The Ivory Bungalow: A Letter from a Father to Russell Tan

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By now, there have been many great responses written in response to Russell’s letter, many arguing with a sharpness of mind far greater than mine and expression of words far clearer than what I could write. “Why you can’t separate equity from equality” and “The Rafflesian elite owes society the greatest debt”  are but two great counter-arguments to Russell’s view. I am writing from the my view as a father.


Dear Russell,

By now, you should know that your letter to the Straits Times has gone viral. There have been all manner of responses to what you wrote. To be fair to you, I am not sure how much your letter was edited before publication, as I am aware they often do. Sometimes, the tone of what is written can be changed quite dramatically.

As a father of a young son and a baby to come, I was incensed initially by your letter. Yet, I am not as worried for your naivete (for you have much to learn), as I am concerned for your sense of entitlement.

Many have pointed out that your narrow definition of ‘merit’ needs to be re-examined. I shall not belabour the point. What is saddening almost to the point of laughability is the thinking that the so-called elite are in their social positions because of some innate awesomeness; and that by inference, everyone else among us who are not lawyers or doctors or investment bankers are nothing more than ‘menial’ workers. For this, I think maybe your school needs to open you up to more career possibilities.

Do not forget, Russell, for a moment that where you are at this point in life has never been just about you and your awesomeness alone. You would be nothing without the teachers who have taught you. You probably would not have done as well in school if you had to juggle your studies with housechores at home; thank God for maids! For goodness’ sake, even the menial school cleaner who swept your classrooms made it possible for you to study.

Ask any doctor, and they will remind you that they would not be able to do what they do without their able nurses. Lawyers need their para-legals, MPs their grassroots volunteers. Heck, I dare say even the Prime Minister would struggle a whole lot without his PPS. So, Russell, please don’t forget, for even a moment, those who have helped you get to where you are. I haven’t even brought up your parents yet.

Young man, you do not yet appreciate the complexities of this life beyond simplistic dichotomies. You probably read too many of those simplistic rags-to-riches stories that do not do justice to the real struggles those individuals have had to endure. You, in your ivory bungalow, do not understand the intensity of the struggle that low-income families go through to try and overcome the odds of life.

The myriad of factors around the success of one individual are multi-faceted. Is it not about one’s tenacity and determination? To quote our outgoing Transport Minister, “The short answer is ‘yes’, but it is not enough.”

Young man, you do not yet know the complexities of this life.

One day, when you are a father, perhaps then you would know setbacks, failure and the reality that not everything is within your control only because of your intelligence. One day, when you are a father, you might hope as many of us do, for a society that does not measure your children’s worth only by their grades. One day, when you are a father, I hope that your eyes would be opened to see all that is beautiful and precious about their children beyond their intellect and ability – but value the innocence of their love, the valour of their dreams and the unbreakability of your bond with each other.

One day.

In the meantime, I hope you do not get to become a doctor or a lawyer (or rather, not yet) not because I do not wish you well; but because I actually do. You see, I have a wider definition of ‘good’, for you. And for our society.




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