The recent Channel NewsAsia (CNA) documentary, Regardless of Class, has sparked off fierce debates, and I am here to write from the perspective of a girl from a “low-class” background and how I view privilege. Actually I wouldn’t want to use the word, “low-class” but this is just to illustrate my family financials who had an income of about $1,000 per month back then, and as such, I fall into the “low-class” bracket defined by CNA. If you are interested to view the full video, the link is here: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/cnainsider/regardless-class-race-religion-survey-singapore-income-divide-10774682
So here goes!
I grew up in a family of four. My dad is the sole breadwinner earning about $1,000 per month as a technician. My mum (who is illiterate) is a housewife and has worked as cleaner in the past, and I have an elder brother who is two years older than me. My childhood was a happy one because my parents did not set sky-high expectations for my brother and I. Of course I was happy about that: I remember playing block catching around my neighbourhood, going to my best friend’s house which was a huge maisonette to watch Cable TV which had the latest Hong Kong TVB drama, and joining my brother and his friends for a game of soccer. Just a plastic ball and a huge court would keep us very happy and entertained for the whole afternoon!
I attended a prestigious primary school (which was due to me staying in close proximity), and there were of course classmates who were of a different social class than mine. So I can tell you that from a young age, we knew that there was a divide. There were Core Curricular Activities (CCAs) in school which I was interested in, like Chinese Calligraphy and Ballet, and I was envious of those classmates who could learn them. I could not because these CCAs required monthly fees which my family couldn’t afford. But I remembered that I had a well-to do classmate who gave me her calligraphy pen to let me doodle, when she saw that I was very interested in it. So this brings me to this point:
“Do not hate those who are born with a silver spoon and privileges. There is nothing wrong in coming from a privileged background. Instead, detest those who make use of privileges and make you feel inferior or lesser than a human being.”
Coming from EM2 (2nd class from the back by the way) and having to work odd jobs since the age of 14, I have been on the receiving end of snide remarks which include:
- There was once I topped the Primary 6 cohort in Higher Chinese, beating even the EM1 students. I still remember my score: I got 98/100. Then there was an EM1 student who came up to me and said I cheated in the exam, because there was no way I could have gotten the marks on my own.
- People who outright labelled my secondary school as a hooligan school.
- A very well-to-do teenage girl who called me slow and stupid when I was serving her at Mos Burger.
Thankfully all these snide remarks and incidents were few and far between. I have broken through the “low-class” background which I was born into with the help of society and caring people who shared their privileges with me. Writing this article has also made me realize how fortunate I am, and that no matter how bad my current circumstances are, it can never be worse than back then.
I am deeply grateful for:
- My dad’s employer who allowed him to bring the unwanted Straits Times newspaper home every day. This helped my brother and I to cultivate a love of reading since young, which was the reason that I did not do too badly in English and General Paper. This is especially because my family is Mandarin-speaking, and without the newspaper, we would have very limited opportunities to learn English.
- Those clan scholarships/bursaries which I got after primary school. I was extremely playful in primary school, and my grades were cui (note: lousy). But that changed in secondary school which had a very rough environment, where I saw classmates from the Normal (Technical) and Normal (Academic) streams getting into trouble with the law at such a young age and having teenage pregnancies, etc. I told myself I did not want to be like them. That’s why I studied really hard, and it helped that I really loved the subjects – history, geography and social studies – that I was studying. Eventually, I topped my secondary school in O Levels and went on to study in Nanyang Junior College because of its strong Chinese culture.
- Very helpful and caring teachers. My English teacher sponsored my after-school English enrichment class to make sure that I got a good grades in O Levels. All my teachers went the extra mile such as giving extra lessons, buying dinners and sweet treats for us which meant a lot to me because such treats were a rarity.
- The NUS Law Professors who gave me the NUS Business Dean scholarship from the interview I had with them. During the interview, we talked about my background and discussed on Thailand’s political situation. The interview went well, and they commented it was impressive that I had made it so far with so few resources, and from there, they gave me the scholarship even though I didn’t make it into NUS Law school. I was actually outside the criteria for the scholarship as they required 4 H2, but I only had 3 H2 subjects. I could not remember their names exactly – one was a lady and the other was an African. I have always wanted to thank them in person, but I could not find them in the Law faculty list.
The class divide issue is something I feel strongly about. I’ve watched the CNA video, and I applaud the young girl’s courage in making the comment that the idea of putting people of different streams together may not work. This is a very reasonable viewpoint, and it takes courage to speak up in that setting (which these keyboard warriors which are criticizing her lack).
It takes a whole community to help bridge this divide. In my current job, I have witnessed people from lower socioeconomic strata falling onto the wrong side of law because it is hard for them to find a proper job, due to their past criminal history.
I volunteer with a charity called Beyond Social Services that reaches out to children from poorer backgrounds, and in the course of doing so, I have seen firsthand a six-year-old kid who struggles to know what is ABC and 123. I have also seen kids who are six-years-old but look like they are only four due to malnutrition. My heart really goes out to them. I find it really heartwarming when these kids share with me what they want to be when they grow up. If someday I can manage to simplify my life story such that it is more relatable to them, I will want to tell them to Dream Big and Work Hard, and they will definitely be able to succeed just like what Jie-Jie (note: big sister) has done!
If you are born into privilege, share it! Just like what my classmate did for me, by giving me her calligraphy pen. If you have time, do consider volunteering with welfare organisations. I have learnt so much from my interactions with these kids. When I have a rough patch at work, just thinking of them really helps to chase my moodiness away. I think helping them is something I really want to do full-time eventually, but not right now, because the sad fact is that children educators are not paid that much, and I still want to save up a bit more before plunging in to do it full-time.
And if you have some spare cash, do consider making a donation to Community Chest or any other charitable organisations.
I don’t know if there are any higher-up policymakers who will read this, but I believe that schools should not charge students for CCAs. This will encourage students to mingle and weed out high-class enclaves, which currently exist because their members are the only ones who can afford the fees. In my view, CCAs are a great opportunity to bring students from different social classes together. CCAs are not about academics, and kids can learn from each other without the preconceived idea that one is better than another.
That’s all I have! What an abrupt ending, haha – I just want to thank The Thought Experiment for allowing me to publish this guest article, and to the readers, I applaud your patience in reading this and hope you enjoyed it!
-An anonymous girl
(Note from The Thought Experiment: We actively encourage everyone and anyone to share their ideas with us here!