The Singapore Gulf – Reflections of An In-Betweener


Reads / Friday, June 8th, 2018

Singapore is boring for you because you’ve never experienced it with money.

This was a casual remark made to me by an expatriate working as a banker in the oil and gas industry. It was our first date, and we had exchanged stories about our childhood. He moved to Singapore several years ago and enjoyed what you may describe as the finer side of what Singapore has to offer.

Suffice to say, there was no second date.

About 70 years ago, our state leaders were concerned about the racial divide that threatened to undermine our society. An oft-mentioned example is the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950. Decades later, our state leaders are concerned with the class/status division.

Based on Singapore’s first study on social capital, from a sample size of 3,000 respondents, the sharpest stratification is based on class. Specifically, the divisions are based on first, the type of housing we live in and second, the kind of school we went to.

According to the study:

Housing

Those who live in public housing have ties to an average of 4.3 people who live in public housing and 0.8 people who live in private housing (lol, not even 1 person). For those who live in private housing, they have ties to 3.5 people who live in private housing and 2.6 people who live in public housing.

(For some context, over 80% of the Singapore population live in government-built, public housing, a.k.a Housing Development Board (HDB) flats)

Education

Those who went to an elite school know an average of 2.7 people from elite schools and 2.1 people from non-elite schools. Those who went to non-elite schools know an average of 3.9 people from non-elite schools and 0.4 people (lmao) from elite schools.

The numbers could be better organised in a table (or I could’ve ripped off the graphic chart that the Straits Times nicely put together but, nah). If the numbers are too confusing for you, the bottom line of the study is this – people tend to mix with those who live as they do and went to school with.

(Side note/rant: I am displeased with the news article’s and/or the study’s labelling of “elite” and “non-elite” school. If, as it is claimed, that every school is a good school, then why the need for the difference in labelling? Furthermore, what constitutes an “elite” and a “non-elite” school? I strongly believe in the meritocracy of our education system (you can read my honest, personal reflection of Singapore’s education system here) – that hard work and diligence will be fairly rewarded. With education as society’s leveller, why is there a need to distinguish between good and bad schools? Will this labelling not perpetuate the very class divide that you are trying to minimise?)

In any case, the study’s findings and the subsequent news articles on the study did not sit well with me. Perhaps it was because my personal experience is vastly different from the study’s findings. While I do not think that my experience is unique, my experience is one that straddles a little bit of both realms. 

I come from a decidedly middle, working-class family. We live in a humble but cosy HDB in what I deem to be the most ideal location in Singapore (literally 30 seconds to the train station, bus stops and taxi stand and 15 mins from door-to-door by train to town, CBD, MBS, Clarke/Boat/Robertson Quay ). This is our only asset (apart from my precious puppy, Snow, lol).

My father, recently retired, laboured as a senior technician while my mother worked briefly as an administrative officer. I was sent to an Anglican, all-girls primary school – St. Margaret’s Primary School (SMPS) (for the uninitiated, yes, it is the school with the green polka-dotted uniforms), as it was close to where we live.

My father, who dotes on his children and gives his everything to the family, would eagerly chauffeur me to school in his bicycle (that was also his commute to work for many years until he got too old to cycle on a daily basis). While I was grateful to my father, I felt inadequate in comparison to most my friends who arrived to school in their cars (the school bus system in SMPS was notoriously awful for some time, so we had to rely on other means of transport).

I was invited to multiple sleepovers (a big thing then, for an all-girls school), and I remember standing dumbfounded at the entrance of my friend’s gates, helplessly gawking at the 3 to 4 storeys of their atas* bungalow/terrace/mansion basically. I had only ever seen such large, sprawling homes on TV and standing at a majestic 1.23cm at 7/8 years old, anything larger than a shoebox is practically a palace.

Don’t be so swaku**, don’t act like you’ve never been to such a huge home before. 

At 7 years old, I had no clue what upper, middle or lower class meant, but it was clear to me, even then, that the lives my friends lived were vastly different from mine. When I returned home from those sleepovers, I would regale my parents with stories of how large their homes were – “You can play ‘Hide and Seek’ and never be found!”

Over the years, I’ve grown sensitive to what upper, middle and lower class mean, including all the shades of in-between.

I come from a decidedly middle, working-class family. But I never had to go hungry; in fact, I was thoroughly well-fed as a kid. While I was never sent to a slew of ballet, swimming and golf lessons and cannot afford Louboutin heels and Dior dresses, I was never deprived of a wholesome childhood (thank you CCAs – compulsory non-academic interest groups in school which allowed me to dance casually, mostly free-of-charge from the age of 8 through to 23) and the ability to travel (think heavily subsidised school study trips and overseas volunteer/community service trips). 

I come from a decidedly middle, working-class family. But I have friends who live in sprawling mansions with Audis and Maseratis to boot (the 0.05% Crazy Rich Asian types), and those who live in rentals. I have friends who graduated from Harvard Law (no less), who are pursuing Masters and PhDs in Ivy League schools and friends who are struggling to obtain their diploma, with no plans of pursuing a degree whatsoever.

Therein lies my gripe with the study’s findings and the news reporting of the study – that the upper crust does not mix as much with the lower and middle class.

I sincerely believe that our education system is a conveyor belt for meritocracy because I would like to think that I am the product of it – in the sense that I was able to attend supposedly ‘elite’ schools (rolls eyes) due to sheer hard work (read my post on Education!). Our schools are the salad bowls in which the classes can mix (I don’t like this distinction, but can you see the analogy I am attempting to make?)

While the study says that like mixes with like, I do not feel like an interloper among my circle of comfortably rich friends. I was and still am friends of the children of doctors, lawyers, bankers and CEOs. I had fishball noodles with them at the school canteen and played netball with them under the scorching hot sun. I was able to interact with them because I was admitted to good schools where the main criteria for admission is good grades, which I slogged my pants off to achieve.

Indeed, I recognise that trust fund babies born with silver spoons in their mouths seem to cruise through life effortlessly. Think an entire entourage of tutors and a full suite of enrichment classes, PLUS ginseng/bird’s nest/monkey’s brain for that extra brain boost. Furthermore, it has been recognised that those with connections – parents are alumni, siblings are current students etc. find it easier to enter ‘elite’ schools.

BUT the gates of ‘elite’ schools (rolls eyes again) are not entirely impregnable to the not-so-rich. (If you have time, please watch Homeless to Harvard.) Education is a tool, which you can wield to your advantage. Be opportunistic in leveraging what you have.

Sure, you might not have a suite of Einstein-type tutors at your disposal, but you have your Ten Year Series (Has that phased out?) and your incredibly devoted school teachers. I found consultations with my school teachers to be useful and cost-effective. If you have questions and want to work on weak concepts, your teachers will see your dedication and match it because their hearts will be warmed by your desire to learn. You do not need to shell out dollars for “star” tutors when you have your school teachers.

Meritocracy advocates fierce competition which pushes people to achieve the best that they can; regardless of class, race or creed they may find success if they get to the finishing line first. – The need for an evolving meritocracy

That being said, I am able to recognise the downsides of the meritocratic system that has served as a hallmark of Singapore Inc. To quote from George Orwell in Animal Farm (not my favourite book of his, my favourite book by Orwell is 1984), “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” Meritocracy strives to provide equal opportunities for all, but it may produce inequality through the absence of equal access to the aforesaid opportunities. Those in the upper crust are possibly better equipped with better resources to better obtain those opportunities. I do not have neat answers for this problem, and the purpose of this post is not to provide an analysis of the advantages and drawbacks of meritocracy but merely to share my experience as an in-betweener straddling and being privy to both worlds. An insightful read on this matter can be found here.

Wah, I didn’t expect Pearls to live in a HDB. I thought her family was rich.

This was another casual remark uttered by a well-meaning but uninformed university friend (she is a nice girl, I mean it) when my friend’s car pulled up to my HDB. This was after a house party organised by one of my university friends and one of them kindly offered to drive those who lived along the way home. I was drifting in and out of sleep on the ride back (sleepy from drinking, I must confess), but I definitely sobered up upon hearing her offhand remark. She must have uttered it because she thought I was passed out drunk.

There’s another thing about social stratification. My atas friends assumed I was like them. 

Perhaps it was due to a consistent and hearty diet of Hollywood movies and Sweet Valley High, Mary Kate and Ashley novels that allowed me to code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and English (my favourite subject in school). Perhaps it was due to my inheritance of my mother’s discerning sense of style in picking out incredibly cheap but chic clothes.

Somehow, a good command of English and a keen sense of style when it comes to dressing are but some of the few markers of “upper crust”. (That said, money cannot buy class.)

Am I like my friends? I did receive a similar education. But did I live as they did?

Sometimes I barely feel the distinction – we are friends simply enjoying each other’s company and we share similar concerns (Yes, even the rich worry about money). Sometimes I feel like an interloper – either on the sidelines watching them complain about their maids’ cooking, the traffic jam that caused them to be late (as they were driving the Peugeot that their parents gifted them at 21) or the horribly rude air stewardess on Singapore Airline’s First Class (For a humourous read on the lives of the uber-rich, check this out.)

Have I ever let this affect me? *Shrugs*

They are people too, like you and me.

Singapore’s the most expensive city to live in.

A few final words on this matter (which has been a long, rambling, directionless post, as usual).

The income inequality in Singapore is indeed a worrying trend that needs to be addressed (for which I don’t have solutions for, I am not a policymaker/politician. I merely like to air my opinions on the Internet LOL).

Given Singapore’s astronomical living costs, some might say that I am privileged. For non-Singaporean readers, Singapore often tops the charts for being the most expensive city to live in. Our Gini Coefficient (at the time of writing) stands at 0.458 (more or less, there are different ways to measure it). According to the CIA, Singapore stands as the 37th most unequal country (with Lesotho being the most unequal and Finland being the most equal).

(For some context, cars in Singapore are notoriously expensive. A $17,000 Mitsubishi balloons to upwards of $100,000 in Singapore. Read more about this here and here.)

While I may not live in a fancy condo or a large house with a picket fence, our centrally located flat is fully paid for. While I’ve had to hold part-time side hustles as a student, it was never for paying the bills or feeding myself, but for finding cheap getaways to the alluring beaches of Southeast Asia and the occasional Charles and Keith sale splurge. While (up until December 2017) my family has never been on an overseas trip together, thanks to the schools I attended – VJC, MOE and SMU (I love SMU) – I’ve visited close to 30 countries thanks to school trips, study missions, overseas community service projects and exchange programmes. While I was never sent to ballet school, I now take dance classes. And I am the proud mother of the most beautiful (biased indeed) Samoyed Spitz. I want for nothing.

But comparison is the thief of joy, and wealth is relative, isn’t it?

天外有天,一山还比一山高

Now that I’ve entered the work force (sort of), things are marginally better. I’m able to enjoy creature comforts (we recently installed air con units in our flat) and can travel to more countries (#brokebitchstyle).

I’m grateful for my childhood and upbringing – one that was never lacking in the essentials, but with plenty of room for meritocracy to motivate me to work hard to strive for more. It has certainly shaped me into the chilli padi (I’d like to think, anyway) that I am today. Plus, while I may not be gifted with blue-chip stocks and may not be the beneficiary of complex financial instruments, at least I’m not saddled with debt.

It’s a clean slate.

I hope to inculcate the values of prudence and diligence in my children. No such thing as a free lunch, kids.

And to the date who remarked that Singapore is boring to me, I say,

Some people are so poor, all they have is money.

P.S. The car in the picture belongs to my friend, lol.

*Atas – Malay for “upstairs”. In Singlish, it means “high class”.

**Swaku – Hokkien for country bumpkin, backward.

6 Replies to “The Singapore Gulf – Reflections of An In-Betweener”

  1. Hey Pearlyn! I remembered you from secondary school when stumbled across your post on Instagram and decided to take a look at your blog. Its a really detailed analysis of our society as whole, brought to life by personal recounts of your past. And I am really glad that you are speaking out for the handful of people out there who are thinking of the same thing: is Singapore an elitist society that is getting increasingly painful to live in? Looking forward to more blog posts from you!

    1. Hello Orion! Yes, I remember you from our secondary school days. Thank you for taking the time to read my post and comment, I am flattered. The govt. is working hard to reduce this gulf, so let’s see how the next few years pan out. On our end, we can also take individual steps to merge this gap too. Wishing you well!

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