I’ve been hearing this question lately. From my mom, my friends, colleagues and even strangers whom I happen to meet. “What exactly are we striving for, working so hard for?”
“Everything that we do or earn is just to pay our bills”, my mom said. “This is life”, replied my friend, “you want to afford the things in your life you have to keep slogging away.”
This perhaps is the view of many a people – with an echo of resignation at the end of it.
But should it be so? We slog all our lives just so we can pay our bills? Or afford the things of this world? Somehow, the pragmatism behind such thoughts saddens me. Have we become so hapless that we surrender and allow ourselves to be carried along this tide of resignation, of fatalism even?
A "bright future"
It was in the 80s that I first remember the many exhortations to 'work hard' and that the 'future is bright'. Slogans were being dished out by the month, it seemed. But irony of ironies, I can't seem to be able to specifically remember any particular such slogan. I only know that there were many.
Anyway, that's some 20-plus years ago - and we're now in the 'bright future' which we were told would arrive with our hard work.
Singapore now has the the world's fastest growing number of millionaires. 48, 500 at last count, a rise of 22.4%. Singapore is also the 54th largest economic entity in the world. An astounding achievement, no doubt, given our size.
All these makes today's Channelnewsasia report even more depressing. Let me quote:
What is more worrying is the fact that the majority of Singaporeans in the middle class has only seen about a one percent increase in their nominal income in the last 5 years. ... So if you were a worker in the 50-55 age group, you could have seen your wages fall as much as 10 percent over the last 3 or 4 years.
If the middle class has seen only a one percent increase in their nominal income, what about the lower class? (By the way, I hate using the word 'class' but...) And now there is talk of a 'dual economy' emerging. Basically, that means the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer - or stay at the same level of poor-ness.
To be fair to the government, they did say that there will be a widening income gap and MM Lee himself had advised that
"If we want to have successful entrepreneurs, Singaporeans have to accept a greater income disparity between the successful and the not so successful."
SM Lee Kuan Yew, Ho Rih Hwa public lecture, Feb 5, 2002
What is causing all this? In a word, globalisation. At least that's what we're told.
Are our elderly enjoying this 'bright future'?
But where does all this leave your average singaporean, especially the older ones and the elderly ones, some of whom are still struggling but encouraged by the govt to go for 'skills training' - as in this report. I am all for skills training - for the younger set. But for the elderly - who should be enjoying this 'bright future' for which they slogged so hard?
Say what you want but my view is that there is something inherently wrong with society if the elderly still needs to work in order to 'pay their bills', cleaning after the younger set - at hawker centres, food courts, and picking up cardboards and tin cans from the trash bins.
"Globalisation" is just an easy and convenient excuse of those who have 'made it'.
The government's solution to this is, as usual, a pragmatic & economic one - skills training, job re-design, "Progress Package", "GST offset package", "Singapore Shares", etc.
Do you see something wrong with this picture?
It is pure pragmatism. It is the absence of heart.
Do we have our priorities right?
Packaged as 'help', the truth is that these 'help' schemes are carefully calculated and crafted to alleviate or avoid future economic burdens which the government might face with an ageing population. (Singapore is one of the fastest ageing population in the world.)
All this is well and good. I am sure no one wants to have to face the problem in future - whether as a govt or as young, working adult individual. But good as it may be, it cannot be devoid of compassion. And this is the perception - that the govt wants you to 'work till you die', so that 'you can pay your bills'. (And buy a place for your urn as well, in advance if possible.)
Consider the billions and billions being dished out on anything from HDB estate upgrading to a new national stadium, from indoor sports halls for schools to multi hundred-million-dollar R&D programmes, etc etc. And now we're talking of 'extreme makeovers' for our housing estates. So much glitz and glamour, my.
Have we stopped and asked ourselves, "Shouldn't one of our priorities be the aged, old & elderly?"
Are we so willing to write out billion-dollar cheques (as it were) to state-fund economically beneficial programmes while we urge our old to continue to work, instead of allowing them to have peace of mind and time to fulfill their hopes and wishes?
Where is the heart?
I am well aware that there are old and elderly people who prefer to work but this should be a choice and not a necessity, especially at their age! A society loses something important if it rejoices at the sight of its elderly cleaning tables and taking out trash. "Look! They're healthy, able-bodied, and gainfully employed!"
Society loses its soul - and its perspective.
It is thus with much hope that I await the prime minister's budget speech next month. I know he is not going to be announcing any 'welfare' (what a dirty word, huh?), but I do hope that the money collected through the increase of the GST will be truly used to help the less-abled, especially the elderly.
And maybe, just maybe, our elderly will be able to enjoy this 'bright future' which they were promised - record-breaking number of millionaires and all.
And there is nothing more joyful for the elderly than to spend time with their own families, their kids and grand kids - not cleaning up after strangers. That, I dare say, was the 'bright future' they had in mind.
Do we have the heart to let them fulfill their simple dream - while we race ahead for our own?
Where is the heart of our society?