Another myth worth exploring is this deep transactionalism between the people and the government – that the people’s trust and hard work in their own individual lives will yield some kind of positive result facilitated or provided by the government. And so we end up usually sacrificing the present and the past for the future. Why do we almost insist that the future is worth sacrificing the present for?
How did we end up in this transactional relationship? What does that mean for how we frame issues of welfare? Is the state obligated to do anything? Surely there are obligations to help those who can’t help themselves. Beyond that? There are people who believe that there are inherently different types of people – that education is irrelevant. Then there are those who believe that people are largely the same – that education is important to enable people to develop some of their innate abilities. I don’t want to go too far in the nurture/nature debate; I hope that there’s some maturity in our discourses to suggest that there will innate abilities need a social context to develop; Mozart without a piano or a violin wouldn’t be Mozart; Messi without a football wouldn’t be Messi, and so on. Do people deserve a minimum level of healthcare? Do people deserve protection from sudden events in life, or even brief episodes of unemployment? Depending on how you answered those questions, you might think that people should largely stand by themselves; or you can think that people do deserve some fundamental goods. I attribute my own circumstances to a huge load of luck; as someone once said, the two most important things that determine your trajectory in life are: where you are born in, and who you are born to – two things which one obviously has no control over.
Between indulgence and negligence, a range of choices could be made. In Singapore, there is a reinforcing combination of both indulgence and negligence – such as the subsidies that are thrown at procreation policies; the reluctance to shape culture more robustly for protection against gender-discrimination. Indulgence and negligence are possibly two sides of the same coin. Being indulgent on a set of policies means that the state has to be negligent elsewhere, to reinforce the behaviours desired. And then from negligent there’s plain criminalising – banning certain behaviours outright.
There is another deep sense of entitlement, and that comes about from the stories we were able to touch a bit upon last time – that we believe that the future is better than the present. And Singaporeans tend to believe that the biggest, and sometimes, the only shaper of that future is the state/government. The sense of entitlement could be the result of a political culture dominated by a single political party, where many contrarian voices have been suppressed. When the government becomes the only target of dissent, the government also becomes the only party that will act on the dissent (or not). Many other possible actors in society become inactive or shrivel from the government and state apparatus end up being allocated the resources to address those complaints. The initial state of weak civil societies gets perpetuated; the state has to meet with ever higher expectations. Entitlement becomes emasculation (of the population) in the political, community-building sense..
That said, the expectations for essential services should be rightly high. Emergency services, medicine, security, transport, water, electricity, education, housing, education – the execution of these essential services should be high in standard. Yet even in say, education and housing, the delivery of these services become tricky – the width and depth of coverage has been called into question. More regulation? Less regulation? A basic service? Equality of access? What about mobility of opportunities? Equality of outcomes?
So we are entitled to certain things, on account of us being citizens of a country. There’s some vague sense of what we are entitled to, but the coverage of those entitlements is less clear.
And then there are conditional entitlements – “if I study hard I will be comfortable financially”. And so we try to fulfil the premise – that we study hard, and assume that we will somehow become financially comfortable. But of course, if every parent told their kid the same thing then… we end up where we are today – a highly competitive culture that fills entitled to a comfortable material life after fulfilling a generational bargain of working hard without dissent.
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?