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They Exist

Me, Myself and I

One of my weekend treats was to pick up a John Grisham novel called “Gray Mountain,” which focuses on a young New York lawyer who gets retrenched from her big law firm and ends up working in the Appalachian Hills. Although I’ve only started the first few chapters but the book has already painted a wonderful picture of how a former “real estate” lawyer dealing with billionaire property developers suddenly discovering people who have no jobs and domestic violence is a way of life.

This fictional account of a Wall Street lawyer in Appalachian country underlines the fact that America isn’t a single country but many countries, where people from different parts of the country have totally different experiences from other people in the same country. This is also not unique to America. Here in Asia, there are plenty of examples of countries that are in fact many countries. Like in America, the difference is largely centred on the urban-rural divide. For example, when everyone talks about the Chinese economy and the great wealth in China, they are thinking about the shinning metropolitan centres of Shanghai and Shenzhen. What nobody thinks of is the rural areas where people have been so busy worrying about getting flour to make soup to bother knowing about what goes on outside their village.

Being a multitude of places isn’t limited to large countries like the USA or China. Even small places like Hong Kong and Singapore are many countries as opposed to being one unified block. If anything, the difference between the various communities in small places like Hong Kong and Singapore appear more pronounced than they are in large places. A Wall Street banker will most likely never have to look at someone from the Appalachian hills in the course of their daily lives. Here in my work place in the centre of Singapore’s financial district, you have the slick residents of condo-land walking past the aunty from one-room HDB heartland trying to sell them tissue paper just to pay her utility bill.

Countries like people, want to show the world their best side to the world and wanting to “gloss over” certain realities is understandable. It becomes even more pronounced of places what need the outside world and governments in such places go through great lengths to “gloss up” their image. My stepfather, once made a point that he would only fly airlines of small but wealthy countries because the national carrier in such places were extensions of national pride. Airlines like SIA, Emirates, Cathay Pacific and Qatar consistently rank among the world’s best because they are part of their native lands that governments want the world to see.

In the case of Singapore, everyone gets to see Shenton Way or the Marina Bay sands. These are iconic images and one they are very nice. I admit they are great to look at and very pleasant areas. One of my great after work pleasures is to walk from Shenton Way to the Marina Bay Sands casino and towards the bus home.

However, as much as these places are nice, its important to remember that these places do not paint an accurate picture of what Singapore is. One of the most visible signs that Singapore isn’t just the glitziest place of Crazy Rich Asians comes in the form of the elderly cardboard box collectors.

It is, without a doubt, easier to show off the Marina Bay Sands than it is the number of elderlies collecting cardboard boxes. I also get wealth-inequality. I spent my student days in London, where Daddy had a flat in Soho and I had friends who lived in South Kensington. Money wasn’t an issue most of the residents. However, there was inevitably an army of homeless people waiting for you to give your spare change.

However, unlike what I saw in London, where the tramps were young and had probably taken a few bad turns with drugs, the ones in Singapore are inevitably old and they’re begging but doing physically demanding work for criminally low money.

Nobody seems to talk about this group. If you read official news in Singapore, you are bound to think that Singapore of Crazy Rich Asians is the only Singapore. However, while we may all like to think that, this isn’t reality. I look at my work on Shenton Way and the box collectors and its not far fetched to think I may end up experiencing a different Singapore in my old age.

We need an honest conversation about what is Singapore. Like it or not, the one-room flat dwellers are as much a part of Singapore as those on the top of Marina Bay sands The conversation should move from how to do we get more people on top of Marina Bay Sands to ensuring that Singaporeans, particularly the elderly ones don’t need to collect cardboard boxes in their twilight years. We do so much to create an image but that image can only be sustained if people feel some reality of that image.

 

Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.

 

yyy
READER COMMENTS BELOW

8 Responses to “They Exist”

  • Sad:

    Sad to see that in a rich country that claimed no one is left behind…to see elderly have to sell tissue ,do cleaning job or security duties when they should be enjoying their retirements years after a lifetime of slot.
    Most of these people are doing to survive and not exercise…
    Something is really wrong when poor countries do better in this area for their poor seniors and the weak …

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  • English no no:

    “Even small places like Hong Kong and Singapore are many countries as opposed to being one unified block.”

    Can’t you find an appropriate word in place of “countries”? Write so much, and use “countries” like that. How can? You want to start WW3, isn’t?

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  • xoxo:

    Oh,maybe Sg has one of the HIGHE$T NUMBER OF BILLIONAIRE$ PER SQ KM in the world.
    But SG may also have the HIGHEST NUMBER OF ELDERLY WORKER PER SQ KM as well?

    But one thing we need to know.
    It is that much harder to be poor in a RICH COUNTRY than to be poor in a POOR COUNTRY especially one like $g where MONEY TALKS MUCH MORE!

    WHATS WRONG WITH MAKING THE RICH richer even if the POOR N NEEDY become POORER N MORE IMPOVERISHED?

    WE ARE STILL RANKED A HIGHLY PRO$PEROUS COUNTRY EVEN IF our poor becomes poorer.
    WE ARE PROUD TO COUNT OUR INCREA$ING NUMBER OF BILLIONAIRE$;WE HAVE STOPPED COUNTING THE POOR as it does not matter.

    The poor ,including ELDERLY SGS,CAN ALL WORK TILL THEY DROP DEAD.
    WE dont care if they clean toilets,clear tables and plates or collecting cardboard litter under the scorching sun or heavy downpour as long as WE CAN COLLECT MORE MONEY FROM them.
    THATS WHY WE MUCH PREFER TO INCREA$E GST AS *IT IS FAIRER N CUTS ACROSS THE BOARD* instead of INCREASING INCOME TAXES TO CLAW BACK OUR $100BILLION,for example, even if we inequitably give a paltry $600 to GREEDY POOR and many more thousands to those with TOP SALARIES.

    DIE DIE WE MIST RANK HIGH IN NUMBER OF BILLIONAIRE$.
    WE WANT ADULATION AT ALL COST!
    The POOR?
    They die their business…

    Tech: Quite true, Sinkieland has over 280,000 millionaires, not sure about billionaires though. However, I do know that most new billionaires are from HK and CN.

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  • xoxo:

    @Tech
    Yes,indeed many among the Billionaire$ hail from abroad.
    More likely to *PARK* their RICHE$ here in $in City especially once MR XI embarks on more aggressive stance on COMMON PROSPERITY ROUTE.
    Here,the poor becomes poorer effectively from higher n higher COL and many former PMETs that used to form the Middle Class have been DISADVANTAGED to form THE NEW POOR.
    IS THAT WHAT WE CALL PROGRESS FOR THE NATION?
    We $ubsidise heavily and generou$ly EVENT$ LIKE F1 but we are so reluctant to grant more decent levels of AID TO OUR OWN POOR SGS WHILE BURDENING them with HIGHER EFFECTIVE COL even by rai$ing GST instead of collecting more from the RICH N WELL-HEELED IN RELATIVE(EFFECTIVE) term.
    We can even raid sgs’ reserves(not govt,not PAP) and inequitably give deservibg n needy sgs a mere $600 when we OPENLY CLAIMED SO PROUDLY that PER CAPITA GRANT OF $23.5K is a generous sum from the G?
    Yet,MANY NON-SGS DRAWING HIGH SALARIES WITH SIZEABLE PERSONAL SAVINGS were GRANTED MUCH MORE THAN EVEN THE *OFFICIAL AVERAGE* OF $23.5K?!

    IS THIS FAIR N JUST N RATIONAL?
    IF $CHOLARS DONT CARE N POOR SGS DONT DISCERN,SUCH INJUSTICES WILL PREVAIL.
    ONLY THING IS HEAVEN IS WATCHING AND KARMA WILL TAKE ACTION against such *atrocities* which are so subtle on the surface that we simply take as *goodness*?

    Let the Heavens decide.

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  • Singaporeans R Free Riders:

    However, unlike what I saw in London, where the tramps were young and had probably taken a few bad turns with drugs, the ones in Singapore are inevitably old and they’re begging but doing physically demanding work for criminally low money.
    ==============================================================
    Hi TangLi,
    The old are still working is because they are lazy and unmotivated when young and spent all their monies on wine, gambling and women…

    Now, even Elon Musk also want to implement China style work culture.

    ELON MUSK THREATENS TO FIRE EMPLOYEES WHO WON’T BE “EXTREMELY HARDCORE” WORKERS
    https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2022/11/elon-musk-fire-employees-hardcore

    Musk tells Twitter staff: Work ‘hardcore’ or leave
    https://www.politico.eu/article/must-tells-twitter-staff-to-work-harder-or-leave/

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  • P Against People:

    Pappy supporters are despicable.

    Singaporeans R Free Riders: The old are still working is because they are lazy and unmotivated when young and spent all their monies on wine, gambling and women…

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  • Singaporeans R Free Riders:

    P Against People:
    Pappy supporters are despicable.

    On the contrary, it is Opposition supporters who are despicable.

    Many irresponsible Singaporeans actually tried to live it up even they could not afford it ? Pastor Sun, Venerable Ming Yi, Jack Chua, you name it.

    Jack Chua used all his money on mistress and never contribute a single towards his son upbringing…
    https://bit.ly/3PMVWB3

    Should we help irresponsible Opposition supporters who screwed around, never take responsibility and instead, make other people clean up their sh1ts?

    Then this group of irresponsible Opposition supporters make use of others such as TRE to voice their displeasure.

    But when TRE ask them for donation, they go diam diam diam….

    Opposition supporters are free riders.

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  • P Against People:

    Sun tried to live it up but could not afford it? You are wrong. Those people have loads of money. It’s the accounting that landed them in court. If they had put in more accounting effort, e.g., sell bond with full director agreement, whatever to make it legal. Their followers did not complain about money.

    Singaporeans R Free Riders: Many irresponsible Singaporeans actually tried to live it up even they could not afford it ? Pastor Sun, Venerable Ming Yi, Jack Chua, you name it.

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