Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Friends with money

I stumbled upon "Being a lower income student in an "elite" institution" and "Elites aren't really nasty people; they're just clueless" blog entries by flâneurose. I am impressed! What he/she has written so very accurately reflected my experience in life, especially my time at a "branded" secondary school (middle school in Canadian terms) and my hostel life at a local Singapore university.


One day at my "branded" secondary school (middle school), after observing my classmate practising her tap-dance on the stage in the school hall, I expressed my admiration for my classmate's ability to tap-dance.

Classmate replies: You can do it too. You just have to sign-up for tap dancing classes.

Me: Erh, you need those special (tap dancing) shoes to learn, don't you?

Classmate: Yes. They only cost $x.

Me: [Silence]

This classmate lived in a District 10 bungalow (i.e. equivalent of a Vancouver, west of Main St, single family house with a large yard in Metro Vancouver, B.C.). $x is "ONLY" from my rich classmate's perspective. At that instance, my mathematical mind couldn't get beyond the fact that $x represented 1/2 (half) the cost that I paid for textbooks at the beginning of the school year. If the shoes alone already cost $x, I saw no point in asking further how much each dance lesson cost. I did not think that I want to further exacerbate how "poor" I felt.

"If you've been following so far, you would probably start wondering why any kid would voluntarily hang out with richer folk after they've grown up when the risk of feeling inferior is so great. ... This is just a very convoluted way of telling those lower income kids who attend top schools that they might find that they don't feel like they truly belong anywhere. Now, and in the future." - flâneurose
Well, I am one of those lucky/unlucky kids born into lower-middle class, but almost always in my life having one or more acquaintances/friends with money.

Early on in life, it was by chance. E.g. A kindergarten classmate invited me to play at her home. At age 6, she was already a latchkey child [i.e. one given the house-keys to return home alone, without any adult waiting at home to care for him/her]. She had so many toys, boxes and boxes of them (more than all my family's and my cousins' toys added together). But, she had no one to talk to or to play with. She was an acutely lonely child. At that point, I felt sorry for her.

After the PSLE (primary school leaving examinations) results were released, my mother insisted that I attend a "branded" secondary school. While I reckoned that there was a significant proportion of neighbourhood kids (read relatively poor) like myself, there was also a disproportionate number of students from upper-middle and rich family backgrounds. I remember my 1st time at my secondary school, when we were all still wearing our primary school uniforms. In a sea of dark blue pinafores (many of my school mates came from the fraternity feeder primary school), I stuck out like a sore thumb. As illustrated by the incident above, one just cannot miss the socio-economic divide. When the school had fundraising events (e.g. donation cards given to each student to collect monetary pledges), some form teachers would praise the amounts raised by the rich kids (amounts equivalent to several months of my family's expenses) and beseeched us regular kids to "try harder" in our fund raising. While my peers shopped along Orchard Road (Singapore's equivalent of New York's Fifth Ave or Beverly Hill's Rodeo Drive), became buddies over meals at fast food joints and restaurants, scored turkeys at bowling alleys, watched the latest movies, bought and listened to tapes of the latest pop-hits, learned the latest dance moves, etc, I was hanging out at the FREE public library near my home*. Being socially "in" was beyond my affordability.
*Looking back, I think it was a blessing in disguise. I read voraciously books on religion(s), philosophy, and various personal, inter-personal and world issues, looking for an answer to why my life "sucked" (beyond being relatively poor with respect to my peers, I struggled through my teenage years while my parents were in their own war zone of middle-age crisis). It became the backdrop upon which my values were formed.
Even in a neighbourhood JC (junior college, i.e. GCE A levels schooling prior to university), I had classmates who lived in bungalows, even one whose home was just behind Orchard Road. [Maybe it was a good sign? I.e. Social stratification wasn't that bad in Singapore during the late 80's that a neighbourhood kid like me could have rich classmate(s)?] For some unknown reason(s), wealth was never quite so ostentatious in my neighbourhood JC. Maybe the fact that my JC was partially funded and heavily culturally influenced by some Chinese associations helped? I did not feel the chasm of the social divide as intensely as during my secondary school days. That is, until our JC prom night. After persuading my mother relentlessly for some money to attend the prom, I ended up spending my remaining limited budget on a shared hotel room with around 20 friends (having calculated that it cost more to take a taxi home after the event) and a very practical skirt (which I felt I could wear for future temporary office jobs). As odd as life's little coincidences go, I was dressed in a long-sleeved white blouse and an orangey-red knee-length skirt which were stylistically similar to and precisely the colours of the dress-code for the waitresses that night. Thanks to my great JC buddies, I still had a fun time, despite being mistaken for a waitress several times during the night.

On to university hostel. Yes, I too observed the flashy cars, restaurant dining, exotic vacations, professional make-overs for "Dinner & Dance", etc of the rich kids. But enough of that rant about being too poor to afford to be socially "in".

Then I entered the work world. I felt a little envious of friends who could hold out (for what seemed like "an eternity" to me) for that ideal job with a prestigious company and a "suitably large" pay-check. Whereas I grabbed the 1st job offer that I received and hunched down to work on repaying my university study loan.
Fortunately, the first company that I worked for was quite well-known worldwide, paid pretty well, and had good training and benefits.
So there I was, finally making some money of my own. What's next? Well, I was in (a support role in) the banking and financial services sector -- apparently a "reputable enough sector" for children of the rich to be gainfully employed. As a colleague from a wealthy family background put it,
"When you come from a rich and reputable family such as mine, your career choices are limited. Should you choose not to work for the family business, you cannot work for just any company. It must be a big name bank or law firm because only then can your family justify to others why you're not working in the family business. Anything else would mean a loss of face for the entire family and fodder for the tai-tais' (i.e. rich housewives') rumour mills."
In addition, various wealthy friends shared with me confidentially about how their families were torn apart by struggles over control/inheritance of the family business, infidelities that came with business entertainment, 酒肉朋友 ["friends in good times only", i.e. friends who are only there to enjoy what associating with the rich person's wealth/connections can offer him/her]. Thus, I no longer envy their lives. I only held a phlegmatic acknowledgement of the experiences and opportunities that their wealth+connections bought them, stuff that regular folks like me cannot even dream of.

Then, in migrating to Canada, I thought I have left all this behind. I am starting from scratch, and thus IMHO logically the folks that I meet would likely be from the same lower-middle class finding their foothold. Well, one of my first new friends in Canada, SL, grew up in a single family compound in Singapore that had its own tennis court and various sports and other facilities. Although her family had since lost their wealth, her privileged upbringing shows through from our interactions*. As it turns out, she is not the only Singaporean that I've met in Canada who came from a previously wealthy family background.
*Note: In general, I do not ask people about their socio-economic class or family background in my interactions. Perhaps it is precisely because of this lack of interest/curiosity on my part that the rich lurking amongst my workplaces and/or social network felt comfortable enough to share with me about their wealth and/or family background? In addition, I think it helps that I have never asked these people-of-privilege for money or favours on the basis of "pity me, you're better-off than me" or "you can surely afford it".
Finally, of all places, even in my current part-time temporary sales job (that pays just above minimum wages), there is/was hidden millionaire co-worker(s) lurking around. What can I say? I just have the "friends with money" luck?


Recently, CK who is a reader of my blog commented,
"You're an atypical Singaporean and I celebrate atypical-ness."
Yes, indeed. I had the atypical "privilege" of jumping
from a PAP kindergarten in a poor neighbourhood
to the top-class in a popular historic primary school in a poor folks' district (small fish in big pond),
to a neighbourhood primary school (big fish in small pond),
to a "branded" secondary school (small fish in big pond),
to a neighbourhood JC (medium fish in medium pond),
to a local university (small fish in big pond), and then years later
to a local Polytechnic (small fish in medium pond).

This relentless jumping back and forth on the educational social strata (which somewhat correlates to the economic social strata) of the Singapore's class system resulted in me developing a phlegmatic-to-melancholic perspective of "what it means to be rich/poor, elite/plebeian". In addition, socializing across various strata also made me keenly aware of the typical prejudices that each socio-economic stratum has against the other strata. Thus I usually have an "answer honestly only when asked directly, otherwise don't ask and don't tell" policy regarding my background.


[Addendum on 03-Dec-2011]

IMHO, in Singapore, people are generally obsessed with figuring out where one fits in the socio-economic pecking order. Personal questions eliciting answers to establish the social pecking order are deemed as "normal and acceptable" in casual conversations.
When my friend LC first relocated his family from London to Singapore for work, I invited his family to my sister's home to join my family gathering. After the brief introductions, my mother started asking LC about his job, employment benefits as an expatriate, pay and residence in Singapore. LC politely gave partial answers and ignored the rest of the questions. Then my mother kept on persisting and repeating her questions (especially about his pay) when he "didn't hear" her questions initially. I told my mother straight in the face that it was not ok to ask a new acquaintance such private questions, but my mother insisted that it is ok and the social norm to "learn about the employment/pay-scale trends". Imagine my acute embarrassment throughout. I quickly apologized to LC for the social faux pas. Fortunately, LC is of East Asian descent and has some understanding of this obsession with wealth, although he is very much westernized having lived in Europe since his teens. Thus LC kindly reassured me that it is ok (i.e. he understood the cultural quirks). My mother, totally clueless, took his reassurance as, "There, even he said it is ok to ask" and continued her ceaseless questions. *Face-palm* 
[See what LC commented about life for "a nobody in Singapore". And yes, I am a nobody.] 
In contrast, the general topic of discussion in my usual interactions in Canada involves one's hobbies, interests and non-work day plans (i.e. what one does outside of work).

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Comments on Limpeh Is Foreign Talent's blog

I made a few long comments on Limpeh Is Foreign Talent's blog recently. Just an entry to gather the links to the long-winded comments, mostly about Singapore, its policies and social norms.

Kenapa Singapura? (Why Singapore?) - Nov 15, 2011 03:46 PM

The Singapore Education System vs Singaporean parents - Nov 18, 2011 02:45 PM

The very British Elephant in the room - Nov 20, 2011 06:20 AM

23:明天的記憶 An excellent reply to Limpeh's piece of education - Nov 20, 2011 05:19 PM

Finding that ideal job - Nov 23, 2011 04:20 AM

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Financially poor but academically above average Singapore students

Below is my rather long reply to Limpeh Is Foreign Talent's blog post, which in-turn was a reply to 23:明天的記憶, which was in-turn a response to LIFT's earlier blog post.


23:明天的記憶 wrote : what I want to know is what happens then if you have a kid that is above-average but nowhere near scholarship material? Than what do we make of education, access to opportunities & social class in general?

Yes, being poor in Singapore sucks. It wasn't so bad years ago, but it is getting worse.

Years ago in the late 80's, I was one of many who took a Study Loan from the Singapore Public Service Commission for our university fees. To apply, all one needed was an offer from a local university (only NUS and NTU back then), financial records showing that our family could not fund our university education, and go through a harrowing interview with a panel (I think it was 4 or 5 persons) which vets through all your financial declarations looking for any loophole that you do not need the money. At 19, it was my first ever panel interview and the panel members started off asking why I did not apply for any of the PSC bursaries which carried a bond. I replied honestly that I did not think that my results were good enough to get a bursary. Then they kept questioning about my grandfather's money which was in a joint account with my dad which we couldn't touch/use. Finally they asked, "What would happen if you do not get a loan?" I burst into tears and told them, "That means I cannot go to university and have to work instead." At that point in time, my thought was "no money = no education = trapped in poverty". Luckily for me, I was granted a loan that covered the university fees.

A friend of mine wasn't so lucky. Her application for a PSC loan was rejected on the basis that she had 4 older siblings who worked -- but in blue-collar or clerical jobs with salary that could only support themselves and/or their own families. That was a period of high stress for her. Her parents worked lowly-paid odd-jobs and had little/no money in CPF, so a CPF loan was out of the question. She did not have any relatives able and willing to be her guarantors for the bank loans. I don't know how she managed to get a bank loan in the end.

Another friend of mine applied for a bond-free overseas scholarship and got it. That was back in those days in the 80's when Singapore was still considered a developing nation in the Commonwealth and special bond-free scholarships were available to its citizens from some UK universities. Years later, that friend asked me why didn't I apply for overseas scholarships like her. I smiled and told her that I didn't think of it. Actually, in those pre-internet days, applying for an overseas scholarship is a lengthy and costly process in itself. The costs of photocopying all your certificates, the application fees, the postage fees, etc, all adds up. For a poor family living almost from hand-to-mouth, it was beyond our means.

I have yet another friend who took the Polytechnic route.
Note: Polytechnic education costs less than university education in Singapore. In addition, one can enter the workforce earlier through the Polytechnic route because one skips the 2-3 years of JC/pre-University education.
Then she worked and saved for almost 10 years, just to have enough money to upgrade to a degree from an overseas university. In the meantime, she was paid "Poly-grad" pay despite the job she does. As a Poly-grad ex-colleague puts in, "We do the same job, hold the same responsibilities, but because we are short of the degree paper, we are denied the Officer job title, pay and benefits." (even in the private sector). Yes, being born-poor means one may have to accept a 10-year delay to finally reaching one's career target. Even then, classism in Singapore was such that those who went through the "Poly-then-upgrade" route was seen as inferior to those who went to university directly.

Finally, I had a JC classmate who was an ace student. Her family was patriarchal in nature and she had to work part-time to support herself and her studies since age 15 (i.e. the legal age to work in Singapore). When we were revising for our GCE A-level exams, I casually asked her what course she planned to pursue in university. She gave me a slightly sad resigned look and said, "I don't plan to go to university." I asked her why, since her results were consistently good. She told me that supporting herself through A-levels was already a huge struggle, she didn't think that she would be able to do so for university studies. Thus, she preemptively gave up that option.

That is what being financially poor and academically above average in Singapore is was like (and possibly is still) with respect to access to university education. You learn very quickly that there are opportunities but you just can't touch them if you don't have money and/or the connections (e.g. guarantors are needed for bonds/loans). It gets worse for the youths from poor families now. Singapore is no longer a "developing nation" and thus those Commonwealth scholarships are no longer available to them. The last I checked, the Public Service Commission of Singapore no longer offers Study Loans which I received for my local university education.* The only improvements are that there are more "accredited" overseas universities in Singapore now offering distance learning "upgrades" to those who choose the "Poly-then-upgrade" route; and NUS/NTU now open their doors to a small percentage of these Poly-upgraders.


[Addendum on 22-Nov-2011. Correction of the above.]

* Note: Correction on 22-Nov-2011. I just found out that both NUS and NTU offer up to 90% in Tuition Fee loan to its students. Therefore, it seems, the function previously served by PSC Study Loan is now moved to NUS Tuition Fee loan and NTU Tuition Fee loan, albeit with a 90% cap. So life is not so bleak for the financially poor but academically above average youths in Singapore afterall.


[Addendum on 04-Mar-2012.]

One of Mr Brown's readers shared about his life as a university undergraduate from a poor family.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Illusion of Anonymity

I read with interest the tongue-in-cheek statement by blogger Limpeh Is Foreign Talent, "Perhaps the fact that I am somewhat nervous about saying anything bad about LKY here is a sign that you can take the boy out of Singapore, but you can't take Singapore out of the boy."

IMHO, it shows someone who thinks carefully about his public presence, even if it is only an online one using a pseudonym.

Unlike Lucky Tan and Molly Meek who stick mostly to the non-personal information/commentary, bloggers such as Limpeh reveal enough personal information online such that those with vested interests (and maybe a bit of authority or money or both) can easily track them down. Thus, online anonymity is an illusion, especially in Singapore. Even "anonymous" bloggers such as Lucky or Molly can be traced down if the right person with enough authority and/or money wants it done.

I am well aware of this illusion of anonymity. E.g. Anyone who was my nursing colleague, previously my nursing classmate/teacher, or anyone who processed the exit of my nursing bond, etc, can quite easily deduce who I am from some of my blog entries. And thus, I am careful about what I write online too. Thankfully, I am just a small fry with very few hits [around 200 a month as of November 2011] and therefore I'm unlikely to be under anyone's radar anytime soon.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Paper roses

Today, I found myself having to shoot off a nasty email to an ex-boyfriend. The same one mentioned in "10 ground rules for love". He had been emailing me every now and then. Since August this year, his emails were more regular about twice or thrice a month. Each email is full of sweet nothings and about how much he misses me, and occasionally also about the progress of his business plan or his son's education. I usually ignore his emails, except for those where it sounded like he needed a kind word of emotional support. His most recent email however made me decide that it is time to be frank to the point of being blunt if we ever have any hope of remaining as friends.


[Firstly, his email to me a year ago, on Sunday, October 17, 2010, in response to my "10 ground rules for love".]

Subject: RE: Wish you well RE: Hi

Hi again [my name],
You have pointed it out in 10 points!

Yes, I will always love you as you are, and you are more than just a friend.

Take care, maybe one day we will live in the same city :-)?

Hugging you to a safe waking up.
[Name edited]


[Then today's Sunday, November 13, 2011 email from him.]

Subject: Great!

Hi [my name],

I hope this mail will find you well.

Great that you have "comitted" for the " Graduate Nurse Internationally Educated course ", I think that is a really great idea. You will then be able to work as a nurse world wide? In France the hospitals need more nurses but from what I hear, nurses works a lot but the pay is not very good.

Here there is still a lot of work. The different activities takes longer to concretize as thaugt (sic) but the light at the end of the tunnel seems to come nearer. Keeping you updated :-)

Take care my dear and hoping to hear from you soon.

[Name edited]


[My nasty reply to him dated Sunday, November 13, 2011.]

Subject: Re: NOT SO Great!

Hi [Name edited],

You may not have changed over the years, but I am no longer that gullible madly in love 31 year-old fool of a decade ago. It was silly of me to pretend that you would one day be sincere enough in your feelings for me to want to marry me. I am wiser now, thanks to you. Once bitten twice shy.

>Quote from your email a year ago: Take care, maybe one day we will live in the same city :-)?

If you thought that I was once again duped by your "loving" email last year which conveniently dropped the marriage criterion of the 2 remaining criteria that you do not fit, then you're wrong. I just didn't want to waste time with you on it. I was thinking that given time, you may someday accept that we can only be friends. But apparently not. Apparently you're still taking me for a fool even now, a year later. Frankly, even if you were to come to Canada right now to propose marriage, my answer would be a clear, resounding "NO". No point wasting time on a faded and jaded relationship. You've had your chance, around 8 years of it. It's gone. Over. Finito. THE END. Get it?

Good luck to your business plans. I don't care if I hear from you or otherwise. And frankly, if you're still seeking for easy love, I would rather not hear from you at all. If you want to know how to be a decent friend, take a look at all my friends' open responses to me on FB. Not one of them hides behind private messages just to massage their own ego with pretend love.

I dedicate this song to you. One day, when you're man enough to handle the real demands of a real relationship, maybe you will find true love. Meanwhile, play your games -- with other victims.
[Edit: Link to Marie Osmond's Paper Roses on YouTube, see embedded YouTube video below.]

Best Regards,
[My name]


[Addendum on November 15, 2011. His reply on Monday, November 14, 2011]

Subject: Re: NOT SO Great!

Hi [my name],

Thank you for a honest eMail. I really hope this one will find you well.
About facebook, in fact I do not know how it work and I do not want to know it either. It has nothing to do with not beeing open to you or to friends.

The rights for the utube music is not allowed in Europs so I was not able to play it.

Just so that you know it, I have never pretended that you were an easy love and I will never do. Sincerely I like you very musch and I am sure that if we lived in the same city or at least in the same country things would have worked out differently.

In any case, supposed we should live in the same city in the future, I would not pretend that I would ask you for marriage but you beeing (sic) my friend is an honor to me and I hope you will continue being my friend.

Take care and hope to hear from you soon.
[His name]


[Addendum on November 15, 2011. My 2 cents.]

Years ago, when I asked him to Skype me, he insisted that he did not know how to use Skype and that I joined MSN instead so that we could keep in contact online. Then a couple of years later, he joined Skype and "invited" me to join it -- after his siblings and extended family were on Skype. I know clearly where his "love" for me goes in the hierarchy of things. He joined Facebook before I did. For someone who was supposedly in information technology management, to be unable and unwilling to learn how to post responses on a Facebook wall says a lot about how "important" keeping in contact with that "special" person is to him.

Finally the crux of the point. You "are more than just a friend" but "I would not pretend that I would ask you for marriage", yet "I hope you will continue being my friend". Yeah, right -- "friends with benefits", I suppose. The Chinese has a saying, “换汤不换药” ["changing the soup without changing its the medicinal contents"]. Or as the Canadian TV Ad for Advertising Standards Canada (ASC) slogan goes, "Dressing it up doesn't make it true".

It is true what people say about "love is blind". The converse is also true, falling out of love makes one able to see the inconsistencies clearly. I have blocked him from emailing. If he has honourable intentions and is truly sincere, he will know what he has to do about Facebook communications. Otherwise, he is on my "KIV Culling List" of friends/acquaintances.


[Addendum on 18-Jul-2012]

I had just unblocked his email at the beginning of July thinking that it has been more than 1/2 year now, so it is likely that he had moved on and unlikely to email me. Guess what? I just received an email from him on Monday 16-Jul-2012. As I have commented on LIFT's "Adult Season Part 5: Jessica's story", I will not accept the bait for now.