A Taxi Driver’s Story and Majulah, the Singapore Spirit
August 5, 2011 6 Comments
Taxi drivers in Singapore always have a story to tell if their passengers bother to listen. Today I met a taxi driver, a middle-aged Indian man whom I will probably not forget for a long time. Unfortunately I did not ask for his name, so he will be referred to as Mr. S, for stranger.
How quickly strangers became friends when he asked me what I was doing and I told him that I would begin my university studies soon. The conversation quickly shifted to foreign (mainly China) scholars who were given scholarships to study at Singaporean institutions. Mr. S was upset that our government was paying good money to foreigners to study at our universities while some Singaporeans had to be turned down.
In my mind, I thought to myself, “LOL (yes I actually use “LOL” in my mind), another angsty anti-PAP taxi driver who’s going to rant about the government’s pro-foreigner policies”. Intrigued, I went on to ask him about what he thought about PM Lee Hsien Loong’s decision to remove certain ministers who were perceived to be underperforming.
Shaking his head dismissively, Mr S went on to complain about how some ministers should also have been cut. When I asked him, “how about the more unpopular ones, like Mah Bow Tan?”, the conversation inevitably shifted to the sky-high prices of housing.
Mr. S was convinced that a housing bubble was emerging and he believed that it was happening soon, probably after the presidential election. Of course, I was positive that the election would have no impact on the price of housing at all, but there was no point arguing with a taxi driver who had started on a rant.
“How can the prices rise so quickly and so high?” It was no doubt a rhetorical question. Criticising the Duxton flats, he said that public housing should not “look like condos”, but needed to serve the needs of housing a people.
Asking me if I shared his sentiments that a bubble had emerged and would burst, I responded that any bubble will burst and predicted it really depended on the health of the American and European economies. However, people were still in the mood to buy, since the “economy is doing well”.
Those four words got his goat and he questioned if I really thought that the economy was doing well. “The economy is doing well for the people who have the means to buy houses in the first place,” was my awkward response. Mr. S clearly thought otherwise.
He then went on to share with me about his plight, and I call it so because it really is quite a heartrending story. When I commented that he would benefit from rising housing prices, Mr. S told me that he was currently living in a rental flat with his two children, a son aged 11 and a daughter aged 9. At 54, he married late and his young kids meant that he was not going to be able to retire any time soon.
Mr. S told me, “I don’t know where I can find the $1,600 to pay for this month’s rental”. It was a comment that struck me because the amount seemed exorbitant to my young ears and for the tone of desperation it took on. Mr. S said he had to sell his house to pay off his debts from a failed business venture but could not rent a flat from the HDB as he had exceeded the $1,500 income ceiling. Therefore, he had to get his flat off the private market, which naturally cost quite a sum.
He reminisced the “good old days”, focusing on the Singapore before the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.
“Back then, people’s faces were so happy, smiling all the time, because it was really easy to make money in Singapore. Times were good. But now, if you look at people in the streets everyone looks so stressed and tired, everything changed after the crisis, bro.”
Surely Mr. S’s story is a dime a dozen in modern-day Singapore. But every story like Mr. S’s is really one too many. Singaporeans today enjoy a higher standard of living on average. We have supposedly higher incomes, cushier jobs and more sophisticated homes. For entertainment, we have glitzier malls, bigger cineplexes and even world-class attractions like the integrated resorts and a Formula One night race. But are Singaporeans really happier? And are these benefits available to all?
Mr. S told me that every time he saw an old man or woman “scraping the dustbin” searching for cardboard he felt “very heart pain”. How could this generation, the generation that worked so hard to build our country, be reduced to eking out a living recycling refuse? It was, to him, an injustice that needed to be rectified.
On this point, I could not but agree. How a society treats its elderly is a mark of its advancement and its degree of civilization. The oldest civilisations in the world, India, China, Japan and the Middle Eastern civilisations, place a strong emphasis on the respect and care for elders.
Mr. S did not think that the generation which saw our country through a World War, merger with Malaysia, separation and then nationhood should suffer the ignominy of having to perform menial labour in their twilight years. If he had his way, he would buy a plot of land a build a retirement village to provide for all these poor elders in their final years instead of allowing them to toil for their next meal.
With a Gini coefficient of 42.5 (according to the Global Peace Index website), wealth in Singapore is distributed more unequally than the US (40.8), the UK (36) or even Myanmar (40), but more equally than Thailand (43.2) and Hong Kong (43.4). Regardless, Singapore is by most accounts a highly unequal society where income is concerned. Although we strive to provide our citizens equal opportunity, wealth is still disproportionately concentrated in the hands of a few while the vast majority finds it difficult to make ends meet in what is the 11th-most expensive city in the world. (according to a Mercer survey of most expensive cities for expatriates)
Of course, Singaporeans are not scraping the barrel but the reality is that many Singaporeans are falling through the cracks and are taking their families down with them. There are no statistics for how many families who have their sole breadwinner infirmed from illness or any numbers of young people who did not make it to university because their parents could not afford it.
Granted, there are numerous levels of safeguards in place to help Singaporeans. This is, contrary to popular belief, not an entirely uncaring society. There are student loans for needy students, Workfare schemes for low-income households and MediShield policies for the sick. However, sometimes our mistake is hiding behind reams of policy papers and thinking that it will help in all cases. When bureaucracy frustrates and exasperates rather than help the people it is meant to, it creates an unnecessary and unhealthy tension between the haves and the have-nots.
Policy must be continually updated and reviewed and the social safety net expanded even wider and into the unreached corners of society to make sure that it catches as many as possible. People should be treated like people and not as “cases” whenever they approach the government for help.
As I near the end of my journey Mr. S heaved a deep sigh and said, “What to do? That’s life.” It is a phrase that, for better or for worse, sums up the Singaporean psyche. We love to complain. About the government, the economy, even our fellow countrymen, but when push comes to shove, we pluck up courage and summon our strength to face a new day despite how bleak the horizon looks. “What to do? Suck thumb lor.“
And as Mr. S and many other Singaporeans like him work their way out of their individual funks, there is a cautious optimism in them, a hope that perhaps, tomorrow will be better. “Maybe this week I will win first prize in 4D, maybe my luck will turn, maybe I will get a better job.” Perhaps when you feel like you’ve hit rock bottom, the only way to look is up.
Before I alighted, I pressed my $13 fare into his hand, wished him all the best and offered a meek “God bless”, in the faint hope that divine providence will show him a way out his troubles. But I know above all, that drive to build a better tomorrow for him and his family will help to see him through. Perhaps this is a true Singapore Spirit in action. We hate the hardships we have to go through in life and complain about them but still we move on and hope for the best. It was a poignant reminder for this National Day.
So as I celebrate National Day next week doing what most Singaporeans will be doing (watching the parade on TV), my thoughts will be on Mr. S and his family and hoping that somehow, they will find positivity amid the doom and gloom. And I will also be asking myself, could we do more? For our fellow Singaporeans, for ourselves, for our society? This is no utopia and heaven forbid we believe our own propaganda. There are many out there who need help and perhaps, more can be done, and more must be done.