The parent-child link is one of the most powerful and mysterious bonds that I think we are hardly able to understand. This is also undoubtedly a private/intimate matter, but unless there is a serious conversation about the values we choose to let our children imbibe and to facilitate the environment for consistent transmission of these values, we cannot proceed productively as a country. We will still be talking past each other, fail to empathise with the positions of each other and the difference in the journeys we take in life.
In a sense, Our Singapore Conversation is a process for us to hear each other’s journeys in life and to appreciate the vast differences in life experiences. This is not about judging between these different journeys, but to appreciate them for their own sake.
There is another implication to understand the parent-child transmission of values. Recognising that parents are an obviously important means that a lot more attention ought to be paid to how parenting is done, the character of the parents themselves, and their state of mind as they bring up the kids. There is a small aside about the importance of parenting – prospective drivers need to be tested before they are allowed on the road; surely something as important as parenting ought to be greater attention to by the society? If we demand our kids to go to schools taught by qualified teachers, surely, when they go home, they ought to be cared for by parents with the requisite skills? And what could those requisite skills be? (I do realise that there’s a programme called Marriage Preparation Course, but I don’t know if it’s an official or informal programme; whether its mandatory for couples and such.)
There are two main modes of cultural transmission – the child receiving cultural frames from the parents, and what the child finds for themselves in the outside world. Parenting provides the framing for the kids to learn from what they see in the outside world. Of course the kid will learn things on their own anyway. Then the question is, where does the parent get their worldviews from? And is the environment conducive for the healthy kind of parenting that we idealise about?
The social scientist in me says that parenting is obviously part of a larger system that includes values, and the social groups and arrangements, and the economic system. Sheryl Sandberg and Ann-Marie Slaughter discuss the role of women in the working world, and the kinds of challenges they face being woman – still taking on the assumed role of primary caretaker to the children while reaching the pinnacles in their professional career. What about us? Sandberg and Slaughter represent the pinnacles; what about the majority – including those who struggle to between work and home a whole lot more? For some parents, the interactive screen has sort of become the surrogate parent – I say ‘sort of’ because its a toy thats given to the child to pacify the demands for interaction, which the busy parent cannot afford as much struggling to at work in a hyper-competitive environment. I’m reminded of the “Illustrated Primer” in Stephenson’s Diamond Age – where a young girl escapes dysfunctional parents, and comes across an interactive book, with digital avatars becoming surrogate parents. That’s a digression, and obviously an extreme case. We are nowhere near the point where interactive digital environments can replace flesh and blood parenting – but the point remains that parenting is one of those things for which the rhetoric does not match up to real attention.
How would greater attention on parenting look like? I know that religious bodies do a bit of that, and some of them have the resources to integrate prospective parents into religious schools for kids – for them to know what parenting entails and to know how little kids are like. And new parents will always find a way – forums, grapevines, and other channels that must have existed wherever anxious parents exist. Should Marriage Preparatory Courses be made compulsory (if it isn’t already)? One of the things that’s come about with an individual culture is that adulthood is assumed to “just happen to you” when you start to become financially independent and paying for your own bills. Yet obviously adulthood is almost so much more than that – such as learning to live with the consequence of your choices, that your own choices will both liberate and constrain, and all the other invisible obligations that we don’t know about until we crash into them.
I have explored a bunch of attitudes and ‘myths’ that abound in society, and I have only touched on the historical context a little bit. I want to go a bit more into them – such as trying to imagine the life experiences of those more advanced in years. When we talk about differences between generations, what I often missing is the empathy to imagine what others might have gone through in their lives. I will be trying to do a lot more of that soon.
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?
I would first say that I need to read more about local writing, since my current sampling has simply been Catherine Lim.
Based on that, and from other isolated examples, I’m getting the feeling that the better stories are the ones that revolve around the change in values through the generations. I know, because I feel that change. And people caught in the transition – thats where the pain, the displacement, the disruptions are – where all the drama is, and that is perhaps why it makes for such good writing. I’m thinking of the Rafflesian girl who won the commonwealth essay competition based on the writing of a materialistic woman, and the seemingly antediluvian mother. But the main point was about how things changed, and the emotions from both sides… Like I said, I feel those stories because I’m caught in a similar situation too. I can hardly understand the heritage of my parents, and I do feel that sense of loss and alienation, and it pains me to see my parents unable to comprehend the present Singapore, and even more so when I realise that it is the generation of my (our?) parents who have built it, for us to enjoy, take advantage of. And thats where a part of my anger comes from, from my feel that these people, born from the 1940s-60s, they are just seemingly cast away… Thats where the stories of children leaving their families in old folks home… thats where all our staple of stories come from. Of generations losing their piety in a society that has gone such a radical shift in values that there is a disruption. Of course, these are just pretty words, and the critical reader will realise that there has been little substantiation behind these words. But heck.
But well, a transition is a transition, and barring any more sudden, radical shift in values, there just might be an equilibrium, where people become used to the dynamics of change, and come to realise the importance of their parents…
Maybe when that time comes, future scholars will come aross Cat Lim’s works, and see them for what they are, an expression of an era, a snapshot of a society whose values are in transition…