Win the Game, Lose Ourselves

gradedI recall: one of the school days that has creeped by this week, was followed by dinner at Toa Payoh HDB Hub before a Youth Corps team meeting. I remember, sitting cross-legged outside Koufu on the second floor amidst others- all sparsely spread across the 10 wooden tables outside the air-conditioned area. I prefer the seats outside because the smell of the cooking and the food, sometimes the sweat of others seem to all be trapped in the air of the enclosed area inside, constantly circulated by the wind of the air-conditioning. From the outside, you can hear the sweet-sounding harmonica played from just downstairs. There is an old man, small-built and hunched over. One hand trembles a little as he plays the harmonica and with the other, he holds on tightly to a metal trolley. Every time I have dinner there, I enjoy the music from his harmonica without fail. And I wonder, what circumstance this frail man (who should probably be enjoying his retirement or the company of his grandchildren in the comfortable space he can call home) is in, for him to have to be standing here, bent double with fatigue. I pass by once more at 930PM when my meeting has ended, and he is pacing slowly away from where he was, dragging the trolley behind him.

There is a quiet heartache that comes with the question of what we have neglected in our game of catch-up with the fast-developing world. It seems that as the modern world context continually evolves, we have transferred the value of certain things and people to others. And I wonder, if we continue in this pursuit, will we increasingly find it acceptable to sacrifice those who can’t catch up? Will the importance of the values that we hold true to our hearts begin to decline? How far will we go?

In class one day, our Southeast Asian history teacher shared with us occurrences over the week that had left her somewhat disillusioned toward the direction of society in recent times. They were experiences of witnessing a parent reprimand a primary school child for a 13/20 in an English test, watching students of our school wail about grades and the ways of parents that have constantly fueled our definition of self-worth based on grades. “It seems,” she said, “that we must always get an A at the expense of someone else.” Our transference of value unto academic excellence is not unjustified, but the problem lies in how it has become as if this were some kind of survivor competition, where we must necessarily be differentiated from others through academic grades (i.e. your academic success is only valuable with another’s academic failure). Worse, in the occasion where we fail, we appear to prefer blaming external circumstances to thoughtful introspection: she quoted the example of PW ‘B’ grades being blamed on the grading system instead on one’s own shortcomings. At this rate, we will all be unhappy– this rules out the possibility of being happy together, celebrating each other’s successes together, striving for the betterment of society together, in the different ways through which we are capable. Our academic grades should be celebrated together: it should be taken as a competition against ourselves to continually do better than we did, and a goal towards which we strive because of the promises of opportunity and learning that this pursuit promises.

But there are things that are important to humanity that aren’t graded, and we should strive towards preserving them as well. Let’s not lose the things that make us human, to win the relevancy game.

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190415: On Oscillating Narratives

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An operatic mandopop song is playing through my earpieces and the wind from the air-conditioning is blowing into my hair from above as I sit back facing the direction in which this bus is traveling. It’s a Sunday morning. The aftertaste of hotcakes for breakfast is the taste of happiness– most of this happiness, derived from the fact that it was a meal eaten as a family.

Recently I found myself in a large meeting room, slightly colder than this, in the Singapore Press Holdings answering questions about my volunteering experiences from the time it all began. The reflections lasted no less than 1.5 hours—it was a little like telling the story of what had been my life after these humble 17 years. And at this point, I am reminded of another idea we discussed at YOUTHSPEAK just a week ago. This one’s about oscillating narratives. 

The only narrative I ever thought myself to have full ownership over was my own—the narrative of my life, as I decide where things go from every step of the way. But it is with the discussion at the YOUTHSPEAK conversation that I was exposed to the idea of owning my own family narrative and my own national narrative. The speakers at the conversation believed that every one of us had the right to our narrative in these aspects where we highlight the specific details that mattered more to us. This includes the Hokkien story in the national narrative, or the financial aspect to our family narrative. We all have the liberty to explore these different takes to the same facts. We can all tell our own narrative.

On this same note, a sociology study was cited to support the point that “the most resilient of families/ communities are not those who tell themselves the ascending nor descending narratives, but those who are willing to tell themselves the oscillating narrative.” Here, ascending narrative refers to the version of the stories that filter the challenges, the difficulties, where the happy ending was always a foreseeable future: the descending narrative being the direct opposite. The power in telling the oscillating narrative, is acknowledging the good times and the bad, giving credit where it’s due and provoking reflection where it’s necessary. In the same way, I suppose, the most resilient of people would also be those who learn to tell themselves the oscillating narrative of their lives— giving ourselves the well-deserved pat on our back for a job well done, but at the same time, to accept the times we’ve stumbled, and to forgive ourselves.

YOUTHSPEAK: Let’s Walk The Talk

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Two nights ago, I was lucky to find myself in the company of 40 odd other youths, each with a story of their own to tell. Packed a little more comfortably than sardines in the humble and cozy Barber Shop @ Timbre at The Arts House, we kicked off the first in a series of SG50 Conversations organised by the National Youth Council, titled YOUTHSPEAK. Gracing the occasion with their presence, we Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong, NMP Kuik Shiao-Yin and entrepreneur Edward Chia. If I had to put an adjective with to the conversation that lasted a tad over 2 hours, it would be nothing less than ‘insightful’, and I would definitely want to find myself in the next Conversation.

Themed “Youths- The Pioneers of Tomorrow”, the discussion centred around the aspiration, hopes, opportunities and challenges that filled the present in our growing up years, and the near-future where we take the lead. And here are the ideas that I made me wish time could slow down so we could play them out all night:

“The state of transparency, breakdown and learning”

Let’s begin from the ‘state of transparency’, this referred to the comfortable state we find ourselves in: where we are unchallenged in our perceptions of the world, where the problems are transparent and life is no less than a bed of roses. It is the convenient place to be, to believe that there’s nothing to do, because there’s nothing that’s wrong and there’s no problem to solve.

But this idea is accompanied with the ‘state of breakdown’, where somewhere down the road, life offers you a challenge that rips apart your idea of what your future looks like, or what kind of world you live in, where something makes you uncomfortable and you start to ask yourself questions. Everyone goes through some form of breakdown in their lives– but the critical point is where we go from here. And it is in my hopes that continuously from the ‘state of breakdown’ I experience, I would choose to proceed to the ‘state of learning’: the part where we plough through the truths to find the answers, no matter how terrifying they may be. And where necessary, stand up for what we believe in. That, is the second most difficult part.

The most difficult of all, is choosing to embrace ‘state of breakdown’– it takes the brave strides out of the almost Utopian view we may have of our lives or our society, and away from the comfortable strand of society we are used to living with. It is open our eyes real wide, and really listen.

“Let’s ditch the P-word” 

Sitting beside me in the Conversation was a young man, with his hair combed neatly to the side, and the black-framed glasses that seem to be in style now. A University student, or so he identified himself. Taking notes on his handphone diligently, he raised refreshing points for discussion periodically. At one point, he brought the Conversation towards discussing the “advice given to youths to ‘follow their passion'”– it was a question about its pragmatism, its usefulness and its relevance.

My greatest takeaway from this segment of our Conversation, was to do away with the idea of ‘following your passion’ almost altogether. Not so much the idea of having something you’re passionate about, but rather, abandoning the false dichotomy created when we begin to regard ‘passion’ and ‘practicality’ as two extreme and opposite choices. In the words of NMP Shiao-Yin, we are all “a whole bunch of things– You are what you like, what you are capable of, and what you stand for”. And her advice was to, instead of figuring out “what you are passionate about”, to figure out “who we were”, the whole bunch of it.

“A question to ask yourself,” she said, “is how do you want to die?” At this point she paused, and there was pindrop silence. “Decide how you want to die, and reverse engineer it– that’s how you should want to live.”

“We are all playing a guessing game” 

And as our Conversation shifted to revolve around the economic opportunity in Singapore, the “education system” was arrowed at more than a couple of times. The views of how our meritocracy was backfiring and how restrictive it was becoming were aired openly, only to be concluded as the Conversation got to its end, making us rethink our idea of economic opportunity.

The realisation that our speculation of which degree would be the ‘most-valued’ or which Diploma certificate could attain the ‘best job prospects’ was all but a guessing game, came timely to me as an A-level student. There’s a new take I have to this: that economic opportunity comes where there is a need to be met and someone willing to match a dollar to your meeting of the need. And it will become a question I intend to be pondering about for a while from now– “What is that need that I want to meet, and be really great at meeting?” Stop asking me ‘what I want to do with my future’: first let me think about this, and we’ll move on from there.

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It’s been over a month since my previous piece and it feels like eons ago since the last time I’ve written something new: my heart flutters with excitement as I type. I realise that having moments like this to be completely preoccupied with my thoughts or Friday nights where I can immerse myself in the company of excited and like-minded youths will be one of the many on the ‘List of Things I will sacrifice in my A-level year’. So long, WordPress.