Thursday, December 04, 2008

Can Square Pegs Hit into Round Holes?

Singapore is probably as close as most people will ever get to Utopia. My little city-state really is everything a city should be - it is clean, green and rich. If you carry on with your daily life, you'll never realise that we are water scarce (every household has fresh drinking water) or overcrowded (4 million on 600 sq km but with plenty of park space to spare). Unlike cities in the developed and developing world, I can genuinely say that this is the ONLY place I've lived in where it feels safe to walk around late at night, even if you are a girl in a short skirt.

This has been achieved by the establishment of many admirably efficient and effective systems. Unlike our neighbours, you will never have to bribe a policeman or a judge for permission to cross a road. We have a legal and economic system that allows both citizens and residents of all shapes and sizes to prosper, regardless of race or religion. All you have to do is to find a nice little system to fit in.

Despite the grumblings on the internet, Singaporeans are actually quite content with the system or systems. As one former student radical who joined the government said,"I realised there's no point changing the system, it changes you," and he's done very well by it. 

But what happens when you don't fit into the system? No matter how good a system is, there will always be some who don't fit in and I believe the strength of every system is how it allows people who don't fit into the system to survive. 

Then again, I might be looking at things from the wrong angle. I mean, I am a misfit..I've always been a misfit. When I was at school in England, I was always the token Chink around the place. I always stood out as the one person who went to passport control on his own during school excursions. Then, when I came home for National Service, I was looked upon as a "Chao Kantang" (smelly potato - as opposed to clean rice eating Oriental). It's been like this ever since. In the banking sector I was always looked upon as a freak the media business, but when I was in agency, people looked at me as the freak from corporate finance. 

It's been tough at times but I think I've come to accept that nobody will ever accept me and I consider myself blessed for that. Although I don't get wonderfully regular prestigeous jobs, I think my "wierdness" has helped me. It's allowed me to see things from perspectives that few would have thought of. It's helpful to feel at home with the Ambassadors and CEOs as it is to be with cooks, pimps and coffee shop waiters - as my more enlightened clients would point out - such disreables are customers too. 

My friend, Mark, the one man show lawyer is another misfit in his own way, though he is admitedly allot more successful than I am. Here is a 41-year old man working from a small little office, taking on a range of clients, doing their paper work as well as respresenting them in criminal courts. He's failed to join the system - ie no swanky office of a big law firm doing plush paper work. Mark glides comfortably between the Justices on the bench and the often lowly educated "criminals" that end up in our court system. Here is another case of a misfit who's managed to use his "misfit" genes to fill a niche.

So, there are misfits who can benefit from being misfits. Both Mark and I are blessed enough to be born into families that valued us for who we are and went to schools that may not have encouraged a devotion to academics but equipped us to deal with people. 

But what happens to people who not blessed misfits? What do we do about them? The failed misfit in my life is usually Zen, who carries on despite being everything a woman should not be (physically commical as well as prone to intellectual sillyness) 

Well, my soft spot for Zen brought both Mark and I into an interesting place. Zen's most recent boyfriend, Eric became Mark's client. The stupid bugger allowed a aquaintaince to use his name in a massive cigarett smuggling opperation. 

If Mark and I are blessed misfits who accepted we were square pegs on a board of round holes, Eric is the round hole that the system has been trying to force a square peg into. This guy has  a primary school education, failed in business and for a good part of a decade (he's 41), has been a regular guest of the Singapore government. 

I think Eric because he's everything I might have been, except I was luckier in the genetic lottery. If you look at his life story,  it reads worse than a comedy of errors. He has been kicked by the system so often, that he's probably become one of those people who is happier in prison, which, when you think about it, is a failing of our system and it's so called belief in rehabilitating people and making them useful to society.

I knew Eric in July 08. He had been out of prison for 7-months and hey, guess what, he was actually trying to be a useful contributing member of society. Unfortunately between his age, prison record and education level, nobody would pay more than $500 a month - which was my National Service Allowance back in 1996 - and even then nobody expected me to make a living from that. 

Call him stupid if you like, but he actually wanted to provide for Zen on his limited means. Needless to say it was a failure, but the point is, he was the first "Boyfriend" she ever had who wanted to feed her instead of being fed by her. 

I think the guy really had no intention to get involved with the smuggling syndicate but then did he have a choice? It's easy to say no to naughty things when you have a roof over your head, your meals are taken care of and Daddy provides you with loads of money. But when you've barely earned $500 a month for the last 3 months and take on a significant other, the lure of an easy $1,500 a month cash (which he never saw) sounds deliriously wonderful. 

Poor bastard never had a chance to make it. He was arrested on the day he was going for an interview for a job at PSA. I mean how sad is it, he got arrested on the day he was heading to the first break he had in the last few years.

The police and customes officials celebrated. Eric was just a statistic in the wheels of our efficient criminal justice system. He no legal counsel (That would have impeeded the police extracting a confession) and Zen was told, "Don't hire a lawyer, we'll send him to jail for 3-years and let him out in 2. If you do and lose, we'll sentence him to 6-years and release him in 4. 

What would have happned had Mark not appeared in his life? The police and customes officials would have seen him locked up for 40 over months and they would have celebrated the triumph of an SPF over a major international smuggling ring - yea, dosen't this make you feel safe? Well, the truth is, had I not known Eric personally, I would probably agree with that idea. 

But I know Eric. Anyone who speaks to Eric for more than 10-seconds will realise that he simply does not have the requirements to be a smuggler of nearly a tonne of cigaretts. Then again, who gives a shit? Eric on the scale of things is less than insignificant and who really cares if policework was shoddy as long as it removes a "useless" person from our sight. 

I don't buy that. We are supposed to live in a land of laws. We are supposed to have a criminal justice system that requires both sides of the story to be heard. Singapore talks about people being our only resource. However, when you are more interested in processing numbers (Yea, we got our civil service bonus's because we locked up our quota of clowns for the year), than in dealing with human beings, then we shouldn't talk about how we're brilliantly using our people resources at all.   

Eric and Zen may be what we call part of the dregs of society. Allot of their situation is deserved. But we can't just sit there and hope they'll go away just because they have "no value." If we think of them like that, we demonstrate how little value we have. Yes, Eric did something illegal, but his treatment at the hands of the authorities showed that our system was not all that it was cracked up to be. 

No comments: