How did we become like this?

Forgive me if this piece seems to ramble on in different directions.

I had a meeting at the Zion Road area this week, so I took the opportunity to have breakfast at Tiong Bahru Market. After having my Hainanese Curry Rice and soya bean milk, I decided to chill out at one of the public benches in the retro estate to do my email.

Suddenly, an old woman in her 70s hurried across my view and went straight for the public trash bin and stretched her hand to fish out whatever drink cans she could find. She shoved the cans into a big red plastic bag and rushed off to the next bin.

An elderly couple walked by and the old man whispered to his wife as the old lady went out of sight : “So poor thing,” he said in dialect.

Sitting there with my laptop and some of Singapore’s best food in my stomach, I could not help but see the contrast between my life and hers.

And recently, the void deck in my Bishan block has been getting very messy with rubbish strewn around everywhere. At first I thought it was inconsiderate residents who refuse to dump their rubbish properly in the bulk rubbish bin.

But I later realized that it was “scavengers” like the Tiong Bahru lady who were just grabbing whatever raw materials they could to make a living. They didn’t care about the mess they were leaving behind. They had to beat the other scavengers to it.

Who’s cleaning up their mess? The two cleaners in charge of our few blocks are both very old (at least in their 70s). One has a terrible skin condition and the other shuffles along as his legs cannot go any faster.

My 8-year-old son Isaac, God bless him, always has a heart for the two cleaners and will never fail to say “Hi” to them every morning. So do a few other residents. Many, like me, feel shy and don’t know what to say when we encounter the cleaners.

When I was a kid, I remember asking my mum – where are all the beggars? She said firstly, to never give them any money or you risk encouraging their begging behavior (typical Singaporean mentality at work there) and that the government will always round them up to put them out of sight.

These days, I’m seeing more beggars and scavengers around. In a country that is overflowing with wealth in its public coffers, why is there such a distinct and disadvantaged underclass?

And every morning, I take the MRT, and it’s not long before you spot ungracious behavior. Much has been said about our inability to give up seats, give way on the roads, or just be nice to each other. Is this the price we have paid for in the pursuit of success and self-interest, I ponder daily.

(Well if I get the opportunity, I will chase someone out of the reserved seat so that more deserving elderly or pregnant person can rest their legs. This vigilante habit started when my wife was pregnant and we were taking the train together to work.)

If you read my old archives on growing up in Balestier, you’d know that my mum’s family was deeply rooted in the area. Today it is all shophouses and spanking condos, but in my grandfather’s time, it was mostly vegetation and plantations. I grew up among traders, temple workers, and many gamblers, and I consider it a privilege, rather than having some sterile childhood in a HDB flat.

Everyone knew every face in our Balestier area, and everyone eked out a living the hard and honest way. OK, except maybe for the bookies and gambling den owners. And though my mum never knew (I hope), the temple folks there did not see anything wrong in teaching a five-year-old kid how to smoke – because what the heck right – kids will be kids, and it’s never too early to experiment. It’s probably the Chinese equivalent of kampung spirit.

Fast forward to today, and we are living in a clean, 5-room flat in Bishan. I’ve studied hard, I’ve worked hard, and I earn a decent living to feed my wife and kids. I’ve got all the small gadgets and toys that I’ve always wanted, because I’ve earned my keep. My mum (now in heaven) did a lot to ensure that her children would have bright futures but all that hard work could have brought on her fatal cancer.

She bought this Bishan flat in 1986, and though it’s now worth 6 times the original price, I have no intention to “upgrade” because it’s good enough and you won’t get a big condo with the prices being the way they are now.

By all means, I’m contented, and largely because God tells me to be contented with my lot.

So I know progress when I see it. We lived through it.

Now with all the progress, can you blame me for feeling uneasy when I see the elderly scavengers, the lack of social graces in public and the amount of suffering children go through in school with their unreasonable workloads and mental pressures?

My children hardly watch TV, not because we disallow them, but because they simply have so much homework or revision work to do. They don’t have the same carefree childhood that we used to enjoy just 20 years ago, and perhaps it’s good (in a perverse way) they don’t know how much easier things used to be.

Some people tell me that this is inevitable as Singapore is a modern, developed country. “Oh, the students in Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan also face a lot of stress! Don’t you know they keep all the disabled and the old at home in some countries so as to hide their existence?”


But perhaps we can do better as a bunch of people living together.

This past two weeks has seen much rhetoric and tussle for the hearts and minds of the people with the General Elections 2011.

It’s fascinating how the PAP has been shaken into making meek apologies, and the Opposition has never been stronger in taking the moral high ground and whipping crowds into a frenzy. Like many others, I’ve watched with amusement as key politicians suddenly feel the ground disappear beneath them and find the past five, ten, twenty years of their work coming home to roost. It’s difficult to talk to the middle/lower class about fixing the income gap when you’re being paid over a million dollars with no visible penalty for glaring mistakes.

I’m been heartened to see so much good writing suddenly appear on my Facebook wall, with people pouring out their hopes, their anger, their dreams, and their bitterness. I’ve seen the mainstream media struggle inwardly against years of self-censorship and Government influence. I’ve enjoyed the outburst of creativity with countless social satires and biting criticism of election rhetoric.

Yet, all the talk in the run up to the elections don’t concern me so much as what I’ve mentioned about at the beginning of this post.

The bottom line is that there’s something not right with our society today.

We have cast aside values of honor, sportsmanship, graciousness, and kindness in our hurtling race towards being number one in the things that matter to a small minority.

We have cast our eyes away at the misery of other people, affirming that it’s not our problem to deal with.

We can criticise the Gahmen for being arrogant and self-serving, and always thinking it is right, but if you catch my drift above, aren’t many of us like that too?

You would have read many blog posts or articles telling you to vote with your hearts and your brains. You would have decided if the mainstream media was biased or objective. You might have attended rallies where political parties tried to tell you what you should be thinking and how you should be voting.

At this point, I’m really thinking – We should also look into a mirror and ask ourselves how did we become like this.

And what should we do about it?

16 Replies to “How did we become like this?”

  1. hi Ian, thanks for the purposeful rambling. i think you’ve expressed succinctly what many are feeling. this is almost like an awakening for singaporeans.

  2. Thanks Sze Wee, I was afraid I would appear to be meandering too much in trying to say what is difficult to say out loud.

  3. Hi Ian

    I teared reading your article. Well, this is what the government has done over the years. My teenagers feel very sorry when they see old folks clearing tables and we always clean the tables with tissues and stack up the bowls for them to make their job easier. Sad how sad! I m in my 40s and I was retrenched and couldn’t even find a decent job that matches my pte sector’s salary. Instead, I was squeezed so hard and I am drawing half of what i used to get when I was working in the pte sector. As a civil servant, I need to have at least a diploma but I m only O Level. I have no paper qualifications but I have a wealth of experience which is useless in the civll service. I have resigned to my fate. I need a job as my hubby is not working due to health issues. I have to pay off my HDB loan.

    It is about time something has to be done. Time for a real change.

  4. Perhaps Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror song can be a worthy addition to accompany your post.

  5. The change starts with the man in the mirror. The government can only provide the infrastructure and an environment for us to strive, the rest is really up to us. How we walk, where we want to go, our destinations, it is really our choice. If we don’t clean up the tables after a meal at fast food or hawker centres, it is a reflection of ourselves, of our own being. Let’s do some soul searching first instead of blaming others.

    In this quickly changing globalised world, many people may have barked at the wrong tree.

    You wrote a wonderful post. Thank you.

  6. Hi Sunshine

    Like you, I always instruct my two kids to always say thank you to the old (or young people) clearing our tables. This is a dirty, but honorable job, and we have to give them due respect for earning their keep.

    B – I wish copyright fees didn’t exist ;D

    Chin Leng – thank you, change begins with the individual, not really with promises from someone on the rally stage.

  7. Though we can say change starts from within, we are still very much affected by our environment. Whatever policies that the government take, it will affect the society. Compare the policies of various countries and their people. But of cos we ourselves can do our little parts.

  8. Hello Ian,

    Thank you for expressing what is in a lot of our hearts and minds. The other day at Beo Crescent I saw a lady moving from one table to the next eating food that was left on the table. I checked with a friend who runs a clinic there and he says this is quite normal. He sees it every day – there are elderly folks there who cannot even afford $2.50 for a meal. Those who can find jobs are given jobs like cleaning tables…I usually try to clear my own bowls from the table and say thank you to them. But still not quite sure how we can help such people in the long run.


  9. What is this going to do with the government? I realized that many people are blaming the government for everything, many on personal note… Do a reflection on ourselve first before blaming on other… I agreed with Chinleng, this really depend on ourselve…

  10. So sad. I could say the same about what I see in Thailand or America. There are elderly who cannot afford to live decently any more even though they have worked hard all their lives. In Italy – most elderly women who took care of children and home get only about 600 Euro is social security – and cannot afford to live and pay rent or mortgage on that – Italy is a country of “only children” so there are younger families with BOTH sets of in-laws or widowed grand-parents living with them, etc. I think it does start with us and our hearts – maybe fewer “contraptions” of wealth and pleasure and more private foundations and churches, etc. taking on a personal responsibility with the elderly, poor and marginalised. Let’s follow the example of the children and NOT BE SHY or embarassed – and let’s reach out starting with the smile and then something even more concrete like a social centre for the elderly, etc.

  11. “It’s difficult to talk to the middle/lower class about fixing the income gap when you’re being paid over a million dollars with no visible penalty for glaring mistakes.”

    Ministers’ pay is pegged to top earners. So when their pay increments are actually dependent on widening the income gap, you know that’s one problem that’s not going to get solved anytime soon.

  12. Ian, I’m a big fan, you know that. But this is one the less coherent posts.

    Nonetheless, being ungracious is not the government’s fault. Neither is not being able to find a job in the civil service cos you’re underqualified. And I cringe at the thought of giving handouts to the people who eat leftovers at food centers.

    The GDP is what it is because of gainfully employed people like you and me contributing to it. And we reap the rewards by earning our keep as you say. So taking from this wealth that you and I have created and giving it to those who didn’t/can’t contribute, isn’t that a bit like Robin Hood?

  13. So G, my response to you is simple – what would you do if you were one of these who didn’t/can’t contribute?

    And what do you think about the wealth that we have created, going into great projects like YOG or NDP when there are people starving or struggling on the streets?

    I am not advocating welfarism. I am just asking what would you do.

  14. Ian, I would think that the govt should help me instead of organising F1 or YOG. The idealistic answer is that I would get on a boat and head for pastures green(er) as Mexicans and Cubans do everyday. Or Africans to France and Germany. More realistically, I would resign myself to living a life clearing plates at the food court downstairs. That’s my lot in life, I shall live with it.

    1. But G, you see, that’s not your lot in life as far as I know. It’s hypothetical for us, but reality for others, and that’s why these people need our help where we can render it.

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