terse & at large

GRRRRR. Arrrgh. And sometimes a travel log.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Quitting and Staying - Revisited

It's been a while since I've said anything about reasons why I wouldn't want to remain in this country for too long - over 2 years, to be just a little more precise. It's been the missus who's been doing the bulk of it, most recently with this one.

So here we go again:

It's been untenable for a long time now; thinking about staying here and then retiring at 62, with the piddly amount of CPF savings I have so far to last until someone puts me in an urn and entombs that somewhere. Hell, I don't even know if there's going to be enough space for that when it's my time.

The whole mrbrown (his name is Lee Kin Mun, by the way - which everyone knows, so I don't get it) situation really got me thinking. The dude lives and breathes responsible blogging and writing. Said so in no uncertain terms during Blogger.SG last year. Got to be able to substantiate what you say, got to have it stand up to scrutiny. Do I believe there's a problem of rising costs in Singapore? Does my spending power go as far as it used to? Do our salaries increase with inflation?

Well, let's see. A meal at a coffee shop now costs about $5 to $8. Taxi fares to Parkway Parade used to be $5.20, now it's $6.20, before today's price hike; I'm not even going to talk about the trips down to town or, g.o.d. forbid, somewhere in the West. I'm in debt for the next 23 years because we took a loan for our flat (I wouldn't even deign to call it a home, because heck, it doesn't belong to me - I'm only on a 99-year lease and 20 of it is gone already. How many housing estates are there older than 30 years?), because public housing really is that expensive here. Do I feel any compunction to really do it up, make it our home? No, seeing that at any point in time, someone's going to knock on my door and tell me: "Congratulations! Your estate's getting upgraded. Pay us $20,000 for the lifts that stop on every floor and cosmetic additions to the facade. In the meantime, get the fuck out." (Well, it better be soon - because if it happens after I retire, it'll suck balls. But I'd rather take my money and go elsewhere now.)

At the end of the day, it's purely empirical I know. I don't have teams of [foreign] consultants working out the scientific aspects of this, but I know what I know.

There is very big difference between being apathetic and being scared shitless. One's "I don't know and I don't care"; the other's "I'm not saying anything because I don't want trouble for me and mine." Seems like people who are earning big bucks should know that. Do I feel I have some form of recourse? I probably do, but do I want to say anything? Probably not. Life's difficult as it is already.

So, when the good Doctor says:

"If you feel there is a problem with cost of living, say so, let's collectively explore solutions. But don't in the name of humour distort or aggravate on an emotional level. That sort of discourse does not generate solutions. It generates more heat than light.

"So we should put this in its proper context. If someone says something which we disagree with, we will say so. If someone says something which is unhelpful we have a right to say it is unhelpful. We have a right to remind everyone that at the end of the day, this is not a fight."

I think about that shot across the bow. And the suspension. And then, this.

It's a great signal to send. To me, it says lay low, hunker down, ride it out. As it always has.

But, sir, it is an emotional thing when people talk about supporting their families, when they see opportunities slip them or their children by. We can't all be pragmatic when we see our savings whittle away to barely survivable levels with every passing month. It's not about generating problems, that ship's sailed: the problem of a rising cost of living is clear and it is present. If this is a preamble to discussion and the collective exploration of a solution, then so far, it doesn't look like anyone's getting to speak out about anything because we're all hiding now.

On the other hand, that issue's out in the open. So I shall wait and see if something's done about it. And more closely to what'll be done about it.

Do I have a stake in this country I was born and raised in? Maybe just a splinter, when I get the opportunity to vote, which is as rare as England doing well in a World Cup. Is what I have to say important? Probably not. What would I know? I leave such things to the people who are paid to do so, as I always have.

I recited the pledge every morning, even when I'm no longer a student but a teacher. I served my National Service. I worked here from the time I graduated ten years ago, giving up whatever opportunities and offers to work in Canada because I thought I'd better do something here. First. Repayment and all that. I tell a survey taker that I'd willingly don my uniform and fight if Singapore's ever in trouble. I consider myself as patriotic as the next guy.

But when I don't have a voice or no one who has that voice can speak for me, I wonder.

So, quitting or staying? On the one hand, this is the country of my birth. My friends and family are here. My life is here. I am Singaporean. Or so it says in my passport and identification card. On the other hand, with what the missus and I have now we can live comfortably in another country for years, not months. Taxes are high, but it all comes back when you retire. But is taxation really an issue? Taxes pay for roads, schools, airports and every other bit of comfort we would expect in a developed country. Pragmatism, ingrained in us from the first day we step into a school here, tells us to leave. Because it's the emotional that's making us stay. And only the emotional. We won't have a say in the policies of other countries? Well, we don't have a say in domestic policies anyway (or rather, we're allowed a show of grave indignation, full of sound and fury, but plans go ahead despite that because we 'don't understand the global economy'), and I haven't voted for three elections. Not much of a difference. So why?

People grumble about things all the time. That has to be accepted as part of running a country. In a democracy, no one's ever going to have the entire population of the country agreeing with the policies of the government. The difference is in the handling of differing opinions. It takes a certain level of arrogance to dismiss these rumblings, broad-brushing them even, as unconstructive and cynical. Highly emotive, unhelpful. And when the only people who are in any of position to effect changes to quell these rumblings do so with warnings, threats of litigation, police action, it tells me there is no reason to want to say anything at all because their minds are made up.

This is the new economy. We teach creativity in schools so that our young will be prepared to face a new world of opportunities. But it's been forgotten that creativity comes from questioning authority (not just people in charge, but hypotheses and formulae that have existed for years), finding out things for ourselves, having an opinion, to challenge what has been done before and to do them differently. If our opinions are to be censored, why bother teaching the schoolkids they must think for themselves and accept only what they have proven through interrogation and exploration? If opinions are going to met with hostility then why bother making them at all?

Yes, there is a greater responsibility for journalists and columnists to make sure that what they write, because it goes out to the hoi polloi, isn't going to incite a riot somewhere (but, truth be told, what are the chances of that?). But is mrbrown saying something that someone else in the country isn't feeling as well? Well, I'm feeling the pinch. I see the rewards from my efforts on jobs evaporate quicker than I expect them to. Do I feel fed up? Perhaps, but then again, I've also learnt to 'cope'.

And it is a bad, bad thing. Coping doesn't advance a person's way of thinking, I'm not even sure it does anything for thinking. All it does is to numb the effects, walk me through the day in a resigned, dazed state of mind and I have learnt to ignore things that are important to me. Things I feel are necessary for a country I still feel an iota of patriotism to. But the heartbreak of being a teacher has taught me one thing: I may have joined the system so that I can change it, because education is the great equaliser (next to death) of every single living human being, but if the system doesn't want to be changed or if I feel that it is moving in a direction that is abhorrent to me and every other person who actually joined the profession for noble reasons, well...

Does this make me want to quit? Run away? To where the grass is greener? Where it's always greener?

Perhaps not greener, but at least we have a choice in the matter. Maybe I want grass that's slightly brown from the heat of the sun. Maybe I'll have that grass in the shade of that tree. And the farmer isn't around all the time to use an electric cattleprod on my ass every time I wander far from where I'm supposed to be. And once in a while, I tell the farmer he's doing a good job, or a shitty one because I can.

Still quitting?


'If you care too much about Singapore, first it'll break your spirit, and finally it will break your heart.' Alfian Sa'at


  • At 4:20 PM, July 11, 2006, Blogger gecko said…

    My NIE tutor once argued that "to change the system, you need to be an activist working within the system".

    His argument was that activists outside the "system" had little effect and influence. My friends and I conceded that to him based on our (naive) beliefs then.

    So we believed that we needed to work within the system in order to make positive changes.

    Six years down the road and stepping down from a management position, I'll say that I've walked the road and attempted to make positive changes - explaining, articulating, proposing and fighting for changes that are concrete substance rather than form.

    Unfortunately, the pareto rule holds true in the teaching service - most of those in the service are followers (or silent opponents, or disengaged/disillusioned but still hanging on) while a fraction of the entire service are those who question existing practices, have stronger (and often contrary) beliefs about existing practices and policies and actually commit themselves (blood, sweat, tears and time) to changing the system.

    The fact is, the movers - the 'activists' - are few in any given school (or organisation for that matter) and scattered. The people who really do question the system, those who really do 'fight the good fight', face an almost insurmountable task of restoring what is just - not what is 'lawful' - in our system.

    For this reason, I have made my decision to leave the service at the end of this year. Because I have tried and I have seen people at the bottom struggle against the system as well as those at the top coast along in the system.

    And also for this reason being against the bigger picture of this country, I have filed my application to leave.

  • At 6:07 PM, July 11, 2006, Blogger ichoisarius said…


  • At 9:25 AM, July 14, 2006, Blogger * the mad monk of melk * said…

    hey terse, been a while. i think it's fairly difficult (and oxymoronic) to be an intelligent person and a patriot in Singapore. :(

  • At 10:51 AM, July 17, 2006, Blogger Blueheeler - the dog that sniffs out fishy news said…

    I feel the pain too. But the fact is, every country in the world has unique ways of making its citizens angry. Maybe, where ever you are in the world, the grass is just that little bit sweeter over the fence...

  • At 10:55 AM, July 25, 2006, Blogger Chrissssy said…

    Hey Terence, remember me? Think your post speaks for so many people.. this collective sentiment is a bit heartbreaking, eh? It would be nice if we met up for coffee (my treat) sometime, to talk about this, photography, everything else, or just for a smoke. email me? papillon@singnet.com.sg


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