Getting into this box is what's best for both of us. During your time in the box, you will learn so much, and yet experience so little. It's a wild ride, my friend, one well worth the time spent...and let's face it, you don't have much to do these days anyway.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

An old grandmother tale.

Another well-meaning fellow writes in to The Real Singapore, but misses the point:
He told me he is a polio survival hence has lost the movement in his legs. He was also very proud to talk about his 2 kids still in primary school and the fact he sends them off to school every day. He then mentioned his wife is recovering from coma and he is currently the sole bread winner for the family. At 51 years old, wheelchair-restrained, looking after his still frail wife and two young kids, I truly admire his spirit.  
I approached him on the subject of his finances presuming it must be quite a strain for him. He mentioned his kids used to get bursary awards every year but for some reason, it stopped last year. It is perhaps because his income has risen above 2000 per month.
Anyone of us living here knows that 2000 per month supporting a family of three with wife recovering from coma, isn’t a lot. He has approached several organizations, including our revered GRC grassroots, to appeal for financial aid but has been declined..though reasons given often centred on quantitative yardstick. Here’s where we have failed as a society. Our yardstick for someone who qualifies for financial aid is solely based on a quantitative number.
I suppose I can't fault this fellow for wanting to help, but the Singaporean blind spot reveals itself once again: asking the government to use other peoples' money to fix the problem. I suppose I'm going on and on in a rut about this whole thing, aren't I?

Now, let me tell you one of the stories my grandmother recounted to me in her last few years on this earth. I'm sure she took the liberty of adding a few embellishments here and there to paint a better picture of her, but I think the point of the story still holds:

Back in the 1960s, there was a young man from my grandmother's village who qualified to go to university, passed the entrance exams and everything. The problem was, save the owner of the local tin mining company and his immediate family, everyone in the village was dirt-poor. The entire population of about three to four hundred people were comprised of farmers and miners, housewives and a few plantation workers who caught a lorry to and from the palm plantation for three-day work stints, and there was absolutely no one who could afford to pay the few thousand ringgit required to send this young man to Kuala Lumpur for even his first year of study. I mean, most of the populace were living in one or two-room shacks built from wooden boards and corrugated metal, so the situation was perfectly understandable.

Now, the owner of the tin mining company had an upcoming position in his expanding operations that would fit the young man's studious inclinations, and was able to foot half the bill for his tuition. (Do note that this was a local business, not some huge multinational or even national firm.) He had a discussion with the village headman, and it was decided that the proverbial hat be passed around in order to get this young man his education. The headman gathered the heads of households together, malays and chinese alike, and explained the situation to them.

Over the next week or so, every household in the village came together to contribute some part of their savings to this cause. Almost everyone came quickly and of their own accord, and the village women - especially my grandmother - were quick to utilise gossip to shame the few who had held back as miserly and uncaring. Those who had more - like my grandfather, as my grandmother gleefully recalled - gave more, and those who had less still gave what they could.

Everyone chipped in and the money was raised, with even a little left over.

A few days before this young man was slated to leave, the headman used the extra money to hold a small gathering to which everyone in the village was invited. There, he took this young man in front of everyone else and publicly impressed upon him how fortunate he was to be given this opportunity, how he was going to represent the village in the capital, and most importantly, the responsbilities he now had to everyone present.

Four years passed, and the hat was passed around three more times in that period. Three more times this young man returned home, and spent most of his time mucking around in the mining operations for a couple of months before being shipped off to the capital again. When he returned to the village for good with his fresh new degree, he was dropped straight into the position that had been reserved for him and by all accounts, did good at his job, enough to quickly become a rather eligible bachelor in town and helped install a whole host of newer sluicing machines, which in turn improved the mining company's output, improved the conditions of the workers, and trickled down to everyone in the community.

This VOLUNTARY display of community spirit is something that only could have happened in the past - and I'm sure it's happened in other places and times all around the world. Today, either you cough up the money yourself, or beg it from the banks or the government. Both parties had a part to play, and the young man understood the obligations he had to the village in exchange for them paying for his education.

When did this change come about? How did it come about? For those in the West, your history in these matters is more clear, but for us, it seems to have happened in so short a time; half a century is certainly within living memory. Certainly, some of the root causes might have been imported by our colonial masters, but even so...

How did we turn so quickly, in one or two generations?

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