To tell the truth, I teared up a couple of times while reading Mrs. Obama’s rallying speech to the Democratic National Convention. It was hard hitting, personal, and deeply felt as it seems somewhat implausible that a first lady could have experienced the same hardships that so many others in her home country have.
It prompted me to re-read our own PM’s national day rally speech delivered not too long ago. While his attempts to connect with the audience by showing them snippets of his personal life did not resonate as deeply as Mrs. O’s own recounting, it is still a huge shift away from the old vocabulary – and it’s something we should encourage in our future leaders – the ability to empathize.
Re-reading it also made me realize how very lucky we are – we aren’t impacted by a lot of issues that plague other parts of the world such as college-educated individuals not being able to secure jobs, student debt that would eclipse a mortgage, or not being able to see a doctor for the common flu.
We are, regardless of what you might say about the government, very lucky like that. We are fortunate that some clever folks had the foresight to plan for all of these things. So that K-12 education is virtually free, and if you can’t afford it even then, the government will find a way to make it happen for your children. We’re fortunate that if you qualify for NUS or NTU or SMU, get through all those exams and graduate, you won’t be buried under a mountain of student debt upon removing that hallowed cap and gown.
If you’ve read anything on how wealth is created and increased between generations, you’ll know that it’s almost always because the older generation invested in the education of the younger one. In Singapore, that isn’t even a choice that the majority of parents have to make – tuition fees at NUS (when my friends were in school) were approximately $6,000 a semester (the remaining $12,000 was covered by the government), that could be paid out of your parents CPF or by taking an interest-free loan from NUS (which a working adult is capable of paying down in about three years). Isn’t that incredible?
And now, our government is increasing the number of university spaces to take in 40% of the cohort by 2020 (it’s currently at 27%). Kudos to them, this is a change that we need to undertake.
When President Obama and First Lady got married their combined monthly student loan bills were higher than their mortgage. That’s not something that most of us have to deal with as we have a school system in place that works in our favour.
In America, one of the most difficult things the President is grappling with today is healthcare reforms. He’s been told repeatedly to leave healthcare to another President, make it someone else’s problem – but he won’t, and he’s getting flak for it.
They’d be so amazed if they knew we could see the doctor for the flu for just eight dollars. It’s so cheap we don’t even have to think twice about taking our kids to see the doctor when they’re sick, we just do it, and sometimes we don’t even realize how fortunate we are to have that.
Of course, our healthcare coverage isn’t universal, and there are a lot of yawning gaps that still need to be covered like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or any of those particularly terrible diseases that hit you later in life and last for a while… Those are complex, difficult issues that require a great deal of conversation and thought to lead to a better outcome, but we’re making progress, and there’s no question that it is an important part of the national agenda.
One of the things that got me most excited in PM Lee’s recent speech is that our government is finally taking a good look at pre-school education.
It’s an undisputed fact that the learning that occurs in a child’s formative years can really make a huge difference to how they perform later in life, if we’re going to give all kids an equal opportunity, then we’ve got to give those that need assistance a leg up at an early age.
I don’t think pre-school is meant to teach you what you need to know in Primary 1 – but it should imbue you with a love of learning (before it’s beaten out of you in the hyper competitive P1-Sec4 years), give you a taste of language through stories and skits, and it should encourage the natural curiosity that all kids seem to be born with. Most of all, it’s about getting kids acclimatized and socialized with other young things. That might be the best way to prepare them for the onslaught that is our formal education system.
We have grown up on a rhetoric that tells us that places like America are the land of opportunity, it’s certainly been branded that way, but it’s not something unique to the home of the brave:
My grandfather came to Singapore with just about nothing. His father was an opium addict, his mother washed clothes for other families. He didn’t make it past Primary 2 before he had to quit school to work and support the family doing a bunch of odd jobs to try and make ends meet. My grandma’s family was a little better off - they owned a provision shop on Pulau Ubin. My grandfather could not believe his luck when my grandma agreed to marry him, that someone so far above him would want to make a life with him was simply incredible, not to mention completely unheard of at the time - when they were married, my grandfather lived in a crowded shophouse near Amoy street with at least a dozen other people.
But she had faith that his incredible work ethic would pay off in the long run.
And with a lot of hard work, and a fair amount of good fortune, it certainly did. They two of them, together, they put 6 kids through university (unheard of at the time), and grew their business from a little counter at the old Sincere Department Store into, well, what it is today. I’ve always attributed it to their sheer determination, but my grandpa likes to point out that none of this would be possible if it weren’t for a young government that worked hard to provide stability for its people, who were invested in creating something out of this overly large sand bar, who (thankfully) didn’t pocket lots of the initial investment that came their way.
What did they give us? Food, water, shelter, access to healthcare and education. We consider these things basic, but the most powerful nation in the world can’t even guarantee them and our tiny country can.
My grandfather is one of the biggest proponents of the PAP. I’m fairly certain you can see why.
At this point, you’re probably thinking I’ve bought in big time to the official line. Let me just say, I’m neither pro-PAP nor pro-Opposition, I’d actually like to see a healthy mix of both in parliament. What I am is pro-Singapore – the sense of pride I derive from calling this place home, the sense of kinship I feel with others who inhabit this tiny island of ours, the way we unanimously unite in defending our local delicacies, and the fact that I can get good kopi for $1.20 or good coffee for $6 (this isn’t even an option in America!)
Don’t get me wrong – I fully recognize that there are issues with the system, big ones, complex ones, ones that maybe we won’t fix in our lifetimes – but whining about it will get us nowhere. What does Obama like to say? Be the change. I’d like to add, don’t complain.
We need talented, passionate and purposeful people to step up and help the country work through these issues. The right people with the right motivations, and by motivations, I don’t mean money. We need people who will pursue their passions instead of just a paycheck – in the arts, in industry, in government, in social services and education, and we really need people to make new businesses happen. That’s what we need. We also need to realize that we need to be the people we’re looking for to make that difference. Be the change. Don’t complain.
We also probably need to stop thinking about “success” as something on a single dimension. We all want a better future for future generations, but first we’ll need to define what we mean by “better.” Only then will we be able to work towards a better future.
If you’re keen to see how far we’ve come, take a gander over to this page where you can take a look at the National Day Parade of 1968. It tells the story of how Singaporeans stood together, in spite of the unrelenting rain and the daunting, uncertain future ahead. The British had recently left, the government was young, untried and untested, and the people did not have very much in the way of material goods, and they certainly didn’t enjoy the modern comforts we’ve become so accustomed to. BUT they were there, at the parade, in the rain, to show their support for the young nation. They were willing to put in the effort, the hard work, blood, sweat and tears to make our country what it is today.
I’ve tried to ask my grandpa about it but he doesn’t remember, so I think I might show him the Facebook application to see if it will jog his memory.
Transcript of PM Lee’s National Day Rally Speech here.