What You Teach is What You Get

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Half past noon on a sunny Tuesday morning, we are on an internal flight headed to Washington D.C. – we have been on many airplanes over the course of the past two weeks. The past three days back in Illinois (after Colorado), we went downtown to do mandatory “souvenir shopping for family”. Seated on high chairs along the counter of an ice-cream parlour, my brother suddenly expressed his admiration for the American culture of acceptance and friendliness. “They treat everyone equally,” he said, “whether you are a cleaner or a security guard.” I nodded in agreement with a tight smile. I’ve had this conversation with others many times before: about what might have gone wrong with the Singapore system that we have an inflated sense of self based on privilege perceived as entitlement. This one’s on how we are the producers and the products in this society.

I vividly recall my Southeast Asian history teacher sharing at the end of her lesson an experience that had left her perturbed – she was in the lift of her HDB estate that evening along with a father and his two children. In the short span of the lift ride, the father had chided the little girl (no more than 8 years of age) for her 75% spelling test score result. The little girl who had been beaming with pride when sharing her result at the start of the lift ride quickly transformed her smile into tears of dejection. Her shoulders slumped and her eyes looking only downward. Then, while scrolling through my Facebook news feed, I caught sight of an article about a Singaporean father teaching his version of “how to treat hawkers” to his two children in a hawker centre. When the children had forgotten to take utensils for their food, he had instructed them to take a set of utensils for themselves from any stall. The stall owners had asked for them to return the utensils because every stall only has a limited number of utensils meant for their own customers. Rather than having his children go to the correct stall to obtain utensils, the father declared that he would take a photo of the stall and report their “unhygienic practices” to the authorities, starting a commotion. In a nutshell, he had decided to pin a false accusation upon the stall.

Volunteering with children, I have always seen a clean slate of immense potential. I have often witnessed for myself how influential the ‘teachers’ in the lives of children are in shaping their every value and belief. Also, I have always been fascinated by how these ‘teachers’ in their lives include every grown adult they cross paths with even before the time they start remembering things. It is as if every child is a blank canvas and all of us who chance upon them are artists. My new read is The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz. The first chapter is titled “How we can be possessed by a story we cannot tell”. In which, psychologist Dr. Grosz describes his experience with patients who have been haunted by one of the youngest childhood memories even when they are in their late sixties. The trauma from childhood memories – things seen being said or done to others or unto them, can unknowingly create the greatest impact on the way they grow up and live. In the days of A level anxiety, a relaxation technique attempted included meditation classes. The instructor, then, had encouraged us to dig deep into our earlier childhood memories to uncover the source of pain and sorrow so as to alleviate the suffering we experience now. I guess the early painters of our lives took up more space on our canvas than we would have expected.

With reference to this belief in the potential of children to be shaped by adults, I am incredibly disappointed to hear these anecdotal examples I have chanced upon. It disappoints me that there exists this paradox – where society blames the younger generation for all sorts of things (‘Strawberry generation’, the inconsiderate, selfish, entitled generation, etc.) that actually came from the very generation dishing out these complaints. Worse, the cycle persists. A common accusation is “Singaporeans are selfish”: we rank 64 out of 144 countries on the World Giving Index by measure of attitudes despite our growing philanthropy scene. I sometimes ponder about whether we are creating a selfish generation by believing so fervently in the meritocracy that shapes our entire society. In some senses, our belief in working for credit and reward has lead to the attitude that attributes (relative) poverty or failure to the lack of hard work subsequently giving less because “you deserve to be where you have landed yourself”. We have also (sub)consciously begun to associate one’s worth to the amount that he or she earns, i.e. one’s profession: this story about learning not to belittle people who work at MacDonald’s resonates with me because it was the first part-time job I’d ever taken when I was 14.

I do not deny the successes that Singapore enjoys because of our faithful belief in meritocracy, but my growing awareness of the social effect from this same system leads me to believe that more can be done to mitigate these unintended negative consequences. I, too, admire the equal respect and friendliness with which Americans treat their fellow and aspire that one day, we will rid of the (sub)conscious association of value of a person with their personal income. Read the other hopes I have for Singapore in the years to come here, we have to work towards these dreams from now. What we teach is what we get, so perhaps it is a good idea to start teaching right, now.

Here’s to the ones who taught me everything I know:

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