Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A Decade at Home

Singapore’s National Day (August 9th) is well into its early hours. The upcoming celebrations that are being advertised all over the place are a reminder to me that I’ve lived here for a decade now. With the exception of a few trips abroad (mainly across the Causeway), I have lived in this little Red Dot for the better part of ten-year – this is slightly after two-decades of moving around all over the place.

It’s been quite a decade. I came back to Singapore from the UK, filled with dreams. It was simple; I started corporate life in Citibank Singapore and coming back home to start my working life sounded like the logical choice since I already had my foot in a big brand name over here. I had this idea that I would become an AVP at Citi before my 30th and show Carra, the wonderful woman I had fallen for back in 1999, that I was well and truly worthy of her. I would try and emulate Edmund Koh, former Regional Director, Consumer Banking at DBS – who had started out in advertising before moving to the bank.

Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. I am far removed from the lofty career aspirations that I once had. At the wrong end of my thirties, I often find myself struggling to find my next meal and I no longer think of myself as having a career. I am probably the only graduate who’s been forced to look to my less-educated friends to help me out from time-to-time.

So, you might imagine that I’d be cursing my decision to go back to Singapore, a homeland, which I’ve only really gotten to know in the last decade. I’m not – in fact, I’m actually quite happy in the sense that the last decade has given me a wealth of experiences that I don’t think I would have been able to get anywhere else.

Somehow I’ve managed to run up and down the social ladder in a way that wouldn’t seem possible anywhere else. I can brag of helping my nation foster better relations with another one at the government-to-government level (Saudi Arabia – Visit of Crown Prince Sultan to Singapore in 2006). I can proudly claim to have worked with some of the most prestigious brands known to man (General Electric, 3M, Alcon and UL come to mind.) I’ve actually written a speech for Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew (though by the time it had been passed up the chain – there wasn’t a word that I had written). The Prime Minister has even commended me for some of the articles I’ve published. I’ve done all of this as a one man band, without being part of a big international agency. I look at these little achievements and ask myself, could I have done this elsewhere? The answer is no. If I was a one-band in London, I’d be busy trying to get my local corner shop into the Evening Standard.

Yet, at the same time, I’ve had plenty of disastrous lows. Back in 2004, I found myself having to camp out in Geylang Lorong 12, because I had no home to go to. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of having to be at a police station because I was a victim of assault. I’ve been questioned by the police because I was with someone who was an open public nuisance.

Once again, I compare these lows with my life in London. I lived in Soho, an area known for pimps, drug dealers and other shady characters. In those three-years, I only had one physical encounter on the streets and I didn’t get a scratch out of that. By comparison my ex-wife left me with a 7x12 haematoma in one of her many instances of violent behaviour towards me. Might this have happened elsewhere? Who knows – I just know it happened in Singapore.

So, how does that make me view Singapore? Well, for the most part, I enjoy the many great physical amenities that the place has to offer. As one Kuwaiti fellow I meet said, “From a facilities management point of view – Singapore compares very well – in fact better than many countries in the West.” I don’t feel a loss comfort when moving from the West to Singapore. If anything, going back to the UK when I was still at school, felt like I was heading back in time. When Singapore had run ahead in the use of laser disc, the Europeans and British were still on VHS systems. Say what you like about our public transport system – but it’s still pretty darn good, especially when you compare it to quite a few cities in the USA.

What I do miss about the west is decent manners, particularly on the public transport. I do wish that people here would understand that it makes life easier if you allowed people to get off the bus before you get on and moving to the back of the bus doesn’t hurt you. However, other than that, I don’t feel a great sense of elation when I go to Germany or a great sense of deprivation when I come back to Singapore. I have long since lost the desire to set foot in the UK or the USA (though I ought to try and see my step-dad on his 80th) again.

So, you could say in many aspects, Singapore has been quite a good home. I enjoy the fact that I can walk out late at night without getting mugged. I like clean streets. I like the fact that toilets do flush. These creature comforts do matter. I’m very clear, I’d be more than happy to help Thuy grow up here if her mother so asked me to. People ask me why I don’t leave Singapore for elsewhere, and the honest truth is because I like the nice things that Singapore has to offer. These are things that everyone in Singapore has access to. It’s not like moving to another part of Asia and I’m locked away from the rest of society in a prison of privilege. I look at the riots going on in London and I think I did make the right decision to move.

Yes, I do think the PAP has done a good job despite my criticisms of public policy. If you look at things from an objective, rational point of view, we have been blessed with a government that on the whole has done what a government is supposed to do – provide the people with an opportunity to care for themselves.

What I do feel is lacking in Singapore is probably best summed up by the term – the human spirit. I first felt it in the army, when I was sent to Thailand. When you first see rural Thailand you understand why every Thai girl who is selling her body is doing what she does. However, when you leave the place, you feel sad to leave. Somehow you can’t help but feel that these people who have so much less than you, have something important that you lost a long time ago. I feel this sense of emptiness whenever I finish visiting my Dad in Bangkok and head home.

It’s not just Thailand. Cross the Causeway into Johor and you find that people in Malaysia are nicer. They are less uptight about themselves. They actually smile and give you a sense that they wish you well. I can laugh and joke with immigration officers on the Malaysian side. On the Singapore side, you feel like you want to slap the bugger as he tries to intimidate you for the sake of it.

We, as Singaporeans talk about how advanced we are as a society. I agree we are advanced but at the same time, we’ve paid the price for it. We pledge to build a “democratic and prosperous society based on justice and equality, regardless of race, language or religion.” We have no physical ghettos – yet, if you talk to people long enough and you’ll realise that Singapore has plenty of mental and spiritual ghettoes.

You see this most clearly when it comes to the topic of “other Asians.” If you trawl the internet, you will find no shortage of grouses of women from China stealing husbands (China girls ask for cash – Singaporeans just expect an endless supply of gifts and other freebies), arrogant Hindi speakers who refuse to learn Tamil (Incidentally for Singapore readers – the National Language of India is Hindi) and best of all – Chinese waiters who can’t speak a word of English (Assuming this is what you call what Singaporeans speak). However, when you get a posting of a few Caucasians beating up a taxi driver after a drunken brawl, you’ll find people rushing to defend them – “Oh…you can’t judge a race by a few idiots etc”

You have to thank the Young Pariah from Pasir Ris GRC for illustrating this most vividly. He proudly tells me about how he sacrifices his seat for some young Caucasian executive on the MRT (We must respect to the superior culture, you know). By contrast, I had to physically remove him from his seat to give way to a pregnant lady from China.

It’s not just views on racial integration that illustrates the ghettos that we place ourselves in. Just look at the success of the likes of Pastor Prince – Singapore’s chief intellectual export. What does the good pastor peddle? He peddles a snake oil known as “McGod.” This is the theory that Christ died for your sins and therefore you are “ENTITLED” to be rich, healthy and successful. The best part about the good pastor is that ALL of his followers are graduate professionals with degrees from reputable universities.

Why do young graduate professionals from respectable universities feel the urge to buy this snake oil? I suspect that it is because they’re used to being told that they are ENTITLED to certain things and when they have to struggle, its painful. So when the good Pastor comes along with his oil – they swallow it.

I like the fact that these people who willingly give a portion of their salary to the Good Pastor (You should know his character by the fact that he changed his name from Singh to Prince) are the first people who berate you for giving coins to an old Malay lady begging on the streets (You shouldn’t support the beggars syndicate, you know).

My favourite example of people stuck in mental and physical ghettos are from the family Thio. This group of highly intelligent lawyers are on crusade to eliminate the term “homosexual” from the conscience of the world. Mama Thio, who was the first lady to be dean of the law faculty at our local university claims that she had a chat with God to get him to spare us from the ravages of the 2004 Tsunami. Bad enough she believes she has reached this level of spirituality – she publicly states that she has this apparent relationship with God – it is worse that rational people actually believe her.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out why, after a decade of living in Singapore, my closest friends include a Nepali chef and a Vietnamese Entrepreneur (well, we’re a little bit more than friends). These are the people who work for their living. They are down to earth and are not born with a sense of entitlement. What they want to do is to find a little space in Singapore and make a living. Since these guys are living with their feet on the ground, they pay respects to the Almighty but they are quite aware that they have their destiny in their own hands and so they make a living without cheating people.

Why can’t Singaporeans accept people like this? I suspect that as we celebrate our 46th birthday, we are still hurt adolescents bent on messing up the good work that preceding generations have provided for us.

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