Thursday, February 19, 2009

Portrait: Singapore

We are a country who cut our teeth to hard work. Our chronological struggle – from a small fishing village to being a colony to the pre-independence days of pure uncertainty, for how can a tiny island with no natural resources survive? – is etched into our collective memory. But we did survie. Our impossibly small island-city has thrived in the last half a century (we’re 44 this year), and has fed off the economic miracles just as we have fended off the economic downturns. This current one is supposed to be no exception. Headlines in our national paper tell us that there is hope. The government is doing all they can to help the work force, the elderly, the sick.

At least that’s what the local headlines report, What they don’t report are the little deaths – when dreams are flatlined by reality.

My friend is like me – 27, armed with a few years of working experience, a degree paid for by about three jobs and late nights. My friend is also unlike me – she’s also married, has a kid, and saddled with the growing responsibilites of a young wife and mother. Her husband has been laid off – twice now – and he’s now delivering ice-cream for a fraction of the pay he used to have. My friend doesn’t earn much, and all she does go towards supporting her little family. This was the girl who used to spend all her pocket money on cosmetics and flashy bags. This was the girl who was filled with vivacity and drive. Now the woman she has become is living from paycheck to paycheck, and has taken up another part-time job just to afford all the neccessities – ‘I didn’t know what it means to have money. I probably never will. But I do know what it means to have very little – my baby seeing me only for a few minutes everyday, and I don’t know how to ever explain mummy’s got to leave you because she needs the money for your diapers.’

My uncle is 40 and his cancer has just came back. For the second time. The tumour is lodged near his brain, and it’s growing. He is self-employed, running a design-and-carpentry business out of the home he shares with my grandmother. When the economy crisis hit and all the major furniture stories slashed their prices, he lost many customers because unlike the Harvey Normans of the world, he cannot afford credit terms or installment plans for his clients. With the lack of income, he was left standing at the hospital without treatment, because the hospital needed him to pay cash before they could ‘authorize further treatment’. We all pitched in, and we will continue to pitch in – this is what family is for. No questions asked. ‘It’s so crass but true – there are days where you think it’s easier to die than to be sick. I just can’t afford it anymore,’ whispers my uncle – an operation to remove the first tumuour two years ago has fully compromised his speaking and swallowing abilties.

My father is not yet 60 but he behaves a great deal older. He’s got Parkinson’s, and his body is cruelly whittled down by the disease. This is a chronic illness – expensive to treat, impossible to cure. He was a teacher for 30 years before he retired and was quickly diagnosed after losing control of the steering one day. That was the end of his driving, but anyway pretty soon it was clear we couldn’t afford the BMW. Good thing we sold it – cars on our tiny island come with a hefty tax and a system where you have to bid for a ‘certificate of entitlement’, which prices the car far higher than what it’s worth. Our effective government’s way of cutting back on car ownership, and hence, traffic. A teacher for the longest time, a ‘civil servant’ as all government service personnel are known as – but he has just been served with a letter announcing the fact that his ‘class A’ drugs would no longer be covered by the pension. ‘I can take the lower grade drugs,’ he says to me dully. But as long as I can provide for him and my family, I wouldn’t let him suffer more than he already is. What I will shelve in exchange for a better quality of his life is my goal to complete my masters before I’m thirty, and of course my dreams of starting my own family, and settling down in my first home.

I’m far luckier than many, I know. I’m young, healthy, and I’m holding down an enviable job that pays me enough. Perhaps the economy will recover, the stock markets will bounce back, and companies will start hiring again. But meanwhile, every day is an elergy to the dreams that die, because we can no longer afford to keep them alive.

Jean Tan, 27