by Noah Tan on

It has recently come to my attention that I’m a Singaporean with “lower socio-economic status (SES)”.

So what? I’m happy to be labelled as one, and here’s why.

First, though, let me provide some context for the uninformed. Last Monday, local netizens were enraged after learning that a Secondary School social studies guidebook – titled, “Complete Guide to GCE O-Level Social Studies Volume 1” and written by Rowan Luc – had associated common Singaporean behaviour with people of a lower SES.

Among the “lower SES” behaviours that the book highlighted includes “speaking Singlish…(playing) football and basketball…eating at hawker centres…and taking on part-time jobs during (school) vacations”.

In contrast, the book generalised people who used “formal English…played sports like golf or tennis… ate at expensive restaurants…and travelled overseas during school holidays” as those with a higher SES.

This issue was first brought to light by Facebook user Ahmad Matin, who posted a picture online of the page in the book which made the assertions.

Image Source: Facebook / Ahmad Matin

With the post having garnered over 6,500 shares on Facebook at the time of writing, it is clear that the contents of the book – which the Ministry of Education (MOE) has confirmed is not on their approved textbook list – have struck a nerve with many Singaporeans.

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No surprise there: After all, going by the standards of the book, I would guess that 85 to 90 percent of Singaporeans would fall under the “lower SES” category.

Image Source: Facebook / Ahmad Matin

But, why should we be angry at being classified as such?

One of the common complaints by netizens is that the concept of SES itself is flawed and should not be encouraged, as they believe it will breed elitism in society.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), however, SES is defined as “the social standing or class of an individual or group” and is usually measured according to factors such as an individual’s “income, education, occupation and wealth”.

Therefore, unless you’re living in a communist society, it is unrealistic to expect everyone to have the same SES. Social stratification exists in almost every country, not just Singapore.

The APA also adds that examinations of the SES “often reveal inequities in access to resources, plus issues related to privilege, power and control”. Thus, being able to accurately evaluate and measure the state of a country’s SES can help governments be more effective in forming the best policies for their citizens.

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Don’t get me wrong – I do agree with the notion that there should be no room for elitism in society. Which is why, while the concept of SES is an important facet of society, I believe it should not govern how we behave, especially in regard to our interactions with others who may not share the same SES.

In other words, our behaviour should not be tailored according to what society expects of us, but rather, what truly brings us comfort and happiness (within the realms of the law, of course).

Hence, it is on this point where I disagree with the Mr Luc’s social studies guidebook and its implication that people of certain SES are expected, or more likely, to do certain activities.

Yes, I do recognise that he was merely providing examples, but the way it was presented can easily be misconstrued as a definitive guide to what is regarded as socially acceptable for people of different statuses. In fact, judging by the amount of outrage it has caused, I daresay this has already happened.

Ultimately though, I see no point in being shoehorned into doing certain activities, or behaving in a certain way, if you derive no joy from it. If, for example, you have a higher SES, yet enjoy playing football, should you give that up to play golf instead because it is considered a rich man’s game and therefore more appropriate for your status? Of course not.

In fact, I know of several high earners who play football on a regular basis and have never touched a golf club in their lives, and all of them seem pretty happy to me.

So, I believe it is important to be comfortable in your own skin, and your choices should reflect that. The SES is merely a measurement tool, not a guide for how to live your life.

Your character and morals, too, are more important factors than your SES, and arguably provides a clearer indication of the person you are.

Being kind, compassionate, generous and polite will also always endear you to others more than if you are seen dressing up in branded clothes, driving a sports car or going on expensive holidays.

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In fact, it can be dangerous to be too hung up on one’s SES. I know of those who struggle constantly with debt just so they can keep up the appearance of living the high life and give the (false) impression that they have a higher SES.

I wonder how happy these people truly are.

So if you think that a higher SES immediately equates to a more fulfilling life, think again.

There is no evidence whatsoever that someone with a higher SES will always be happier, or can find more meaning in their life, than one with a lower SES. Indeed, the reverse is sometimes true.

So really, I have no qualms whatsoever with being classified by Mr Luc’s social studies guidebook as a Singaporean with a lower SES.

After all, I get to use Singlish liberally, play football regularly, and most importantly, still be able to devour plates of Hokkien Mee, char kway teow, chai tow kway, and satay at my favourite hawker centres.

What’s so bad about having a lower SES again?