Saturday, 30 April 2011

Parenting an adolescent (nation)

I look in amazement at pictures of the crowds at the opposition rallies. Then I noticed that Straits Times ran pictures of people at PAP rallies from quite different angles, as if attempting to portray the crowd to be as large as possible.

There was also video evidence that PAP supporters were bus-ed in. Contrast this with the exchange I had with friends giving up hope on going to a WP rally because they heard that the stadium was already full.

While I cheered for William and Catherine celebrating the start of what we hope is a long and fruitful union yesterday, I felt sorrow -- yes, sorrow -- for Mr LKY. How was he reacting to reports of the lack of interest in PAP rallies?

This was the man used to addressing thousands. His shouts of "Merdeka!" have resounded in the largest public spaces. He galvanized our imagination, motivated a generation, and turned pockets of immigrants with differing worldviews into a nation.

Yes, for all our gripes today that Singapore is not what we wish it to be, you cannot take away the credit due to the first generation of politicians who were true statesmen. Goh Keng Swee, Hon Sui Sen, S Rajaratnam, Lim Kim San, Dr Toh Chin Chye, etc. these were men of vision, passionate for Singapore, the nation.

Were they passionate for a PAP-Singapore or were they passionate for Singapore - the nation?

As my son turns another year older, just two years short of turning into a sullen teenager, we are bracing ourselves for a few years of rebellion.

I wonder if we can view the "life course of a nation" in a similar way. Do the stages of development in a child correspond somewhat to the development of a nation?

When they are in their "terrible twos" we show them who's boss (ie learn to say firmly, "no"). When they are older we hold their hand to teach them how to cross the road.

When they are young we sometimes resort to bribes/rewards (eg sweets/chocolates) and punishment (eg deprived of a favourite toy/TV programme). When they get older we reason together.

Then, sooner or later, they fly the nest.

If we have faith in our parenting skills, then when it's time for us to "let go" of our adolescent children, we will let go, and let them grow up.

Many societies still do this. Young people undergo "rites of passage" and are then expected to become adults. Parents take a step back as adolescents come under the tutelage of older people in the wider society, the "communitas".

My first research work was of adolescent girls and one of the lessons I learned is that it is difficult to be an adolescent when sometimes parents expect us to be grown up and discharge responsibilities, and yet at other times they treat us like a young child.

In urban Singapore where many adolescents do not have clear "rites of passage", adolescents remain for a long time in a state of "liminality", in a "between and betwixt" state, where they have no certain status.

If as grown-ups we do not remember this state of being/mind as a problem it is probably because it was so traumatic our brains had blanked it out. (Just as, thankfully, we do not remember the pain when we cut our first teeth.)

Then we turn 18, and either university, work or national service suddenly qualifies us as "adults".

Is Singapore an "adolescent" nation?

When I read comments in blogs and forums (fora?) I get a very strong feeling of "Singaporeans" vs "foreigners". Is this a good or bad thing?

I think it is a marvellous achievement that political leaders have now nurtured a generation or two who are "Singaporean". As my Hong Kong-born hairdresser tells me, "You Singaporeans always say 'Singaporean' first, before saying you are 'Chinese'."

My father was born in China and to him, he was always Chinese first. Singapore was his adopted country. I might support the English team at cricket, but I am still Singaporean.

How different would Singapore be if at the point when we got to be "Singaporean" our 'parents' (aka PAP) had "let go"?

Together as "Singaporeans" we would have forged a path together. Perhaps a different path, but nonetheless a path, TOGETHER.

Political threats, we can deal with that. Housing shortage, we can deal with that. Economic crisis, we can deal with that. Because we had done it once before, we can do it again.

If nothing else, we could look back at our visionary leaders and say, we MUST also deal with these issues.

Low fertility rate? Ah, this one, we don't know, but at least give us a chance, we can probably also deal with that. Maybe we need to tweak the way we work. Maybe we need to tweak the school system. Just give us a chance.

But Singaporeans did not have a chance to deal with this. So while we were treated as "adults" in some ways (paying for a grown up, first class but very expensive Cabinet), we were still "children" in other ways, having policies regarding immigration (eg) foisted on us.

If we are behaving like rebellious teenagers now, agitating for change, is it because we have been forced for so long --  for too long -- to remain in this state of liminality?

My son is nearly as tall as I. I say to friends, my parenting must be done by the time he is my height. I must teach him values, manners and those skills that I am able to impart to him, and which he must have, by then.

Because five-foot-two me cannot expect to look up to a six foot tall man, point a finger and say, "You do this because I am your mum."

No, I should jolly well make sure that I have taught him what I need to teach him before he gets taller than me. After that it is his father's responsibility, but only until he outgrows his dad. Then he is on his own.

We have invested in our parenting early in our child's life to ensure that when it's time to let go, the child can be trusted to be the type of adult we wish him to be.

Children grow up. Just as nations do. Founding fathers (and mothers) of nations cannot expect to be parents forever. As I often say to my son "there's a time and place for everything", there's a time to let go, and let them grow.

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