When a friend asked me to watch the short video hosted by Dr Puthucheary called “Regardless of Race” recently, I have to admit that it took me a while to watch it...(busy schedules and all that).
But even before I watched it, I understand that some social media commentators have already voiced their disgust or objections at the Channel NewsAsia documentary, and I think I know why.
After I watched it, I found the title a little misleading. It should, more relevantly and viscerally, be called “Because of Class” and not “Regardless of Class.” (Or alternatively, “And then, it got really awkward...”).
Because, for those who have seen it, the message is not so much about what we are going to do about it. But (hey), it is about the grim and sad reality of class divide that the children who come from poor and deprived background have to confront, tolerate and endure everyday in their schools.
One teen even said that he got teased for being in a different stream. Another from the normal academic was shunned because they felt she was stupid.
Now, after putting kids and teens of different income classes and education streams together in an unsuspecting chat-up, I trust the aim was to bring awareness to the issue of income and class divide, which is getting palpably worse over the years in our society.
One boy said with unvarnished candidness: “Rich people treat poor people badly...because you think you are rich, so they don’t know what it is like to be poor.”
What stayed in my “hippocampus” after the clip was the “wow” from that little girl when they were asked how much pocket money they got from their parents, and one of them, presumably an upper-class boy, said nonchalantly, “four dollars.”
Well, now, at their age, it may be four dollars. But soon, when the selected few are properly or hierarchically streamed, mostly with the assistance of wealthy parentage, and are thereafter put on the academic fast track to certain privileged and esteemed career set for a cushy lifestyle, that four dollars will mutate into a disparaging gap of millions with an upper-chin attitude to boot.
So, “Because of Class” is the theme for me, and Dr Puthucheary and the team at Channel NewsAsia have indeed raised heightened and even tearful awareness about it.
Trust me, the public gets it. We got the message.
In case the ministers who are paid handsomely and living in gated mansions only felt it at a cerebral level on a sessional basis when they interviewed the unsuspecting kids and studied the stats and figures produced by social scientists, most of the children living from hand to mouth felt it at a gut level on a daily basis.
Now, mike, that’s a low blow because they are not sitting idly by either. They are doing their utmost to make a difference and that clip may just be the first of a series of measures to not only raise awareness, but to go deep into the heart of the issue and empower families and their kids to get out of the poverty trap.
Admittedly, I stand corrected. And I wish I am corrected in due course.
But my concern in this society founded on what - quite ironically - the Communist Party’s Central Publicity Department’s directive calls “money worship” is in the words of Professor Teo You Yenn. She wrote: -
“The biggest barrier to understanding poverty and inequality, for people with varying degrees of power, status, influence, is their, our vested material and symbolic interests in its perpetuation. We are so deeply implicated in our national and individual narratives of growth, development, and meritocracy, that we have trouble confronting and seeing stories that trouble these narratives.”
Prof Teo calls for a shifting in narratives in this almost sisyphus struggle between the two narratives which fall into the “greater-good-society-before-self” camp and the “survival-of-the-fittest-care-for-my-family-first” camp. She calls for them to be brought into coherence.
(As an aside, maybe, Dr Puthucheary and his parliamentary team should be put in that chat group, and allow the kids of underprivileged familial background to grill them about what they are going to do about their plight, their deprivation and their everyday frustration, which they have been enduring in silence).
But seriously, the struggle to bring them (the two narratives) into coherence is often undercut by how “deeply implicated” the rich are in their ”individual narratives of growth, development and meritocracy.”
This mindset (and narrative) is insidiously fed into our children at a very young age, institutionalised by the elitist streaming, filtered out into exclusive academic enclaves, and then groomed to lead society with not only a silver spoon in their mouths but a golden retirement nest all propped up in their gated estate.
That is why over time, you get such reply from a teenager from IP stream (as seen in the group chat) who said rather innocently that mixing classmates from all streams is not feasible because that would only widen the gap when they realise they cannot catch up. It would be demoralising to them, as implied.
Now, don’t get me wrong, she has got a point about the gap and not catching up. She is not disingenuous about it.
But if the proof is in the pudding, then we may miss the nuances of unintended class snobbery developing amongst those her age and inadvertently widening the gap even further while those at the top pays lip service to fighting social and class divide with an earnest video clip to boot.
Take note that the answer she gave was in reply to the boys from normal tech asking (now, in the clip, it almost seemed like pleading) for help, patience and understanding to learn from the higher stream students.
And the swift answer came in an almost second nature fashion (unapologetically) to say that they might not be able to catch up if the classes were mixed. (I think I saw one of the boys face lowered).
Alas, this may just be a reflection of our society when the poor pleads for dignity, respect, understanding and hand-me-down “smiggle pencil case”, and the top - with their high paying job and bonuses - look down, smile empathically and say, “we will do our part to close the gap, but on your part, please work harder.”
Let me end with what Boris Johnson once said, and I believe he sincerely believed it.
He said that “economic equality will never be possible because some people are simply too stupid to catch up with the rest of society.”
He added: “Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have IQ below 85.”
Then, he “compared society to a box of cornflakes, he praised inequality for creating the conditions under which the brightest triumph.”
He concluded: “the harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top. Inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.” (And individual wealth accumulation, I guess).
Mm...let me end with the one thing that I am thankful for and the other thing I am wary of.
First, I am thankful that Boris Johnson is not our MP or PM (it is tempting to ask nevertheless, do some of our elected members have that kind of unspoken mindset?...nah).
And second, I am wary of that cornflake box and that intense shaking.
At the start, it may be about the shaking, the trial and the struggle to survive, to flourish.
But at some point, it is not about the shaking anymore than it is about the hand of privilege, advantage and inequality that raises some to the top while the rest stays quietly in resignation at the bottom. Cheerz.