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!)

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Alien Tongues, Brilliant Minds

One year ago, during one of my tutorial classes, I met a classmate from China, J, who was on exchange in Singapore then. The professor split all of us up into small groups to discuss answers for the tutorial questions. J ended up in the same discussion group as me.

As soon as we settled into our groups, J began flipping through his stack of assigned readings which were filled with boundless highlights, underlines and scribbles. He also brought along two pieces of foolscap paper, in which the answers to the tutorial questions had already been written down neatly.

Peculiarly, even though he had evidently prepared for the questions, he did not speak much during our discussion at all. When he did, he always stumbled over his words, and we always end up finishing all his sentences, or worse, making up new sentences for him.

To be very honest, in a curious way, I had felt a inexplicable sense of superiority over him there and then. That was despite the fact that I knew I had come to class half as prepared as he was. I was leading the discussion; I was expressing (his) ideas to the group confidently; I was speaking fluently in English.

After the tutorial, we chatted a little, and I found out surprisingly that he came from Fudan University, the university that I was about to go for student exchange the following semester! We exchanged contacts excitedly, and headed off to our next classes.

Fast forward one semester later, I realised that not only was I in the same university as him, we were taking the same course too. That course required us to do a group project, and J was kind enough to approach me to join his project group, considering that I did not know anyone there, and that local students tend not to group with students on exchange for fear that they will slack off.

On my way to our first meeting, I remember being rather nervous. I had done some research prior to the meeting, and I wished I would come off as helpful during the meeting – just not some slacker on exchange basically.

Upon the arrival of other group mates, J enthusiastically introduced me to them as “the new singaporean exchanger in school”. As we started our meeting, there were two things that struck me immediately. First, J was clearly the unofficial leader of the group. He shared with us the outline of the project that he had in mind, and asked for our opinions. He was SO confident, so in control, so different from the person I had known in the classroom just one semester ago.

Second, amidst streams of Chinese sociology terminologies, I was clearly … lost. Sure, J made the effort to pause time to time to explain what the terms meant to me, but I felt a little more embarrassed than comforted because I felt that I was wasting my group mates’ time. I later tried to express my project ideas to them in choppy Singaporean Chinese, and was not the least surprised that none of my ideas were adopted eventually.

I left the meeting feeling extremely shi*ty about myself.

That module was my hardest module that semester in Fudan University. I spent a lot of time in class getting awed at just how brilliant my classmates were, and getting upset at just how inferior I was to them. I spent a week ploughing through Chinese articles for our project, and only managed to churn out a page or two out of our twelve page report.

In spite of all of that, I must say that this experience was such a humbling one. The stark contrast between the sense of superiority I had felt back home and the sense of inferiority I had felt in a foreign land taught me this – to never judge the mind of a person by his or her language (or the lack thereof).

In my Cultural Anthropology class, we learnt that language is an integral part of one’s cultural capital. It signifies your class and group membership. As a result, we often mistake one’s inadequacy in language for one’s stupidity (sorry for the lack of a better word), and one’s proficiency in language for one’s brilliance.

For example, in the case of foreign workers in Singapore, many would perceive them as less educated, or worse – less than human – simply because they engage in low-paying jobs and speak a language foreign to us. But upon befriending these workers, I realised that their views are much deeper and more profound than I can ever imagine. Some would speak of politics back home in Bangladesh and others would share about their pursuit of further studies in Singapore.

So, I don’t know if intelligence can be objectively measured, but I sure do know that the perception of one’s intelligence is relative, subjective, and perhaps even constructed. You can totally be a genius in one culture, and be an absolute idiot in another.

There is a time, a place, and most importantly, a culture for everyone to shine. And none of us have the right to judge anyone (or ourselves) just when and where that may be.

Treat People as Humans, not Specimens

Today, I decided to head to Shanghai’s People’s Park (人民公园) for a fieldwork for my Marriage and Family module. People’s Park is renowned for its marriage market, where distressed parents put up qualities of their unwed children, in hopes of finding their children suitable partners for marriage. I couldn’t decide on a topic for my final paper, so I thought I’d find some inspiration there.

With my DSLR slung on my neck, and a notebook and a pen in my bag, I was ready to hit the busy crowd of People’s Park. Upon arrival, a swarm of sociologically interesting sights and scenes overwhelmed me – the sheer number of elderly “promoting” their children, their conversations with one another, the umbrellas with the children’s qualifications and the parents’ expectations of their partners attached to them and more. I began snapping away. Ah, an old lady looking for a partner for her child even when she’s wheel chair bound? Take the photo quick. It’d make an interesting photograph (with a story that is).

“小妹!(Miss!), ” someone called out to me. I turned behind, slightly surprised to find an old lady who asked me, “你拍这些照是干什么的?你是记者吗? (Why are you taking these photos? Are you a journalist?)” I thought she looked kind of hostile, probably because she thought I was another journalist, trying to dig some news about unique Chinese traditions, and taking street photos of these elderly without permission. I immediately diffused the tension with an awkward smile, explaining that I’m an exchange student from Singapore who’s just here out of curiosity. To my relief, she let her guards down, and even started chatting with me about her situation, why she was worried that her daughter would not find a partner, the imbalanced gender ratio in China and more. Later, this conversation led to the next, as I spoke to her friend next to her as well.

Not bad, I thought, this fieldwork research was progressing better than I had expected. I had felt rather jittery before coming here, because nothing scares me more than having to approach strangers, and attempting to make conversations that are hopefully sociologically valuable. But there I was, having found someone who resembled the “Doc” in a sociology classic, Street Corner Society. For the benefit of non-sociology readers, this means having found someone who is willing and able to help you infiltrate into a group that you are studying. This is perhaps one of the most crucial steps for a sociologist during fieldwork – to become an insider instead of an outsider.

2 interviewees down. I reviewed the information I received again, and figured that while the old lady and her friend provided me useful details, their circumstances were too similar. I need variety in this sample. So thereafter, I took another stroll around People’s Park. Then, I saw an old man who is advertising for his daughter and son, which was rare since most people in their generation only had one child due to the one child policy. I saw elderly advertising for their children who are studying or working overseas. I also saw a 40 year-old lady advertising for herself, plausibly the only one in the marriage market thus far.

Good. Let me talk to all 3 then. That’ll make the number of interviewees 5. Whole numbers sound good to me anyway. So, having tasted a few successes with my previous “interviewees”, I approached the lady advertising for herself next, with more confidence than I had initially.

“你好勇敢哦。你是我在这里看到的,第一个为自己找伴侣的。(You’re so brave. You are the first person I’ve seen here, who is finding a partner for yourself.)”

She let out an awkward smile.

I started to worry a little. She reacted to my comment, but did not say anything after that. How should I continue this conversation?

“你在这里多久了?(How long have you been here?)”I asked. I considered it quite a basic question to ask, since I had asked the same question to the old lady and her friend before, and this question opened them up to sharing just how worried they are about their children, because they had tried so long but to no avail.

“有一段时间了。(It has been some time.)” This answer left me dissatisfied. ‘Some time’ is too vague. For the research to be more significant, more specific answers are needed.

I knew for a fact that the conversation was going nowhere. She was not open in sharing more information. Was it because she did not trust me, considering that I was just a random stranger? At this point of time, I panicked. It’s a bad habit of mine to slur my words when I feel that I have lost control in a conversation, and especially when I feel that the other party distrusts me or does not feel comfortable around me.

“其实,其实我是个学生。因为好奇,才来这里看看的…… 嗯,我是读社会学的。所以对婚姻与家庭比较感兴趣。(Actually, actually, I’m a student. I’m here only out of curiosity… Erm, I study sociology, so I’m rather interested in issues of marriage and family,)” I explained, as if to justify the slew of questions that might have seemed strange to her.

She simply nodded her head. I immediately knew that I was fighting a losing battle here. Should I let the conversation end? But she’s the only person advertising for herself at People’s Park here. Since it is so rare, I have to put this in my findings. I just have to. How many weeks, days, or months has she been here? Has she tried finding a marriage partner through dating apps instead? Aren’t the chances of finding a marriage partner here much smaller? Why is she still here then? Why is it her but not her parents who are here? I still have so many questions left unanswered. I can’t just stop the conversation here.

I decided to try again, “你想要来这里是你自己的意思吗?还是父母要你来的?你的父母会担心 –?(Did you come here on your own accord? Or were you pressurised by your parents? Are your parents worried – ?)”

She cut me off – not rudely – and said, “你能不能不要问了呀,你问了我心里很难受。(Do you mind if you stopped asking me questions? It is making me feel very upset.)

That was clearly the last straw for her. I halted, expressed my apologies hastily, and walked away.

I couldn’t quite remember where I headed to after that, except that I ended up finding a rock in the middle of nowhere in the park, and sat there sobbing uncontrollably for god knows how long.

‘WTF were you thinking?’ I asked myself again and again. A pang of guilt hit me real hard, because I suddenly realised how hurtful my questions must have been to her for her to let out such a begging request. What’s worse was that I had not even realised it prior to her stopping me.

It had to take this much for me to start empathising with her. Now, imagine for a moment that you’re unmarried at the age of 40. That’s notwithstanding the fact that you are a female in a culture where women are expected to wed before the age of 30. Here you are at People’s Park, having mustered all your courage to find a partner for yourself. Most people here are desperate parents, and you stick out like a sore thumb. Streams of people walk by, evaluating you from your job, your educational qualifications, your hukou status to your height, your weight, your face… basically everything. You don’t quite like that, but you do it anyway not just because you “have time to spare” but because you buy in the idea that time is running out for you as a woman. Single children are often unhappy when their parents advertise for them. You are different though. You don’t mind it that much. In fact, you choose to find a partner by yourself. Because the one thing that you want more than anything else is to be – happy. The thing is, you have been doing this every week for weeks and months now and still, nothing much has changed.

One day, out of the blue, a wide-eyed student approaches you, and commends you for being brave. Should you take that as compliment or mockery? She asks you, “How long have you been here?” Should you tell her you have been here for months and still nobody wants you? She tells you that she’s a sociology major. So she’s speaking to you now because…? Because you’re not ‘normal’ like everyone else in society? How should you feel about that? She asks you why you are here. Is that even a question? If you were happily married like most women of your age, is there a need to be here at all? And the worst of them all – she asks persistently, with an irksome oblivion of the luxury of time she has as a lady right in the dawn of her youth. How small must you have seemed to her?

I imagined how hurt I would have felt had I been in her shoes, and these thoughts crushed me. It might sound a tad too dramatic, but it is close to, or I can say, downright unethical to exploit someone’s pain just for the sake of “research”, not to mention in such an insensitive and crude way. The whole time, I was so caught up with fulfilling my interviewee count and quenching my thirst for answers to “important” questions, that I overlooked the most important but taken for granted fact that here in front of me is a living breathing being with a personal history unbeknownst to anyone but herself.

When I eventually calmed myself down, I tried making up to her the only way I knew how to, which was to write. I took out a piece of paper, wrote her a letter expressing my sincerest apologies, and had just enough courage to hand it to her. I had always known spoken language to be my nemesis, but I had wished then that my written language could heal in someway or another.

Never embarrass your respondent; your respondent is your priority; talk through sensitive topics empathetically so that your respondent will be open to sharing more, my teachers say. Yet, no amount of lessons can prepare anyone for the real deal. I won’t deny that today made me doubt if I can do qualitative research work or just about anything that requires me to speak to people a lot in the future. That to me is quite very tragic because as much as I desire to connect with people and understand the intricacies that come with them, I unfortunately still lack the means to do so. I’m not new to this realisation that has gnawed at me for years and years now, but that’s a topic for another day. Conversing with grace, and above all, tenderness, is an art that I might very well take a lifetime to master, but I’d gladly take today’s encounter as a lesson anyway.

The Poor and the Poorer

In one of my sociology of deviance lectures, I learnt about the distinction between two concepts of poverty – absolute deprivation and relative deprivation. 

Instead of telling us what it is directly, Prof Gana shared with us two true stories of three children.


#1

Here’s the story of Bill and Jack. 

One day, Bill and Jack were caught for stealing flowerpots from HDB flats and selling them to the nursery for about $4-5 per pot. The conversation between Prof Gana and the children went as such: 

Bill: Sir, how much you earn?
Prof: (pause) Enough to get by.
Jack: No la, he study very hard one. I’m sure his pay ah, about $800!
Bill: Maybe $1000? Wah.. you earn so much. 

As a matter of fact, they had an elder brother. But he passed away. Cause of death? Falling from a HDB block while trying to steal a bird cage that was hung on the ceiling.

#2

Here’s the story of Anna.

One day, Anna went back home crying.

Father: Dear, why are you crying?
Anna: Papa… why are we so poor??
Father: Poor? What do you mean?
Anna: All my friends’ houses have backyards in their homes, but we don’t have!!

As a matter of fact, they lived in a high-end condominium in Bukit Timah district.


These stories haunt me till today. In my prof’s words, “For Bill and Jack, they were so poor that the limits of their material mind was only at $800-1000. $800 was such a big money, which was why they were willing to go behind bars for selling a potted plant for $4. In contrast, Anna’s story just shows us that the pursuit of material wealth is basically a bottomless pit.”

I wish I could dismiss Anna’s point of view and condemn her as greedy and insatiable as others would. But I have to admit that the feeling of greed, of jealousy, of desire, is very real. I know, because like many others, I’ve experienced it on my own as well.

I recall one night when I went home looking all gloomy and upset. I had caught up with an old friend over lunch that day. During lunch, we talked about where all our classmates are up to these days. Almost all of them are studying overseas, and doing degrees such as medicine and law.

Sure, I’m extremely happy for them. But there was just something gnawing at my guts.

When I went home, my terrible mood was written all over my face. Again, I can’t seem to hide anything from my Mum, so she asked, “What’s wrong?” It wasn’t long before tears starting welling up my eyes and I started breaking down, and sobbing uncontrollably.

I told her about all the great universities my friends are studying at, all the great things they are doing in school, the great life that they are leading. My Mum looked at me in the eye, and said all the things that all mothers would say.

“You can’t compare yourself with others. Everyone can succeed in different fields.

“Studying medicine or law doesn’t make them more successful. It’s what they make of the degree in the future that determines how successful they are.”

Then, she continued quoting stories of her relatives – how they are rich and successful, but lead lonely lives, or are not people worthy of respect, so on and so forth.

She never realised that the whole time, her words were drowned out by my inner dialogue. Till today, I’m not sure whether or not she knew why I cried. She didn’t ask, and I didn’t mention, for fear that she would feel hurt.

I knew that my friends were clever, smart and wonderful people. But the thing is, I never saw myself as a person of any less virtue or stature as them. I knew for a clear fact that, what most of them had that I don’t was a family that could afford to send me abroad for an overseas education, without scholarship that is.

Just as my friend once said, “There comes a point of time when meritocracy ends.” And I think there is some ugly truth to this statement. So, at that moment, there and then, I caught myself asking the same question as Anna did.

“Why am I so poor?”

I asked myself that question, knowing fully well that I am not poor. My family is not struggling to make ends meet. I live comfortably with a shelter over my head. My family owns a car. My family travels to other countries whenever we can.

So maybe, then, the question I should have asked myself is this.

“Why am I poorer than others?”

But at this point I’m sensible enough to be aware that posing a question like this has no end. Other than the richest person on earth, 99.99999999999999999% of the world is poorer than at least one other person. Yet, we continue to strive to climb further and further up.

We have long been taught the “how” to be rich and successful – study your assess off, get a great job (best as a doctor, or lawyer), buy a house, buy a car, marry someone nice, bear two kids, and live happily ever after. Our teachers – parents, friends, and the almighty social media has done a very good job at that.

To put things into more specific context, for students, the “how” looks more like this – enrol in a top primary school, go for endless tuition and enrichments classes, excel in PSLE, enter the top secondary school (preferably a school that offers Integrated Programme – so you can skip O levels altogether), enter a top JC … the ultimate dream is of course to enrol in an Ivy League school in the US, or Oxbridge in the UK. And of course, spam your friends’ social media feed with amazing photos of your summer getaways to Niagara Falls or the Antelope Canyon.

But. Why though?

Nobody really teaches us, or tells us the “why”. It’s one thing to desire and pursue all of these, but do we really want to pursue all of these just for the sake of it? Just to check things off our bucket list?

I guess that “why” is something we’ll constantly have to navigate for, and navigate towards for the rest of our lives. We’ll have to roll our sleeves up and get in the dirt. We’ll have to quietly accept the kind of lives and lifestyles we are not endowed with, and make the hard decisions as to how much of ourselves we want to put in to pursue THE life, and if it’s worth pursuing at all.

Most importantly, we need to recognise that we are the poorer, and not the poor. On bad days, I forget that. But on good days, I am reminded that I am luckier than most. I am reminded that while it’s one thing to strive for the best, it’s another to forget about the 10 percent of the world’s population who still live in absolute deprivation today.

Today’s one of those good days.

In Praise of Zootopia: A Sociological Perspective

I went into the cinemas today, not quite sure of what kind of movie to expect. Well, for one, I knew that my friends were raving over it. But about 2 hours later, I left the cinemas, feeling entirely overwhelmed and impressed. That was hands down the best cartoon I have ever watched in my life.

In a short span of 2 hours, the movie encompassed a wide range of themes, ranging from prejudice and racism, to power and deviance. In this article, I will pen down some of the details I had noticed and analyse them in a sociological approach.

Brief introduction of movie

The movie revolves around how a tiny rabbit, Judy Hopps overcomes all the invisible social barriers of stereotypes and prejudices around her size and thus her perceived weakness, to become a top-notch police officer. Later, as she moves to Zootopia and work as a police officer in Zootopia Police Department (ZPD), she is tasked to find a missing otter, which leads her to investigate a queer case of predators turning savages in Zootopia.

Race and Prejudice

When I first saw how Hopps, the rabbit, said, “Only a bunny can call another bunny ‘cute’. But when another animals call us cute, it’s a little…”, I knew that I was in for a ride. Even though Zootopia appears to be a place where “anyone can be anything.”, prejudices between the predators and the preys always exist at the background. For example, the assistant mayor, Bellwether, is a sheep that has always been undermined and unappreciated by the mayor who is a Lion. The conflicts are exposed and intensified by the case of predators turning savages as the majority prey population, are quick to assume that only the predator population have the tendency to become savages, and must hence be feared upon and removed from Zootopia.

Sociologically defined, race is a group of people (or animals) who are perceived to share the same biological traits or physical differences. Because of these perceptions, people make oversimplified stereotypes about the characteristics of an entire social group. More significantly, this affects the attitude they have for the other social group and are used to justify discriminatory acts. Zootopia has reflected that stereotype, prejudice and discrimination cut both ways. On one hand, preys are perceived as weak and incapable and preys that are small in size such as rabbits are doubly discriminated. On the other hand, predators are also perceived as dangerous and intimidating.

Yet, we have seen many scenarios when these prejudices and stereotypes continue to be maintained in Zootopia even as they are continually broken. First, the most obvious example is when Hopps became the first rabbit to become a police officer and a valedictorian in her police academy. Next, the Clawhauser is a resident cheetah at ZPD with a jovial and cheerful personality like no other. All these examples show that there are more varieties between social groups.

Lastly, and the most interesting of all, Nick Wilde, a fox who becomes a close friend of Hopps is a loyal, smart and caring character, unlike the typical connotation of foxes as sly and cunning. An interesting excerpt was when Wilde asked Hopps after the press conference if she is afraid of him and if she thinks that he too, is biologically predisposed to become a savage some day. Hopps answered, “No.. you’re not like the others!” It is interesting that people’s prejudice towards a particular social group may contradict with their behaviours toward individual members of that group. These individuals are viewed as exceptions to the rule, thus allowing people to retain their stereotypes despite conflicting situations in reality.

Well, what we realised in the end was that, many a time, race is not a biological construct, but rather a social construct that is maintained through social structures. This is most evident by the revelation at the end that it is not the predators’ genes or DNA that have caused them to become savages, but a planned scheme by Bellwether because of her prejudice and hate towards predators.

Moreover, it is also emphasised that what sets people apart are not their race, but their values and characteristics. Hopps and Nick can both make splendid police officers because they have merits such as quick-wittedness or self-righteousness. At the same time, Bellwether may not be a predator, but may embody a savage nature as she sets out to cause divisions in the society by turning the predators into savage and even kill Hopps.

Well, but on a light-hearted note, the sloth is the only animal in Zootopia which is still seen as biologically slow. That may seem inconsistent with the intentions of the movie, but I believe that some humour is needed to release some of the tensions in the film, and stereotypes are more often than not, the basis of humour.

Race and Deviance

In discussing the issue of race and deviance, I would bring in three sociological theories of deviance, namely the positivist perspective and the labelling theory.

The first theory that was most apparent to me in the movie was the positivist perspective. The positivist standpoint is that criminals are born. This means that they are biologically and physiologically predisposed to commit crimes. Cesare Lombroso, a positivist criminologist even argued that criminals are individuals who are stuck in earlier stages of human evolution and are hence ill-developed humans. This was strikingly similar to how Hopps attributed the possibility of predators turning into savages as their genes, DNA, or that they are returning to their “natural state”, which is their earlier state before evolution and civilisation.

This is dangerous because if one believes in this notion of deviance, it depoliticises the deviant act. People start to believe that predators are inherently savages without identifying the structural causes behind this “deviant” act, thus justifying social control against them. For example, Clawhauser was made to leave for another department because “it was not too good that the first animal other animals see in ZPD is a potential savage.” As mentioned before, as it turns out, the reason why predators became savages is not a biological cause at all.

The second theory, which is the labelling theory, made me feel rather upset in the movie indeed. The labelling theory argues that deviance results not only from the actions of the deviant, but also from the responses of others, who define some actions as deviant and other actions as normal. Over time, the constant labelling of an individual might lead to him or her internalising the deviant behaviour. Eventually, seeing oneself as a deviant becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The story of Nick was what made me recall this theory. When Nick was a child, he aspired to join the local Junior Ranger Scouts. Yet, upon “initiation”, Nick is bullied and muzzled simply for the fact that he is a fox and foxes are considered sly and unreliable by nature. As a result, he decided that “If the whole world is just going to see a fox as untrustworthy, then there is no point in trying to be anything else.” That is how he becomes a successful conman when he grows up. Nick’s story was a heartbreaking story for me because it shows how deviants may not be inherently evil, but are the victims of societal prejudices.

Additionally, this story also demonstrated the importance of analysing the context and biography of an individual before making a judgment on one’s reason of committing crime. That is not to say that every act of deviance is understandable and thus acceptable. But it does bring to light some of the structural reasons that may prompt someone to commit deviant acts.

Media and moral panic

Moral panic is a theory related to deviance. It refers to a mass explosion of fear at a particular time and place about a specific perceived threat. This occurs when many people believe that a form of deviance poses a profound threat to the well being of society. When there is a moral panic, there is often an increased level of hostility to a particular category of people who is perceived to engage in threatening behaviour. Yet, the concern over the phenomenon is also often disproportionate to the nature of the threat. Additionally, one essential component in moral panic is the media. It rapidly spreads concern over the perceived threat, thus heightening the climate of fear.

This situation was depicted in Zootopia, after Hopps suggested that the predators became wild because of their DNA. One of the conversations between the predators and Hopps go like this:

Journalists: Who is that fox!
Hopps: He is my friend!
Journalists: Does that mean that we cannot trust our friends too?

In a climate of pressure and fear, the journalists fail to recognise that there are no clear evidence of the real cause behind why all the mammals that have turned savages are predators. Fear clouds logic and this can be seen from how both the journalists and members of the public jump into conclusions too quickly and make sweeping statements of the whole predator community. The effects can be as catastrophic as to cause the whole society to divide. One example is how Clawhauser was forced to go to another department.

Social structure vs individual agency, a.k.a. social reality vs individual dreams

This theme is a recurrent one in the field of sociology. This is also another theme that underlies the movie from the very start since Hopps decides to be the first rabbit police officer. First, she goes against the wishes of her parents to be a typical carrot farmer. Hopps’ father persuades her, “If you don’t try anything new, you will never fail.” In fact, the act of trying convince Hopps that there are no rabbits that have become police officers show that the rabbits have also internalised the prejudices against themselves. Next, Hopps also
 succeeds in cracking the case despite being discriminated by mammals such as Chief Bogo who tells her that “Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true. So, let it go.” 

Yet, while it seems that Hopps is a critical thinker who can make her dreams come true despite public opinion, the interesting fact is that she, too, is not fully free of being influenced by the social prejudices that are deeply embedded in social life. For example, before Hopps left for Zootopia, her parents pass her a fox repellent. Even though Hopps appears to find it unnecessary, she has a subconscious bias for foxes that she constantly tries to fight off. In a brilliantly designed scene, Hopps leaves her room for her first day of work, only to come back to retrieve the fox repellent “just in case”. Additionally, when Nick confronts her after her press conference, she instinctively reaches out for the fox repellant even though she has always thought that she trusts Nick as a friend. This reveals the grim truth that prejudice is not an inherent quality. Instead, it is learnt.

But the film also shows that every cloud has a silver lining because the reality is that individuals do have some degrees of agency. While many individuals in the film has experienced different pressures, but all of them responded differently. The most distinct contrast is between Hopps and Bellwether. While both of them are discriminated as small and weak, Hopps chooses to prove the predators wrong and showcase her ability to make the world a better place, while Bellwether chooses to hurt the predators. Additionally, while both Hopps and Nick have been bullied by a predator and preys respectively, Hopps chooses not to give in to social stigmas, while Nick decides that he can never fight against social opinions. This shows that sometimes, everything is just a matter of perspective and attitude.

Gender

This issue is an implicit one in Zootopia but as always, gender is a background identity that acts on our behaviours and influences how other people evaluate us. Let’s do a mental exercise and imagine how different the movie would be if Hopps is not a female but a male rabbit. For one, scenes such as the one where she is dismissed by Chief Bogo on her first day in ZPD, where large physical size and masculinity is prized, could be very different. When she is assigned as a meter maid, it is not only more salient features, such as her identity as a prey that is at work. Her identity as a female is also working at the background, making her doubly prejudiced.

One thing that I appreciate about the film is also a more nuanced perspective of gender. Females are often stereotyped as more emotional, but the film shows that females and males alike can be emotional. For example, when Hopps was leaving, it was her father and not her mother who starts to sob. In another case, although Nick expresses to Hopps that “you bunnies are so emotional”, he also has an emotional side which he reveals as he recounts his childhood story. His nonchalant and dispassionate attitude is not a result of his gender per se, but a result of his past experiences, which has forced him to “never let them see that they get to (him)”.

Moreover, being emotional should not have negative connotations to it just because it is tied to the concept of femininity and weakness. Sometimes, emotions can guide us towards doing things we feel is right. There are many cases in Zootopia when Hopps is guided by her emotions. For example, she helps Nick at the ice cream shop because she empathises with the feeling of being treated unfairly because of prejudice. She also agrees to help Mrs Otterton at the risk of losing her job because she cannot bear to see her feeling so helpless.

Social capital and networks

This theme is probably less of an excitement for any readers, other than other Sociology geeks like me. I must admit that I have not studied social capital and networks in sufficient detail in school, but as I was watching the show, I can’t help but appreciate the fact that Judy’s whole adventure truly would not have been possible without Nick, the one who “knows everybody in Zootopia”. Social capital refers to networks that one possesses which allow he or she to gain crucial information because of concepts of mutual reciprocity.

The interesting thing is that Nick has contacts from people in both legitimate and illegitimate society. The former would include Flash, the sloth working in Department of Mammal Vehicles who is his good friend, and the latter would include the crime lord, Mr Big.

The American Dream

Zootopia, at its core, seems to address a deep-rooted pursuit for the American Dream, where everyone can be who they are. As a Singaporean viewer, the film embodies many American aspirations. At the same time, it also exposes the less glamorous social reality and contradictions that lie beneath the ideals of equality and peace that comes with the notion of “The American Dream.” Problems such as racism and prejudice continues to plague America’s society. But at the same time, these issues are not unique to America. Every country has its own dreams, just as Singaporeans also have her Singapore dream. But dreams being dreams, are dreams precisely because they are so immensely difficult to achieve.

On this note, I am deeply thankful to Disney for no longer portraying portraying a world in which “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. Anything your heart desires will come to you.” Instead, it is the little voice that soothes our harden soul and reminds us that “Real life is messy. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes … But we have to try… Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you. It starts with me. It starts with all of us.”―Judy Hopps

Conclusion

When I watched “Inside Out” last year, I thought that was the best Disney-Pixar movie I have ever watched. But after I came out of the cinema yesterday, I learnt that I was wrong. Zootopia stood out for me, probably because I am a Sociology student, and seeing how the social interactions between the mammals were so accurately represented made me utterly moved. The level of understanding was incredible and I appreciated how nuanced the movie incorporated all the paramount issues of our generation.

To me, that is not just the power of a movie, but also the power of art. I thought about this when a question popped into my mind yesterday, “What if the creators choose not to represent the subject through animals? What if the movie presented humans instead?” What an outcry it could cause, I thought. But because of the way Disney has chosen to tell the story through the world of animals, people step back and question, “How does this reflect our society?”.

But the more interesting and philosophical question that Zootopia raises is “What differentiates humans from animals?” In one scene of Zootopia, Mr Big responds to the moral panic in Zootopia, “We may have evolved, but deep down we are still animals.” Whether or not humans are really that different from animals is a debate that I will save for another time. But what’s important is, if we are to agree that humans are different because humans have developed morality and consciousness, then how are we going to stay consistent with that and stop causing unnecessary harm to other humans on the basis of differences- in colour, nationality, gender, age etc? These are big questions that emerges from Zootopia and they await inquiry. But I definitely look forward to the next Disney Pixar movie that is as intellectually and emotionally stimulating, as Zootopia has been for me. :’)

References:
1.Brym, Robert J. and Lie, John (2007) Sociology: Your Compass for a New World . 3rd edn. Belmont , CA : Thomson/Wadsworth
2. Cacciopo & Freberg, Discovering Psychology.
3. Roshier, Bob (1989) Controlling Crime: The Classical Perspective in Criminology, Milton Keynes: Open University Press. Part One pp 1–39.
4. Ridgeway, Cecilia L. and Shelley J. Correll. 2004. “Unpacking the Gender System: A Theoretical Perspective on Gender Beliefs and Social Relations.” Gender & Society, 18 (4), pp. 510-531.
5. disney.wikia.com

(Disclaimer: (1) The Sociology concepts are based on my understanding through classes. They are not expert opinion and pardon me for any inaccuracies in the explanation of these concepts. (2) Many quotes and excerpts are based on memory or the internet. They are not verbatim quotes. Hence, do correct me if I cited any quotes or described any scenes wrongly.)

Victims of their own oppression

After completing 3 final exams for my sociology modules, I finally have time to document 4 theories I found most fascinating in these modules. Interestingly, even though the modules span across 3 different fields of sociology, namely Social Thought, Education, and Gender Studies, the three of them have something in common- that the oppressed are victims of their own oppression.

Gender Studies – “The cyclical fluctuations of their power position, combined with status considerations, result in their active collusion in the reproduction of their own subordination.” (Bargain with Patriarchy by Deniz Kandiyoti)

Patriarchy refers to the domination of men over women in all aspects of social life, including economics, politics and family life. Classical patriarchy refers to societies that are both patrilineal (inheritance passed down to women) and patrilocal (women live in husband’s family residences).

While some women under the patriarchal system respond by fighting back e.g. women in sub-saharan Africa because of their autonomy in other fields such as trading, other women respond with subservience. This is common in countries such as China. But why?

This is because women learn that they can survive in such a system by gaining power over other women as they become mother-in-laws. It is in their immediate interest to gain the favour of their husbands and their sons. But ironically, as they resist complete male domination in the household, instead of uniting with all women to resist the patriarchal system, they become “participants with vested interests in the system that oppressed them.” (Wolf, 1974)

Gender Studies – “Paid domestic labour has often been interpreted as complicity on the part of female employers in ‘simply perpetuating the sexist division of labour by passing on the most devalued work in their lives to another woman’ and ‘escaping the stigma of “women’s work” by laying the burden on working women of colour’ (Romero, 1992)

This quote is pretty much self-explanatory, but it sure tells a lot. When working women hire domestic maids to lighten their burden of housework, so that they can focus on their work, on the surface it appears as it women have achieved equality in the workplace, but in reality, that is only made possible by the subjugation of other women of lower classes, of other races, of other nationalities.

Both do not realise that despite this arrangement, they have not been freed from the ‘cage’ of domesticity. The domestic worker leaves her home, only to find herself immersed in the domestic sphere of another home in another country. The female employer hires a maid to replace her role in doing domestic chores, but is still the person who is expected to train and supervise her at home.

That is why it is said that the third wave of feminism is stalled because women are not united by their gender, but divided by their class and race.

Education – “Insofar as they succeed (in converting institutional opposition in schools into a more resonant working class form), and become influenced by processes discussed in the rest of the book, so does their future ‘suffer’.” (Learning to labour: how working class kids get working class jobs by Paul Willis)

In the Marxist interpretation of education, the capitalist class who owns means of production, also owns the means of mental production, which is education. Hence, education is a tool used by the capitalist class to perpetuate their interests as universal interests by promoting values such as efficiency and meritocracy. This results in hegemony in which the working class aligns themselves with the dominant interests and this explains the persistence of capitalist class’ domination over the working class.

However, Paul Willis’ work brings a new twist to this interpretation of education. Instead of aligning themselves with the interests of the dominant class, working class children (known as the lads) embrace their working class culture and express them through a counter-school culture. Not only do the lads feel that they are different from middle class children (known as the earholes for their passivity and submissiveness), they feel superior to them. They feel more masculine, and that they are exposed to the adult world of “real work” which requires real practical knowledge, instead of theoretical knowledge. Even though working class jobs pay less, they do not feel any less inferior, because these jobs distinguish them from the earholes and are jobs that the earholes will presumably perform poorly in.

Their alignment towards and embracing of the working class culture indicates the inversion of dominant ideology. But ironically, it is the rejection of theoretical knowledge and school culture that prevents the lads from gaining social mobility through education, and result in them working in working class jobs.

Social thought and theory – “The labour-time necessary for the production of labour-power is the same as that necessary for the production of those means of the subsistence; in other words, the value of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of its owner.” (Capital by Karl Marx)

This last one would require a lot more thought and no one explained it better than Prof Emily Chua did in her answer key for our essay.

The Bourgeoisie owns the means of production, while Proletariat does not and must sell her labor to make a living. It is on this basis that the Bourgeoisie is able to oppress the Proletariat.

Exploitation occurs when a certain quantity of the Proletariat’s labour-power goes to the Bourgeoisie for free, and becomes Bourgeoisie’ private property. Bourgeoisie’s continued power over the Proletariat comes from Bourgeoisie’s exploitation of Proletariat.

This surplus labour arises from the fact that the use-value of labor-power is higher than its exchange-value: The use-value (value which measures the usefulness of an object) of labour-power is 24 hours. The exchange value (value of an object determined by market forces of demand and supply) of labour power, which is the labour-time necessary to produce the means of subsistence for a labourer is however possibly 6 – 8 hours.

Surplus labour creates surplus value for the Bourgeoisie, or turns the Bourgeoisie’s money into capital, self- valorizing value. In other words, it is the Proletariat’s labour that becomes Bourgeoisie’s capital, enabling Bourgeoisie to oppress and exploit Proletariat.

Thus, while the Bourgeois mode of production produces Proletariat by maintaining a class of people who must sell their labour to survive, at the same time, it is also Proletariat who ‘produces’ Bourgeoisie by labouring, and making the commodities that constitute Bourgeoisie’s property.

In essence, the Proletariat is a class that reproduces itself, and also reproduces the Bourgeoisie class which oppresses it.


 

These theories are the most fascinating ones I have encountered this semester because they are the best evidences to prove that the world is not always black and white. There aren’t always devils and angels. Relations between the oppressed and the oppressor are not always so clear, because one may not even know that he or she is part of the oppressed class and may only be conscious of his or her own existence (and benefits) in the most immediate aspects of life, and it could happen to any one, myself included.

In Gender, it could be to get a job that I like or to be the most powerful women at home. In Education, it could be to align myself with a particular culture so that I survive best when I eventually form a part of that culture. In Class, it could be to get a job for a living.

How can we free ourselves if we do not see ourselves and each other as one unified oppressed class?

I believe all these would be part of what Marx would call false consciousness- that we continue to perpetuate the system that oppresses us. This is a theory that is immensely tragic, but also immensely enlightening.


 

So this marks the end of 3 intensive modules. Even though the journey has been incredibly difficult, but at the end of the day, I always remind myself how privileged I am to be able to learn all these fascinating theories in university, that I have never ever encountered before.

I may not have grasped all concepts to their fullest, but as Prof Emily Chua said, “After exams, I want you to learn one thing: that everything you learnt in this module is wrong.” Concepts need to be learnt, and relearnt, learnt, and relearnt. So I suppose the learning process has just begun.

Here’s to more 🙂

Why are we so stressed?

In the past few weeks when the haze came, I remember lamenting to my tuition students, “How I wished the haze would go away!”. To my surprise, I was returned with responses such as “How I wished the haze will NEVER go away, so we don’t need to go to school!” My heart sank. The natural question was: What makes school so undesirable that students do not wish to go to school?

Today, when I was revising for my Sociology of Education course, I read this reading, “Children, Population Policy, and the State in Singapore” and fully appreciated how it made me understand the sentiments of these children in the broader context of Singapore. The following is basically a short summary of relevant parts of the reading which answered my question.

First, it is a well-established fact that Singapore is a secular one-party- dominant state, where PAP ruled since 1959. Thus, the state is the most powerful influence in the lives of the nation’s children.

One of the most significant ways in which the state can alter the future of the nation is by means of population planning, because a nation’s politics select which children are to exist, and to some extent whether or not some children are to exist or not.

There is an explicit focus on eugenics in Singapore’s population policies. Eugenics is the greek word for “well-born” and it involves a set of beliefs and practices aimed at improving the genetic quality of the human race. This is best illustrated by the implementation of the Graduate Mothers’ Scheme in 1984, in which the third child of graduate mothers were given priority in primary school admission, in response to falling birth rates of educated women. This scheme assumes: (1) graduate mothers are graduates because of superior genes and (2) educated middle-class parents would automatically reproduce educated middle-class class children.

Eugenics had further implications on the school system. The objective of education is consequently not training, but testing, to filter innate future leaders among the general population. This is done through streaming. Stress is not merely an accidental outcome of streaming, but a mechanism that will reveal innate qualities of children.

Additionally, the rhetoric of meritocracy works in tandem with the discourse in eugenics. Meritocracy assumes an equal playing field and equal opportunities for all. Hence, any individual differences in achievement is solely attributed to ability, which in this case, imply one’s superiority of genes. (On a side note: That is why meritocracy legitimises inequality, since it assumes that everyone is located where they are in the hierarchy, solely by virtue of their own merit. This is easily refutable by evidences of visible and invisible barriers working class children may need to overcome, such as the having to do part time jobs to support their family.)

The eugenic discourse, however, marks a contradiction between the state and parents. The state is interested in establishing a pyramid by sieving out superior children from inferior children. However, no parents wants their child to sink to the base of the pyramid because (1) no parent out of good-will wants that of his or her child (2) a child who fails in the education system is genetically inferior, and by implication, the parents’ genes must also be genetically inferior.

Thus, parents place great pressure on their children towards the top of the pyramid. One of the strategies parents do so is through private tutoring through which they can intervene, and which is a process that I am regrettably (?) part of.

Apart from stress derived from these processes such as tuition, the author argues that the result of the eugenics discourse is that children (and parents) are constantly being judged fit or unfit, wanted or unwanted, and this leads to a grave state of dialectic between arrogance and shame. People who fit well in the preconceived mould of the eugenics discourse feel destined with superiority, while people who do not fit well feel ashamed, even of their very existence. As a result, a nation of the arrogant few and the self-doubting and shameful many may be formed. This is where the real battle is, where the real stress comes from: the system that results in these processes.

The even graver thing is realising that, it does not matter if children are sorted out into different hierarchies as the state is concerned with, or children are pushed up on the hierarchy to destabilize this hierarchy as parents want their children to. Because in either case, children seem to lose. First, in terms of shame or arrogance, and second in terms of extreme stress.

Well, of course, not every parent colludes in sharing the eugenics values and the situation is not homogenous. (At this point, I really thanked the author for pointing out that not all is lost.) Some parents choose homeschooling as an alternative, or others focus on different definitions of success such as vocational training. Furthermore, the more recent discourse in education seem to tend towards nurture via nature, and focus on genes as the sole indicator of merit or success does not seem so apparent any more.

But in any case, this reading has truly opened my eye in understanding the effects of structure on individuals. This reading may not be a ground-breaking one, and concepts such as population control, meritocracy, eugenics have always been taught to us in class. Yet, it still takes such a reading, at least for me, to finally link individual occurrences such as the one I have encountered, with broader national issues to understand them as interrelated to one another.

If not, I believe, laymen instincts will overtake such knowledge, and I will simply answer the above question with “It’s all parents fault for being so kiasu.” or “It’s all the education system’s fault for all the exams.” But to understand the mechanisms and processes behind them is key.