I have always been a little bit of a rebel.
Whenever I feel the world clamping down on me, I am tempted to act in opposition. If my personal revolt cannot manifest into actions because I am trapped in The System, then I fight back using my cognitive creativity. The greater the external oppressive force that tries to dictate my behaviour, the harder I struggle to liberate myself by indulging in my imagination. Like a captive, I often feel imprisoned by a code of conduct forced upon me by society, shackled by the rigid rules and regulations stipulated onto me without leaving any room for justifiable disobedience. The tighter these chains are winded around my wrist, the more I thrash and writhe, yearning to break free. Sometimes I get hurt, left with marks that burn upon my skin. Sometimes I give up, for the ropes are pulled too taut for me to even tremble in retaliation. Once in a while, though, the strings loosen and I am granted my autonomy. Oh, rejoice!
Melodrama aside, my case in point is that creativity and imagination are my sweet respite from reality. What is not (yet) possible in concrete can be enacted in my daydreams, and the imaginary sandcastles I build only serve to crystallise what I would like to see materialise. Since my daydreams are strictly mine, it is inevitable that I may diverge from the crowd. Some days I wonder if I pull away from the norm just for the sake of being different, or do so in order to preserve my inherent individuality. While most of my conscientious peers buried their heads in lecture notes during secondary school, I spent much of mine exploring photography on Tumblr, scrolling through fashion blogs and dancing as much as I could. (What was originally seen as a waste of time turned out to be unexpectedly beneficial – my taste in clothes now can be credited to the obscene amounts of time I spent on virtual window shopping. Nevertheless, I have since learnt that being a nerd IS important.)
Even while in school, I often tried to subtly but harmlessly rebel against the suffocating homogeneity and monotony by wearing things that hinted I actually possessed a personality. Unsurprisingly, I got into trouble with the draconian uniform codes. One of my form teachers specifically acknowledged me in front of the entire class as the girl who sported “blue earrings and black stripes on her shoes”, followed by a disapproving look and a lecture on the importance of indoctrinating a culture of obedience as well as subservience to rules. For some, this “breach of conduct” is laughable; for others, horrifying. I personally found it more than a little amusing. If those in “elite” institutions like Junior Colleges are conditioned to conform right down to the size of their earrings, length of their socks and colour of their shoes, what messages are schools sending to students about their future roles in society?
This ardent adherence to rules characterizes the attitudes of many in the society I grew up in. But if we continue to embrace the educational philosophy of demanding absolute conformity in schools, our society risk plummeting into a culture of convergence – where everyone becomes a replica of the next. In comparison to the city I reside in now where rainbow hair and killer studs do not invite much of a stare, where you get judged for not having a personality rather than having one, there is an immense liberation with regards to letting everyone’s unique individuality flourish. Personally, I am relieved that I am finally allowed to let my clothes speak on my behalf. I do not have to open my mouth for others to shape a perception of who I am, or rather, who I am trying to be for that day. Now don’t get me wrong – this is not a call for the entire upheaval of uniform codes. I understand that they may be a longstanding part of school tradition, and acknowledge that they play an integral role in quelling the anxieties of students and parents alike. But what I am advocating for is a paradigm shift in the mindset of every educator – to empower students with their own individuality and creative energy, so that today’s youths will eventually let their innovative instincts bring them to places others have never traversed before.
We certainly do seem to be progressing in the right direction. In fact, our leaders have time and again cited the importance of the education system in developing every student’s individuality. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam pointed out that our education system has to “evolve to spur innovation and create a sense of individuality among Singaporeans”. Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Mr Ong Ye Kung concurred that the meaning of higher education must include developing the “the ability of individuals to pursue their own talents and passion”. In a 2015 Straits Times Editorial written by chairman of the Public Service Commission (PSC) Mr Eddie Teo, he noted that the majority of PSC scholars he interviewed did not perform well when assessed on creativity and imagination. “Only a few are deemed by the psychologists as being able to think out of the box and to offer unconventional ideas and solutions,” he noted. What he fails to notice is that the system favours those who play by the rules, who take up mainstream courses that enable them to get straight As, who join CCAs that give them significant leverage in acquiring prestigious scholarships and who are in Deresiewicz’s words, remarkably adept at hoop-jumping. The oddballs, misfits and troublemakers would have slipped through the net which captures government talent, but then again perhaps a bureaucracy would not be where they would thrive.
So why are young Singaporeans today struggling to grasp at our own individuality? There are a few reasons I would like to offer:
- The lack of, or rather, suppression of individuality in Singaporean students stems from the overemphasis on community in our schooling system. Students learn from a young age that fitting in works better than standing out in gaining the acceptance of their peers. While this is true of education systems across the world, it is particularly apparent in Singapore as we are constantly surrounded by company. We are always part of the collective – part of a class, part of our CCA, part of the house, part of the school. Students are rarely given the autonomy to pursue a niche alone due to the rigidity in structure of the education system. This gives peers an out-sized ability to influence one another, and the mutual mirroring effect eventually induces everyone in the group to converge at a similar standard of acceptable choices and behaviours. Then factor in the side effects of a hyper-connected society which promotes excessive social media usage – the result is that youths are perpetually omniscient of one another’s actions and intensely aware that others are judging our every move. In the formative years of schooling where peers are heavily influenced by each other, social media creates a hammering effect which breeds homogeneity in social behaviours. It isn’t that we lack individuality; we just never dared to seek it for fear of the harsh judgements we may face from others. Furthermore, social media takes away alone time that youths may have, which could have instead been spent on personal discovery or quiet introspection. It takes a great deal of self-control and personal awareness to not focus our energies on someone else’s life and instead redirect the attention to our own, but avoiding the noisy virtual chatter will only serve us good by allowing us to listen to our inner voice.
- Given the backdrop of our intense fixation on grades and a burgeoning multi-billion dollar tuition industry, youths rarely have the time or freedom to explore extensively outside the scope of academic subjects. Furthermore, the subjects taught in schools seem asymmetrically geared towards developing a student’s left brain i.e. logic and reasoning skills, rather than exercising their creative thinking faculties. The modes of thinking different education systems around the world value can be seen in how they teach writing. In Singapore, most A Level students are required to take General Paper (GP), a subject that predominantly exercises a student’s analytical reasoning skills and trains his ability in formulating a logical, coherent argument. In contrast, my mandatory English language writing course in NYU was “Writing The Essay”, which my professor ran as a creative writing workshop. Can we analyze Annie Dillard’s text through the looking glass of Andy Warhol’s art? What can Rembrandt’s paintings teach us on how to improve our essays and become better writers? We were taught to think in an abstract manner rather than rely on facts and encouraged to write metaphorically instead of using purely literal language. The stark contrast between ways which education systems approach language and writing unsurprisingly produces different types of thinkers. At its worst, a heavily structured education system churns out cookie-cutter types, devoid of any individuality and distinctiveness.
- When prevailing attitudes of parents, teachers and students all converge at a narrow definition of the epitome of a successful student, the dynamism and creativity of a society can come under threat. After all in founding father Lee Kuan Yew’s words, everyone has their own “rainbow” to seek. Yet the reality is that students who choose unconventional career paths have uphill battles to fight, while those who follow the tide to pursue more lucrative careers are showered with compliments on their excellent decision-making. This social and economic reward system has changed the career decisions of many talented individuals, leaving our true potentials unfulfilled. As such, one’s individuality is compromised due to external forces that mould one to take on certain forms that are less authentic. Hence, our society needs to celebrate diversity in intelligence and talent, to erase antagonism or discrimination against certain professions and to encourage creativity and nonconformism.
Which brings me to my final point – that responsibility lies not only in the hands of leaders, but more so in that of the individual. How can leaders foster creativity top-down, if students refuse to diverge from the status quo? How can individuals develop an independent mind, if we are excessively concerned with others’ judgements? How can a society encourage the realization of dreams, if youths do not have aspirations further than getting a higher GPA? It seems that our leaders are fully enlightened of which direction to charge towards, yet youths ourselves are not yet stepping up to our responsibilities. If we remain locked in our increasingly obsolete mentality of just blindly going with the flow, we risk neglecting our unique gifts for the creation of a brighter future. So I encourage all of us to start reflecting: What are you passionate about? What change do you want to make? What does your ideal society look like? How are you going to work towards that vision?
Listen to the rebel within you sing, for it speaks the truth of what your heart desires. It will guide you to your rainbow, whether it is pastel or vibrant, in warm tones or muted shades. Here’s to us building our technicoloured dreams, and I will see you on the other side of the rainbow.
Photos by Han Xuyang and Jubilee Tai