Inspirational tales from society’s margins
My first encounter with storytelling was through my father, who would tell me two different kinds of stories on sleepy car rides.
The first kind featured a hobbit traversing treacherous territory with a ring in his pocket.
The second kind was stories from his childhood in a one-room flat in Geylang Serai. I heard of how he slept shoulder-to-shoulder with five siblings under a table.
Sometimes, he would rummage through bins in the market for bruised fruit to quell his stomach’s rumblings. At nights, driven by a deeper hunger, he studied by the buzzing light of the common corridor.
Both kinds of stories seemed equally fantastical to me, as a child ensconced in a life where I knew no unmet need. But, as stories tend to do, they opened my eyes to lives outside the borders of my own experience.
Given the rapid trajectory of the Singapore story, many of us are separated from poverty by a single generation.
Yet, while the majority have joined the middle class, there are some who still live like my father did as a boy.
As privilege has become entrenched, the engines of social mobility have slowed, and it is harder today for families to escape the poverty cycle. These families often go unseen, and their isolation deepens the inequalities they face and weakens their trust in institutions.
To the poor, society can appear to be suffering from collective amnesia about their struggles. A woman living in a low-income neighbourhood once told me: “In Singapore, I am alone. I have to be strong … No one is here to protect me. If you show people your weakness, they will condemn you.”
Just opposite Robertson Quay, a district frequented by the well-heeled for brunch and yoga, is one of Singapore’s poorest neighbourhoods — Jalan Kukoh. The neighbourhood is cut off from the wider Chinatown community by a highway, rendered invisible to the city around it.
It was in Jalan Kukoh that my friends and I started the ReadAble literacy programme for children in 2014.
Many of our students have migrant mothers who do not speak English and Singaporean fathers who are either deceased or incarcerated.
Some migrant mothers are unable to work as they do not have the requisite immigration status; they have no choice but to rely on charitable handouts.
Others work low-wage jobs as cleaners or hawker assistants and struggle with the burden of childcare.
It was through interacting with these migrant mothers that I discovered the power of storytelling — for the person who tells it and for those who listen.
Inviting someone to tell their story immediately diminishes isolation. It is a way of saying: “We are equals. Your truth is significant to me.”
Several women expressed that nobody had wanted to hear their stories before. A Cambodian woman who had been trafficked into prostitution in Vietnam, before marrying a Singaporean man, said: “I want people to hear my story. Sometimes I type fragments into my handphone, but I fear no one will ever read it. I have never experienced the warmth of a home or a parent’s love. I have never experienced love at all.”
The word “empathy” has its origins in the Greek word “empatheia” — “em”, into; “pathos”, feeling. It implies journeying into the unknown landscape of someone else’s emotions.
It demands that we jettison our own lenses of viewing the world and allow another to guide us through the cartographies of their lived experience. Empathy is ultimately an act fuelled by the imagination and storytelling is its vital precursor.
We often disparage choices that the poor make without understanding the context in which they were made. It is easy to dismiss their choices as irresponsible or ignorant. Why does the woman who suffers domestic violence stay with her husband? Why does the mother persistently ignore text messages from volunteers who are offering free tuition to her children? Why does the 10-year-old girl refuse to speak in class when she is perfectly articulate in the playground?
By listening to their stories, I learned that the woman chooses to stay with her abusive partner because he sponsors her long-term visit pass. To leave him would be to risk separation from her Singaporean children and, worse still, leaving them in his negligent care.
The mother does not respond to texts from volunteers because, after buying the week’s groceries, she does not have enough money to top up the credit on her handphone. The girl refuses to speak in class because she is myopic, and has always seen the whiteboard as a vague blur.
She remains silent to hide her deep shame that, at Primary 4, she still does not know how to read.
Storytelling is also a tool of empowerment: it fixes people as the protagonists in their own lives and allows them to communicate the values and expectations which informed their decisions.
It is tempting to consider marginalised people as objects to be acted upon or problems to be solved. For example, we may believe that the actions of the poor are structurally compelled, and determined solely by their socio-economic circumstances.
Listening to their stories forces us to consider them as individuals with complex motivations who are actively strategising within constraints and exercising their agency.
The insufficient recognition of agency can fix people in dependent positions, and these patterns of value may be institutionalised in laws and policies.
For example, stereotyping migrant wives as vulnerable victims of socio-economic circumstance reinforces the idea that they are burdens to society, and may feed into the State’s rationale for denying them permanent residence and citizenship.
However, recognising agency compels us to think of social change in terms of building the capacity of marginalised people, as opposed to prescribing decisions and values to them. We trust their ability to use these endowments to make choices which advance their own circumstances.
I was particularly moved by Su, an Indonesian woman who married an elderly Singaporean man.
Her husband died, leaving her with a young daughter. Su is committed to her daughter’s education, although she is not educated herself.
She insists on giving her daughter spelling tests, even as her daughter has to first teach Su how to read out the words. She worries that she is not a good mother given her limited resources. Su told me: “I have to teach my daughter, you do not have a daddy. There are things that cannot be yours. You are different.”
Listening to the stories of migrant mothers inspired my co-workers and I to include them in our literacy programme. We build their capacity in functional English, so they are empowered to navigate life in Singapore.
We teach them how to read letters from schools and government agencies, fill out forms, and even give spelling tests to their children.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of storytelling is that journeying into feeling with another can inspire one to walk alongside them.
In a society where isolation is deepening rifts, storytelling can open up border crossings and draw experiences from society’s margins back into the centre. It begins with a deliberate act of listening. It is then up to us to turn empathy into action.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Amanda Chong is a lawyer and poet with a strong interest in gender justice. Her first poetry collection is “Professions”. This piece first appeared in The Birthday Book 2017, a collection of 52 essays that examines challenges and opportunities for Singapore with the theme “What Should We Never Forget?” TODAY will be carrying other essays from the book in the coming weeks.