SPEECH BY SURAENDHER KUMARR, VALEDICTORIAN AT THE SINDA EXCELLENCE AWARDS ON 28 SEPTEMBER 2019 AT THE SINGAPORE POLYTECHNIC CONVENTION CENTRE
Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Heng Swee Keat;
Senior Minister, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam;
Minister, Ms Indranee Rajah;
CEO, SINDA, Mr Anbarasu Rajendran;
Distinguished Guests, Fellow Award Recipients, Family Members.
A very good morning to everyone.
- Congratulations to my fellow awardees here this morning. My name is Suraendher Kumarr and I recently graduated from the National University of Singapore with First Class Honours in Political Science. I thank SINDA for this honour of being the valedictorian at this year’s SINDA Excellence Awards.
- In writing this speech, I took time to reflect on some of the hurdles I faced in life. I first explain some of these struggles and subsequently how I overcame some of them by seeking inspiration from, an Italian, an American, and twenty South-Asians.
- I was raised in poverty for most of my life. My parents divorced when I was five years old. To my knowledge, several shortcomings drove them apart. My mother – one of the strongest women I know, together with the support of her brothers, managed to raise five children. We shifted houses every few months because we couldn’t afford rent. It was a very insecure and precarious position to be in, not knowing where you will sleep the next day. Thankfully, my uncles helped us out, giving us a place to stay whenever we needed.
- For food, it was common for my family to ration supplies of processed meat and vegetables. Our taste buds were accustomed to the routine rice, egg and soy sauce for a quick and cheap meal. As my mother wanted my younger sister and myself to still have somewhat of childhood, she would give us two dollars to share on the days we did not have school.
- Within our family, we all had our own ambitions and strategies of making ends meet. My older brothers and sisters preferred to work after school for extra pocket money. I was fortunate enough to find joy and purpose in reading widely and building my general knowledge. s When I got my first bursary, I thought I could just keep doing this to offload the financial burden on my working single-mother.
- Let me introduce the Italian who I was talking about earlier, he thought me how to view my struggles in a constructive way. As Italian scholar, Antonio Gramsci said, “Pessimism of the intellect; Optimism of the will”. By pessimism of the intellect, Gramsci meant that we should be honest with ourselves about the nature of our struggles. We cannot seek to improve our condition without first being truthful about what causes them to exist in the first place.
- By optimism of the will, I believe Gramsci meant that we ought to have the hope and courage to overcome these struggles. Finding this will power was not easy, and I could not have done it without a supportive community that empowered me throughout my life. These are my family, friends, partner, teachers, mentors and so on. At every step of my life, these communities helped mitigate the effects of poverty by financially, emotionally, and socially empowering me.
- The willpower within me was also not possible without a sense of direction in life. This where the American I was talking about helped to put things in perspective for me. According to American linguist, Noam Chomsky (and I’m paraphrasing here), privilege confers responsibility. The more I learned about the world in my study, the more I realised how fortunate I am to be born in Singapore- a highly developed country that is considered one of the safest to live in the world… I thus realised that I was relatively privileged when compared to people in poorer countries, who may not have these basic securities.
- While my direction in life in my early education was to improve my family’s financial situation, by the time I was in university, I realised that I had a responsibility as a global citizen. This was one reason why I started researching about the conditions of South Asian migrant workers in Singapore. These workers are vulnerable to harsh working conditions and are often engulfed in debt the moment they arrive here.
- As much as I sought to cast a light on migrant workers and hopefully improve their circumstances, I actually learned a great deal from them. 20 Indian and Bangladeshi workers to be exact. Firstly, I realised that for similarly disadvantaged groups, it is not always true that they can achieve anything they want if they simply put their mind to it and work hard. My experience with the workers taught me that there were other ways to overcome such struggles.
- For example, I met a Bangladeshi migrant worker who paid about 10,000 Singapore dollars to come to Singapore to work. He calculated that he would take many more years to clear his debt, assuming that he does not get injured while working. Bare in mind, the average salary of a migrant worker is between $600 and $1200. Clearly, most workers in such circumstances cannot realistically aspire to be affluent through sheer individual hard work and a positive-mindset alone. The same can be said about the similarly disadvantaged who face significant hurdles to achieve their dreams.
- Despite these struggles, some workers managed to overcome some of their struggles. However, Instead of individually seeking to solve their problems, these workers sought support from their friends and fellow workers. These included financial assistance, showing solidarity through poetry and music, and when problems got dire, collectively negotiating with their employers to receive better working conditions. Instead of seeking to solve their problems alone, working together as a community empowered them to stand a greater chance at overcoming their struggles and achieving their dreams.
- To conclude, I urge that we learn from the Italian, American, and the South Asians. Be honest about our struggles and study them well. Afterwhich, we should devise clear-cut strategies with the support of our respective communities- if we are privileged compared to others, we have a responsibility to lend our support. The moment we realise that we are not alone in our struggles, and that we can support one another, the more empowered we become to withstand and eventually overcome our pain.
- As far as my struggles are concerned, I would not be here addressing you all if not for the support and love from my community.