on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

personal (biased) reflections of Singapore’s 2020 elections

(cw: suicide) I had refrained from commenting on Singapore’s politics prior to the elections, because the more I grow the more I realised what I do not know, so I don’t want to influence anyone’s vote in case of unintended repercussions. Imagine a scenario where I think that choice A is right and I persuade you to make choice A, but a decade later I’m horrified to know that actually choice A is flawed – do I take responsibility for your choice and the ripple effects it may have? I don’t want to have this power as much as I have the power to influence how much influence I have as a person.

Now that the elections are over I would like to document my own thoughts, and hope that in time to come I will have the humility to go over them to see how much I have differed or stayed. My own desire to document my thoughts publicly for the last couple of decades has prevented me from escaping from my own personal failings. I cannot selectively alter my own personal history as long as I am committed to keeping my writing online. This is something I personally appreciate because I’ve witnessed how selectively altering history can hurt.

As a caveat I would like to state that all views below an outcome of my personal worldview and lived experiences, and I do not intend to persuade but rather to participate in a world that I still believe will benefit from diverse views.

From deep resentment to mild appreciation

I grew up really disliking the incumbent party and their policies. I’m convinced that if there was an easier way to end up own life I would not be alive today. I disliked the whole success narrative, I still get nightmares about taking exams, and till now I have not recovered the self-worth I have never gotten because this society is so focused on material success. For me, the successful life they have painted – was not worth living and is still not. What is the meaning behind chasing grades and status our entire lives, getting a superficial sense of happiness from bragging rights? Isn’t that a pathetic way to live, to feel worthy only if other people decide so? That a life is only valuable if one is productive in terms of economics?

So when the opportunity came to move to the US I went after it as though my life depended on it. My life did depend on it. Prior to moving to the US I was having another long intense suicidal ideation phase. I am also still convinced that I wouldn’t be alive today if I couldn’t move.

In San Francisco (cannot speak for other places) I found the only place where I felt like I belonged. People appreciated the fact that I didn’t have a conventional background, and my skills were highly in demand. It was the first time in my life I wasn’t treated like some pariah. For the entire time I was there, I lived with both fear and joy because I was deeply afraid I would lose my visa status and I would have to return to a country who made me chronically suicidal.

However, life for me tends to have dramatic turns. I have written in multiple posts why I chose to return so I will not rehash it. When I returned I mentally expected to be in a chronic state of unhappiness, but surprisingly I gradually learned to appreciate being here.

The irony is that I can only appreciate my life here because I had the chance to live elsewhere. Not everyone reacts the same way I do, some people leave and they never want to return (why would anyone want to return to a place that causes so much trauma), just like my younger self. It depends on what a person needs and wants out of their life.

On healthcare

For starters, I was struggling with chronic health issues. I very much appreciate the state of healthcare here. In Singapore I could see a private doctor without having private insurance without fearing for my life. It would have been impossible to live in the US as a sick, unemployed person even as a citizen. It is not easy dealing with health issues even as an employed person. So I appreciate our healthcare policies, our robust enough public healthcare system, that I can use my Medisave to pay for a hospitalisation plan if anything went wrong.

Embarrassingly, that was the first time in my life I learned that psychological safety is very much tied to financial safety. It is not about having enough money to retire, but rather to not live in fear that an unlucky life event will drive you to bankruptcy. I can live with having to work in low-wage jobs for the rest of my life because of my chronic ill health, but I cannot live in a country that will make me fear going to the doctor.

This alone gave me the time and space to focus on getting better.

On housing

One of the things that gave me a lot of stress before I moved to the US was the high rent I had to pay in Singapore because I moved out from my parents’. When I moved back I turned 35, so I was so glad that I could apply for a 2-room BTO flat under the single Singapore Citizen scheme. It was affordable enough so I could probably afford it with a part time job if my health didn’t allow me to return to the workforce full-time. Unexpectedly I met my partner who is a year older, so when our relationship became stable we could buy a public flat in the resale market under the Joint Singles scheme. We could both afford the flat because of the CPF scheme.

Because I lived in the US, I didn’t have any illusions about how having a public flat is an investible asset that would make me prosper with time. I just wanted an affordable roof over my head. So I see the our public flat schemes as what Americans call rent control. Being able to “buy” or legally lease a HDB flat for 99 years is a way to have an affordable fixed cost of living. This is something that is close to impossible in the US.

When I first got back I wanted to learn more about what I used to dislike so much, so I started reading books on our founding Prime Minister and also other civil servants. I actually cried a lot while reading those books. I didn’t know why we have trees everywhere in Singapore, something I took so much for granted until I started living in the US. I also didn’t know what our civil servants had to go through during times when Singapore was the pariah country in Asia. I’m not sure if they teach this in history classes these days, but I hope they do. Because in my time what I got was this boring narrative about a fishing village and Sir Stamford Raffles, not some outrageous story about how our civil servants had to pretend to have things we didn’t have, to convince investors to take a chance on Singapore.

I started to understand why we had the policies we did. Why our public education system had to be so suffocating. I didn’t understand the existential threat we faced and still face when I was much younger.

Understanding doesn’t mean agreeing but it helps to bridge

Understanding doesn’t mean agreeing. Decisions are also made on a spectrum, they are not binary. It is easy to look back and say we could have made better choices as a country when we are now the beneficiary of our economic success. There is no alternate timeline so we’ll never know if we could have been otherwise, but at the very least I understood why certain decisions were made. Perhaps I still don’t agree with some of them, but at least I don’t think they were made with no practical basis.

Now that I am almost 40, I am a beneficiary of many policies made by the government. Our needs and concerns change as we age. I like that CPF exists. Without CPF I’m not sure if I would be able to buy our place back then. I think and plan for my old age and I appreciate the 4% interest rate in our retirement accounts.

Appreciation does not equate to accepting status quo

It is also only as I grew older that I learned we can like and dislike something at the same time. That the incumbent party can do a lot of things right and also make mistakes. I resent and appreciate it at the same time. There are some issues that I think the country should do better on, not just because it is the right thing to do, but rather I believe it will benefit us in the long run:

Sensitivity to racial issues

When someone tell you they have been hurt throughout their life, it reflects a lot on us if we tell them they are wrong and they are imagining things, without even trying to understand why they feel that way in the first place. Why are we so triggered every time we discuss majority privilege? The problem I see is the general populace here doesn’t understand the dynamics of power and privilege. We think just because we suffer too, it cannot be true when other people tell us they are suffering more.

I hope we will gradually address this issue because it will only benefit the entire country if minorities are not held back unnecessarily. Pretending it doesn’t exist or that we “import” these ideologies (seriously wtf) will only increase the divide and will produce systemic repercussions.

Growing inequality

I am not an economist, so I will not pretend I have the answers, but I do think more work can be done here. Whenever we debate about social welfare inevitably the question is where the money is going to come from. It seems like some economists believe we can afford to provide stronger welfare nets. Again the solution is not binary – possible or not. I hope we’ll make the math work. I feel like a repeating record, but addressing inequality is not just about justice per se, but rather enabling the potential we have as a nation. Less financial stress improves health and other life outcomes, it is win-win for everyone if we are willing to redistribute the wealth more evenly.

Improvement in housing policies

I hope we can find a balance between having enough housing and supporting people who do not fit in traditional moulds, such as single parents or younger adults. Many people do not know what it takes to manage a household (or actually, themselves) until they are married or when they reach 35 because they live with their parents. This is not ideal for enabling the development of maturity and independence and could cause further issues down the road. Perhaps a good midway step is to allow unmarried adults to buy on the resale market if they wish to. This still gives priority to families (although I don’t personally agree with this but for the sake of being realistic about how society works here) for subsidised new housing.

Education system and mental health

Everyday on reddit I see people writing posts like “I cannot take it anymore” or “I am seriously depressed please help me”. I feel like in my time things were already bad enough to drive me to contemplate suicide as a kid, it feels like things are both worse and better for kids these days. There are definitely more study/career options, yet it also seems like they are expected to cope with more demands. There are some right steps being taken, like abolishing ranking and mid-year exams. I do hope apart from policy decisions the culture will gradually change to accept more diversity in how people can develop or make life choices. Not everyone wants or needs material success, and that should be accepted.

I also wish to see less focus on STEM and ideally incorporating subjects like systems thinking, philosophy, financial literacy and mental healthcare into the curriculum at a younger age. Being good at science and math doesn’t make you become a better human being, you know?

I personally believe the reason why people are participating in gutter politics is because we are not taught to think and participate politically. People can only express what they know and what they experience. I think this is the outcome of our narrow education system and the government is dealing with the seeds they sowed.

Diversity in society and politics

I feel cautiously optimistic when our prime minister offered to make the leader of Workers’ Party the official Leader of the Opposition, promising to send resources and staff to support him. I didn’t see this coming because I’m so used to witnessing ungraceful behaviour.

I think it is better for Singapore as a whole if our political system matures. Having a one-party system may have worked well in our infancy as a country, but as we develop we should build the necessary infrastructure for diversity to flourish, instead of being afraid of it.

I think the world has been built on a myth that a monolithic culture thrives better, but taking a lesson from nature, it is diversity that will make an ecosystem flourish. It is when different ideas come together in connection that we experience creative breakthroughs. When we keep reusing the same ideas over and over again because it historically worked, we fail to consider the potential that may come from reconsidering the world in an entirely new angle.

nature thrives with diversity (artwork by @launshae)

I don’t pretend to know better, and I can only express the view of someone with a very specific lived experience. But that is the beauty of diversity, that we do not and cannot experience life the same way as the next person. If people don’t express their unique views, society will just have the assumption that we are all the same, and policies will be made based on this false assumption. This has real consequences on people’s quality of life.

I hope the next time when someone tells us their life is different from ours, that their lived experiences challenges our perception of reality, we can at the very least take the time and space to ask, why?


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