March 23, 2017


by Vinod Ashvin Ravi

We often read and hear how travelling and spending time overseas can turn out to be one of life’s most transformative experiences. How such endeavours broaden our horizons to acknowledge and appreciate cultures and peoples distinct from ourselves. All this may be true, but the reverse certainly holds as well. After four months on student exchange in Washington D.C., I’d like to think I’ve become just as aware and appreciative of how similar people are, even halfway across the world.

Even though we tend to like drawing lines of distinction between ourselves, my observation has been that Americans and Singaporeans today face fairly similar circumstances and challenges – derived partly from having fairly similar wants – in the course of their daily lives. This is not to say that there are no differences, but our constant attempts at distinguishing ourselves from one another should not cloud our vision from the similarities that exist either.

First and foremost, both societies today are witnessing a common narrative of growing resentment against the powers-that-be. From keyboard warriors to Hong Lim Park protestors, we’ve seen a discernably rising tide of anti-establishment frustration in Singapore in recent years. Yet diatribes against the prevailing political system – and those who run it – are no less severe here in America.

Granted, such anger is grounded in distinctly different reasons. Many Singaporeans are angry at what they perceive to be the continued unilateral decision-making style of the Government. In America on the other hand, much of the anger stems from the fact that effective decision-making itself seems to have become nothing short of a miracle given the political gridlock and paralysis in key Washington institutions engendered by entrenched antagonism between Democratic and Republican parties.

What’s common however is that people in both countries seem to increasingly express a growing sense of disconnect with those they elected to power. An American classmate tells me that the conversations on the ground – more so than ever before – are no longer echoed by those on Capitol Hill anymore. That the governed are losing heart and faith in the governing with each subsequent misstep. A recent Gallup poll in March revealed that Congress had just a 13% approval rating by Americans, only 1% and 4% higher than North Korea and Iran respectively.

A second commonality seems to be that the question of identity has come under equal scrutiny in America today as it has in Singapore. Our country loves to celebrate its diversity, and America is certainly no different. My classmates here include Korean-Americans, Irish-Americans, German-Americans, Indian-Americans, and even Armenian-Americans. They look upon their adoptive country with much pride, but regard their home countries with much fondness. Many Americans I’ve spoken to recognize the critical role that immigrants have played in shaping the country’s past, but just as many remain anxious about a continued inflow of immigrants and the effects this will have on their future jobs and lives.

By extension therefore, immigration has become a hot-button topic in America just as it has in Singapore.  President Obama in both his Inauguration and ‘State of the Union’ speeches  continued to emphasize the need to constantly attract immigrant talent, yet such rhetoric continues to spark concern amongst Americans (why does that sound familiar?). Sure, some nuances of the immigration debate in both countries are slightly different. For one, Americans have to contend with the issue of illegal immigration on a scale dissimilar to the Singaporean context. Yet the general reactions that the debates have provoked – in all their good, bad and ugly hues – remain similar.

They have their magical immigration-related numbers just like us – remember 6.9 million, anyone? – yet here too, the issue of immigration itself seems to strike at something more profound than merely statistics. A classmate tells me that the question of what it means to be American – beyond just the free speech and other constitutional rights – seems increasingly to be in constant flux. Re-negotiating and re-establishing the nuances of citizenship, it seems, is increasingly a central feature of conversations here as well.

Thirdly, discussions pertaining to education – the ‘what’s, ‘why’s and ‘how’s – display distinct similarities in both countries. In Singapore, we recently witnessed a recent surge of public attention on the state – and merits – of studying Literature. Lest we think the  ‘Arts vs. Science’ debate is a quagmire peculiar to us, Americans too are increasingly subject to calls to engage in a ‘STEM’ – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – education. In some ways, the education issue here is interwoven with that of immigration, for the pro-STEM lobby has gained traction in recent years riding on the notion that declining rates of STEM education amongst Americans has created the need to bring in more immigrants trained in such specific disciplines.

Another pressing concern on the current American conscience vis-à-vis education – and one with shades of convergence with the Singaporean context – has been the perceived decline in equality of opportunity. There seems to be a growing sense that the most prestigious brands of education – typified commonly by the Ivy League colleges – have become the entrenched domain of a few, and that the implemented designs of the meritocratic system need to be reviewed and rethought. A neighbour I spoke to told me how he felt an urgent imperative to revive the mantra of ‘hard work will be duly rewarded’ as a core tenet of the much-touted ‘American dream’.

A fourth and final commonality – and perhaps a function of convergent circumstances vis-à-vis immigration and education – is a similar sense of awareness of the mounting competition confronting both societies, especially the younger generations. Many Singaporeans tend to lament an endless ‘paper chase’ as one of the banes of an unceasingly competitive education system. Yet a ‘paper chase’ albeit of a different form is prevalent here as well. While the courses we primarily tend to pursue bear grades, those that Americans pursue bear predominantly job credentials.

Indeed, internships are like prime real-estate here in the American capital. Students of all levels scramble to secure a multitude of internships not only between but during semesters as well. The game of one-upmanship for career prospects here hinges less so on letters of the alphabet and more so instead on the breadth of work experience. But this does not discount the fact that the pressures of competition remain significant and equally daunting here in America as well.

As I’ve mentioned, this article does not aim to deny that differences exist between the two countries. Certainly the points highlighted above illuminate divergent finer nuances that characterize both nations. Yet the broader attitudes, mindsets and concerns that undergird these nuances can be argued to be similar. At the end of the day, people in both societies essentially want to lead better lives, and to do so consistently both for themselves and for future generations who succeed them. We put in hard work in the expectation that such effort will engender positive payoffs. We yearn for prosperity because it seems to have become a harbinger of stability in our lives.

My peers and I in Singapore worry constantly over the rising housing and transport prices and the implications these bring to bear on our future finances. Our American counterparts conversely concern themselves with having to pay back exorbitant and seemingly incredible student loans utilized to fund their college education. Once again, the manifestations might be different, but the fears and apprehensions associated with costs – and unaffordability – remain shared between both societies. We look to government to provide guidance and assistance – if not explicit answers – and are disheartened when they fail to respond adequately. Whether it’s the ‘American dream’ or the ‘Singaporean dream’ – whatever either may mean – it seems that more and more people in both societies perceive such visions to be devolving into little more than wistful fantasy.

This exercise in comparison is of course not meant to trivialize the challenges faced by either country, or to exonerate either government from its responsibilities and missteps. The Singapore leadership for one has certainly made its fair share of policy miscalculations in recent times – even by its own admission – and must now navigate a new and challenging phase of governance in an era of hyper-connectivity and re-politicization. But perhaps an awareness that Singaporeans are not alone in fighting the big, bad wolves that haunt us might help us to constructively shape the discourse that emerges from this period of political transition. One of the more sobering revelations I have experienced in my time here has been that many of the pressures we think Singapore faces by virtue of being a small country, may in fact apply to nations far bigger than us as well.

Embracing globalization has often been signaled as a strategy for a small state Singapore to remain relevant to the world. Yet even – and perhaps especially – a larger state like America cannot afford to isolate and alienate itself from the rest of the world, lest it risks its own prosperity. Forging and maintaining social harmony and cohesion are often regarded as paramount in Singapore on account of our small but ethnically diverse population. Yet such maintenance is equally critical to America given its numerous minority groups and the constant inflow of immigrants. We often feel the pressure to upgrade ourselves so as to maintain or enhance our position on the global economic ladder because small nations have it harder in making their mark. But it can be argued that the same pressure weighs just as heavily on those perceived to be atop the ladder so as to avoid being surpassed by those snapping at their heels. Our individual strokes may be different – as may be the size of the ripples we create – but we’re all ultimately swimming to survive lest we sink to darker, bleaker depths.

Back in our younger schooling years, we were constantly encouraged to take part in community service – to engage the wider community – so as to gain perspective and a heightened awareness of our own lot in life. As Singapore today seeks to rediscover and redefine itself – politically, economically and even socio-culturally – perhaps a similar attempt at observing the wider world beyond our ‘little red dot’ may in fact be beneficial to us in finding ourselves as a collective people and nation.

The writer, 22, is a National University of Singapore undergraduate majoring in political science now on an exchange programme at George Washington University in Washington D.C.

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SO much money! The G really outdid itself with its financial incentives to get Singaporeans to reproduce. We need more of our own kind, as we are hardly replacing ourselves. I agree. But all that money, like $2b, we can expect just 6,000 to 9,000 more babies a year. Worth it or not?

I wonder which is the biggest carrot of all. The front-of-queue for BTO flats? But that’s for those who already have children. Some people say it’s not going to help those who want a flat BEFORE children. But hey, I reckon the G also has to appease those who have already done their duty, and whose need is greater.

Also, I’ve been reading about parents footing part of the bill for their children’s first home these days. When children already become parents, you can’t be expecting the grandparents to do the same. Or can you?

Other random thoughts:

Childcare announcements will be made today. I thought this was strange as I’ve already seen reports of infant and childcare subsidies amounting to $53,000 being doled out…

Why isn’t more reporting being done on the leave being given to those who adopt infants? This is new. And probably welcomed by couples who’ve missed their biological boat – and who can afford to bring up children. Maybe the numbers are too small?

Are single mothers also eligible for some of those incentives? How are single mothers treated under this population package anyway? Non-existent? (I’m just curious)

But I wonder what the older folk will make of all this fuss. I can imagine the earlier generation who brought up two, three or 10 children without help shaking their heads and raising their eyebrows….and grumbling…

Here are the ramblings of two octogenarians having a coffee:

Ah Soh: Aiyah. Young people now ah…Everything also like so difficult. Everything also need Government to help. Everything about money. Before ah, we just give birth, at home or call midwife…and then get up and wash clothes, make dinner. Now what is this maternity leave? Four months! Confinement period also not so long…

Ah Cheh: Tiok si lor. Before, give birth so easy. My six children – all grown up. Nothing wrong with them. Feed them rice with dark soya sauce. Some times got ikan kuning. All still manage to grow up. My lao kong never even help. Bus driver. He go to work, come back, give me marketing money. I do everything.

Now the men got one week leave. What for? They don’t go to work, just stay home and shake leg. You think they can be bothered to change diaper?

Ah Soh: Aiyah, my grandchildren say now things different. Must have maid, must have house, must have work, both father and mother must help look after baby. And then… only have one or two children! They think our time so easy. We don’t even have other people to help.

My grandson who is getting married actually asked his father for money to buy bungalow. I told my son, cannot. Why he cannot rent a room or rent a flat? Then later, own his own house. Young people ah….

Ah Cheh: Wah! Gong xi! Gong xi! Your grandson getting married! Finally! I thought he very fussy…He quite old now right? Got 40 years old?

Ah Soh: Ya. His wife also 40. How to have children like that? But my lao kong say the Government will help – donno what IVF subsidy. And if the baby come out not all right, can use the baby Medisave. Medishield also can cover or something. But aiyah, that grandson of mine say he don’t want to have children! He say children very troublesome. Milk powder. Diaper. Expensive.

Our time, we just buy the cheapest milk powder or breast feed until they are older. We just use cloth diaper and wash and re-wash. What disposable diaper?

Ah Cheh: Must pity them also lah. Now both husband and wife got to work. Where got time? I also don’t want to look after great grandchildren. I already look after so many. My children say very hard to get their boss to let them take leave. So children get sick, maid must look after – or they call me. I say a little bit of cough and flu, just give Panadol. Little bit of sick, and they panick. So precious their children. I tell them to give their children Chinese medicine but they say must see proper doctor.

Ah Soh: Leave the young people alone. Not our problem. You finished your coffee? Let’s go. Our mahjong kakis waiting for us.

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by Bertha Henson

ONCE upon a time, there were four students who were vying for the post of class monitor. All four were as different from each other as they can be. And boy, did they make sure that their classmates knew about that!

One boy, very clever boy, told about his past, including eating ikan kuning mashed with rice. He was a poor boy, son of a bus driver (you know…those people who are now among the lowest paid in the country?) Some of his classmates nodded, others who usually ate at McDonald’s wondered what he was talking about. He had plenty of supporters – most of them other class monitors, some teachers and even the school principal, who said the boy had the potential to be more than a class monitor. Maybe school prefect even.

The boy did not want to be embarrassed and told them not to come too near him. He was his own man/boy! He was KPK! But the school principal and teachers really wanted him to win, so they went around shaking his classmates’ hands, making little lightning strikes, careful not to be seen with him.

One nice thing about the boy was that he didn’t seem to mind the crap that people were throwing at him, making fun of his fondness for kueh chap.

Another was a girl, very much an Ah Lian. She too had plenty of supporters. There were a few class monitors and her extended family who pitched in as well, accompanying her to the school and classroom, distributing blue umbrellas.

Her aunty said, hey, vote for a girl. Too many class monitors are boys. Her uncles and godfather said, why do you want that KPK to win? He’s the principal’s pet, the teachers’ favourite. What if the principal and teachers decide that they should extend school hours, have more detention classes, raise canteen prices? You think the boy is going to say no?  Our Ah Lian will hammer them back!

The third person was a boy, son of a very famous class monitor who wanted to be school prefect and even teacher or principal. This boy, KJ s/o JBJ, was also very clever, especially with counting money. He had already clashed with the school principal once, about lending money to other people without proper permission.

When he talked, he sounded just like his late father. Like thunder. He really can’t stand the school principal and teachers. He doesn’t even like Ah Lian and her extended family.  He’s even more upset now because some people in school (and maybe outside school) are threatening his family. The police told him they will investigate and be around when he has to address the school assembly.

You can tell who the fourth person in because he is always in neon green. Some of his classmates remember him vaguely. He and Ah Lian had both tried to curry favour with them a few years ago. But most of them decided to vote for that nice Eurasian boy. But then he got kicked out of school. The neon green guy goes round with students even younger than him, probably from kindergarten. He told the class he won’t address them at school assembly but to please go on Facebook and Twitter to talk to him.

Their classmates are both flattered and tired by the attention of so many people. They have decided not to go to the school canteen, which is never-endingly being upgraded, because there are so many people there, including news people who keep asking them about this and that.

They just want to study – and get As.