Word of the Day: Privilege

Aug 19, 2016 05.00PM |

by Tan Chu Chze

IT HAS taken us a while to sober from the initial shock of suddenly being a country with an Olympic gold medal. And, as the reality of Schooling being an excellent swimmer sinks in, so does the reality of Schooling’s privilege. He has the honour of being Singapore’s champion. The second to float like a butterfly. The one who beat Phelps.

Titles aside, there are other privileges that Schooling obviously had, but are not so easily apparent. These are the privileges that got him to the podium on a national sporting stage in the first place, but they quickly disappear under the glitz of being an Olympian.

‘Privilege’ is actually composed of two Latin words that translate directly to “private law”. It quite literally meant a law for one person – regardless of whether it was to their benefit or not.

That is not to say that our legal system bent over backwards to accommodate Schooling. A provision was made for his NS deferment, but Schooling isn’t the first nor the only one to receive it. Besides, what we understand as ‘privilege’ has extended beyond the legal system. We now think of ‘privilege’ purely as a special right or advantage given (by just about anyone with something worth giving) to a particular person or a group.

And many advantages were readily available to Schooling. He has committed parents who supported him with their wallets, and also with their hearts. They invested time to learn his sport, and guided him through it. Then there were swimming coaches, peers, and family friends who helped Schooling in one way or another.

Yet, as nice as it is to have privileges, the word sometimes takes on a slightly muddy aftertaste.

The problem isn’t so much the advantage of privileges itself, than the way it is gained. The notion of ‘privilege’ essentially divides advantages into a binary: either they were earned, or not. In that sense, privilege contrasts merit or credit – the praise and benefit we work for to gain. And since privileges are benefits we did not earn, we are sometimes compelled to feel that privileges are also undeserved. Privileges can seem unfair.

How did Schooling access the many resources to get where he is? The finances, the networks and such? What makes him more deserving than the swimmer in the next pool?

You get the drift. Going by this line of thinking, recognising one’s own privilege becomes a course of eating humble pie. “I am privileged,” Schooling said on being honoured in Parliament. It is nice how he acknowledged his privilege plainly. If not, he might have came across as ignorant and proud. Or worse still, entitled.

And then things seem to end there. Is that all there is to being ‘privileged’? Just be grateful? Give a thank you speech? Make a Youtube video?

Perhaps the problem with ‘privilege’ is the binary that defines its meaning. Dividing advantages into ones that were earned against ones that were not is not very helpful. It blinds us to an aspect of ‘privilege’ – the blessings that one receives are also blessings another had to give.

Sure, Schooling was advantaged with parents who have the experience, wisdom, networks and financial capacity to groom his talent. Sure, he may or may not deserve any of that. But to look at Schooling’s success through that lens of ‘privilege’ simply ignores his parents’ hard work and sacrifice: the early mornings, pep talks, training schedules, meals cooked and measured, a house sold… It ignores the community which rallied behind Schooling, and supported him every step of his journey to the Olympics.

Talking about ‘privilege’ creates an illusion that the journey to success is travelled alone – just you, your skills, hard work and the fortunes you were born with.

The reality is that what Schooling received as ‘privilege’ is the collaborative effort of a family, a community – a nation, even. It is true he didn’t have to strive for some advantages, but somebody else did.

It takes a village to bring up an Olympic medallist. And while there is no denying that Schooling is privileged, the village that raised him is every bit privileged to have him too.


Featured image by Najeer Yusof. 

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