Friday, 19 December 2008

Mother machine

Last week there was a Straits Times story about a family with four kids. It’s a regular feature that seeks public donations for the paper’s school pocket money fund. An altruistic enough endeavour, and 8,000 needy kids receive their pocket money from the ST. 

What is more illuminating, though, is the parallel narrative that runs along the portrayal of a family in financial need. A more subliminal narrative, but none the less potent.

As we read the article, we are led into the Lim’s ‘sparsely-furnished’ household and its assorted intimate details. Mr Lim is a contractor. He earns $1,600 a month. But it is insufficient, so he moonlights for another one, two, hundred dollars. Mrs Lim is a housewife. She stopped schooling after primary six, and as a result finds it hard to get a job. Both parents are constantly looking for additional means to provide for their children, with education being the foremost concern. ‘I can’t even read some of the children’s books; the words are so difficult,’ said Mrs Lim. Forget too, about tuition. ‘No money – no need to talk about tuition.’ 

These form a story, but there is another story, a subtle reminder.

When Lee Kuan Yew spoke at a conference in Singapore two months ago, he reaffirmed his long-held belief that intelligent babies came from intelligent mothers, and intelligent mothers are so, when they attain a university degree. It is an old belief, stretching back decades. Once, on the anniversary of the nation’s birth, Lee posited what he saw as a seminal crisis of national proportions: graduate mothers were failing in their duty to produce 1.65 quality children. As a consequence, technological progress would halt, the economy would suffer, government would falter, and the country would perish.

Never mind that it was a skewed study: ‘It was an awful truth!' Never mind that the debate is far from done: ‘You marry a non-graduate, then you’re going to worry whether your son and daughter is going to make it to the university.’ Never mind that intelligence comes in different forms, that intelligence is not the only reason to life, and that life is not all a digit in an economy. And economy does not a nation make.

Never mind that it was you who erected policies and penetrated society in such a forceful manner that it cannot but submit and mindblowingly come true. 

As the Lim children grow up, they would find life a little harder. It has been designed to be so. Some schools would be out of reach. There would be little social and education support at school. An education system that is driven by private tuition would put them at a greater disadvantage. From young they would be streamed continually, every stream leading them a little further from that headstart, a little further from the university, before it all converges into a torrent of foregone conclusions. 

All from a mere education system. 

Imagine all the other systems, all those embracing arms and cajoling strokes of the government and its institutions that have spread themselves across the state and spellbound your minds, conjuring your foregone conclusions.

It doesn’t mean the children wouldn’t succeed; just that success would come in spite of the odds. That’s the way it’s made out to be. Looking around us, we get to see only a relative picture: your success relative to mine, her failure relative to yours. If she failed, it’s her fault. She didn’t work hard enough. If she met with success, it’s because of the system… too? The wonderful myth of meritocracy. So is it the individual or the system? I’ll know if it’s both when I can falsify Singapore. But the absolute numbers are kept away, hidden. The absolute successes are ensconced in the ivory echelons of the state. Occasionally, an exception to the system would be paraded in a triumphant celebration of meritocracy. It numbs our disquiet and lights up hope for the rest of us, and we forget that in a true meritocracy - a system not without its own problems and contradictions - these parades are redundant. 

So, we have no sense of perspectives. Lee Kuan Yew was right when he said this in parliament when he was begging for more coins. We have no sense of perspectives because we have no way of weighing the relative with the absolute. This way Singapore is unfalsifiable. Things are so, because it says so. It says so because it can. It can, because it's Absolute Singapore.

When readers read about the Lim household, there’ll be genuine pathos, no doubt. But there’ll also be a contrapuntal voice, that admonishing voice conveyed in the looming timbre of the Father: Remember Singapore. Are you a graduate? Look at them and their plight. Are you like them? 

Are you sure want to be like them? 

Remember now and not too long ago, the tax penalties, the exorbitant hospital charges, the forced abortions, the clipped fallopian tubes, the public put-downs, the permanent stigmas? Forget those lives that could have led, for want of a better word, a better life. 

Never mind a life, as long as you produce quality genes for your fatherland. 

Society above self. The self is a machine.

Look at them and their plight. Are you a graduate? Remember this is Singapore. Know your place in society, and take your pick: strata, structures, strictures, streaming, schools and scholarships, Singapore society's strangleholds. Your station in life, closed and chosen even before you were born. Anything after is a continuous struggle against, the comparison with, the constant judgement, and a ceaseless proving of yourself. In the end, some may make it, many don't. Because one man had an obsession with utopia, and made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

So as to achieve happiness, prosperity, and progress for our nation.


An earlier version was posted at

Molly has written about another family with a similar tale, this time inflected not just by class and sexuality, but also race and religion. I reckon only seditious bloggers dare take on these inflammatory topics. :) Nonetheless they're different pages in the same book. 

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