Turning 21 – what next?

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Eddie Choo / Writer

Turning 21 in Singapore means a lot of things – one of which is that I have the right to vote and the ability to choose the political leadership that I want for the community and the country. On another note, it also means that I am now an adult, and in the coming years, I will enter the “real world” as I leave the university, facing real responsibilities and real consequences.

For me, and for most other males in Singapore who are fresh out of National Service (NS), entering university and becoming an adult is the normal run of things. But I know this is not so for most other Singaporeans.

The Singapore (Parents’) Dream

The notion of the Singapore dream still exists among parents – I know my parents still believe in this, and they are driven to work hard to ensure that I can continue with my tertiary education here, and this is why I can study in NUS without worrying about finances. Work hard, reach university, land a good job, earn thousands per month, work harder, get promoted, stay filial, become a big shot, start a family, have kids, save and retire. I think this sums up the Singapore dream most parents have for their kids. My parents believed in it enough to invest in encyclopedias while I was still in primary school fantasising about dinosaurs.

However, I also know that more middle-aged Singaporeans, especially the retiring baby-boomers, are also losing faith in Singapore. They see Singapore as a hyper-competitive place where people either thrive or dive, where there is hardly any middle space left for people to live in. I know this because of my background. I can safely say that through these few short years I’ve lived I’ve pretty much been around the entire socio-economic spectrum.

Change – experiencing different worlds

I stay in Geylang, and I still do. I have lived long enough to see my own neighbourhood change ever so subtly through the passing years. For one, the neighbourhood playground has less kids nowadays, the faces at the neighbourhood park have grown more wrinkles, and I see more foreign workers hanging around in the parks.

Until my junior college days, my life pretty much revolved around the neighbourhood. The world beyond Geylang was strange to me, and other than some bookshops in Orchard, I was ignorant about the rest of the world. Until of course, I arrived at JC. There, I came across a different world: one of affluence, elitism and social class. In JC, I felt out of place, not because of my grades but because of my outlook. Living in the neighbourhood and being sheltered from the world did not prepare me for the world out there at all.

In the neighbourhood, being slightly better in academic grades seemed to make all the difference; in JC, being slightly better made no difference at all. And there was of course, the difference in affluence. LV, Prada, and all the Italian and French and other European labels were alien to me. I had simply no idea what affluence meant at all.

In time, I became used to friends staying in landed property in wealthy Sixth Avenue, or hearing about some other kid in JC (whose parents are high up in the civil service) doing something scandalous or something like that. Even today, I am still trying to get used to this other affluent social universe out there that I would otherwise never have dreamed of on my own.

National Service

In NS, another world opened up for exploration. I entered a unit where they still had direct ‘mono’ intake, taking in people who fell through the cracks of secondary school and ITE; older teenagers who simply became disinterested in studying and wandered aimlessly through life and pretty much having to do NS because they had nothing else to do. A lot of these people were simply that – something else in life other than school had distracted them so much that they left it; some were even doing illegal things – things that blew my mind. They told me of the close shaves they had hanging out with gangs in Geylang (Gangs of Geylang; has a better ring to it than Gangs of New York), and for them staying in camp was a kind of protection. A close friend of mine told me about his NS story of being in the Military Police, handling cases of drug addicts. I am not sure what the affluent kids who lived with gilded spoons would say to these people. Would they tell them to “get out of my uncaring face”?

I can’t.

What next?

I can’t, because I’ve stayed in Geylang too, and I have friends who got distracted in life and lost their way in school. I have practically lost touch with my primary school friends, many of whom came from less-privileged backgrounds where academic grades were never a priority, not because they are stupid, but because they didn’t have the motivation to work hard for themselves, and probably were never encouraged by their families. They are just people who have well, lost their way.

And now I’m in university, in some atas programme, taking pride that I can actually speak Hokkien quite decently even as I got an A1 for GP during A’ Levels. I don’t think a lot of people can say the same.

For me, turning 21 meant something else, other than the usual, ‘Oh I’m 21 and I can now…’ things. Having gone through these experiences, having lived through different social environments, and now, having arrived at such a privileged position in education, what then?

For the moment, I have taken to writing for The Online Citizen lorh.

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