Two Singapores

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Author’s Note: The article is originally published in his personal blog and has been reproduced in various newsgroups and LittleSpeck. The author thank many people for their support, comments and thoughts on the article. He also appreciates that if anyone like to reproduce this article on their sites, they should drop him a short note via email. The opinions here expressed are strictly his own, and do not represent the organizations (including blogs) which he works for. An short afterword is presented in this essay.

Recently, two unrelated events happen at the same time. The first was about a man named Mr Tan in his forties commiting suicide by jumping off onto the mass rapid transit tracks. The man in forties was a working class man. He was jobless and had a family to feed. He left behind nothing now except his wife and his kids. The second was about a young and bright student named Wee Shu Min who wrote an emotive, insensitive and snobbish response to Derek Wee who was lamenting about the state of affairs in Singapore. For her remarks, she was criticised by various bloggers (Aaron, Ben, Elia, Kitana, Wee Kiat and of course, everyone from Sammyboy Forums). Her background as the daughter of a member of parliament and a student from the top junior college (RJC) have further ignited the flames. In any case, if everyone take a step back, the whole fiasco is just about the misadventures of a young spolit brat.

So, why are these two events related? My answer to the question is what I called the two Singapores. There are two Singapores: The first speaks of a land of opportunity and meritocracy where local and foreign talent can compete in a free market and meritocratic system to move up the corporate ladder of Singapore Inc; and the second depicts a divide that splits between an educated and self-proclaimed enlightened oligarchy and the average day Joe. In short, it is the divide between the working class and the elite, and the wealth gap that is tearing apart the society.

In the first Singapore, you are promised that if you are willing to pursue your dreams and make your dreams come true subject to the social compact, you will succeed with the blessings of the state. However, the rule is that your dream is defined by the social contract. In this contract, you exchange your personal political and social freedom with security, material wealth and protection from the state. By the time you have successfully won the scholarship trophies, your future is secured no matter what you do in the future unless you commit a hideous crime. Not everyone might succeed using the scholarship route. Ms Wee belongs to the first Singapore, blessed with a well-endowed background and talent. That success is fermented into arrogance and a lack of sensitivity towards the working class.

That comes to the definition of the second Singapore. In this Singapore, if you don’t succeed by the age of 18 by slogging through memorizing and mugging in your high school education, you become part of the working class. Since you do not make the first cut, you enter into the social engineering programme, taking the hypes of that era, from IT to life sciences. Suddenly, you are transformed into a statistic within a Bell curve that have to find ways to make ends meet, struggle between the high and low economic cycles due to external circumstances and live with the hope that your children will live a better life than you. The constant cycle of retraining and retrenchment will squeeze you dry till you find that life is not worth living. That poor Mr Tan is part of that Singapore which Ms Wee did not empathise. She did not feel that there is a need to help that part of the society.

Our society needs to change, not just in how we deal with each other, but how we can help each other. Somehow, the win-win culture seems so far away from us, because that is eroded away by the ratrace that begins from the first day of school till you step into work in society. There are other social problems which we need to be made aware of. One friend of mine, who works in the grassroots, are trying hard to champion ways to help the old and helpless in their financial management in his constituency. For those who do not know, we have an aging population with no enough wealth to last them till their deaths. These old and aged were promised a peaceful retirement with enough wealth from their central provident fund (CPF). However, once they retire, they realized that it was not enough to tide them till death. Inevitably, they have to return to work again. If the problem of a poor and desperate working class man is not enough to make society wake up, it might be better if we take a microscope and really examine parts of the society that are suffering from problems masked off.

Perhaps, we should cultivate our young to understand the social problems, not by providing them textbooks but real examples through the discourse of social work. If there is one other thing that we can ever persuade our efficient and productive civil service, we need to re-examine our scholarship system, because the system is easily beaten by people who are endowed with better resources. I would not even go to the extent by saying that the examinations for these students are far too easier than those in the past. Meritocracy is a double aged sword that can be helpful or be detrimental to our civil service. In order to maximize the returns from a student’s point of view, there are times where an individual will exploit the meritocratic system that will contradict morality, credibility and hard work. Our brilliant elite students have now reached the level where it is easy to beat the system with their resources, and there remains no means and ways to test their moral fibre in contributing back to our society as civil servants.

The solution is not one silver bullet but a whole array of approaches that stretch from the areas of education to healthcare (and the CPF). Ultimately, we have learnt that too much of everything is bad. Finding a middle way between our capitalist and democratic socialist approaches will be key to repair the rift between the two Singapores.

Quote of the Day:

“Today, under George W. Bush, there are two Americas, not one: One America that does the work, another that reaps the reward. One America that pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks. One America – middle-class America – whose needs Washington has long forgotten, another America – narrow-interest America – whose every wish is Washington’s command. One America that is struggling to get by, another America that can buy anything it wants, even a Congress and a president.”

– John Edwards, Vice-Presidential candidate 2004

Afterword: When I first conceived the article, my thoughts begin with a class divide between the elites and the average Joe of the countries. Many people believe that the separation is much further than two parts. The “two Singapores” metaphor is nothing but a mere rhetorical device. To me, it does not matter if anyone will agree with what I write in this article. What really matters to me, is that all of us, from both sides of the houses, can put their efforts in policy (like my friend who spends every day thinking about how to help the old to manage their financial plans such that they will be able to spend the money without having nothing left) to bridge the divide between the two Singapores which I talk about in this essay.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist