Rebel

dsc_0890I 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!

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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.)

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Photos by Han Xuyang and Jubilee Tai

8 thoughts on “Rebel

  1. hi zikki, nice to read that you’re enjoying yourself in new york and in a different education system from what we have here in singapore! your creative writing workshop sounds really interesting and i’d love to experience it for myself for a semester or two if i ever have the opportunity to.

    anyway, do you think individuality is a means to an end? if so, what end? allowing every person’s individuality to flourish unrestrained sounds like a good idea; it can help to find unconventional solutions to present and future problems. but an innovative idea will only be an idea and not a solution unless it is synthesized into a real-life product, in which case, logical and reasoning skills as well as robust understanding of academic principles are required.

    therefore, despite the stifling environment in our schools, i still see value in retaining the current education system. instead of a radical overhaul, there should be more adjustments made to accommodate creative thinking and problem solving.

    also, people don’t necessarily underachieve in terms of potential when they choose a ‘conventional’ career over an unconventional one. conventional careers have equally complex problems as unconventional ones. those who choose this path also face uphill battles and daily struggles that we should not underestimate. even in conventional careers, we have daily opportunities to express our individuality and creativity in problem solving. thus, instead of belittling the certain professions for being too easy, we should appreciate the difficulty of all professions in order to eliminate the discrimination that you mention.

    1. Hey Raynold aka. Rainbow according to my brother :P,
      Thank you for taking time to craft such a grounded response! It certainly adds well-needed balance to my essay. On your first point, I definitely agree that an entire educational revolution is unnecessary; perhaps minor tweaks would be better words to describe what I am urging for. After all, Singapore has one of the best (if not the best) education systems in the world and I am immensely grateful for it. On the topic of individuality, I think that from an organizational perspective, individuality is a means to an end. When unique ideas transform into tangible products/ policies that can benefit the masses, that is achieving a goal beyond the sake of itself. But from an individual perspective, allowing one relative room for freedom of expression is as necessary as breathing. In fact, when the external pressure to conform is immense, the word suffocating turns into a literal sensation for me. Part of the reason why I chose to go overseas for university is that I did not want to go through the system again. I was afraid that I would drown in popular opinion and lose my sense of direction entirely. I think that going overseas and spending the year largely alone helped me find myself, but I know that this luxury to withdraw from my environment entirely is not an opportunity that everyone has.
      On your second point, I again concur that conventional careers can be just as fulfilling as unconventional ones, and it would be hypocritical of me to demean any career. Let me explain what I mean by unfulfilled potential – you see, I have been thinking lately about how societies can create (or eradicate) structures to allow each individual to fulfil his fullest potential. For instance, if someone makes for a mediocre banker but an exceptional chef, yet chooses to pursue the banking route for its economic incentives, is society losing out on this person’s potential? Should society be involved in career decisions or should it not interfere in an individual’s personal decision? Yet, aren’t there already all kinds of factors that are shaping an individual’s career decision which are not under to his control? What do you think?

      1. Well I am also of the opinion that individuality should not be purely utilitarian. We need avenues for pursuing unique interests and self-expression that make us more human. I agree that some institutions inhibit or regulate self-expression strictly, which some people might find unpalatable. Therefore I can sympathise with them when they choose to settle in an environment more accepting of individuality.

        Society is already intricately involved in every person’s career decision. In every career, one key consideration is pay, which is decided by the value society places on that profession. For instance, if the banking industry is deemed to be critical to a functioning society, it’s importance will be reflected in the form of higher economic remuneration for those in the industry. If in your pursuit of individuality you are unfortunately led to a career which is less valued by society, then you alone are responsible for weighing the benefits (space for self-expression etc) and costs (lower salary) of your career before making a decision.

        In an ideal world, everyone will find a career that is highly valued by society and encourages freedom of expression. But society works in a very practical way and sometimes if you’re unlucky, there is a price to pay for your individuality. What should be done is to create an environment that is more supportive of experimentation/more accepting of failure. I assume that that is the structure you refer to 🙂

      2. Hey Raynold!
        Hmmm, on the topic of career choices, while it is a highly personal decision, careers also create a social value apart from its private value. Perhaps this article will illustrate my point better: <a href="http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/upshot/why-a-harvard-professor-has-mixed-feelings-when-students-take-jobs-in-finance.html?_r=0&quot; What I fear is that talent will predominantly flow into sectors that perpetuate rent-seeking behaviours, resulting in a society where the best and brightest create more private gains than social benefits.
        And yes, I certainly do think that the environment should be less stifling and more accepting, but what is more important is that individuals must take the initiative to enact change and be less afraid of failure. In fact, what I observe is that our government has a keen awareness of traits that the future generation need, but sentiments on the ground level remain very conservative. The majority of youths are still playing it too safe, and the reason I wrote this article is really to encourage all of us to dream a little bigger and act a little bolder.

    1. 我想他的意思是,独立是个人对外界拘束的反应,个人有控制自己态度的能力,而自由是外界对个人选择的束缚,并不在个人的掌控范围之内。但是若人们既有独立判断的能力,外界也给个人自由的权利,两者兼具岂不更好吗?

      BTW,刚刚看到你的email address,偷笑。。。

  2. wowawowawie AMEN gurl
    This post definitely struck a chord with me! I have always found it irritating when society gets in the way of what I really want to do, even more frustrating is when I succumb to society. Only sometimes it is better to give way to society (eg. illegal things blah there’s another world of theory to explore here wow) and thus the question of how much rebellion is too much/little? In these fine lines it really boils down to individual beliefs and values, and where the majority shares the same values we get… societal norms (balls we went full circle??)
    Well the issue is very complex and interesting! Too bad I cannot have words regarding it because I cannot find the words to use. SAD.
    Would love to discus this at length but only thing I have to say is that individuality and creativity may be correlated but not exactly resultants of the other. Perhaps products of other values such as curiosity and openness? Thus an emphasis on logical reasoning and analysis may not have an adverse affect on a person’s individuality. For instance, Richard Dawkins. But this is just me theorising after a short google search for research papers.
    Fortunately the world changes, and your rebellious attitudes may become the norm in decades to come. So keep dreaming and keep fighting! This comment is a mess like my brain. I look forward to the creative changes you can usher in for the generations to come!

    on a side note. I thought jc was pretty cool with tolerating my paint dripped uniforms for so long. (pretty sure it wasnt allowed)

    1. Hey George! YASSS thanks for your encouraging response haha. And yea your pants were a work of art, perhaps the new Jackson Pollock? 😛

      I agree that I shouldn’t have melded creativity and individuality in one, both are concepts that should be dissected separately. Unfortunately I am not a scholar in either of these fields, so I hope my audience “gets” what I’m referring to in general. Indeed, there has been so much scholarship on how curiosity and openness to experience foster creativity (and intelligence, but that is another topic altogether). So, I will quit waxing lyrical on that and direct those interested to Google Scholar instead.

      Also, I have come to realize that the left brain-right brain stereotype may be just that – a stereotype. An extremely intelligent individual may possess exceptional abilities in both, as in your case Mr Dawkins. The way we define intelligence is getting more and more nuanced, and we are gradually accepting more types of intelligence, which I think is great. Nevertheless, I fear that we are also in some sense diluting the word intelligence. For instance, could a hairdresser be intelligent at chopping off hair?

      I sense that I am going off tangent. So coming back to topic in response to your last point of rebellion… Frankly, it is an extremely sensitive word and topic. I think I will probably only dare to use such a word to describe myself when I am a feisty 20-year-old, before age instills in me patience and good judgement (hopefully). I certainly don’t think that blind rebellion should be encouraged in fear of the potentially destabilizing ramifications no matter the realm of society. IMO there is a fine line between constructive imagination and damaging disruption… Oftentimes a singular incident is in fact both – take Uber for instance.

      Alright enough of rambling on, out!

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