and left. Two months later, he ran away from home. His form teacher shrugged and said she was sure that the police would eventually find him, if he wanted to be found. Does any child deliberately ask to be lost?

Children are all immature, thoughtless, unfocused. The only differences between a runaway and a scholarship recipient are their family environment and resources. It is incredibly unfair to ask a low-income child from an insecure, chaotic background to "study hard" and "be good" without offering long-term support and care on a far greater level than what is currently given.

Sure, there are ethnic and religious self-help groups, welfare organisations, government handouts, subsidies and bursaries. But more can always be done, starting with the destruction of the 'meritocratic' myth, which makes students feel like they deserve to be trapped where they are because they're dumb or lazy.

When all is said and done, there are many good things about living in Singapore - a low crime rate, a wide variety of affordable food, safety from natural disasters, accessibility and a secular state. But there are lots of things we can fix and improve - and some myths that we should discard, for the sake of our future.

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