By Cheong Wen Xuan
Bird Box monsters who? There’s another insidious monster that destroys lives which everyone is blind to – privilege and poverty.
‘Income inequality’, ‘education’, ‘opportunities’, ‘meritocracy’… we’ve all heard these standard buzzwords bounced around by our parents and teachers for as long as we can remember.
It’s not until my friends told me, over a catch-up a couple of days ago, about their various experiences volunteering at a girls’ home and running a tuition program for underprivileged kids, that I truly understood the sheer weight of the silver spoon that me and many other Singaporeans were born with.
Hearing them recount their crushing anecdotes about the youths and kids whom they interacted with – kids who try their best, who struggle as hard as they can, but fall short because of their family background, socioeconomic status, or simply their lack of guidance (all things they have absolutely no control over) – my mind was in overdrive, hurriedly drawing links between the underprivileged VS the privileged, the vicious cycle that some are born into, the importance of education, and the biggest monster of all which is poverty.
It left me with one burning conclusion – despite the trends, being born into poverty does not mean that you’ll not have a future, that you’re a bad kid, or that you’re stupid, or that you’ll never escape your socioeconomic strata, or that you have to live a life of crime – there is no actual, direct, or necessary relation. They lack nothing in their nature, but lack the nurture, resources, finances, attention and care. They are starved of the very opportunities that are laid out and served to other privileged kids.
For many of these struggling youth and kids, a common thread that links them together is the scarcity of care and attention from their parents. Whether their parents are busy juggling multiple jobs to feed the family, or they’ve surrendered the kids to their grandparents, or they’re uneducated themselves and are unable to provide the proper guidance, or they’re going in and out of jail… the lack of a caring, nurturing, and guiding parental figure proves to be the toxic common denominator. As related by my friend, when the girls from the girls’ home get home leave, some don’t know what to do with it, because ‘home’ is not a place they want to return to. When it’s family day, some parents don’t come to visit, and haven’t visited in months. Even though my friend runs the tuition programme for free, some parents have simply stopped sending their kids there because they are uneducated themselves, and understand neither the importance of education, nor what kind of help their children need. Even when provided with the resources, some might be unsure of how to utilise it.
Broken families and absent fathers are another common trend. Sometimes, it’s not even the lack of financial ability, but rather, it’s the lack of a role model for the young to model themselves after. Children are the quintessence of ‘monkey see; monkey do’. They drop out of secondary school like their fathers, get pregnant at 16 like their mothers, and end up in jail like their friends, because it is all they know. It is a vicious cycle that only few have managed to escape.
Education, guidance, and a proper role model – all subsets of good parenting – are the essential factors which can disrupt this cycle. This is why my friends chose to volunteer at the girls’ home and to provide free tuition – to proffer a sort of mentorship, friendship, guidance, supervision and a safe space that their parents may not have had the financial ability or luxury of time to provide… all done in hopes that one day, these kids will be able to escape the vicious cycle that has their family in its grasp.
However, most Singaporeans who are born into a comfortable socioeconomic status are so blinded by their own privilege that they just can not see how others might lack in the opportunities that they themselves take for granted, and attribute it to their lack of drive/ motivation/ intelligence etc. They are blind to the fact that others are staying in rental flats, that they have to drop out of school in Sec 1 to earn money for the family. It’s so easy for them to say “Just study hard la”, “Just stop being lazy”, “You reap what you sow”. The differences in circumstances are lost on some privileged minds.
When a young girl’s parents are always absent, such that she’s raised by her grandmother and her first language is Hokkien, how can you tell her to just put in the effort to read story books to improve her English? When children are so neglected by their parents that they don’t have the money for basic things like stationery or assessment books, or when they have never had a role model to look up to, how can you tell them that their life is a result of their own languor?
It’s not just the privileged kids who are guilty of not understanding the problem – the meritocracy has used several tools to exclude this demographic to develop a fast-paced nation. The recent changes made by the MOE to scrap the exams and grading system in primary and secondary schools are targeted very specifically to a privileged demographic – those with caring, affluent, and educated parents who can afford to hire tutors and buy assessment books, and who hover over and supervise them. It’s a change made to relieve a very ‘first world problem’ – stress.
But with these changes, the underprivileged children are falling through the gaps. Without any pressure from their only support system – the school – they will have a much harder time catching up by the time their first graded exam in Primary 3 comes around.
This way, society and the meritocracy discriminate and exclude this underprivileged demographic from the utopian society it tries to construct. In Social Studies class, we’ve all studied LKY’s attempt to introduce the Graduate Mothers’ Scheme, a bid for eradicating the perpetuation of undesirable vicious cycles within familial structures, by giving incentives to graduate mothers to get married and give birth to babies who were believed to be more intelligent, thus increasing the talent pool in Singapore. Essentially, the nation tried to make use of social engineering to try and build an army of ‘productive’ nation-builders, and simultaneously encourage the dwindling of numbers of the underprivileged/uneducated demographic, rather than take the necessary measures to try and fill the gaping privilege-shaped holes in their lives.