When I was a trainee undergoing Leadership Training Camp in Pulau Ubin in my first year of junior college, I looked at some of the seniors with wistfulness when they were rowing a wooden raft and enjoying themselves while we trainees were suffering from physical exhaustion. I longed to experience freedom like they do. Maybe when I become an adult, I will have that kind of freedom to do what I enjoy, or so I had thought. But years later, I still find myself grappling with the notion of freedom – for some reasons, I don’t feel completely free to be myself or to be fully at peace with myself and the world around me.
It has been said that “no one is free until (or unless) all are free.” Is that why I don’t really feel completely free? How to be really happy when I am aware that there are others out there still suffering from injustice or discrimination? Then again, will that day ever happen when all are free? Will I always have to postpone my happiness indefinitely? I know Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to live in the present moment and be thankful for that moment. Maybe I have to give myself permission to be truly happy so that it sends peaceful, healing energetic vibrations to those who are still struggling.
I am coming to think that when Buddha attains enlightenment or Nirvana, it is not only for himself or herself. Maybe Buddha knows that by liberating ourselves first, we can liberate others. Maybe the concept of merit-based karma isn’t completely selfish – maybe we do good to ourselves and others not so much to accumulate good karma and better rebirth for ourselves but also to show others that a better way and a better world is possible, and we ourselves can make it happen. Maybe our motivation for helping others can come from the understanding that we are all interconnected, hence when we help others, we are helping ourselves, and when we help ourselves, we are also helping others because we are all one.
Speaking of motivation, I am reticent to subscribe (wholly) to the national approach to “meritocracy” and “citizenship”.
Regarding meritocracy, do we necessarily get motivated to do things or to work hard in order to get rewards? Isn’t this an ableist approach to try to compete in a system that says “survival of the fittest”? Wouldn’t meritocracy result in people thinking they are more deserving than others because they are more able to do something? Wouldn’t it lead to elitism, classism, arrogance and snobbishness and cause us to look down on others who have done less or achieved less than us, or to feel inferior if we think we don’t measure up to others who have done more or achieved more than us? I would also venture to say that meritocracy can lead to repression when we feel shamed or compelled to hide our inherent human weaknesses from the society or from public view in an attempt to look good, moral and “incorruptible”.
Regarding citizenship, I understand that this concept may arise from our fundamental need to belong to something or some group or tribe. I can understand and relate to the need for belonging as it may be hardwired in our genes the moment we are born to want to have a sense of belonging. However, as much as it is a valid need to belong to a community, do we need to have a formal citizenship in order to consider ourselves as belonging to a particular nation or country? Do we as human beings only have access to basic rights such as shelter or housing, healthcare and so on only when we are considered citizens of a nation? Wouldn’t a stateless person have the same human rights as a citizen in any land or country to have access to these rights?
In essence, if a government’s definition of citizenship is borrowed or adapted from imperialism, it implies that the indigenous people usually have less rights than those who are considered citizens who conform to the system, and their indigenous lifestyle and habitats are often being infringed upon or sacrificed whenever the government wants to clear their land and resettle them in the name of “development”, on the pretext of “doing what is good for the society”.