Lesson About Fairness


One thing that I would say I have learned a lot about while I was in prison, was this thing about fairness.

In a sterile environment where everyday life has been watered down into spartan, bare minimum, even 5 sweets can cost someone whatever left of his freedom behind the walls. And when life is being calculated by the number of sweets, who gets more than the other, becomes a glaring issue.

However, there is this fine line between equality and fairness, the latter of which I only grew to appreciate after my basic training.

Seniors had been telling me that I should avoid giving an inmate a favour, because that would be giving him one more thing than the other, and would spark a series of complaints about fairness. However, giving one something that everyone else has, or not to give anything more, is equality.

When an inmate comes to me to tell me that he is worried about his son, whom his wife just told him in a recent visit that he had contracted a chronic illness, showing concern and proceeding to link him up with a social worker means he gets access to the outside world more than anyone else. Yes, that is not equality, but that is fairness.

To give someone something more than everyone else because of his situation (usually beyond his control) is to be fair.


Yet, because that required a judgement call to be made, one has to tread the fine line between being fair and showing favouritism. And because not everyone is well-trained or well-educated to define the line, much less tread on the line, most of my ex-colleagues would rather not venture into that kind of situations.

That being said, after stepping out of the prison and comparing my life before and after prison, I found that very few people know how to be fair. Very much like the front row students in the attached article, many of them had been in a privileged position for the most of their lives, that they were oblivious to the unfairness around them. These people meant no malice, they just have not been introduced to the perspectives of those who were under-privileged due to circumstances.


“This Teacher Taught His Class A Powerful Lesson About Privilege” – http://www.buzzfeed.com/nathanwpyle/this-teacher-taught-his-class-a-powerful-lesson-about-privil#.nuPAGZvy

This is the reason why we have #firstworldproblems, why we have people complaining about high COE premiums or property prices, why we have groups to call for action to stop others from getting equal rights, why certain groups insist they should be employed or receive certain employment benefits by virtue of their age / years-in-service… the list goes on.

What they feel is fair to them will definitely be unfair to those who had been denied those privileges by birth / by circumstances / by the actions of their family members etc.

What these #fwp people feel is fair for them, is actually special privileges to be granted to them.

How do we actually educate these people then?

Unfortunately, I have no answers.

Going back to the anecdote of the inmate who has a sick son, the judgement for fairness lies in the end state.

I was in charge of employment of inmates inside prison. Assigning everyone the same job would be equality, but assigning them jobs according to their competencies and flair is fairness. The intermediate state of getting them employed is the rule for deciding equality, i.e. the distribution of limited resources. However, the end state of making sure everyone gets meaningfully employed, so that they learn work ethics, cultivate discipline in their lives and be relevant to the current employment climate determine who gets the more highly-paid jobs of a kitchen helper or who gets the lowly-paid (but access to personal coaching from the officers) job of a domestic helper, i.e. to allocate more resources to those who need it, like those who are totally unskilled to receieve WSQ traiinng.

Employment should be based on competencies and what you can bring to the table, not because you are older, you are a man, you are married with kids, you have family or friends working in the company or you are straight. The above factors can be considered, but they should not be the deciding criteria.

Therefore, the inmate with the sick son receives help from social worker because he requires a peaceful heart in order to appreciate the benefits of rehabilitation. His family needs to be stable so that they are prepared to receive him when he reintegrates into society. They have to have trust in the social security system so as to let rehabilitation take effect.

Singaporeans, in my opinion, is still far from grasping the idea of fairness. However, the developed worlds in the West also took hundreds of years before they find a way out of the mess that is of the Dark Ages; China and Japan had to undergo years of humiliation and conflicts before they achieve the economic and social development respectively. We just have to ensure we have the right leaders to put the right policies in place, so that we educate our people with the right values from young.


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