Watching the London riots play out, reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my best friends when I first met him. He said, “I can’t stand English people [he is incidentally English] except for the old ones. Unfortunately for England, the wrong generation is dying out.”
Perhaps I’m being coloured by my own perceptions here but I always thought my friend had a point. With the greatest love and affection to the guys I went to school with, I don’t have the best images of the English of my generation. I think of the tramps who lined up on Dean Street. All of them were young, white and English.
However, whenever I think of “Old” English people, I have nicer images. I think of the Westons – the family that took me to the airport from school whenever I went overseas. In many ways, Old Mr Weston represents the best of England. His handlebar moustache and cheerful smile whenever he saw me stays in memory till this day. Mr Weston fought in World War II. When he came back home, he became an entrepreneur. As well as running the local taxi service, he had a chip shop and a B&B. He was protective of his family and the community that he served.
I’ve noticed something similar in Singapore too. When I married Gina, I noticed a difference between her and her parents. I think of the egg seller who worked hard, refused to let his wife go to work and somehow put two kids through university. He gave money to charity and was active in his community. He told his kids – “Do good deeds.” By contrast, Gina simply couldn’t get round to caring for people in different circumstances. Let’s not go into charity – she couldn’t walk past a Malay wedding without passing uncalled for remarks. My Aunt couldn’t help but tell me “What a load of fucking racist crap have you got yourself into?”
When you look at how the UK has gone from Mr Weston to the tramps on Dean Street and how Singapore has gone from Gina’s dad to Gina – you cannot help but ask – “What the hell happened?”
I guess you could say that life became too good for the young. In a way there is a truism in this and the saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. After World War II, successive Labour Governments implemented the Welfare State. In Singapore, my father’s generation struggled as independent businessmen to build up enough money to ensure people like me could go to university and good comfortable jobs. There would always be enough money around to ensure we could focus on studying instead of worrying about having enough to eat.
Let’s not knock this. As much as we might want to talk about the “Good Old Days,” they weren’t really that good. The intention behind the Welfare State was correct – it was to give the poorest in society a helping hand. The intention of getting your kids into university is correct – parents are supposed to want their kids to be better than they were.
However, when good intentions are taking into excess, they can have side effects. If I look at my generation of Singaporeans, we simply don’t have the hunger to succeed and build something better for our succeeding generations. We don’t need to. Somehow, life has always been mapped out for us. All we’ve had to do is to follow.
In the case of the UK and countries with a welfare system – the system has moved away from being about giving the poorest of the poor a helping hand to being about keeping political lobbies looked after. For the welfare recipients, there is no reason to do anything for yourself – why work for money when you get it for free.
I am also reminded by the Old Rogue that, “Welfare is not for the poor. It’s for the people who administer it.” Across the Western world, vast numbers of people have been employed to administer the welfare system – it’s not in their interest to see things change. Powerful political constituencies with vested interest in the status quo have been created. As a result of this, you get a generation of people that sees state benefits as a right rather than a privilege.
When people have an entitlement mentality, they lose the ability to think for themselves or to develop decent social networks of self-support. When they fight for something, it’s not to better society but to protect entitlements.
As awful as Mrs Thatcher sounded, she had a point. Something had to be done to get people to solve their own problems. Thanks to Mrs Thatcher, the UK did become a more dynamic place. My uncle Nick, who is English, pointed out that, “Thatcherism has made people in England willing to work harder.”
Personally, I don’t think the issue is much of a case of things being “too good,” but a case of social structures and values changing.
If you look at the Singapore case, you cannot argue with parents wanting children to have education or a good life. Singapore has benefited from having a more educated population. We’re in the position to look for better, higher paying industries than our neighbours because our population has the skills.
Despite my rhetoric, I actually don’t have a problem with governments and multinationals. Singapore has done well because it has had competent civil servants. The multinationals do hire Singaporeans because we can do the jobs they provide.
What I disagree with in Singapore in many ways is the way a generation has been brought up with a sense of entitlement. If I go to university, I am entitled to a good, secure civil service job. If I buy a house, I am entitled to make pots of money from it – hence I no longer talk about my home or my house but my property.
When you think of everything as an entitlement, you find it hard to change. Listen to how Singapore Government Linked companies talk and you’ll understand why they can ONLY operate in Singapore. The media industry was particularly rife with entitlement mentality. “The Market is TOO SMALL for competition.” – Read – “We are entitled to make money regardless of what you think.” Sure, you’re entitled to make money as long as you provide the consumers with what they are willing to pay for. You are not entitled to make money because of who you are.
I think the UK has a somewhat similar but more subtle problem. I agree with my former guardian who said, “The Brits lost it when they lost sense of duty.” Nothing exemplifies this better than the Royal Family. You have the Queen who has a very strong sense of duty. She believes that it is her duty to sit on that throne and do all the things a Head of State (incidentally she’s Head of State of Australia, New Zealand and Canada as well as the UK) does until she drops dead. She’s stuck with Prince Phillip despite the fact that the man can’t help but put his foot in his mouth (slitty eyed Japanese) and is womanizer.
By contrast, you have her kids who can’t hold their marriages together and more worryingly are more than happy to feed their linen to the public. I think Prince Charles is a wonderfully kind and decent person but did I really need to know about his desire to be a tampon to some old bag?
I have no problems with the so called English “class system” as it used to be. The working class, as represented by Mr Weston – worked and they worked hard. By contrast, the tramps have realised its easier to get by doing nothing and rioting when they don’t get their next fix of nicotine. People like Mr Weston had an obligation to family and the wider community.
If you look at the traditional British aristocracy, you’ll find that they’re trained with a sense of duty to look after the people. As elitist as the Public School system is, you are, as one Old codger pointed out, “trained to get along with people from all walks of life.” In the days when the British had an empire, the elite took hardship better than the working class – they were trained to by elite Public Schools.
The Public School system has become more academic. Has it become better at training people who understand that leadership is about caring for people under you? That’s debateable. Progress is inevitable – when Britain no longer had colonies, the elite schools had to reinvent themselves as bastions of academic excellence rather than training grounds for colonial administration. If you look at exam results tables, they’ve done a pretty good job. The question, have they produced an elite that understands that it has a role in producing people with a decent set of values?
Funnily enough, the British institution that seems to have done the best job in keeping up to date with modernity but maintaining decent values systems is the military. Nobody questions the ability of British officers trained at Sandhurst to lead. Nobody doubts the British “squadies” ability to work. Somehow the army prison has the lowest rates of re-offenders of all prisons in the UK. I think part of the success of the British military as compared with the civil institutions is that the military has understood that it needs to keep young people (especially men) busy and the structure of the military provides young men with the security that they are cared for as long as they do their part.
Funnily enough, one country that has held relatively well is the USA. This is despite the debts and financial crisis. The USA has a terrible inequality problem. Yet we’ve not had a noticeable riot since Rodney King in the 1990s.
Part of the reason is because you have an elite that understands the principle of giving back. Bill Gates has made more money than anyone else in history. He is currently on course to give more away too. Simple – the system allows you to make as much as you can but you also understand that you need to give something back.
It is true that the problems in America are in a large part due to “crony capitalism,” or at least an implicit collusion between banks and government. However, you also have genuine elite that is not selfish. You have people Warren Buffet, the most successful investor of all time, writing op-ed pieces in the New York Times telling the US government to stop coddling the super rich. Mr Buffet rightly argues that you don’t need to look after the people who don’t need to be looked after. He is for the record, not a softy liberal.
Something has to be done and we need a system that generates ideas and also allows a certain value system to be maintained. How do you ensure and encourage people to get rich through their talents but at the same time understand that they have an obligation to give back. How do you give a helping hand to the poor without robbing them of their pride and incentive to move ahead? These are questions that need to be answered – so isn’t it time we start debating them?