I’ve been facing internal struggles and spiraling depressive thoughts for a while, and while I’m a nobody and my thoughts and opinions count for little, it’s helpful for me to organise my thoughts and air them. Who knows, there may be others out there who feel the same. Perhaps it’s easiest for me to first pigeonhole myself, then to step outside stereotypes. I am, by all external measures and statistics, a middle-class (upper middle-class? what’s the dividing line?) millennial, born in a first world country where I’m the racial majority and have thus far lived most of my life according to how this country would like it to have been lived. I’ve studied (fairly hard, but I enjoy learning), done well (enough) in exams, gone to first-rate schools, and now have a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cambridge and a master’s degree from Imperial College London. I travel widely, on a mix of some savings (minimal contribution), parents’ money, and grants, hiking, climbing mountains, volunteering for environmental/ecological projects or social/humanitarian objectives, visiting new cities and different cultures. I am a privileged minority, but within this group, I also feel like a minority.
But I’m not here to crow about a moral high ground, or claim to be better than others – in fact that’s a confounding problem that’s been plaguing me. I have been brought up – with influence both from my parents and from my schooling education – to acknowledge my privilege, and therefore the need to give back to society, to better ills, to make the world a better one, to contribute for good. And since graduating from my master’s and coming back to the society that brought me up, I’ve been constantly confused and upset with myself, with my lack of action on my perceived problems with this society, and with my desire to find a place I feel I fit better into. I feel like I should be doing something, but I am not, because I want to do something that makes the most difference (root than symptomatic), and I don’t know what I can do or what I should do, and general inertia in not really wanting to commit too much either. The first step is the hardest, as some say.
There are many things that I feel should not be in Singapore, many things I think can and should be changed (though I don’t know how), many things I see and hear and experience on a daily basis that makes me upset with this country and society. But all I do is gripe about them to my family and friends, grouse and wallow in a pool of self-constructed inability-to-act and dis-empowerment. More on this to come, but it would help me to first expunge my view of all that is not right in this society.
My main gripe is that it’s hard to feel like a human here. In a country that is largely built on capitalistic ideals and whose main selling points are economic success and continued economic growth, the human side of society is increasingly hard to see. Many people here seem to lack a soul. They seem to have forgotten themselves as people, as human, and that others around them are also human. I say this coming back to Singapore after 4.5 years abroad, seeing my country and the people within (because how can I say my people, when I cannot identify with them?) in a different light. Whether it’s due to the changes in the country during that period, or just because I’ve seen how things are in different places and how stifled we are in this country.
Although we constantly talk about society and family units are still perceived as the basic unit of society, many people here are rather individualistic and self-centred. Few think as a collective, as part of a larger society (I don’t just mean this country now, but also as a global citizen), or for the well-being of others. There appears to be a lack of empathy in the general populace towards everyone around there. Of course, there are little bright spots of hope, within the social or environmental (or other?) sectors, and once in a while, we come across heart-warming stories. But it’s still in the minority, not in the norms of our society, when I think it should be.
Examples of what I mean range from the activities we experience on a day-to-day basis – people being rude to others for standing in their way, or taking too long to do an action – to apathy and lack of awareness of others’ plights. Taking driving on Singapore roads to illustrate my point about the lack of collective thinking, we’re known for being rude and inconsiderate. Few people give way, most partake in very aggressive driving such as cutting in to another lane at fairly short notice, causing the driver to have to brake, and not signalling intentions. Instead of seeing the whole road system as a whole, with everyone using the road wisely to make the whole journey better for everyone, people see it as theirs, their right of way. Every empty space represents a possible spot to occupy, and they will do what it takes to overtake a few vehicles and get to their destination faster. Even without causing accidents, it makes other people’s days worse, having to put up with this behaviour.
We’re not exactly a country well-known for empathy. It always infuriates me to see someone asking/ordering the cleaner – usually an elderly who really should not be working, in my opinion – to clear the (hawker) table for them. I cannot understand why these people cannot do it on their own, it’s not as though there was sick all over the table, it’s just a few plates that either need to be placed at the return counter or in the bin. And in a country that’s increasingly xenophobic, we sure show it by our inhumane treatment of foreign workers.
That foreign workers (I mean people here on a work permit, not employment pass) are here to be exploited and treated as less than human is acceptable, if not by our active agreement with the statement, then by our passive shrugging of “what can we do, we need these jobs done”. God forbid we actually pay construction workers (let alone their just pay), because we’ll have to pay more for housing, and how are we to afford that? Never mind that these very people who work day (and sometimes night) in the heat of day and the drenching rains are in debt way over their head just because they want to give their families back home a better life with the S$550/month pay they earn here. It’s true, they know what they’re getting in to coming here as a construction worker – it is hard work. But they came thinking they’d be paid the amount that was stated, and put up with horribly cramped living conditions for that. (Read more on Transient Workers Count Too website about these issues). And how is it acceptable that you keep your foreign domestic worker’s passport and give her maybe one day off per month? How would you feel if your child went abroad (in search of a better life or for greater financial returns), and was treated the way these domestic workers are treated? Because that lady living in your house, she’s someone’s child too.
And I guess if we can scarcely care about people living in our midst, then it’s harder to even contemplate the impact we have on the rest of the world. We’re not an uneducated population, yet we fail to educate ourselves on how our choices and actions have a wide-ranging impact outside this (very tiny) country. Almost everything we do has a (negative) impact somewhere else in the world. The cheap food we eat, the buffets we want, the clothes we wear, the houses we need. That the prawns you crave were probably the end product of mangrove destruction in Thailand and Vietnam, the fish that’s supposed to be the healthy and good option was probably the blood and sweat of enslaved Cambodians and Burmese who work 20-hour days at sea constantly in frigid conditions, the fashionable wear we can’t wait to get hold of during our constant sales the result of women and children working under slave-like conditions in overcrowded factories in India, and in matters perhaps outside the average Singaporean’s control, the land on which some of our houses and iconic buildings are built the reincarnation of a previously intact ecosystem upon which local communities depended on.
True, there might not be much one can do about all of these things – how can one live, bearing all that in mind? We need shelter too, and food, and a living. But perhaps if we are more aware of the impact we each have through the consumer choices we make, and try and live a bit better, collectively, there will be a difference made.
During the build up to National Day on 9 August, when we celebrated our nation’s independence, I continually questioned – what exactly are we celebrating? Perhaps by many measures and by many people we celebrate our success, as an independent nation, a small one lacking in natural resources that we could plunder for wealth. We have achieved economic success, going by our high national GDP per capita. We have an excellent education system, going by our high literacy rates, constant high rankings in math and sciences at school level, and universities ranked top 15th in the world. We have all that, and yet I look at people around me and feel we’re still lacking something, something more important and fundamental. We’re lacking a sense of humanity, lacking empathy, lacking social and environmental consciousness.
We’re a country that stereotypes, a country that is quick to jump to conclusions based on appearances, a country that prides its exclusivity. So much of our culture is built on a us vs. them rhetoric (think benignly of houses in school, halls in university, and more insidiously of races, economic classes, ‘elite’ schools), creating rivalry to build social cohesion but inadvertently creating individualistic and entitled people. We keep to people who are like us, and shy away from others who are different. And in doing that, fail to understand that we are all the same human beings despite outward differences. But it’s not this case all throughout Singapore, I know. I’m generalising and stereotyping myself, and there are many who interact with diverse peoples, and the human library project shows that we are trying. Yet when we have a National Day Rally – an annual address given by the Prime Minister “to address the nation on its key challenges and announce major policy changes” – and the main takeaways were 1) more/better preschools, 2) eat more brown rice & walk more to reduce diabetes, and 3) become a SMART nation, then I despair.
Then, separate from the grouses I have about this society, the structural things about Singapore that I find hard to adjust back to, but there is little one can do about it. 1) The sky that never darkens. I have difficulties sleeping, I cannot see stars, nor watch meteor showers. The last bits of nature that still feels untouched, uncontrolled by humans, yet can barely be enjoyed by the average person here. 2) The lack of wilderness, whether real or not (is there really anywhere on earth that can be considered wilderness?). To go somewhere with few humans in sight, except those who are also there to enjoy the beauty and peace of being real and human in nature. And 3) which is coupled with my second point, the lack of ability to just go somewhere, spontaneously, freely, without a need to book flights in advance. To be able to drive to a national park/nature reserve/wilderness area and camp a few nights gratis. Because here, land is never free, and freedom is never to be had, but merely perceived.
But this country is not all bad. I get a smile here and there, from bus drivers, cleaners, or other strangers on my path (usually people who don’t appear to be Singaporean, but I don’t want to give in to my stereotypes). At the petrol station once, the cashiers spoke to each other in Malay, though neither of them was of that ethnicity. And that makes me smile, and be glad I’m from here.
The security and the cleaner
Only greet each other
But sometimes I look and hope for a smile
Cos the human touch goes a mile
And I am human too.