Some honest reflections: Part two – Inequality, injustice, and escaping the System

I am no economist, nor do I really know very much or in great detail about the economics or the politics behind such issues. What I do know though, is that I have never been fully satisfied with the capitalistic lifestyle offered, and the more I learn about the world, the more outraged I get at the injustices that still exist. The world has always been an unequal place, I don’t know enough to say objectively that we’re better off or worse off than other times in history, but I somehow feel like we’re not that much better off, despite all the technological and social advances.

It seems almost juvenile to be raging over the age old problem of inequality.  “Mummy it’s not fair!” What ever happened to that child-like sense of justice and fairness that used to exist? Has social conditioning reduced us to accepting that life is never fair and we can’t do anything about it and let it be so? Or has the System succeeded in throwing endless distractions at us so we just keep our minds off things that truly matter? I use the word ‘System’ here because I know no better term to describe this world we (or I) live in. If I have to define it, I can only say I’m referring to governments, the capitalist system, corporations’ power, social norms, and everything else that defines or appears to define how we live.

The past few months, I’ve been suffused with journalism about the plight of the Rohingyas, educating myself about what’s happening between Palestine and Israel, following the Guardian’s feature series on The Defenders, and reading articles about land grabbing by governments and corporations, such as experienced by the Shuar people in Ecuador. Meanwhile, we just live our lives as usual, a little shaken occasionally perhaps, by bombings and attacks in the UK and USA, but still continually consuming.

I’ve become jaded with the way we’re told to live, with the way lives are led in Singapore, with capitalism, with how capitalism is really the master of all our lives. I’ve always hated shopping, though the stereotype constantly perpetuated about women is that women enjoy shopping. And now that I’m older and more aware, I realise I hate advertisements for telling me what I need when I really don’t need those things, I dislike shopping malls for being the face of capitalism (and because they get ridiculously crowded), and most of all, it infuriates me that these items are put on display with a price tag that reflects neither the true environmental nor social cost. (People get killed for protesting the opening of a mine, and many more suffer in the mines from which metals are extracted to produce our things.) But none of us will think twice about how the items were made, because hey look it’s on 50% discount, such a good deal!

We’ve been told from young, in Singapore, to study hard, to do well in school, so we can get a good degree and good jobs. True, yes we need to have some economic security to feed ourselves and look after ourselves. But ultimately, to what end? The endless chase for paper qualifications is still just about getting money and more money, and though success may be more broadly defined now than before, it still refers to something tangible, monetisable. Just being a good decent human being with morals and sound values is not valued.

I could go on a rant about Singapore, inequality in wages, prices, and how people buy too much. But the venting wouldn’t serve much purpose. We’ve been numbed and sedated. We spend our energies playing the game of trying to save a few dollars by paying with a certain credit card, or getting a discount with another card. But I am starting to think that this capitalist system doesn’t work, and we should all stop trying to play its game. I don’t know of any alternative that might work, but continuing to live the way we’ve been living merely serves to make the rich richer, give them power to marginalise the poor, and make the poor poorer.

We need systemic change, a cultural shift, a paradigm shift, an economic shift, because this current system has failed environmentally and socially. The rich and the powerful who want to get even richer are able to claim ownership of land and natural resources, extract whatever monetisable resources while trashing the environment, and leave the place polluted and unliveable for the poor people who had been living there and living off the environment agreeably the whole time. While on the other end of the chain, we the consumers who are far removed from such natural resources because we live in built-up cities, merely move money around the system and line the pockets of the rich by buying items made from those natural resources while the injustices to the environment and the people are left unaccounted for. And I know all that I’m saying isn’t new, but I guess it’s the first time I’m really feeling the pressure of the System to conform and to live as I’ve been told to live (since I’m no longer a student but a working adult), working as a cog in the System till I get so entrenched with my credit cards and insurance premiums that I cannot get out of it.

I thought I was just unhappy with the Singaporean system that makes me feel trapped, but I realise it’s the entire System which most of this world now runs on. I don’t know just yet what I could do, but I know I won’t be satisfied with just living as I’ve always lived and doing what I’ve always done, and just trying to minimise my impact on the earth by avoiding unsustainable products, while ultimately feeding the System.

What I’d like to see changed in Singapore’s current societal mindset

My brother has stage 2 lymphoma cancer. He is in the midst of his treatment and has lost all his hair, but apart from that, you probably couldn’t tell he’s a cancer patient. He has a few shitty days after chemo, but most of the time remains happy positive and occupied, like most others his age – or perhaps even more positive than most. 

He was recently selected to be amongst the pool of students that his teacher would choose a valedictorian from; he’s due to graduate from his diploma on 3 May. So he duly prepared his speech, attended the rehearsals, and it was finally down to him being either the valedictorian or the spare. 

Then he came back from school and told us that he wasn’t going to be the valedictorian, because the teacher thought his speech would be too depressing (as an opening for the graduation ceremony) and because the other person had more awards. 

Which is the point of this tirade really – not being sour about my brother being the spare, that’s his issue to deal with not mine to write about – but that in our society, it’s still not okay to openly talk about things like having cancer. Or mental illness, for that matter. And that ultimately, despite what the Singaporean government has dreamed up to get students to learn for the sake of learning, we are still a society focused on awards. 

Awards are good, or can be good. They acknowledge hard work and effort, excellence and commitment. But when we publicise and focus only on those who have achieved the most awards, it creates a gap. It causes other students to believe they will never be as good, because they never got this award, or that scholarship. And as most pedagogy goes, causing students to think their potential is limited is probably the worst you could do. Plenty of ‘successful’ men and women you see today probably weren’t students who won the most awards. Or scored the highest GCE ‘O’ or ‘A’ level score. Or Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) score for that matter. So why do we keep emphasising that, with headlines and pages in our national broadsheet The Straits Times dedicated to talking about these students every year? I think it would be interesting to see an article on the top scorers from the 80s/90s and what they’re doing now. 

Never mind the awards culture, a more insidious problem is that we just don’t talk about important issues enough, but non-issues too much. Just cos my brother has cancer doesn’t make him depressing, or sad. He wasn’t even going to say that he has cancer, he is doomed but you know ultimately every dies so don’t let fear tether you, go forth and do great things. He is positive and upbeat, and him mentioning his cancer was a way of starting his speech. For him to go up and not even mention having cancer is like ignoring the elephant in the room, which is actually a thing that we commonly do in Singapore society. But why should that be? Why can’t we talk openly about cancers and other terminal illnesses, or mental illnesses? Ignoring problems don’t make them go away, and by our reluctance to talk about them in a casual everyday context, we make it harder for people who are suffering to seek help and talk about them. And there are many who suffer in our midst, with afflictions that may not be visible to our eye (though I think the worst and most incurable affliction is our addiction to non-renewable resources). I think that teacher just lost a great opportunity to show how open and forward-looking that polytechnic is, and for it to be a chance for others to talk about issues like young people having cancer in a more positive and upbeat light. 

That I’ve come back after 4.5 years of being abroad, to a country that’s advanced much technologically, yet still retains its close-mindedness in the way people are valued and important issues are sidelined is something that I’m still trying to get used to. This issue might just be limited to the polytechnic my brother is attending, but I think that’s highly unlikely. Though to be honest, I think my vested interest and greatest loss is that my younger brother would have brought up issues of sustainable seafood and reducing food waste in his version of the valedictorian speech, which would have had a far greater and ranging impact than any ranting of mine on this platform which preaches to the choir could do.