Like many parents, I too watched the viral CNA Insider clip from their Regardless Of Class documentary, featuring local children and teenagers talking about class differences.
In the past week, the documentary has triggered a fresh round of inequality debates on social media. Yet, the same has not been true of my private parent networks. For instance, I’ve only seen a brief discussion about the clip in one of my parent WhatsApp groups.
Inequality is not a matter easily discussed, but it did make me wonder if parents were reflecting on their own value systems. How many of us have asked if our actions have played a part in reinforcing class stratification?
Everyone Deserves Respect
“Many of us… grew up with parents who would chide us to study by warning that we would otherwise become road sweepers or rubbish collectors,” wrote Chua Mui Hoong in the Straits Times.
It is exam season in Singapore again, and recently, some friends confessed to using similar tactics on their children. I can understand why they would do this. We want our children to have more—and better—career options than we did.
But more than what we say to our children, how we treat others around us will determine our children’s interactions with society at large.
In her book This Is What Inequality Looks Like, local sociologist Teo You Yenn examines life from the perspective of a low-income family.
She observed: “Wealth and social status matter a lot in this city. Everyone in Singapore knows this. You can see it in the body language of people interacting as customers and waitstaff at restaurants… you hear it in the voices of people speaking to people ‘higher ‘ and ‘lower’ than themselves.”
As a work-at-home mother, I have sensed people’s impressions of me changing because of where I’ve gone to school, or the fact that I earn a living from home doing work that I enjoy. But not everyone has “social currency.”
Although my husband and I both work, we’ve chosen not to hire live-in help. Instead, I have engaged housekeepers, and I request that they address me by my first name. If I’m not busy, I work alongside them to lighten the load. It’s a chance to make small talk and find common ground.
This applies to how my husband and I treat others as well. I don’t claim to display exemplary behaviour at all times, but for the most part, we seek to understand, and to befriend.
Embrace Diversity In Friendships
Our family is biracial—I’m Chinese, my husband is Indian—and my children have benefitted from growing up with two culturally different extended families.
My marriage aside, I also have a social network that consists of non-Chinese and non-Singaporean friends. I have wealthy friends, as well as friends who’ve had run-ins with the law, and friends whose family structures don’t fit the traditional mould.
Through these friends, we hear about lives different from our own. We realise that there are many paths to a meaningful existence. We learn about struggles, which everyone faces regardless of wealth. It’s also enabled our family to discuss social issues—such as 377A, our drug laws, and financial setbacks—with reference to the people in our lives. My 12-year-old daughter has confessed that she loves eavesdropping on my conversations with friends, because “it’s so interesting.”
As for how to begin diversifying one’s network, there are no straightforward solutions, but it shouldn’t stop us from trying.
A pivotal point for me was when I decided—with my father’s support—to enter a polytechnic at 17, after having studied at an “elite” secondary school and qualifying for the affiliated junior college.
At the polytechnic, my tutorial group was diverse, in terms of each student’s life experience and family setup. But we bonded quickly, and when I look back on my time there, I’m reminded of a line from the classic children’s book Stellaluna: “How can we be so different and yet feel so much alike?”
Others who have made a similar switch, even in recent years, have credited the experience for expanding their worldview. Some parents choose to enrol their children in neighbourhood schools for this very reason.
Shared interests such as sports and community work can also help to bring people from different walks of life together. To form genuine and lasting relationships in settings other than school and the workplace requires greater effort, but with technology, the path to friendship can be as simple as messaging someone on Instagram to make a connection.
Look Beyond Our Own Aspirations
Earlier this year, I read an essay on inequality in the US that struck a chord. It said:
“We need to peel our eyes away from the mirror of our own success and think about what we can do in our everyday lives for the people who aren’t our neighbours. We should be fighting for opportunities for other people’s children as if the future of our own children depended on it. It probably does.”
In Singapore, not giving our children an unfair edge in school could mean anything from relinquishing our alumni advantage to reducing our investments in tutoring and enrichment classes, so that schools can educate students and identify non-academic talent on a level playing field. Admirably, I know of parents who have done this.
As a first step, we can look out for opportunities to help another child. Some of my friends volunteer in their children’s schools to help the weaker students catch up, and this may be a place where many of us can start making a difference.
How we contribute to closing the inequality gap—or whether we decide to act at all—is a personal decision. But it would serve us well to remember this: our children are watching.