This may come a little late, but the more I pondered upon it, the more I felt I had to get what I wanted to say out of my system.
This post was penned by one who was born and bred in the upper echelons of life. Like many from a privileged background, they have no opportunities of seeing how the other group - the under-privileged group - of society lived. Actually, they are not to be blamed. Unless they are someone who, like the author, had a chance to live outside her cocoon for a while, or they are really people who take the huge amount of effort, outside their daily lives, to live and breathe and feel the lives of the other group of people, most are unable to comprehend how the lives of the under-privileged group are.
Think about it. If you don’t have something, warm food, warm clothing, you can imagine how it is like to have. It will probably even, be what is constantly in your thoughts. After all, we are wired in such a way as to want comfort, ease and pleasure.
However, if on the other hand, you have something. A full stomach, a roof over your head. Unless you force yourself to, you will not, out of no reason, keep thinking about being hungry or sleeping on the streets at night. And even when you do think about it, it will take effort to maintain this thinking because we are simply not wired to keep thinking and feeling unpleasant things.
I would believe this extends to other aspects as well. A well-paid surgeon, isn’t likely to spend a lot of her waking moments thinking about how a coffee-shop helper toils each day and the worries of paying for her rental one-room flat and buying that rice for the Chinese New Year. In all likelihood, the surgeon will be wondering how long she has to queue for her bak kua at the famous stall this year for the Chinese New Year and how it might make her late for her reunion dinner at some posh hotel later in the evening. I have to reiterate, this isn’t any uncaringness on the part of the well-paid surgeon. In her life, she is probably a kind and caring soul as well, going into her line of work because she wanted to alleviate pain from the sick. But like every other being, her brain is simply not wired to dwell on unpleasant things. And furthermore, she might not even be aware of the unpleasant things. How much does the coffeeshop helper earn each month? How does it feel like living in a one-room flat and having to worry about paying the rent? how does it feel like to worry that the boss of the coffeeshop might give her the sack any day because she is getting old and frail and cannot work as well as a younger “foreign talent”. How is it to get up everyday praying you won’t fall sick because missing a day’s work gives the boss even more reason to terminate you.
This is not simply about being compassionate. It is about having the experience of living in the shoes of others.
And the way I see it, this is where the problem lies nowadays. We can complain endlessly about how lives are getting more and more difficult and the leaders of our land can reassure us they are looking into it and they are finding the best solutions for us, but getting nowhere in the end. Not because the leaders make empty promises. No, I still believe, whether competent or not, the leaders of our land are still relatively conscientious people. They do, to the best of their abilities, try to do the best they can. But how far their abilities go is another matter.
A part of the problem lies in the fact that there is a widening income (and status) gap forming in our society. Decades ago, we could boast that we have one of the highest income-mobility in the world. Not so now. We are getting to be like many other societies where if you were born to a lower income group, chances are likely you will stay there for life. And so would your next generation, and the next, and the next.
The rich can afford a lot of tuition and other academic help for their children. And these children have nothing to worry about except go for this class and that. And if in the end they are still unable to get good grades, well forget local universities. There are plenty of overseas universities to choose from. And they do not have to worry about the tuition costs at all.
The poor on the other hand, might find it difficult even to make ends meet. But many will still scrimp and save to let their children who may not be doing too well academically to go for some tuition, in the hopes that they might, just might, do well enough to become a little less poor. Even those children who are academically bright, might have to work during the school holidays or even term-time, because everyone needs to have a computer nowadays, everyone carries a handphone. And overseas exchange trips costs a whole lot too. And if they do well enough, even with the government’s tuition grants, the cost of a local university education is at least 20-30 thousand. The very very bright might get scholarships and bursaries, the rest, it means to be slapped with a 30k debt the moment they graduate.
Yes, they can use their parents’ CPF monies. But if their parents have spent the money on paying for their flat, they won’t have much left. (I’m talking about normal everyday people who have a monthly pay of 1-2 thousand, not obscenely paid people.) Or even if they have, what if they have a few children they need to see through university? AND even if this particular child uses his/her parents’ CPF, they will have to pay it back the moment they graduate. And interests start accumulating the day they graduate. And if this child is the first child to use his/her parents’ CPF for university education, and uses up the money in it, he/she might also have to think about helping out when his/her younger siblings enter the university. Even before this poor youngster has stepped out into the society to work, he/she is already being sucked dry.
How many people are aware about this fact? Perhaps all the policy-makers are aware, but only at a hazy, I-know-such-a-think-exists level. They have never felt it deeply in their bones. But all of us, children of families of the middle to lower income group, live this awareness. My family was not very very poor; we had roof over our heads, we never had to go hungry although posh meals are out of the question, but paying my loans and debts and helping out with my family’s finances is something that is never far from my thoughts all throughout my school days. And even now. Although with a higher income than I had during my school days, this worry is diminishing a little.
What about people who are trying hard to make ends meet? The tired truck driver who drives 12-hour shifts because he wants to earn a little more, and because if he didn’t, the boss might just decide to get a foreign worker in his place because they can be paid less and they can work for longer hours since they do no have to think about going home for dinner with their families. Is it because this truck driver is lazy and that is why he makes so little? Those in the higher-levels of society who have never lived such lives might believe that our society is still based on meritocracy. That if you work hard enough you will definitely earn more. That if you work really really hard, you can become one of the rich too.
Well, sad to say, this is really not the reality for the tired truck driver. With all the overtime pay and no vacations or time offs, he might make enough to 1) pay for his HDB loan, 2) buy the basic necessities for his family, 3) give money to his aging parents. Beyond this is just pure dreaming. So you say it’s because he didn’t have a good enough education? He had to work his way through school, and that left no time to focus on his studies. And now, it is impossible to go back to school to get a higher qualification. Aside from the fact that making enough money for the above 3 points is hard enough not to mention having to set aside some for school fees, if this truck driver took time off from work for studies, this employer might just get someone else in his place. A cheaper worker.
So where is meritocracy? Meritocracy happens only for the upper echelons of society. That is where it is.
Now you might think it is the unfeelingness of the employer of the truck driver that made things so difficult for the poor truck driver. So this employer has to give higher pay to the driver, grant him time off from work for furthering his education, time off for his family. Now what happens to this employer? Is anyone going to give him enough subsidies for this? If not, who is going to help him if his company goes into the red? Yes, there is subsidies from the government to these people and companies who encourage their employees to upgrade themselves. But is it really enough to cover the costs?
And what are these courses about? Basic English, computer skills, how much will these help a truck driver if he wishes to work as something else? Yes, he can slowly work his way up to the ITE in some engineering courses perhaps, and even part-time diploma courses further on. So how long will this all take? 5 years? 10 years? How is he going to ensure his family survives for this 10 years?
I’m not saying there is absolutely no way for someone to climb up into a better life if they really want to. I’m just saying, its really very very tough to do so.
For the information of those in the upper class of society, many of the middle to low income group earns about 1 to 2 thousand per month. There are in fact many who earns even less. But we shall just take the upper limit and work our sums around there.
Let’s say a person earns 2000SGD.
He has to contribute 20% of it to CPF.
He gets $1800 each month.
He has aging parents to look after and his parents are unable to work. He gives them $500 for their monthly expenses. ($500 is barely enough to make ends meet for two people and it really isn’t a very fair way for people to come to the end of their useful and productive lives only to have to live frugally and worry about health and finances all the way until they expire.)
So this guy has $1300 left.
His meals at work everyday and his transport makes up $300 more.
(Think a bit about it. This meagre amount means no taxis at all and nothing more than mixed vegetables rice with a cup of coffee for lunch.)
That makes $1000 left.
He has a wife who earns the same amount as he does and who also gives the same amount to her family and uses the same amount on her daily expenses.
So the combined amount they have for the household is $2000.
They have just gotten a HDB flat, which cost them $200k. They paid the 10% down payment with their CPF which means they have nothing much left inside. The 90% left, they took a 20-year loan. Which means they have to pay perhaps $1200 per month to service the loan. (I’m not very sure about the exact figures but I think my rough estimate is close. Correct me if I’m wrong.)
So $1200 means they have $800 left for their monthly household expenses.
Utility bills take up $100, phone, internet bills another $120, $580 left.
They have to take their breakfast and dinner at home, which means perhaps 2-3 hundred for food. $300 left.
$300 left means no going out socializing with friends mind you, because going out means extra costs too.
Now that is on the basis they do not have a child.
What happens when a child comes along? If a parent stops working to take care of the child, it means $2000 off their income. If both parents continue working, who is going to take care of the child. What if the parents on both sides of the family are too old and frail to take care of the child? How much does a childcare centre cost? How much does milk formula cost? How much extra costs if the child goes into primary school? If the child is going to have tuition? What happens if there are 2 or even 3 children?
What if one of the parents fall ill and has to be hospitalized? Hospital bills, even subsidized hospital bills can wind up to be quite substantial. What if an accident happens and either spouse cannot work for a while or has to be hospitalized? How much will it cost? Where can they get the money from?
And remember, I took $2000 as the couple’s monthly pay. Don’t forget there are plenty who earns much less. And perhaps not both will earn the same amount. There may also be some, for one reason or another, has a spouse who is unable to work. Not unwilling, but unable. These people will definitely be much worse off than the couple in my example above.
What about people who do not want to, or can not, for some reason or other, get married? I’m not just talking about the LGBT community; there are plenty of straight people out there who can not or do not want to settle down too. These people will find it almost impossible to have their own place if they do not earn obscenely high pay. I do not think that carrying on living with parents is very healthy for the society, but that I will have to explain in another post.
And what about people who are separated and have to raise their children on their own, and who just earns a normal amount of pay like most of us? It is definitely going to be a huge financial burden, not to say support for this group of people in our society is really way too little.
Somewhat long-winded, but you get the idea of things.
Or does it mean if you cannot earn enough, then you are not suited to raise a child? Or to have the privilege of living in your own place? Or to enjoy a lot of things people in the upper echelons of society never even think twice about? Well, it probably looks so in our society here.
People in the upper echelons of society, take a look. Things are very different down here.
So now, back to my premise.
The main problem we have now, is that those who are supposed to be the leaders of our nation, most if not all, come from this upper echelon of society. Like what I’ve said before, it’s not because they are cold-hearted or in-compassionate, they just have never been in the shoes of most of us.
It is about opening of the the eyes and minds and hearts. Yes, it may be crazy, but perhaps everyone has to experience living as a normal everyday person on the streets before they can make decisions as a leader. No, it doesn’t just mean perhaps having a go at spending only $2000 for a month or two and then byebye, back to my ivory tower. It means really feeling the worries and burdens of having to make ends meet, with the prospect that it might be for life. That will definitely open up a totally new perspective.
Of course, it’s easy writing about it, but you can never really have it be this way in real life. Unless you take socialism to the extreme. But it will end up a different case if we were in a socialistic society since our problems arose from being in a capitalistic society. But I’m sure socialism is not what we want either.
So is there a solution? I’m really not sure. The only way out for us now is to re-channel our efforts at leveling the playing field, so to speak. To provide equal opportunities for the rich and the poor. And the easiest place to start would perhaps be in the schools. A free education, education that does not promote elitism, that does not overly emphasize competition but cooperation. If children need computers for their daily homework, provide free ones for every single child. Even though almost every child has access to a computer nowadays, many people have no idea how much it took for the family of a poor child to scrimp and save and come up with enough to buy one.
While it is encouraging that there is so much overseas exchanges taking place in schools nowadays, perhaps sponsoring for such trips might be a priority as well. If a child is from a rich family, they can go to every trip there is. But a child from a poor family might pass on every chance of an exchange not because they do not want to go, but because they know that it is impossible for their family to squeeze out the extra, be it even just a few hundred, for the trip.
Yes, all these takes money, a lot of it. But isn’t investing in this much more valuable than investing in anywhere else? After all, this is going to change the whole of our society. With the cut in ministers’ salaries, the huge amount they get from foreign workers’ levies, from fines and ERPs and what nots, I’m sure they can cover the costs to make sure the playing field is leveled a little more for the next generation, if not for this.
And for the rest of us, I think it’s time we opened our eyes more, open our minds and hearts. Our country is small, that cannot be helped. And a lot of problems thus arise because of our small size, including lack of choices and variety and opportunities (I might elaborate on this in another post if I feel not so lazy). But the least we can do is to step out of our comfort zone and look at how much differences there are in the world. And it does not mean any way of living or thinking is better than another, just different, and each way may be best suited to cope with certain needs of a certain society or problem.
Look at the variety of possible ways of living and thinking. And some solutions to seemingly insolvable problems might stare at you straight in the face if you can open your mind enough to it.