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Sharon Loh
Tuesday, Sep 9, 2014

Asian Opinions

Beyond fairness

The Straits Times | Sharon Loh | Tuesday, Sep 9, 2014

The day after my second daughter was born, the older one, who was about 13 months old, was taken to hospital to meet her.

Hey, sweetheart, I said, as her grandfather held her over the cot so she could look into it. Meet your baby sister.

Perhaps we were expecting angels and butterflies.

My older child reached into the cot and, very deliberately, smacked her not quite day-old sister.

Shocked, her grandfather snatched her away from the baby, who slept on, peacefully.

The older one was not much more than a baby herself, but she was savvy enough to recognise the situation for what it was.

She wailed - perhaps as much for her lost innocence as well as the arrival of another.

To this day, the same umbrage is still taken by either child, one way or another, in our household.

"Why do I have to do my laundry and not her? (Answer: She has none.) It's not fair."

"Why does she get to choose where to go for dinner? (Translation: I don't like Thai food.) It's not fair."

"Why was she born with brown eyes and brown hair? (Note: You were too.)"

"Why does she exist? (No answer.)"

You got it.

It's not fair.

I assume (hope) my family is hardly unique but, honestly, I would devote my life to good works if I never had to hear those words again.

Instead, I fight the temptation to stick a knife into my brain owing to the impossibility of bestowing largesse perfectly equally.

I remind myself that "it's not fair" is the expression of a child who is powerless to change her circumstances, but has yet to understand that fairness is not a god-given right so much as a privilege, born from a collective agreement to cede power to the group.

That it is in fact something one must buy into, constantly, and know as well when to decline to fulfil a worthier calling.

Rightly or wrongly, we teach especially our older children to "give way", to learn to be magnanimous; occasionally we have to swallow "unfairness" to enable the wheels of the family unit, company, community, civilisation, etc to run smoothly.

Resources are finite and left to the natural order, those who are weaker will get trampled in the rush to survive.

The desire to share is so nascent compared with the dislike of losing out that many countries must enshrine it as an ideal: A democratic society based on justice and equality. One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Indeed, the unhappiness many people here have felt in recent years may be boiled down to their feeling hard done by.

It's unfair that foreigners should get our jobs, vie for the same homes, have the same privileges as citizens. So what if they contribute to the economy and pay the same amount of taxes?

Once again, I have to fight the motherly instinct to say, get over yourself. Fact is, no one owes you a living and if the playing field has been levelled, it is probably because someone in power has made it so (usually someone who has power because you gave it and can take it away).

That injustice exists is undeniable but, by and large, most Singaporeans do not have true cause for complaint. Self-pity is at the root of many a perception of unfairness.

The negative reaction by netizens to a school that chartered a train to take its students to a rugby game was a prime example of an incident that became about fairness when it really was not.

Leaving aside the spat over protocol between the Land Transport Authority and SMRT and arguments about whether this was a creative transport solution by the school, much of the outcry implied the initiative had somehow robbed other commuters, as well as "less privileged" children, of their rights.

Resentment spilt from this post on our news website: "The problem with these elite schools is that they are flushed with money to enable them to pamper these privileged kids. I don't think it comes cheap chartering the whole train and they were arrogant enough not to seek approval and this guy called it creative. What a joke."

Some netizens implied the school had used its connections to pull strings and others wondered if a neighbourhood school would have been allowed to do the same thing.

Yes, according to the SMRT, who said other schools had chartered trains before for big events such as the National Day Parade. The train operator also said it ran the train during off-peak hours and took care that it did not affect normal train service.

Even this assertion was disbelieved by some, although no one on the day seemed to have noticed any disruption in the service.

The needless storm in a teacup (fuelled, some said, by the media) had me wondering how a simple train ride had become a question of entitlement.

After all, were these children not our own?

What's more, they had paid their own way and they did it with minimal inconvenience to other commuters.

So any umbrage taken beyond this is a reminder that the unhappy child still resides within us.

It is she who is constantly on the lookout that no one else gets "special treatment", even if it is for someone as precious as her own family.

There seems little point building wonderful sports venues or anything if we cannot build a community that is generous with one another.

In raising tomorrow's adults, I dearly wish they would hold lightly to "fair" and tightly to things that actually matter, like looking out for their own brothers and sisters.

Luckily, the SMRT stood by its action, telling The Straits Times it "believes in supporting local education and national initiatives and will continue this support without compromising our core service delivery in ensuring reliable, safe journeys for all passengers".

I'm glad there was an adult in the room.

sharonl@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Sep 7, 2014.
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