Tuesday, 20 September 2011

An Encounter with Xiao Li

I met a Chinese national, presumably a foreign worker because of his adornments, today at my bus stop while I was headed to SMU. He approached me to ask if the buses were going to the Serangoon MRT station. I replied in the affirmative, and as my bus arrived I told him that I was headed to Serangoon MRT too so we could head down together. I might be getting ahead of myself here, but I thought I caught a glimpse of surprise in his eyes as he enthusiastically said, "好(great)!" and we got up the bus and took a seat together.

As we traveled along by bus and then later by train, I learnt that his name is Xiao Li and he had lost his way while trying to get supplies from Serangoon Gardens. Having just moved here from Henan six months ago and living at Yishun now, much of Singapore is still alien to him and he knows not a word of English. My mandarin is terrible, but we got along well enough. Sometimes, the great thing about such encounters that involve language barriers is that you end up trying to transcend the limits imposed by things like language, ethnicity, nationality or creed, and as a result connect more as fellow humans. As trivial as it was knowing that he had recently bought a computer from Little India and that the heat in Singapore takes some getting used to (Henan is predominantly cold), it was good company, and I felt happy knowing that he's getting by with some friends he made while on the job. It must not be easy traveling thousands of kilometres away from home to work in a country that is quite obviously xenophobic and elitist against such individuals.

In one TV programme that interviewed foreign workers in Singapore, one Bangladeshi worker was asked what he thought about Singapore. He said, as his voice cracked, that Singapore is a beautiful country, but when it comes to Singaporean people, sometimes he feels that Singaporeans respect and care for dogs and cats more than people like him. We virtually dehumanise these people and relegate them to a level lower than animals.

That sentiment really hits me hard. It is compounded by the fact that right now, in order to facilitate a study that my professor is trying to run, I need to recruit people who work low social status jobs as participants. However, more specifically, we need low social status workers who fit this demographic: Singaporean Chinese males aged 20-24, and Singaporean Chinese females aged 17-21. After two weeks, recruitment has yielded almost nothing, and I've come to realize that, insofar as a job can be considered "low social status" in Singapore, Singaporean Chinese aged 17-24 are very unlikely to be found there. As a Singaporean Chinese man myself, it is quite clear that we are the privileged lot in society.

I think more tribute should be paid to the people working the jobs we do not want to do. We may not like the policies that lead to such a crazy influx of foreign immigrants (I personally think these policies are problematic and do not solve more deeply-rooted economic problems), but we do not have to blame and shame the people who have arrived on our shores as a result of bad policy. When we utilize the things that constitute our high standard of living, such as clean public toilets and beautifully architectured buildings, a less privileged person dirtied his hands so that we are able to. A less privileged person took up that "low social status" job so that we didn't even have to entertain the possibility that such jobs are on the market for us to consider. I know that for most of my educated Singaporean Chinese counterparts, it is highly discomforting to imagine taking up one of these "low social status" jobs; I've been there. I've worked as a temp labourer to shift things before, but I'll bet I did so only because I know that few people know about this (it's different to say that I used to be a shifter - that can even be something to brag about - compared to if I am now and telling people about it). When I helped out at the SMU gown collection as an usher, ushering my fellow school mates who were from my year to the gown collection point, there were many instances where I had to endure questions that revolved around the idea of: "Why are you doing this kind of job?" Regardless of your own self-confidence, such questions still test your resolve. Jobs are low social status not ultimately because of how much they pay (although that is often partly the case), but simply because there is a stigma associated with them (just imagine comparing between working as a McDonald's waiter versus working at a yoghurt stall - both may pay the same and both involve the same job scope, but many people will find working at the yoghurt stall more trendy and palatable).

As a people, we can be more gracious, and sometimes by just taking that one step to put aside our prejudices, we can be a lot happier too. It's a choice and one that, I believe, many Singaporeans are capable of making.

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