Wednesday, September 4, 2013

When you have a humble beginning...

Ok, I'm no economics/political science/social science student here, as you can see from my blog name but recently, several events and walks on the Singapore street have triggered many thoughts on social stratification. You see, as an average Jane, I would hardly think about the society as whole in my daily life but I guess this long summer holiday boredom has finally made me think a tad more about our society here, rather than just 'what to eat next?!'

It started off with my random stumble onto the former Singapore PM Goh Chok Tong's speech on Meritocracy and Elitism (link here) during the very recent Homecoming Dinner of RI. I've never given a second thought about this topic before, and heck do I really understand what is it all about. Partly it is because of my upbringing. Unlike many of my peers who comes from a family background with high social standing, I come from the humble, normal family, which is blessed enough to bring me up and groom me into the person I am today. I am really fortunate enough that I was educated in the common primary and secondary school so that I have a chance to meet all my crazy and fun bunch of hometown buddies that understands me so well, and accept who I am whatever happens. I was fortunate enough to be able to not attend any tuition until Form 5 (not because I don't want to, but my mom, full of wisdom, knows that it is better to let an extremely naughty, monkey-like kid such as yours truly, to just run around rather than being tied down in tuition classes), having most of the afternoons and evenings during my younger years free to roam around the neighbourhood on my own. I could still vividly remember catching fish IN the huge drain in front of my house with my neighbours, and the days when a few of us were running for us lives on the street by stray dogs. (Don't worry, there's no rabies in Sarawak!) Yes, that's the life of a kid from the small town of Miri, Sarawak. I never knew what the outside world could offer until I went to Kuala Lumpur for my Pre-U studies.

"How could you live all these years without Zara, Mango, H&M?" a senior from my university was astonished when he visited Miri recently.
"Why not? I don't even know there's such thing before I came over."

No, it wasn't pure ignorance. You can't just imagine things that you didn't know could exist, nor does your peers know anything about it. I would say complacent was the cause, but I would rather say we are fortunate not to know these things when we were younger. We were never competing against each other on who has what luxurious brand, who went to what 5-star restaurant for tea. There's simply no need for these.

Social moibility: Breaking through the stratification

Then I was fortunate enough, thank God, to be able to enter the university of my dream without any financial burden to my parents. It's a huge jump for me, not only did I suffer from massive cultural shock because it's my first ever time in the UK, it was a cultural shock from even within the circle of Malaysian and Singaporean friends I am mingling with. The topics we discussed about, the language, the fashion, the place to dine, the hobbies etc, heck even the jokes we made! It's completely different from what I am used to all these years. It took me quite a while to adapt, but at the end of the day, I will always remind myself to remain true to myself, and thank God for these great companies for accepting me as I am.

Otherwise, things seemed quite equal while in Cambridge. Everyone just seems like an average normal person, although we all know the fact that you could just throw a stone and the chance of hitting some country's top scorer/genius/scientist who just made an awesome breakthrough is almost 90%. The social stratification in that university town is barely distinct at all, although we do see the homeless guy, the funny guys who sell 'BIG' issues on the street (I vow to help them shout and sell at least 1 copy of BIG issue before I graduate!) and other citizens as well. We do compete, but not in material terms (ok maybe we do, competing for who has the biggest room in the year, but that's it!) There are inevitably, elitist and snobs. But...

the elite is often not an elitist. 

Until I came back to Malaysia and Singapore and met up with my friends here, only did I realised how rich/'atas' these people are. Yet how humble they have been all these while! This social circle is indeed different from the rest of the society. Apart from the privilege they have to enjoy the best materials this society could offer, the attitude they have towards life is completely different. Just talk to them, you'll realise how much more eager they are towards living life. This is the group of people who truly, deep down in their hearts, wants to learn, to contribute and to bring positive changes to the society! (And I thought these people only exist during the pre-independence era)

I proceeded to take a walk in Bugis street. You may cringe at the thought of visiting this 'dodgy' place, but try taking a walk there, you'll find so many interesting incident happening around. Try listening to the conversation just around the corner. The language, the tone, the VOLUME, the topics etc. You could feel 'life' in their voice too, but it's a different type of attitude towards life. It's another facade of this very same society, which people are working so hard 24-7 but still could still barely make ends meet.

There's also a dark street beside the Bugis street stalls, but I dare not walk there since it's already 11 pm but I really wonder what stories would unravel behind that curtain of darkness...

I was so blind all these years while enjoying the comfort my parents was able to provide me with back at home but it didn't came to my mind that social stratification is this close to home. The fact is, Sarawak IS the place to observe such situation. Just drive 2 hours out of the city, there are natives who do not even have clean water to consume and are completely illiterate. While my friends are busy volunteering themselves in Africa, India, Nepal etc, I thought about doing so too. Just imagine how much it'll boost your CV! But wait, do I really have to fly that far just to care for that kid whose stomach is parasites infested?

...And yet here I am, just few months ago, dancing away the night in the luxurious Queen's College May Ball at Cambridge; then just a few weeks ago, rubbing shoulders with the mentors we are fortunate enough to have during the Oxbridge Society of Malaysia in KL... What am I doing?

At times like this, I also wish my peers could see what I saw. At the end of the day, we are the ones who are able to narrow this economic inequality, no?

Currently encouraged to read on 'elitism' and 'social inequality' in the international community . Will discuss about it if I find anything especially intriguing. :) 

If you came here expecting a medical related blog, so sorry! I'm currently on summer holiday! Will get back to medics related stuffs when term starts in October! :) 

1 comment:

  1. You never fail to amaze; the inquisitiveness to explore, the capacity to learn, the tendency to introspect, and the willingness to articulate :)

    The issue of divides in a society, of class conflicts, is one of the most important and oldest topics in social sciences, being the life-work of many great thinkers of our time. Consider, for e.g., Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, the recent Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street. The Wikipedia’s entry on ‘Class Conflict’ provides a good general introduction (and a reading list for the enthusiastic).

    As an economist, allow me to humbly suggest some contemporary further readings should you be interested.

    1) Fivebooks interview with Daron Acemoglu on Inequality

    Daron is one of the most talented young (40 plus) economists alive; one of the best fivebooks interviews too. I draw your attention to his elaboration on what explains the ‘normal’ inequality between the rich and the not-so-rich – the race between education and technology; when education lags behind technology, inequality worsens – and the inequality between the obscenely rich and the rest – which is really all about politics; corruption and so on. At the risk of over-generalising, the former is like what is happening in Singapore, while the latter, well... like Sarawak.

    Note that economics has very little to say about the repercussions of inequality on the fabric of a society per se. That’s more of a domain of other social sciences I guess. But there are exceptions.

    2) A blog entry by Joseph Stiglitz on how Martin Luther King influenced him

    Joe is a Nobel Prize winner, and one of the growing voices amongst economists on how we have neglected inequality for too long. He laments how the dominant thinking within economics since the 1970s has been such that we do not really care about inequality, or even accept inequality as being a positive inevitable. His new book is The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers our Future. Not recommending you to read it though.

    I will end this with the conclusion of his blog entry; I think it is beautifully written, and transcends time and geography.

    “[Martin Luther King Jr.] was right to recognise that these persistent divides are a cancer in our society, undermining our democracy and weakening our economy. His message was that the injustices of the past were not inevitable. But he knew, too, that dreaming was not enough.”

    Stay awesome, butterfly.