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).


  1. U feel embarassed at your prom night, i'm even worse than you - i dare not attend although i've bought a long sleeve white shirt for the occasion.

    Being more well-off has its own set of problems. Being poor also got its own set of problems. Since got problems i rather have the former set. If i'm not mistaken the boss of Sheng Siong supermarket went for IPO so that quarrels of share of profits/inheritance are minimized to a large extent.

    I remember during my ns days where an old auntie came in to clean the office. Looks can be deceptive as a car would come & fetch her home outside the guardroom after she's done with this part-time cleaning work.

    I'm a person who doesn't talk much (introvert) & i find it hard sitting there listening to people when the talk is around status, face value, comparisons etc. I don't know whether to feel pity or sorry for those people living lives according to scipts given to them by family, society; scripts such as parents Drs so kid must study be Dr too etc.

    Coming from a low income family i began finding answers to how to have >$$. I began reading finance books during my ns days. A difference between ang mo financial book authors & sinkie authors is that the ang mo authors don't give a shit about credentials. Sinkie author on other hand put BA (Hons) etc after their name. So many sinkies are brainwashed into this alphabet credential thing.

    Actually those alphabet credential thing is just hiding something they don't have. Michael Jordan doesn't need Chicago Bulls credential/brand, he is who he is because of what he has done.

    After reading about your experiences i would say for us guys having gone through ns, i realise that ns period is a break from all these comparisons- all eat same, sleep in same type of beds, wear the same, drink the same etc. It reminds me that society in Britain is rather equal during WWII- rich & poor got rather equal amt of rations, healthcare to forge a cohesive society in fighting against Nazi Germany.

    As a reservist i would say the morale is bad given the current income inequality & 'invaded' by foreigners. High tech expensive weapons but the bulk of men operating them got morale problems.

    1. > High tech expensive weapons but the bulk of men operating them got morale problems.

      Yup, I think there was an old Mindef advertisement "What would you defend?"... I thought it was ironic. Increasing societal inequality results in a big cost to social cohesion.

  2. Very late comment to this post... but I really can relate to your experiences, albeit I didn't attend such a reputable and branded secondary school. Mine was still an all girls' school and because I, like you, came from a poor family background (nothing to be ashamed of though), was wearing my neighbour's second-hand uniforms to my school. I was lucky that I could wear it. The only difference was that I was a late-bloomer and was clueless to the weird glances/stares that other classmates gave me because the colour of my uniform was soooo very washed out that it was a pale sky blue instead of the dark blue that it was supposed to be.

    I didn't get the sarcasm of one of my classmates until years later when I recalled it; she asked me where I bought my clothes from and I replied 'my mom gets it from the wet market I think?'. She told me she got it from UCB (and of course, I had absolutely no idea what it meant but just nodded my head), and asked if I had 'suntanned' or bleached my uniform. I was so dense that I answered her honestly no.

    She was so taken aback at my simple answer and had nothing more to say. I am thankful that I was so dense back then because if not, I would have had a hard time growing up in that competitive girls' school...

    I also had latchkey classmates who invited me over to their grand bungalows or houses... and the smell of loneliness that permeated throughout was a little overwhelming. And really sad. Children shouldn't have to grow up like that....

    Nicole (fellow Singaporean in BC)