Sunday, November 07, 2010

My sister is sixty! Or what is poverty?

I find it hard to believe that. My eldest sister. Sixty.

And she spent four hours working at McDonald's today, because the manager there could see that her work ethos was so different from that of Generation Y (or X or Z?). But she had a run-in with a much younger staff member who did not realize that she was a champion french fries fryer whose "just-in-time" technique was exemplary.

Sister has a full-time job in accounts. She 'retired' and started doing some hours at M's, but was soon offered a job elsewhere. M's called her up, asking her to work Sundays.

Actually Big Sister is very good at audit/accounts but never quite bothered to get her accountancy qualifications. I remember her talking for hours on the phone trying to explain to her best friend the difference between debits and credits, assets and liabilities.

I look back at my young life with great sentimentality today because the talk in the UK this week was -- still -- on cutting public spending. Today Iain Duncan Smith tells us that those on long-term benefits will be forced to do unpaid work in the community.

As you can imagine, uproar from the red corner: that's slave labour, exploitation, unfair.

From the blue corner (or whatever colour corner you choose to call it): about time, too, why should people be giving something for nothing?, three generations of workless households? they need help in being introduced to work, etc.


Incidentally magistrates often sentence minor criminals to unpaid "community work". This week we read of one such "Lazy thug chooses prison over community work 'because he doesn't like getting out of bed'".

Earlier this week BBC journalists went on strike. I personally found it very refreshing. None of that 24-hour dribble (drivel?) speculating as to who was going to say what at which platform. They were protesting against a 25% cut in pensions.

25% of what? 25% of a very large sum would still leave you with 75% of a lot. The BBC licence fee is something we have to pay, or face jail (if I'm not wrong, but of course the prisons are too full now for that).

They quibble over the big bosses having huge pay packets. That, as far as I am concerned, is quite a different issue from their pension cut. Everyone is facing a cut, so why should BBC journalists be different?

My eldest sister's birthday was significant because she was the first person who finished her education at sixteen, went to work in a factory to help support our family, and then learned her trade in audit/accounts in the evenings.

My family was materially poor. There were six of us children and we lived in a one bedroom flat in Tiong Bahru. The flat was kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and a large sitting room. So most of us slept on the floor in the sitting room.

We had one bed -- my parent's. Come evening, the mats -- we didn't even have mattresses then -- were rolled out and we slept on the floor.

We had no wardrobes, except the one dressing table/wardrobe that was part of my mum's dowry. Our clothes were kept in wooden boxes that used to hold vegetables/other goods. Mum collected these boxes from the market and cleaned them out. These were stacked, double decker, under my parents' bed. We each had a different box.

Under the bed, too, was a metal trunk, again from mum's wedding, where she kept some very beautiful dresses that belonged to my cousins. Every so often she would open this trunk to take out new (old) dresses when I outgrew the ones I was wearing.

Come Chinese New Year mum would take a pink dress out of a cardboard box, a very pretty lacey dress, from the wardrobe. How I loved that dress! It was very long when I first wore it. A few Chinese New Years later it got rather short.

Then my parents could not afford the rent and we had to move into Queenstown. Two bedrooms, but a much smaller flat.

We still only had one table. It was our dining table. In the evening the food was cleared away and we sat around it to do homework.

Someone gave us a second smaller bed. Two sisters shared this bed. The rest of us slept on the floor, in the bedroom, in the sitting room, anywhere we found space. Later we could afford mattresses. Then an old bunk bed was donated to us, complete with mattresses. Wow!

Someone else gave us an old wardrobe/cupboard. The sisters now each had one shelf. Such luxury!

When I read of "overcrowding" in this country, I chuckle.

Second sister went into nursing a year or so after she finished school (at 16). Third sister worked and studied in the evenings for five years to qualify as a quantity surveyor.

With the financial burden eased somewhat, Big Brother was able to finish his A Levels, finished his National Service and went into university to study engineering. Second Brother joined the navy and through a circuitous route is also an engineer now.

Yet when we were growing up we did not think of ourselves as poor. We were happy. We had food. We were always clean and tidy.

We might not have TV, but we had newspapers, in two languages. We had Rediffusion and radio, through which I learned my English. Mum collected discarded textbooks and I would read those. An uncle bought us a subscription of Readers Digest which we read avidly.

Ours is a reading family and we read everything we could put our hands on.

We were materially impoverished by today's standards in the UK, but boy! were we rich in our ambition and desire to succeed.

We did not have a choice. When you see your parents working their fingers to the bone to pay for school fees, to buy books at the beginning of the year, to keep us in school uniforms, etc. because nothing came free, you just want to do something about your life.

Yet when I look around me now I see young children considered "poor", with their satellite TV, annual holidays, expensive shoes, and parents not in work, I have to question: what has gone wrong?

My young son stared in disbelief when I recounted how when at university there were days when I literally had no money for the next meal -- only to find my grandmother visiting and giving me some cash "to buy something nice for yourself". Or it happened to be my birthday and aunties gave me small sums of money, as aunties do.

Was I poor? Perhaps. I remember mum telling me I must aim to get to university.

I said, "But we may not be able to afford university."

She said, "Don't worry. If you are good enough, we will find ways to pay for it. There's such a thing called 'scholarships'."

In the end my big brother, a young graduate himself, paid my fees. I worked throughout university to support myself. And yes, I graduated with a (Rotary Club) loan to repay, etc. I had to repay this even when I was jobless, having graduated in the midst of the first major recession my generation has ever seen. (I worked at two part-time jobs until I was awarded a graduate scholarship.)

What this nation needs is not money -- taxpayers' money, ie my money -- poured into a system to "eradicate" material poverty because some will always be poor when compared to others; "the poor you will always have with you", Jesus said.

What this nation needs is blue-sky thinking that will lift the millions mired in their so-called "benefits trap" out of their poverty of ambition.

And a very happy birthday to my sister for her contribution to our family since she was 16, making it possible for the younger siblings to move on to higher education. Wishing you God's every blessing!

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