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.