Monday, February 04, 2008

Being middle class

Just before the Lunar New Year I attended a PA-organised Public Forum (on rising costs of living) with Lim Hwee Hua (MOS Finance and Transport) and Dr Tan Ern Ser as the panelists.

Dr Tan rather inevitably steered the discussion towards his pet topic and spoke about how the the government was not doing enough to help the middle class. As a result, MOS asked the participants for views on what being middle-class meant, and who considered themselves middle-class.

On the spur of the moment, my answer was that most everyone considers themselves middle-class. If you're not poor (ie you're facing monetary problems on a day-to-basis), and you're not wealthy (ie you never have to worry about money), you'd probably think of yourself as middle class, regardless of any other definition.

(Some preliminary research does seem to indicate that there is no clear definition for the term. Ample ground for arts majors to go arguing here. Both Prof Tan's research as well as reports from the UK suggest that people who are "middle class" may "mistakenly" believe they are working class - probably following my definition, or some similar form).

I elaborated that the problem with being middle-class in Singapore, is that the future is so uncertain. As with people in other industrailizing countries, our parents knew that hard work would lead to better lives - bigger houses, nicer furnishings, car, TV, fridge, etc. And for my generation, for those of us contemplating marriage, family, 60 more years on this planet, the realistic among us don't see hope. We see an iceberg of housing debt under the tip of our seemingly-high income. We see a lifetime of struggle, and not much prospect of having a life that is markedly better than our present. Or to put it starkly, there's no hope.

NYTimes had an article that put it quite well:
The definition of being middle class has changed, as many have noticed. It used to be a destination. Now it’s an uncertain place. It’s a struggle just to stay there.
MOS's answer: We should be realistic in our expectations. Consider that our living situations (eg home size, cars, nice hospital wards) are so much better than our predecessors. She said - from her generation, people did not expect to afford a house immediately after marriage. They worked first, and saved, and eventually they could afford a house. And for the current generation, the implication is that we expect too much - we expect to own a house straightaway, expect to drive, when all these things are not necessary. And from our current comfort, further improvement is difficult.

So, basically she's admitting that yes, we don't have much hope to look forward to continued improvements in our lifestyles like our parents had. But, don't expect it and you won't be disappointed! Hope for simpler things, and hope need not die. Live life according to what you can afford, and things will be fine.

On the one hand, I agree with her. What she's saying is basically, financial prudence. And on my income now, realistically, I should be looking at a three or four room flat, no car, a holiday maybe every two years or less, and trying to keep my individual food budget to less than $10 per day.

But part of me rebels - that part of me that says, irrationally, that I want more. That part that dreams, that desires, that dies a little more every day. The part that rationally I recognize, has been shaped by my society, my culture, the media, that there is a certain kind of lifestyle we aspire to - shallow, consumerist, but oh-so-attractive.

Being middle-class is a war between hope and reality. Maybe that's why so many people buy Toto and 4-D, or as they say, 买一个希望. Because subconsciously, we're aware that it will take a miracle to catapult us out of humdrum existence into the realm of our dreams. Maybe that's why so many people want to be entrepreneurs, want to gamble in the stock market. Because they see a lifetime of toil that doesn't go anywhere.

Still, it's not the government's job to give me happiness - merely provide an environment for me to pursue it. I do wish though, that they could give me at least the illusion that is hope...

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