Outliers of the Singapore Story

Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Noor Adilah (17S06B), with guest writer Samira Hassan (17S05A)

We all know what the Singapore story is about. We are clear about the concepts it stands  for: the buzzwords of modernity, progress, and global hub are amongst the many associations the average Singaporean can rattle off.

It is a Singaporean thing – until it isn’t.

Our firmly held-notion of our nation’s narrative is one that, while uniting some Singaporeans in a singular identity, leaves many out in the fringe. This was the central idea of Thum Ping Tjin’s discussion during Apa Itu Activist: A Forum on Civil Society, Action and Advocacy. Apa Itu Activist?, which translates to What Is An Activist? — aimed to gather like-minded individuals who are passionate about creating social change in Singapore so that they may start discourse about important social issues as a first step for widespread, systemic change.

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Mr. Thum Ping Tjin (Photo: theonlinecitizen.com)

One of the talks that stood out was delivered by “PJ” Thum Ping Tjin, a “Revisionist” Historian. Thum, a Research Associate at the Centre for Global History in Oxford University, talked about the assumptions we make everyday and how taking these assumptions as perceived truth can be harmful to vulnerable groups within society. We found this speech highly engaging and especially relevant to the Rafflesian community. Press brings you through the thoughts of an activist and highlights the social issues that plague Singapore today in: Outliers of the Singapore Story.

Outliers of the Singapore Story

In the first part of Thum’s speech, he introduced a novel concept that he terms
mental shortcuts. These mental shortcuts are fast “thinking pathways” that help us navigate through a vastly complex world full of different identities, communities and concepts. To make sense of the world, our brains have an intrinsic need to simplify things by forming mental shortcuts – often in the form of assumptions.

For the most part, this system of taking mental shortcuts works well for us, but what happens when these assumptions are proven wrong?

While assumptions are meant to simplify information for better understanding, making assumptions when talking about social issues can flatten nuances and complexities – the details and moral ambiguities that inform us of truth and define our realities.

Many of these assumptions are pervasive in society today, and they often even find their way into certain fundamental understandings we take to be true. Take, for example, the popularised narrative of Singapore’s rags-to-riches fortunes, which is often construed as a miraculous transformation from a “sleepy fishing village” to a multiracial metropolis. This is perhaps the largest local example of a mental shortcut that excludes many groups of people, even when it is meant to unite and resonate with every single Singaporean. Though this narrative may present itself as history and parade itself as an irrefutable truth, it is reductive: we assume, from this sweeping and grand conjecture, that the whole nation has progressed together. This makes many of us more likely to accept that those who didn’t enjoy this same progress — who have been left out in this glittering metamorphosis — somehow do not belong, or, wildly enough, deserve their own predicament.

When these assumptions and simplifications become latent in our narrative, they can wind up hurting people who do not fit into it. An obvious group is the poor and underprivileged, whose stories lie contrary to our national narrative.  The disparity between the stories of the poor and this carefully constructed narrative creates an “us” versus “them” dynamic, where sides are taken and countrymen create identities separate from each other. An attitude that is pervasive amongst middle and upper middle-class Singaporeans is that the poor “deserve” poverty – the assumption that their situation was completely avoidable and is purely their fault. “Laziness” is an easy label to pin on an entire group of people whose predicament is much more complicated than we are led to believe.

Studying the local language of discourse reveals our inherent assumptions surrounding economic inequity. The terms and stories that we use to grapple with social problems affect the way we come to understand them. The Singapore Story itself necessarily excludes those who haven’t been swept away by the same modernising tide of change.

Furthermore, when discussing such issues, we often tend to throw around the word “poverty” instead of terms like “income inequality”. The word choice eschews any responsibility on leaders and systems, and instead shifts the blame onto the underprivileged. And yet, income inequality is much more tangible than the concept of poverty. In 2014, news agencies have shown time and time again that our income gap is one of the highest amongst developed countries.

In education, we are taught to value meritocracy as the Great Equalizer – something that levels us based on merit, regardless of our backgrounds or identities. But political analysts have proven time and time again that meritocracy can, instead, entrench inequality, by allowing for a cycle of inaccessibility to continue, preventing generations of underprivileged Singaporeans from ever having a chance at stopping a cycle of poverty.

Against the backdrop of a country whose demographics and demands are shifting, it is undeniable that the former notion of this tenuous ‘Singapore Story’ (which was more of a projection than a story to begin with) is beginning to falter.

How then do we improve on the way we frame our national history? How do we teach our children that poverty should not just be merely a cautionary tale, but a reality that we all have a part to play in eradicating? It is, of course, an irrefutable fact that a national narrative is important in creating a national identity, but this seems to conflict with the arguments mentioned earlier. Looking outwards, Paul Cohen’s ‘History in Three Keys’ reveals an alternative to the Singular Singaporean story by providing a diachronic approach to re-envisioning history – one that is dynamic and enriched with more cultural and non-artefact based sources that accurately reflect the realities of Singaporeans from many different backgrounds throughout history. By reconstructing the Singapore story to include multiple narratives, we can create a national narrative that is not exclusive, but wholesome and multi-faceted, to reflect Singapore as a real country with many stories and many perspectives.

Discussion surrounding topics of poverty and education are especially pertinent in RI. While it may be acknowledged that a large majority of Rafflesians are from middle to upper-middle income families, we often discount and ignore Rafflesians who are from lower income and underprivileged families. These Rafflesians are living proof of students who work hard and do well despite peers who won the lottery of life and were born with a head start. Studies have shown that money spent can go a long way in increasing a child’s ability to do well in school – when factors like a child’s living environment, tuition and material posessions come into play. So why then do we choose to reiterate time and time again that Rafflesians are financially privileged, and bypass the sizeable number who are not?

This is, once again, because of the assumptions we make. We choose to simplify the Rafflesian as an archetypal, privileged child who was born into a supportive nuclear family with high expectations and many resources to facilitate the child’s learning. While this may be the optimal condition for a student to get into RI and excel as a Rafflesian, it is exclusive of any Rafflesian who does not fit into this mold. This distances children of lower income families from the Rafflesian identity.

As a part of this community of students from a lower income bracket, one of the writers can attest to the fact that the Impostor Syndrome is real and felt amongst students of this demographic. How can we feel as if we are part of this school if we are constantly surrounded by reminders of why we do not belong here, because of the jobs our parents have and the numbers in their bank accounts?

It is time for us to recognize the poor, the lower income, the underprivileged members of our communities – be it in school or in the whole nation. Too long have these people been marginalised and ignored, shunned from narratives and blamed. It is time we as a people created an inclusive society that accepts different narratives and backgrounds and to acknowledge the differences amongst us. Only then can we begin finding solutions to these pressing issues – as a united people.

Guest writer Samira Hassan is a member of Raffles Community Advocates, where she volunteers weekly under the Student Initiated Group Doveswarm. Members volunteer to work towards the improvement of migrant workers’ standards of living under organisations like Healthserve, Social Development Initiative (SDI), and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).

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