Busking = Begging?

Just this Monday (16 April), I submitted a sociology honours thesis on young music buskers in Singapore. A day later, a forum post entitled “Do not allow busking as a day job” was published on The Straits Times and it caught the attention of plenty. I feel emotionally compelled to give my two cents on it, especially having befriended so many buskers through this thesis journey.

My first instinct was the same as most people – to dismiss Susan Tan as an uneducated narrow-minded prick and scorn The Straits Times for publishing such a “skewed and biased” viewpoint. But upon some contemplation, I figure that the point is really not to throw shade at Susan Tan, but to get to the core of the matter.

I base my discussion below on my interviews with 24 young music buskers, academic readings on busking in Singapore and other countries, and newspaper articles on busking that dates back to the ‘90s. I do have to make a disclaimer that as all my interviewees are music buskers, I cannot speak for other buskers like magicians or mime artists. But National Arts Council (NAC) also states that music busking is the most common form of busking in Singapore, so I believe that my findings would still be relevant for this discussion.

First, I would like to clarify some factual and logical lapses Susan made in her forum post. This is only to form a better foundation for my discussion later.

(1) Young vs. Elderly Buskers 

In the post, Susan did not distinguish young abled buskers from elderly/disabled buskers. This distinction is crucial. It is not my intention to imply that elderly/disabled buskers are any less competent, but these two groups of buskers are likely to be busking for entirely different reasons. A discussion that conflates them would not be a productive one. Since NAC statistics show that over half of the estimated 300 buskers are below the age of 35, I use that as a rough guide to define young buskers as those below the age of 35.

If Susan was writing this forum post primarily in response to The Straits Times article entitled “On song and coining it” (April 15), which features several young buskers who busk for university or their music endeavours, then I believe it is reasonable to assume that Susan was referring largely to the young buskers when she used the term “buskers”. She started the post with the observation that the numbers of buskers are increasing in Singapore. It is more accurate to state that the number of (young) buskers have increased starkly in Singapore.

Following that, her statement that buskers busk “at certain places every day and for most of the day, suggesting that this is their permanent day job” becomes questionable. It is unclear if her observations relate to the young buskers or the elderly buskers. From my interviews, none of the young buskers treat busking as their sole source of income. Rather, busking is better described as a form of leisure that they take very seriously. Undeniably, busking is also their part-time job, in the same way that other students give private tuition as a part-time job. What ought to be noted is that the significance that buskers place on their earnings differs based on their own economic conditions. But even if the buskers come from a less well-to-do background, their earnings are spent on endeavours which are meaningful to them such as supporting the family and funding their education, which by no means reduces them to “beggars” who perform for the sole sake of soliciting money from the crowd. This is also because busking requires a sizeable amount of competence and skill sets that I will further elaborate on later.

(2) International Students and Foreigners 

On Susan’s concern about foreign students who are allowed to busk, I would like to make a clarification on the eligibility criteria for busking applications. According to the NAC Busking Scheme, all Singaporeans and Permanent Residents are free to apply to busk. International students need to obtain a letter of recommendation from their school, while foreigners have to obtain a written consent from Ministry of Manpower (MOM) before they can apply. Thus, there is already an additional layer of administrative hurdle that foreigners need to overcome before they can busk. Hence, my findings show that a larger percentage of young buskers are locals. Of course, I am aware that not all buskers are legal and these buskers save themselves the trouble of going through applications and auditions. But these buskers do not form the majority of young buskers.

Additionally, Susan maintains, “Foreign students should have the sufficient funds to finance their studies”. For one, as mentioned above, foreign students who busk are not only busking for earnings, but also as a form of serious leisure. For another, on a more sympathetic note, I contend that just because these students may not have sufficient finances to fund their education doesn’t make them unworthy of pursuing an education or future career in Singapore. What matters more is their merit, be it in terms of educational or musical capabilities.

Lastly, Susan makes the further claim that allowing foreign students to busk would encourage more foreigners to come to Singapore to earn an income through busking. This is a logical leap on her part. My findings show that as a gauge, buskers may earn about 15-50 SGD per hour (subjected to occasions e.g. festive seasons like Christmas). This means that busking pays relatively well compared to other part-time jobs, which is one of the reasons that incentivises young buskers to busk as well. However, the earnings are certainly not substantial or stable enough to attract foreigners to come to Singapore just to busk for a living.

Having clarified the factual and logical lapses in the forum post, I will now delve into an analysis of Susan’s main assertion. Stripped down to its core, the forum post implies that busking = begging. I’m sure she’s not the only one who thinks this way. Some of the buskers’ parents also had the same sentiments. I do feel disappointed by such an opinion, but I don’t blame them for thinking this way because I know that there are historical and social origins to this opinion.

In 1991, the Home Affairs Ministry stated that busking is illegal. At the time, the common discourse is that busking is a form of street performance that aimed to induce the giving of cash (i.e. begging). As official statements about the ministry’s rationale for framing busking as begging are limited, I turned to literature about busking in other countries. They illustrate that the state regulates the busking scene closely because an increase in the number of buskers who take it upon themselves to busk for money seems to reflect economic hardship in the country and the inadequacy of welfare programmes. This is applicable to the context in Singapore then, when economic growth is a real priority. Moreover, in the spirit of pragmatism, the public typecast busking as an activity left for those who are too incompetent or lazy to find a “proper” job.

This mentality permeates through the subsequent revisions in the NAC Busking Scheme. In 1992, busking was allowed but money had to be donated to charity. The rationale was to encourage buskers to busk for altruism and passion, rather than for earnings. In 1994, busking was banned yet again when buskers allegedly busked at undesignated spots and solicited money through their performances (which makes busking appear as a “disguised form of begging”). The Busking Scheme was reintroduced in 1997. This is possibly the result of an initiative to develop Singapore into a ‘global city of the arts’ proposed by then Ministry of Information and the Arts’ (MITA) and Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) in 1995. However, the fear that busking would “degenerate” into begging persisted. Earnings still had to be donated to charity after buskers offset their expenses. It was not until 2001 when buskers were exempted from licensing and only needed a letter of endorsement from NAC to busk, and until NAC allowed buskers to keep their earnings in 2003 that the number of buskers shot up. Seeing that the increase in young buskers is a relatively new phenomenon, it is of no surprise that there are Singaporeans, possibly those of the older generation, who still have the idea of busking = begging ingrained in them. As my findings show, the younger generation of Singaporeans may also have had the privilege of being exposed to vibrant busking scenes in other countries and have developed a different conception of busking as a result.

I do not wish to make presumptions about Susan’s age though. Regardless of her age, I would now like to make a case to defend the young buskers in Singapore. I wish to convince people who hold similar viewpoints as her that buskers are not “beggars” because of the skills and competencies that are demanded of buskers on the streets. As mentioned before, many young buskers treat busking fairly seriously and every act in busking requires much deliberation and learning. For the record, audiences on the street are said to be the harshest critics. One of my interviewees candidly said, “The crowd doesn’t lie. If they think you suck, they’re just not going to give you money.” A lot of skills are required to captivate a passer-by in the instant that he or she walks by.

In terms of musical competencies, buskers need to build stamina to sing for hours straight with little breaks in between. They often need to learn a huge range of repertoire so they can tailor their songs to passers-by that walk past at each moment. In terms of locations, buskers learn how to find a location that suit them best in terms of the crowd it draws (e.g. Orchard Road draws more youths who appeal to English music, while heartlands draw more elderly who appeal to Chinese music). They also need to work with other buskers to make sure that their busking locations and schedules do not clash, so that they can maintain amicable relationships with them. Lastly, equipment is a huge investment in itself but many buskers still pay a hefty amount of money to get the best equipment they can possibly afford because they understand how poor equipment can greatly impede the quality of their performances.

The skills that I have briefly described are only the tip of the iceberg. There are so much more competencies required that remain out of sight from the public, but they are what many buskers consistently seek to develop to become better performers. Through their efforts, I am certain that many Singaporeans no longer perceive busking as begging anymore, as seen in the comments section of the forum post. For that I am very glad, and I hope that more people would acknowledge the efforts of buskers, especially those that persistently seek to produce high quality acts.

Susan was right about one thing though. It may not have been fully explicated, but her forum suggests that buskers are busking because of a lack, be it in money or in performance opportunities. In recent years, newspaper articles about the busking scene have mostly depicted busking in a benign and almost angelic manner – busking enlivens the streets and provides a platform for young musicians to showcase their talents!!! But this forum post exposes the undercurrents that run deep in a discussion about busking. I aim to further demystify these issues here.

Evidently, busking is not all glitz and glamour. If it requires so much skill, effort and hard work to busk, then why do buskers still busk? As the article “On song & coining it” shows, many buskers do love performing, but they also use busking in an instrumental way. And there is something about doing art for an instrumental reason that sits uncomfortably with people in general. It’s the kind of irksomeness we feel when we witness an artist (a.k.a. sell-out) sacrificing his or her artistic integrity for commercial success. Where does that nagging feeling of annoyance stem from? It stems from the prized notion of doing “arts for arts sake”. It appears that if an artist is making art for a reason other than art, then they must not be “true” or “pure” artists.

But truth is – doing “arts for art’s sake” is a luxury some can never afford. In my own thesis, I further narrowed in on buskers who intend to use busking as a platform to enter the music industry. The buskers I have interviewed reveal their lack in one or more of these forms: money, connections and opportunities to perform or record their works. For some of them, busking is not just a good way, but the only way for them to showcase their works. Other trajectories include signing with a record label (which may be out of reach for them) and posting their works online (which is already way too saturated as a platform).

And how effective is busking as a platform to help them gain recognition as musicians in the music industry? I hate to say this but my findings show me … not quite effective. This finding would not be new to experienced buskers. In terms of money, buskers may earn quite a bit, but it is still not substantial enough for the production of singles/ EPs (extended play records) and the marketing efforts that follow. In terms of connections, the most common networks that buskers forge are connections with event companies that provide freelance gigs. But it is still difficult to break into the inner circle of the music industry. Buskers find it difficult to get connections with industry experts that can provide them with higher profile performance opportunities. Lastly, in terms of performance opportunities, buskers do have the potential to become excellent performers because of the sheer amount of training they gain from busking. But even as buskers shed off the label of “beggars”, there is still a stigma that they are not “proper musicians” or that they are “just another cover musician”. I asked one of the buskers if he considers himself a busker, and he replied, “I’m a performer. I entertain. But I am not an artist. Because artists have their own work.” The irony lies in the fact several buskers do have their own work. But busking as a platform encourages buskers to perform more covers that resonate more with the crowd.

That is not to say that busking does not help aspiring musicians enter the music industry at all. Another busker shared that busking is not easy, but one can “still get somewhere with busking”. Some buskers proclaimed that they started out with little cash, connections and experience. But I’ve witnessed for myself how they became polished musicians and even move on to produce their own singles and EPs. Some people say that the essence of busking lies in its spontaneity. But if you asked me, I’d say that the spirit of busking is not that, but sheer grit. I will never cease to be inspired by these buskers who try, try, and try, the best way they know how to.

What I do want to say is that these buskers are likely to face a considerable amount of challenges if they were to solely depend on busking to enter the music industry. This is why there is still a need for more opportunities that enable aspiring musicians in Singapore to showcase their music. But I definitely don’t agree with Susan that it should come in the form of “monthly events at major parks where local and foreign talents can freely perform” “for exposure”. Remuneration is a must for aspiring musicians to view music not just as a form of serious leisure, but also viable career. More importantly, as with every performance, busking is a two-way street. Members of the public deserves the chance to judge for themselves the worth of an act.

I quote my favourite excerpt from one of my interviewees:

There was this article in 2007 about Joshua Bell, a crazily cool violinist. The night before he played in Carnegie Hall, did his thing and people paid hundreds of dollars per ticket. The next day he played the exact same recital at the subway and got like (thirty) dollars. So then you know that that society doesn’t understand art. That society doesn’t understand quality. That society understands marketing. That society understands being seen where everybody wants to be seen. And that’s not good enough as a society.    

In my opinion, busking leads to the point when more Singaporeans walk past something, they are willing to stop, and having stopped, they have a deeper appreciation that the performance required skill and time to prepare and they are therefore willing to take out a note from their wallet and put it into the bag. (…) So how do you get a level when there is enough audience appreciation of not just what happens in the concert hall, but what happens on the streets? That people will understand quality wherever they see it? That’s the ultimate goal.

This is what I hope for as well. Busking is not just about buskers. Art is not just about artists. It is about Singapore as a society. Susan’s forum post suggests that there are still Singaporeans who view buskers as beggars. But the comments section heartens me as I find more people who believe that buskers can be excellent performers as well. Even then, that is not enough for me. My greatest wish is that in the future, all aspiring artists can find their place and be recognised for their talents, regardless of their backgrounds and limitations, wherever they may be.

(Note: Many details from my paper are intentionally left out in this post. I have also removed all academic jargons/ citations in hopes of putting across my points to the layman. If you would like to see my paper in its full form, feel free to drop me a comment or email me!)

Advertisements

The American Election – An Emotional Rollercoaster for All

The past few days have been nothing short of an emotional rollercoaster as I ploughed through countless articles, videos and commentaries on the Internet, as the American election unfolds. This post is an attempt to make sense of the situation thus far and pen down all the thoughts that crystallised in a mind of a Singaporean Sociology student.

Gender 

“America is in labour now…In 24 hours we shall know if it’s a *BOY* or *GIRL*.!!” says one trending post on subreddit before the election. Gender is obviously one of the most salient themes that sets the background for this election. I was never the kind of person that into politics, but the reports of sexual assaults and the insults that Donald Trump hurled at women first stirred something in me and made me interested in the election. As a woman, these comments cut very deeply and personally. An article by telegraph, “Donald Trump sexism tracker: Every offensive comment in one place” left me feeling humiliated, angry and I found it incomprehensible how a person of such moral standards can run for presidency.

Then, another thread of articles focused on the elephant in the room – how Hillary Clinton’s gender itself makes her unlikeable for many reasons. These articles epitomise the kinds of dilemma that a woman of power faces. On one hand, articles such as “Hillary: Why the Clinton America Sees isn’t the Clinton colleagues know” highlights Clinton’s feminine characteristics such as great listening skills that do not appeal to the electorate that is used to charismatic leadership. Some articles even explain that men’s dislike for Clinton is visceral, and part of it is because she “reminds them of their nagging wives”. On another hand, articles such as “Hillary Clinton: I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions” paradoxically shows how Clinton’s efforts in suppressing “negative” feminine characteristics such as being too emotional did not gain the support of the electorate either. Instead, she is accused of being too cold and unauthentic.

By far, the most heartbreaking articles picked up on the effects of Bill Clinton’s infidelity on Clinton’s run for presidency. Some argued that while it would be expected that women would support Clinton after Trump’s sexual assault saga, many women did not in fact support Clinton. Articles such as “Enabler or family defender? How Hillary Clinton responded to husband’s accusers” show that one of the reasons is because Clinton was seen to have “enabled” her husband’s actions by managing the female accusers, thus tacitly implying that such behaviours were acceptable. These articles can’t help but make me think how confusing it is that conflicting demands are always casted on women. In such a situation, I thought, what could she have done? File for a divorce, and she might be seen as sacrificing the political career of her husband, and worse, the future of America, in the process of fulfilling her personal wishes? Choose to stay in the marriage, and she risks being called passive and conforming to the stereotype of women as docile and forgiving? It is also pretty disturbing that blame for Bill Clinton’s infidelity is casted on Hillary Clinton and not on himself, while Bill Clinton still manages to retain his popularity for being the well-loved “first black American president” that he is. Why are men (both Bill Clinton and Trump) more easily forgiven, and women more harshly judged when it comes to issues that involve gender and sexuality?

My theatre professor once made a sobering statement after Obama was elected as President in 2008 that, “This shows that America would rather vote a Black man in, than to vote for a White woman.” This is an extremely disheartening thought. But beyond anger, one article finely conveyed my feelings towards Clinton now. This article, “A Lament for Hillary Clinton, The Woman” writes, “The shattering of one woman’s career aspirations are no tragedy compared with the globally catastrophic effects of a Trump presidency or even just the awful knowledge that half of the American people are on his side. But I can’t help thinking right now about Hillary Clinton as a person, rather than a symbol. She’s a woman who stayed so strong for so many years, but who is, after all, only human. And she’s a woman who many of us have grown to love.”

It’s a feeling of quiet heartache, but also of quiet admiration. While the results may have shattered not just the dreams of one woman, but the dreams of a woman too many, it reveals a lot about the salience of the status quo, and reminds women that our fight for equality has far from ended, and it is of utmost importance to lean in on opportunities with even more grit and perseverance.

To quote Clinton herself, “To all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.

Race

Another theme that was just as important was race. A moving excerpt from CNN showed Van Jones, a political commentator, commenting that this election was a “white-lash against a changing country, against a black president”. This point of view corroborates with other articles such as “Taking Trump voters’ concerns seriously means listening to what they’re actually saying” which rightly point out that it would be a blatant mistake to disregard the decisive role that race played, and muddle it with economic issues. These perspectives are backed by evidences from exit polls, which clearly showed that Donald Trump won because of the overwhelming support he gained from working class white men.

While I do not wish to under-estimate the effects of race on this election, I do not wish to over-estimate its influence either. After all, other post-election analysis such as “How Trump Won the Election According to Exit Polls” showed that while a majority of minorities continue to vote for Democrats, their votes actually fell compared to previous elections. This appears surprising in light of all the racist comments that Trump made.

At this point, I would like to bring in a concept that my sociology professor quoted from works of other sociologists on race, “Race is a smoke screen for what is essentially a class difference.” The salience of race comes from the fact that people of different races obtained differential material resources. If more minorities are supporting Donald Trump than before, then it becomes clear that the issue transcends race. Yet, the discourse surrounding race in this election has often been about the symbolic differences of race. For example, emotions run high on how Donald Trump’s racist comments are morally distasteful, simply because it’s racist. While nobody would disregard these comments as untrue, they seem to be missing the core of the issue – that what the minorities needed were not lofty concepts of respect, love, freedom and more, but concrete jobs and income.

Class

Unfortunately, I find that the issue of class was only brought to the forefront after the election, as many try to justify the triumph of Trump. One such article that has only gained further attention after the election is “Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump. Here’s why“. I think this article is important at so many levels because of the 3 important issues that it covers – Trade, Globalisation and the Media.

First, globalisation and free trade has had a toll on the lower-income or unemployed Americans who suffered when American companies moved to other countries with lower production costs. Additionally, migration has also led to loss of jobs for locals. The article writes that “A map of his support may coordinate with racist Google searches, but it coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America.

From an outsider point of view, and from the point of view of the educated class, it is often taken for granted that free trade is obviously beneficial, and taking in migrants is obviously the most noble thing a country that hinges upon the concept of diversity can do.

But who are we? Along the way, we’ve stopped questioning that. If we take a moment to reflect, it is true in some sense that we could have been speaking from an ivory tower. We are the educated class, the ones who are privileged enough to go to universities, the ones who are often socialised to take offence with authoritarianism, racism and sexism. But if we accuse Trump of extremism, I can see how from his supporters and his point of view, it must be equally extreme, or even naive, for the other side to pretend that free trade does not lead to the loss of jobs among locals, or that large-scale immigration does not threaten the social stability of a country. It is not to say that Clinton entirely ignores the negative effects of trade, globalisation or immigration, but the concerns of the affected group are not sufficiently addressed.

And what are we influenced by? Other than our schools, we are also influenced by the media. One thing that constantly baffles me is this – if social media is all that powerful, how did Trump manage to win despite the number of popular celebrities who had come forward to pledge their support for Clinton, and the countless reports from media outlets that have exposed the ugly truths about Trump? The article “Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally” hits the nail on the head. Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel provides examples for this, “When (Trump’s supporters) hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment or things like that, the question is not ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is ‘We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.’ ‘We’re going to try to figure out how do we strike the right balance between costs and benefits.’ ”

This situation shows that the media has failed to represent the voices of the working class. Thus, on polls and social media, it might seem that the conditions are favourable for Clinton, when the reality paints a starkly different picture. People who find the results difficult to understand might have been the exact group of people conditioned by the media to similarly undermine Trump just as a racist, misogynic and bigot person, without coming to terms with the fact that his concerns might reflect very real concerns of a significant group of people in America. Trump’s supporters could have very well voted based on daily struggles that most of us are blinded to.

The most saddening outcome of this is that by extension, people perceive Trump supporters just as racist, misogynic and bigot people as well. Instead of being a voice for all Americans, the media has polarised the views of the population, making it difficult for either side to reconcile with the views of the other. Since the results were released, many netizens have been lashing out on Trump supporters, without recognising that they too are aggravating divisions based on political and class lines, in the process of claiming to promote unity on race and gender.

This is why I refuse to make sweeping allegations like these. And I believe that no one should do so, no matter how upset they are. In a wonderful TED talk “Can a divided America heal?“, social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt talks about the distinction between anger and disgust. There can still be love in anger and disagreements. However, disgust operates at a much deeper and hurtful level. He says, “Disgust paints the person as subhuman, monstrous, morally deformed… As we demonise each other more, as the manichaean worldview that the world is a battle between the good and the evil ramps up, we’re more likely not just to say they’re wrong, I don’t like them, but we say they’re evil, they’re satanic… and then we want nothing to do with them. Thus, it is of utmost importance to view the concerns of Trump supporters as real and legitimate, and not simply sweep it aside as ludicrous or even inhumane.

Singapore

Back at home, I can’t help but reflect on my nation’s obsession with pragmatism. In the previous years of elections in Singapore, I always recall a kind of disdain for bread and barter issues whenever we discuss about the elections in school. We conveniently choose to believe that Singapore has reached a high level of economic prosperity. Thus, it’s time to dwell into deeper issues of sexuality and freedom of speech and more. But we have always been cautioned to never treat our economic prosperity for granted, I think I now understand why. While issues of sexuality and freedom of speech are undeniably important (not just for the rich, but for everyone), I’m also reminded of all the invisible poor who must have felt so left behind when we assume that poverty is an issue of the past.

Another thing that struck me is Singapore’s stubborn stance on authoritarianism. I call it stubborn because the government has consistently reminded us of the possible failings of democracy regardless of how foreigners continue to judge us for being un-democratic in this modern era of democracy. Yet, it is not until now that I have learnt to truly understand the imperfections of democracy. I call it an imperfection, not a failure, because no one would really be able to judge the actual repercussions of this election until much later. After all, who is to say that Americans made a wrong decision? Nevertheless, the election brings up an important question – can the people really be trusted to make a wise decision for the nation? For America, whose “constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power,” as Clinton puts it, the answer has to be yes. Every decision, good or bad, would most definitely be a learning point for America, and for the rest of the world.

One last thing that I have always taken for granted is racial harmony in Singapore. Honestly, I think that race is something that Singaporeans of the younger generation don’t consider very much about. When the government constantly harps on the importance of racial harmony, we dismiss it like a reminder from a naggy parent. But racial tensions can be very real, and it is high time we realise that we do have a lot to reconsider and protect.

Conclusion

I call this election an emotional rollercoaster because of the whole range of emotions I’ve experienced since the very beginning. After the election, I experienced shock, sadness and heartache. But as the day went by, and more introspection kicked in, there was much more sympathy, empathy and peace in my mind.

While others may think that a lot has changed overnight, I beg to differ. For anyone who has a cause to fight for, nothing has changed and nothing should have changed. The societal background may appear different, but efforts ought to continue. For all the young people in the world, Clinton is right to say that we should “never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it”regardless of the process and the outcome.

Humanity can be divided along a thousand and one lines, but I would like to end this post with a beautiful quote by a poet, Rumi.

“Out beyond ideas of
wrong-doing and right-doing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there. 

On achievement and the celebration of success

A while ago, an opinion article on Straits Times, “Top PSLE scorers, take a bow” struck a resounding chord in me. The topic is especially relatable as the author, Chua Mui Hoong’s “quite-good-but-not-stellar” education trajectory is rather similar to my own, as well as many other friends around me.

At primary six, I managed to score well enough to enter Nanyang Girls’ High School (NYGH), a school which I had not expected myself to enter. On my first day of school, I remember the immense sense of pride I gained when I wore my white and crisp uniform, or what we fondly call the hongzi ( 红字).

Yet, the same uniform which brought me pride also brought me a handful of unpleasant memories. Once, when I visited my primary school to celebrate teachers day, a boy almost ran a bicycle into my friends and I. He shouted, “Good school so what? Don’t be so proud la.”

I was shocked by the incident because the boy was a school mate I had never known in primary school. At the young age of 13, I could not register how my being as a student of NYGH could bring so much resentment, such that a person could judge me by virtue of the uniform I wore, and the school it represented.

After secondary school, I moved on to Hwa Chong Junior College (HCJC) under the Integrated Programme (IP). Similar to the writer, I got few As compared to other friends in JC. But when some of my friends posted their stellar results on social media and share their education journey in JC, I never hesitated about congratulating them and giving them the full respect they deserve. When some friends expressed their regret of getting a “B” instead of an “A”, I could understand their disappointment and never hesitated about encouraging them and giving them the concern they deserve.

Outsiders may scorn them and think that they are being boastful and elitist. After all, students in HCJC could have done well largely because of greater resources. And shouldn’t a student be contented with a “B”? There are many other students in Singapore who do not even have the chance to enter JC. Furthermore, in the long run, our A level results do not matter as much as our university results anyway.

All these comments are fairly reasonable. Interestingly, these comments do not just come from the public, but also from students in the school itself. But still, I can understand their jubilation when they had done well, and their disappointment when they had not done as well as they expected, even if their score is good enough by the standard of others.

As a student, I had seen friends who juggled academics and heavy commitments in their co-curricular activities (CCA). Depending on the nature of the CCA, practices could go up to two to three times a week, and there might even be practices on weekends during concert period for performing arts CCA and the competition period for sports CCA. After the peak periods of a CCA, students would spend long hours studying in the library and reading room to catch up on their studies. When examinations drew near, tables outside the staff rooms would be filled to the brim during lunch time and sometimes, both teachers and students would get by lunch with only a simple sandwich from the canteen.

People may say, “Wah, so kiasu.” and indeed HC students can be very kiasu. But within that also lies a deep drive to achieve excellence and an unwillingness to let reasons such as CCA commitments become excuses to not do well.

Do all HCJC do well naturally? I would say that that may be true for a special few, but for the large majority, academic excellence requires a immense amount of sacrifice of time spent with friends and family, and a great amount of effort. As a result, students in HCJC may be labelled as nerds who are overly academic driven, but I believe that it is only right for everyone to be given the right to pursue what they think ought to be pursued.

If a student choose to spend lesser time in studying to spend more time with his passion in cooking, volunteering, or just spending time with his or her family and friends, that’s okay. But if another student chooses to strive for academic excellence, that’s okay as well, and his or her stellar results should not be treated as a given because there is nothing innately natural about it. More importantly, a student should never have to hide their achievements for fear of uncalled for envy and unreasonable insults, like the kind I received when I was 13.

I had a friend who once told me that A levels isn’t really a test of brains, but a test of grit. First, that applies to the perseverance one must have throughout JC. It truly is a marathon and all stakes are banked in on the very final run. Second, the exam itself deserves a mention. A large number of papers take three gruelling hours to complete, and all students had to write faster than they ever did in their lifetime.

Thus, when I got my results and found out that I got ABBC/A, as compared to my friends who mostly received straight As, I felt slightly dejected, but I was not surprised. I had seen what these friends had put in to succeed and what is required to do well. I know very well the kind of people who would excel – the ones who struggled, persevered and worked harder than anyone else – and I was not it. As much as I regretted, I also fully understood how difficult the journey was for them, and was deeply convinced that their spirit of excellence will inspire me to do better in the future.

Surely it is true that national exams like PSLE and A levels do not mean everything, but I fully agree with Chua when she said that “The PSLE result won’t define the rest of your life. But at this moment, your achievement is something you should feel proud of…” Each success is a precious product of years of hard work and it ought be celebrated for, not for the fact that it may guarantee one a secure future, and position one ahead of his or her counterparts, but because it truly embodies the idea that you reap what you sow.

However, while I agree that academic excellence should be lauded, I also believe that every student in elite schools such as HCJC, from every top scorer, to every ordinary student, myself included, ought to recognise just how privileged we are. Regardless of our grades, we were blessed with dedicated teachers, exceptional facilities, and above all a culture and environment that motivated us to do reasonably well.

Similarly, for all the top scorers of PSLE, while I believe strongly that they should be acknowledged, that acknowledgement must come hand in hand with a deep sense of appreciation for all the other players, such as teachers, friends and family members who had played a part. It should never be a celebration of one’s success, but the celebration for the success of all these contributors as well.

Next, there should also be no denial that inequality exists to causes differences in achievement of students. That could come in the form of different physical and intellectual abilities, different class background, and more. It may be too idealistic, but perhaps the solution is not to discredit top-scorers for their academic excellence due to possible innate advantages that they hold, but to direct resources more less discriminatorily.

I am uncertain about the resources other schools have, but I certainly wished that every student would have had the opportunities and facilities I had in NYGH and HCJC, so that they too can have a chance to succeed in areas they are interested in.

I would like to raise a quote by one of the most inspiring youtube star, Jenn Im. In one of the youtube video, titled “10 Things I Learned in College”, she said, “It doesn’t matter where you got accepted to, where you got rejected, because college is what you make it. You can go to an Ivy League School and learn nothing because you didn’t want to learn anything.”

I chose this quote to illustrate that this post is not about students in elite schools. Instead, it is about every student in every school in every country. One’s achievement does bring glory to his or her school. Yet, plenty of times, achievements of individuals may become an unhealthy rivalry between schools. That is understandably one of the reasons why Ministry of Education (MOE) and the media refrain to share the results of top scorers.

Most achievers become nameless individuals who become part of cold hard facts and statistics such as “50% of the school population received 4 H2 As, highest since XXXX”. But, an achievement is something more personal than that. It encompasses individual struggles that only people closest to these students may know.

Thus, I also believe that acknowledgement do not only have to come from the media or from MOE. Success can be publicly celebrated, but it is the acknowledgement from parents, teachers, peers or even the students himself or herself that may be even more important.

Once, I overheard a conversation on the bus. It went roughly like this:

Mother: Girl, how much did you get this time?
Daughter: I got 45/50.
Mother: Oh, what is the highest in class?
Daughter: I don’t know, teacher never say.
Mother: How about your friend? What did she get?
Daughter: I’m not very sure, I think she got higher than me.

Upon listening to this conversation, I just wondered: must the girl’s results be judged comparatively to others before her mother can decide whether or not it is good or bad? This incident proved that while MOE may avoid revealing results to avoid comparisons, mindsets of parents are acutely difficult to change.

I certainly hoped that when they got home, the mother would take a look at her paper and assess for herself whether or not the child has improved. Did she stop making the same mistakes? Was the paper harder than before? Did she understand the concepts she could not understand previously?

If the answer is yes, I would have loved for the mother to give a pat on her daughter’s shoulders, and say “Great job, my dear girl.” That simple phrase, I believe, would have given the daughter a greater sense of achievement than acknowledgement given from anyone else.

The Oil Paradox and Global Inequality

Since I will be taking a module on sociology of inequality this semester, I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts on inequality based on a limited knowledge of the recent oil crash after reading 2 articles from the straits times “A year to take advantage of cheap oil” and “Understanding the oil crash”.

On 7th January 2015, Brent crude oil yesterday fell below US$50 (S$67) a barrel for the first time since May 2009. I was rather perplexed by this phenomenon because the reactions seem rather mixed. I then realised that this was because the plunge of oil prices have different impacts on producers and consumers.

The plunge in oil prices is mainly caused by the shale revolution in America, which enables America to extract shale oil and gas which were untapped on previously. This has increased the supply of oil significantly. However, oil companies in Saudi Arabia do not wish to decrease their supply as they would want to drive out their American counterparts by lowering their profits further.

At the same time, the fall in oil prices is also worrying as it signifies that the demand for oil is low and that economic growth is slowing down. Developing countries such as China are not growing as much as they were.

For oil importers and consumers, especially developing countries such as China, a fall in oil prices indicate lower cost of production for industries, lower inflation and stimulate the economy.

On the other hand, for oil exporters and producers, especially countries such as Saudi Arabia and America, lower oil prices will indicate a fall in profits. In the past, a fall in oil prices might have been a good thing for industries in America, but the rapid growth of oil companies also mean that they make up a larger part of the economy and have a greater impact on the stocks in the market, thus leading to a plunge in stocks in America. (The plunge in stocks can also be attributed to other reasons such as a weakening Euro caused by political instability in Greece. This has raised fears and uncertainties about the eurozone and the global economy.)

This made me recall a statement my Integrated Humanities teacher made in class. He said, “When someone becomes richer, it must be that money is taken away someone else. When someone becomes poorer, it must be that money is taken away from him and given to someone else.” In that sense, the world economy acts like a zero sum game, whereby one person’s gain is equivalent to another person’s loss.

When I was young, I used to think that one will become richer by his own effort. If he is poor, he must get a job and work harder to earn more money. (I believe this is the effect of meritocracy in Singapore’s education.) It is only when I grew up and learnt more about economics that I realised that our personal wealth is not just controlled by our own efforts.

If any global phenomenon, such as the plunge in oil prices definitely mean that some countries will gain in some aspects, while others will lose, does that mean the global equality can never be reached?

Then, I started realising that perhaps, if we choose to define equality simply in the monetary sense, we have to accept that equality can never be achieved. Well, we even had different natural endowments in the first place. For example, Singapore didn’t have an abundance of natural resources, but we are well endowed with a strategic location and a relative lack of natural disasters.

However, if we redefine our definition of equality and broaden it to include other aspects such as a stable society, beautiful sceneries and a general satisfaction of life, it could be possible that different countries in the world is not unequal, but merely different.

Once, a friend of mine, embarked on trip to India for a mission trip. She returned sharing about how the people there are rather satisfied with their lives and even strive to share whatever they have in their house with their guests. They needed no sympathy, even though they are “poor”. This is because, they are only poor by our standards. This is typical of ethnocentrism, whereby people of a culture judge people of another culture by their own culture’s yardstick and standards.

A food for thought before I take my first lecture on sociology of inequality in school this week.

Sources:
1. A year to take advantage of cheap oil: http://www.straitstimes.com/news/opinion/more-opinion-stories/story/year-take-advantage-cheap-oil-20150106
2. Understanding the oil crash: http://www.straitstimes.com/news/opinion/more-opinion-stories/story/understanding-the-oil-crash-20141205
3. Alarm bells ring as oil dips below US$50: http://www.onenewspage.com/n/Asia-Pacific/754uw3q7n/Alarm-bells-ring-as-oil-dips-below-US.htm

Thoughts on National Identity in Conjunction with SG50

In a straits times article published on 2nd january, written by William Wan (http://www.straitstimes.com/news/opinion/more-opinion-stories/story/pink-ic-and-red-passport-not-enough-make-you-singaporean-201), William Wan reflects upon what it means to be a Singaporean. He notes how “cultural identity can be a source of division, focused as it is on the differences between communities, including race, practices, food and socio-economic status”. Hence, Singaporeans have to recognise and accept that “Singaporeans have to find a delicate balance…We have to foster an identity that is embedded in our cultures, yet not over-emphasise differences that inherently exist among the different communities.”

This is exceptionally true and it could be the reason why Singapore clings on to our identity as a country that is multi-cultural and multi-racial, even though they may not be true in some aspects. While tolerance is seemed as an unsatisfying and imperfect solution to our diversity, assimilation is seen as a naive approach for a country with a presence of such distinctly different cultures. Forcing citizens to abandon their cultural roots for a unified identity may only incite mistrust among races and religions because it raises the question of: Who has the power to decide what identity Singapore should take?

The government has often taken a top-down approach in addressing the issue of nation building. On national day, the narrative of how Singapore grew from a fishing village to a modern metropolis is presented to Singaporeans time and again, as an attempt to remind us where we came from. As William Wan writes, “The default solution, almost inevitably is to present a medley of Mandarin, Malay and Tamil songs that we sing in school on Racial Harmony Day and at the National Day Parade Celebrations.” These narratives are almost seen as commercialised especially when they are used to publicise Singapore’s culture in the aspect of tourism. It is questionable if these narratives and ethnic songs are truly representative of the Singapore Spirit.

Admittedly, a lot of what Singapore is today is created under the Lee Kuan Yew regime. This ranges from housing, economy to ideologies. Singapore is also often described as a miracle. “A mere 50 years ago, Singapore didn’t even exist as an independent state. We were Malaysian then and, before that, subjects of the British Crown. Before the more recent waves of immigrants, fewer than half of us could claim that our parents were born here. ” While this is a miracle that many Singaporeans are proud of, it shows why the problem of culture is such a difficult question for us. Apart from a geographically strategic position on the world map and a successful port, we do not have natural resources and land. As a result, a lot of Singapore’s success relies on policies and opportunities that are created with the vision of the government. The economy was a priority back then, anything related to identity and culture could wait. Ironically, this pursuit of economic progress was exactly a factor that attracted a large influx of immigrants in the past, which also contributed to the current problems of culture and national identity in Singapore.

However, as a nation matures, it is important for Singapore to find its own identity, from a bottom-up approach.

In sociology class, one definition of “culture” appealed most to me. Culture is defined broadly as “all the ideas, practices, and material objects that people create to deal with real-life problems”. Perhaps this is why instead of characteristics like multi-cultural or multi-racial, Singaporeans identify themselves more with attributes such as hardworking, kiasu or practical. This is because they are the attributes which have helped us overcome daily problems or crises such as the 2009 economic crisis or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003.

I like this definition of culture, because it suggests that perhaps National Identity is something that just is, not something we have to consciously find or even create. It is something that is embedded in our daily lives as we solve problems, no matter how big or small they are. When citizens of two races meet at the lift each day, they are once again reminded of their distinct differences through the colour of their skin, and the language they speak. However, the conscious decision to accept each other’s presence each day, regardless of whether it is merely tolerance, or true assimilation of the races, is what makes Singaporeans uniquely Singaporean. When the economy is down, and Singaporeans become more aware of their finances, it is how they will go the extra mile to seek for discounts in supermarkets or shopping malls that depict the Singaporean Spirit of kiasuism (fear of losing out).

In the last part of his article, Willam Wan provides his opinion on what National Identity means to him. “The only thing that matters, the only thing that should matter, is that one makes the decision to be Singaporean, to call this island home, and to contribute to making it our best and only home.” In recent years, blogposts such as a letter written in 2012 by a Singaporean blogger, Zing, about leaving Singapore and another article, “Why I’m leaving Singapore” written in 2013 by another blogger, Danny Dover, reflects the trend of young Singaporeans leaving Singapore for other countries with supposed better prospects.

While individual choices ought to be respected, my personal opinion leans toward William’s opinion. I believe that while identity is becoming a fluid concept because of globalisation, what makes Singapore uniquely Singapore is how Singaporeans learn to take ownership of the problems we observe in this place we call home. It is my hope that we will choose to stay even when things get rough, and not simply leave when things do not go our way. After all, the grass is greener where you water it.