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the common man
June 7, 2008, 4:35 pm
Filed under: diary | Tags: , ,

070608

‘Cause he gets up in the morning,
And he goes to work at nine,
And he comes back home at five-thirty,
Gets the same train every time.
‘Cause his world is built ’round punctuality,
It never fails.

– The Kinks, A Well Respected Man

The figure of the common man has recurred so often in so many aspects of human society and culture, under various labels which refer essentially to the same thing. For example, in the area of law, the common man the much-maligned and criticised “reasonable man” in tort law and the officious bystander in contract law. In literature, Arthur Miller portrayed the hardships and delusions suffered by a struggling salesman who lives on “a smile and a shoeshine” in Death of a Salesman. In music, Johnny Cash sang songs about the downtrodden, the common man living on the streets, eking out a living for himself and his family. The Kinks wrote this particular song, A Well Respected Man, which I found to be a particularly apposite description of the common 9-5 working man.

Coming from an average HDB family with modest means and lifestyle, I have an affinity with and some understanding of the experience of the common man. My father is a blue-collar worker who repairs bakery machinery for a living. He works on weekends sometimes. My mother is a clerk. The rest of my family has not received much education; I will be the first degree-holder in my family. I wanted an overseas education, but my family is not rich enough to support me, and I am not capable enough to earn an overseas scholarship.

We fret about the small things, not because of our neurotic disposition, but rather a lack of resources. My father worries about whether he has enough to send me and my sister through tertiary education. My mother complains about 10 cent price increases at the market. Having entered adulthood, I am beginning also to fret about whether I will be able to provide a decent living for members of my family.

In a way, the concerns of the common man are almost primitive, just that such concerns are dressed up in modern lingo within the normal operations of modern society. Basic primitive needs like food and shelter form the basis of all concerns. My parents worry about money because they want enough food and shelter, and they want my sister and myself to be well-educated because we will then be able to survive literally later in life. HBO and SCV cost too much; we survive on the plain potato programmes offered for free by TCS. Whoever cares what happens in the Singaporean arts scene.

Dreams? Dreams are for those who can afford it. Willy Loman can’t afford to indulge in working in a farm when he has three mouths to feed at home. We choose the job that best provides, not for your own selfish dreams but rather the family and those you care about. Thrash your dreams of being an artist unless you want to starve. Talk about dreams when you have enough to eat. Freedom is for the rich, despite what the starry-eyed idealists say.

I am fiercely proud of my lower-middle class background. I make no effort to deny or cloak this fact. A life of truth is preferable to one lived in illusions and appearances. I prefer being in a coffeeshop than at a high class luncheon, I hate high society mingling sessions. I can’t stand people who hang around the school canteen, lounging around the most visible tables, wearing the trendiest and most expensive fashion and socialising ostentatiously.

There is purity and honesty in a modest existence built upon a modest lifestyle provided for through honest hard work. No shortcuts, no frills. No setting up of illusions or living in illusions because an indulgence in unreality leads to death. We can’t afford to live with appearances, for reality kills. Life has to be lived with a strong grip on reality, lest we deviate and threaten our own existence. No money literally means no life; who cares about dreams and social mingling and niceties. No showboating which is the preserve of the rich for we have nothing to show off in the first place. While I am lucky to be born without major defects, I take pride in the fact that I am not a member of the lucky sperm club, where members are born with silver spoons in their mouths and do not have to earn what they have themselves. I prefer to earn what I have.

I prefer brutal honesty to nice false words. Those who swear at least show what they truly feel. Those who cloak their words with poisonous honey are those that one should watch out for. I like people to criticise me truthfully and directly so that I know exactly how to improve myself, as opposed to those that butter their words. I say what I mean and I mean what I say. Straight-talking leads one a further step down the path of honesty and truth and away from the dark woods of dishonesty and social pandering.

I treasure the working class ethic of hard work, and I actively incorporate it into my life. What I learnt about hard work I learn from my father and my friends who come from similar backgrounds. I work like a dog to get what I want. If i don’t get what I want, I work harder. Pain is gain.

It is a plain fact of life that what comes easily will never be treasured. A life in unearned luxury distorts perceptions and forges a brittle person. Rich people “live carelessly”, to quote Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Note: not carefree-ly, but carelessly. Most people in law school come from privileged backgrounds. Some talk about cars, enjoying life, going to parties and clubbing. They can afford not to care. Passing grades are enough, for they can get good jobs either through connections or they don’t need to strive for a good job at all. I can’t afford to get crap grades. I can’t afford such frivolities; I need to think of the impact of my actions on others, especially my own family. How would my father feel if I squander pocket money on clubbing. How would I feel if I was in his shoes, sweating at work to earn money only for the money to be squandered on alcoholic beverages.

I don’t think it is true that class no longer matters in a meritocratic society like Singapore (even this fact itself is debatable). My more well-to-do friends tell me that social status does not matter. A close female friend told me that social status and family wealth do not matter when it comes to forming intimate relationships with a member of the opposite sex. One problem: she comes from the upper crust.

I don’t believe her. Rich people have a different perspective on life. I think it is easy to say that class and wealth does not matter when you have it already. Once again, the maxim that what one already has one does not cherish applies. When you are at the top looking down, it is easy to say that your position does not matter. You might not even feel it because you are born into it. But when you are at the bottom looking up, it is clear who has the better position in life. Translating this to the dating world, I can forget about getting a girlfriend who comes from a higher rung. This reinforces what I have suggested earlier: that the common man has a stronger grip on reality. He lives a life of truth and honesty.

The common man treats the question of class differently. He recognises his lower place and acknowledges it as reality and fact, than depending on his personal disposition, work towards improving his life or does nothing about it. In contrast the rich deals with the question of class by engaging in one-upmanship, what Veblen would label as “conspicuous consumption”and “conspicuous leisure”. Creating and investing in appearances in a bid to show who is higher class, living a life of appearances.

Connected with the value of truth and honesty is consistency. The common, average man is consistent, and this is one of his qualities which appeal to me. He goes to work consistently. He does not engage in flights of fancy. He does his work and is ultimately reliable. In a universe where uncertainty is more common than certainty, we value consistency. The vicissitudes of fate cause troubles in the lives of men; it takes courage and strength of character to live consistently despite such tribulations.

The Kinks mocked the dullness exhibited by the 9-5 man in their song. A life of routine seems to suggest a dull and monotonous life. A life shackled to the desk seems boring. But I don’t believe this. Every existence is unique, our experiences are individual. A “normal” existence of a stay-home mum is every bit as extraordinary as a high-flying investment banker, for bringing up a child properly is every bit as satisfying and valuable a achievement as successfully launching the IPO of a major corporation. Wong Kim Hoh’s column in the Straits Times is a particularly good example. He chronicles the lives of ordinary people who lived lives that interesting and extraordinary their own special ways. Lives are not mechanically lived, reducible to formulas. Lives are organic and hence each life is extraordinary in their own way.

The average man from a HDB family will probably never taste much luxury in his life. There will be no luxury cruises or vintage wines. His circumstances might never allow him to experience everything he wants to, and he might even die with regrets. But I think a life that is lived with integrity and honesty is a life well-lived. This stands in opposition to a life lived in a world of appearances and illusion. He might have failed in all his endeavours, but so long as they are conducted with honesty and effort, he has succeeded in a way.

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