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February 06, 2019

Singapore’s Great Divide

Text by Navya Mehrotra

The recent hit film Crazy Rich Asians has thrown the spotlight on Singapore’s most divisive fault line — class. Verve ruminates on this after a chance conversation with a taxi driver in the island state

“I’m a chemical engineer,” he told me as soon I got into his taxi. As if he wanted to reassure me, or himself, that being a cab driver wasn’t his original choice of profession. “I new to this job, I maybe need directions,” he warned me in broken English.

“That’s fine,” I responded.

His hair was more grey than black, and his skin was wrinkled. But when he turned around to speak to me, his watery blue-black eyes had a spark in them. A vitality, an alertness, and a hint of good humour.

He looked at me and smiled. “My daughter is also young, like you. She works also. Lives in Shanghai. I have son also, he live in Australia with family. His children still very small.”

“Oh you live alone?” I asked, politely, not knowing how long this discussion would be. I longingly looked out of the window, at the glittering Singapore skyline, waiting for an opportunity to day-dream after what had been an exhausting day.

“Yes, I chemical engineer, I not taxi driver,” he reiterated. “Singapore so expensive lah, cannot stay home. No family, no support, I must pay bills still, so I drive.” A glimpse of my worried expression in his rear-view mirror caused him to quickly reassure me. “It’s okay lah, I have passion for cars. I like to drive. But alone, where I drive? So I tell my friend, let me borrow your car every day half-shift. Today first day. Now I have passenger, they tell me where they go, and I drive. I happy now.”

“So what was being a chemical engineer like?” I asked him.

“Best years of my life,” he responded. “When I young, I travel. My boss say, show India how to treat water, and I show. We help set up many water treatment plants around the world.”

He slowly drifted into deep thought, drove wordlessly for a while, until he finally spoke again.

“Those time the best, because I feel wanted. Now nobody remember me. Then my wife with me, my children young, they need father and husband. My work good, my boss happy, they need good chemical engineer. Life always changes. Before everyone need you, now nobody remembers. Who need me now?”

Who needs him now? A retired man, who had worked for his country his entire life, but has been forgotten by society? So in order to make ends meet, he has decided to spend his days driving.

The rags-to-riches story of Singapore is nothing short of extraordinary. In 50 years, the island state grew from having no prospects of development and no natural resources, to the glamorous financial hub it is today. In the new Singapore, indulgence is undisguised; there are lavish parties in exotic locations, private jets, Birkin bags, expensive watches and cars, and extravagant vacations.

The recent hit movie, Crazy Rich Asians, draws attention to this, Singapore’s most divisive fault line — class. To simulate an ‘authentic’ environment, the movie is peppered with the working class — the tissue sellers, the hawker food vendors, the delivery men in trucks, amidst colourful shophouses. The distinction between the high class and the classless; or ‘low class’, as the Chinese-American protagonist, Rachel Chu, refers to herself in a pivotal scene, is evident.

Those who make up Singapore’s new generation are entrenched in its hierarchical social framework. Even the ones that ride on the hardships of uneducated parents who have painstakingly put pennies together to build better lives.

“I can’t tell anyone that my mother is a ‘beer aunty’. Every evening, she sells drinks to men, and entertains them,” Angie confided in me. We had been friends a while but she had always been elusive about her family. We had been sitting silently on the beach, focusing on our ice creams, when she decided to open up to me. “It’s easy with you,” she said. “You don’t understand the confines of class and status in our society. My mother works for me to go to university, but I feel ashamed. Her money feels dirty. My peers wear designer watches, their boyfriends buy them fancy handbags; they would not be my friends if they knew.”

“Maybe they’d understand?” I unknowingly suggested. “Maybe they would respect how far you have come, and how, because of your mother’s determination and your education, you will change the fate of your family?”

Angie looked at me blankly for a moment and scoffed. “Respect me, you think? If they could help it, they wouldn’t even talk to me. I would be beneath them, I would be ‘low class’, and not worthy of socialising with them.”

A well-meaning Singaporean colleague once advised me over lunch, when the topic of dating came up. “You must always be careful of his family. Where he comes from and what his parents do. Sometimes even successful boys, have bad histories. They don’t come from the ‘right’ background, if you understand what I am saying?”

“You mean they don’t come from money?” I asked.

“Money and class. That determines upbringing. The boy can be a true gentleman, but if his Mama a ‘beer aunty’ then you know that cannot work, no? That’s why you must always remember the five Cs,” she said.

“The five Cs?” I asked her.

“Yes. Never agree to meet a boy without knowing about his five Cs. Cash, Car, Credit Card, Condominium and finally, a Country Club membership.”

“And darling,” she said, “never ever offer to split the bill. It’s only a man’s job to pay.” In Singapore, cash represents spending power, a credit card is a symbol of success, and since one in 10 Singaporeans owns a car, it is a sign of affluence. As most of the population lives in government subsidised housing, only the wealthiest tier of society owns a condominium and can afford a membership in one of Singapore’s few, elite, country clubs.

The taxi driver’s voice snapped me out of my thoughts. He looked up at his rearview mirror. “We were the heart of Singapore; the root of tradition, that we passed down from our fathers. Oh but you young children still need us, or there will be no unity, no humility. There will be no more tradition.”

And so he (and so many like him) continues to exist, on the sidelines. Amidst a culture where nothing is ever enough; in the shadows of bold, branded, designer signs, glass buildings and shining lights. Silenced by the noise of flashy cars and the latest toys, they continue to clean tables and drive taxis. But with them lie the age-old values and traditions, with them lies the true soul of Singapore.

As the old taxi driver drove into my driveway, he scolded me for not having small change. Begrudgingly fishing some out from his wallet, he turned around and smiled at me one last time, those watery blue-black eyes twinkling at me. He waved goodbye and before I knew it, Uncle Tan was lost in a sea of other taxi drivers.

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