*This wasn’t written by me but by the author below. I saw this article and loved the writing and candidness enough to want to share it. If my memory doesn’t fail me, it was a letter written to Today paper*
I AM as Rafflesian/Raffles Girls’ School (RGS)/’elite’ as they come. My father was a Raffles Institution boy; I went through Raffles Girls’ Primary School (RGPS), RGS, then Raffles Junior College, then on to the National University of Singapore, boarding at Raffles Hall. My sisters went through much the same route. My little girls are in RGPS.
I recognise the syndrome Ms Sandra Leong talks about (‘Scoring high in grades but not in values’, last Saturday). I live it, breathe it. Most of my friends are like me, graduates. Most of us live in landed property, condominiums or minimally, executive condos or five-room flats. None of us talks about making ends meet, or how we must turn down medical treatment for our aged parents because we cannot find the money.
But I will add to her essay: that those traits, that aura is not unique to RGS girls. It resonates within a social group, and its aspirants, the well educated or well endowed. I hang out with so many, I have stories by the barrel.
– My doctor friend, non-RGS and one would even say anti-RGS, was shocked when she found out how many As I got in my A levels, since I opted to do an arts degree. In her words, ‘I thought all arts people were dumb, that is why they go to arts’. Her own family boasts only doctors and lawyers – she said they would never contemplate any other profession – and by implication, all other professions are below those two.
– A church-mate who lived in a landed property in District 10 – definitely not an RGS girl, and I venture to guess, not even a graduate – once, in all sincerity and innocence, prayed for all those who had to take public transport and live in HDB flats, for God to give them strength to bear these trials.
– Another friend, also non-RGS and a non-graduate, shudders when she recounts the few months she lived in an HDB flat. And that was a five-room flat. Imagine the culture shock if she had lived in a three-room flat.
I continue to meet people who never visit hawker centres, who wonder why the poor people do not work harder to help themselves, who fret if their children do not get into the Gifted Education Programme (reserved for the top 1 per cent of nine-year-olds).
The pattern repeats itself in the next generation. When my 11-year-old had to go on a ‘race’ around Singapore, using only public transport, the teacher asked for a show of hands on how many had never taken public transport (bus and MRT) before. In a class of 30, five raised their hands. I think if the teacher had asked for those who had taken public transport fewer than 10 times in their young lives, the number would have more than doubled or tripled.
Many of us live in ivory towers. I know I did. I used to think Singapore was pretty much ‘it’ all – a fantastic meritocracy that allowed an ‘HDB child’ from a non-graduate family to make it. I boasted about our efficiency – ‘you can emerge from your plane and be out in 10 minutes’ – and so on.
It was not that I thought little of the rest of the world or other people; it was that I was so ensconced in my cocoon, I just thought little of anything outside my own zone. ‘Snow? Yes, nice.’ ‘Starvation in Ethiopia? Donate $50.’ The wonders of the world we lived in, the sufferings and joys of those who shared this earth were just academic knowledge to me, voraciously devoured for my essays or to hold intelligent conversations at dinner parties.
Then I lived in China for seven years. I looked on in amazement as the skinny tree trunk in front of my yard blossomed and bore pomegranates when spring thawed the ground. And marvelled at the lands that spread east, west, north and south of me as we drove and drove and drove, and never ended. I became friends and fans of colleagues and other Chinese nationals, whom so many Singapore friends had warned me to be wary of.
I realised it was not the world and other people who were limited in their intellect, in their determination, in their resourcefulness; it was me and my world views which were limited. I also know full well that if I had stayed in Singapore, in my cushy job, comfortable in my Bukit Timah home, I would have remained the same – self-sufficient. I had always believed that if I put my mind to it, I could achieve anything. For example, I used to look at sick people and root: ‘Fight with all your willpower, and you will recover.’ And when they did not, I’d think they had failed themselves. I, like Ms Leong, believed ‘mental dexterity equated strength of character and virtue’.
But those years in China taught me terrible lessons on loneliness. I learnt that money (an expatriate pay package) and brains (suitcases of books) did not make me happier than my maid who cycled home to her family every night in minus 20 deg C on icy roads to a dinner of rice and vegetables. The past few years, I have known devastating loss and grief so deep I woke up in the morning and wondered how the sun could still shine and people could go on with their lives.
And so perhaps I have learnt the humility I lacked. Humility about how small I am in the whole schema of things. About how helpless I truly stand, with my intellect in my hands, with my million-dollar roof over my head. To remember, in the darkest valleys of my journey, it was not Ayn Rand or other Booker list authors who lifted me, but the phone calls, the kindness of strangers, that made each day a little less bleak.
And perhaps finally, to really see other people, and understand – not deflect, nor reflect their anger and viewpoints, but see their shyness, pain, struggles, joys. Just because I was ‘fortunate enough’ to have trawled the bottom levels. And perhaps that is the antidote to the oft unwitting elitism so many of us carry with us.
Sim Soek Tien (Ms)
*Its heartbreaking that so many people including some of my relatives and friends who are still living in this box that the writer described.