The Stories our Parents told us about

I think that one of the most important ways of how myths can inherited is through the stories and messages that our parents tell us. I posit that a thoughtful reflection of those stories and messages and how they led to the present will contribute to better decisions in the present.

What our parents told us shape very much who we are in our adult lives. I think that, by trying to reach into the context of our parents’ generation, we can better understand our present. To think of it, the decisions that our parents made are exactly the ones that led to our present. And by reflecting on the present, we should think about the shadows our present decisions will cast for the future. This is an understated point that gets both over- and under- emphasised. This reflection gets over-emphasised because a lot of times we can end up weighing the future too much and sacrifice too much in the present. This point also gets under-emphasised because the decisions we make can also take the present too much into account.

Back to the main point – of the legacies of our parents bequeathed by our parents. I wonder if the experience of poverty and the ascent to relative prosperity is a source of the many myths that we want – one of them being “get stuff done”. The many stories that we hear about – about being a doctor, lawyer, banker, professional engineer – I wonder if these are merely the result of our parents wanting to secure the legacies that they’ve built – legacies that they know are fragile, and didn’t take for granted. The intention to enter into those professions are the source of this anxieties in education – the rush for grades to get into the right courses.

South Korea goes into a standstill when national examinations happen. This once-a-year national examinations can still somewhat determine the fates of individuals – in deciding whether they can make it to the major universities. These universities can determine where these individuals end up – typically either the government bureaucracy, or some major state-affiliated corporation. In Korea, the chaebols determine the economic life to the country.

I pick our Korea because it’s a country where national education systems are premised on the view that only a certain number of good opportunities are available – because new job openings in the corporations are not indefinite. And so a lot of people fight for a few limited places – a zero-sum game in which some must win, and the rest can’t win as much.

Finland is a different example, where an egalitarian education is contrasted with an economy dominated by a single firm – Nokia (or used to be). In a country of about 5 million, a champion had emerged, only to pull the country down when it floundered.

The preceding parts about the economy are relevant – because the histories of our parents are in large part, economic histories – stories of how they were poor, then they were comfortable, and then maybe, they got really rich. I suspect for the generation of our parents in Singapore, politics was not strongly felt, perhaps because of the suppression of contrarian voices in a time when they were not tolerated as much. The stories they pass on for us were these – that if we worked hard, we can get somewhere in life. The stories also became, if we worked hard, you can earn a lot of money in life; be a banker or a lawyer or a doctor.

And so these stories got passed on – successive generation of parents tell their kids the same thing, that present suffering in the education system will lead to a better life – or at least a freedom of choice in the education system – you can get to decide which polytechnic course, or which JC you want to go to, and then later on, which university you want to enter into – and then to study even harder to have a free choice in the kind of career you want to get into – especially the careers that will give you a lot of money.

“The future will be ultimately better than the present” – that’s another deep myth that we decided to buy into. I don’t think its deliberate, but it’s what it is – it’s there. I don’t think that myth can sustain us for a long time still – I don’t think such promises can be kept.

What happens, when the future – however distant – cannot be better and better?


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