Scholars: So what?

Scholars - So what

Counting down the days before my new internship begins at the Early Childhood Development Agency (a regulatory and development authority for the early childhood sector in Singapore, jointly overseen by the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Social and Family Development), a fraction of this month has been dedicated to a series of workshops and courses as part of the Ministry of Health Holdings‘ Induction Program for Healthcare scholars. Every experience carefully designed to prepare scholars for the journey ahead, offering insight about Singapore’s healthcare system while encouraging us to forge friendships with fellow scholars. Thankful for this privilege, this piece is one about the sense of disconnect I wish to fend myself against and one to serve as a reminder of what this opportunity should mean for me.

Days ago, a return to my alma mater found meaningful conversations with some of the most nurturing educators I have had. I have missed these exchanges incredibly, for they represent our mutual agreement to pursue truth. In one such conversation our Year 4 Form Teacher, Mr. Faizal, expressed his exasperation and almost disillusionment towards students pursuing achievements rather than valuing process, obsessing over themselves and forgetting the larger community around them. He highlighted that the choices we, as the more privileged in society, have had at every point of our lives are those of the minority – to be discussing the scholarship options and university choices rather than questioning the possibility of entering university; to be enjoying the freedom that a quality education allows for instead of suffering the anxiety that a financial burden can cause. With every choice that allows us to enter an even more exclusive pool of ‘talent’, he fears the sense of disconnect from the rest of society that we fall victim to. Being a scholar is one such choice.

There is no purpose in the blame game of who has allowed for the flaws of this system to be as such and no meaning in pointing fingers at ‘meritocracy’ for ironically, allowing those who’ve lived immensely different lives from the rest of the population to end up at leadership positions and managerial roles. Our awareness of this privilege and difference should, instead, translate into a heightened sense of responsibility to meet the needs of society. In short, ‘noblesse oblige’.

I recall vividly the Managing Director’s words at our first gathering as a batch of scholars. “The scholarship is not about money,” he said, “it is not a study loan and much less an entitlement. It is the use of public taxpayer’s money to train a selected pool of people.” It is the investment that the country has made based on the consensus that we shall have those with the potential to perform most effectively for public good to afford the training and education that they require. It is the means to an end, which is service to public good. Just yesterday, lapses in enforcement of scholarship bonds made the headlines on Channel News Asia. Reports had found that the Ministry of Education had not maintained necessary monitoring measures to ensure the enforcement of scholarship bonds, and henceforth failed to ensure that tuition fee loans and study loans due were promptly recovered. What is more appalling than the inadequacy of regulations is the prevalence of scholars who default or ‘break bond’. The Ministry is careful to qualify that these scholars are a minority, but the only acceptable number to this profile of scholars should be ‘zero’. Following the stern definition of what the scholarship should be, the Managing Director said to “bear in mind that (we) have arrived at this position not solely by (our) own effort… There is a moral obligation to give back to the society that has nurtured (us).”

Exceptions made due to our unforeseen circumstances aside, there must be emphasis made on the fact that resources invested into funding scholarships are exhaustive and zero-sum. The place taken by one to have his/her further education sponsored by the public’s trust that he/she will return to serve public good denies another from this same opportunity. The rigorous selection, followed by the generous investments can mislead one to believe that you have proven yourself worthy of these entitlements. There is danger in viewing our privilege to be scholars as an entitlement, for the intentions of our signing on the dotted line will be clouded by self-centredness and rid of gratitude.

You’re special but you’re not. Due credit given to the ‘potential’ that we have displayed, little of this potential would matter if we prove to be, ultimately, irresponsible to our commitment towards public good. The most valuable takeaway from the Induction Program commitments this July has been the reminder that the heart of service should be at the centre of a scholars’ commitment – to dedicate our ‘special’ to being part of something larger, something that is not an end in ourselves. Congratulations to my fellow peers who have been given the privilege of service to the nation and the freedom to pursue excellence with financial burdens aside, don’t forget: auspicium melioris aevi.

The Healthcare Scholars’ Pledge

I am a healthcare scholar.

Patients shall be at the centre of everything I do.

I will perform my duties with integrity and pride.

I will care for my patients with compassion and respect. 

I will work with my fellow care-givers with humility and grace.

I commit to excel as a Healthcare Professional.

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The Amber Light

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Exactly one week to my Driving Traffic Police Test, this evening is air-conditioned, one spent on board Bus 106. Travelling down these roads I can memorise by heart and taking a route on which I have shared memories with so many, this 45-minute bus ride is always conducive for writing. (How certain I am, by the way, that this is a ride I will miss dearly along with the Singapore public transport system once in Sydney). In light of the friends close to heart whom I’ve gotten the chance to catch up with recently, this piece is in celebration of the cross junction we are at in our lives – where we leave “Holiday Road” for the journey ahead along “University Drive”. If there were a traffic light at this cross junction, it would probably be faulty for it signals a perpetual amber.

How strange it is that time should pass us by like water through our fingers – with no way of gripping onto moments that have passed, only granted with the feeling it gave us as proof that it had come and gone. “Where did all the time ago?” is the new frequently-asked question and it feels like yesterday that we had embraced the new normal of liberation. I can vividly remember how most of us had bid farewell to the episode we call “’A’ Levels” as if it happened just a while ago.

At this point, even with our University places secured, some privileged with scholarships or sponsorships and with a break we had been dreaming of since our time in Junior College, the uncertainty has only reduced but not disappeared. As if driving in a vehicle that has left an expressway (that was the comfort of school), towards new crossroads that have emerged, new road signs, traffic lights (few faulty ones) and bumps in the road. One of the most heart-wrenching moments in my first few driving lessons were what I’d like to call The Amber Light moments. You’re slowing down nearing a traffic light, prepared to stop if necessary. A more experienced driver (clearly, judging from the speed and his frustration towards your amateur ‘L-plate’) comes close behind you, as if ready to send death threats should you stop at the junction to even think. Then, The Amber Light. There is no clarity from the structures put in place – no green to say a definite ‘yes’ or a red that says ‘no’. Just Amber. It is entirely up to your “driving judgment” as my Chinese driving instructor calls it.

The resources invested and the opportunities available, your driving decisions the only uncertain factor to determine the outcomes. This pressure is familiar to us, seems like it’s going to take a little more than a little bit of reframing to get us past this cross junction with confidence. I learn from adult mentors I have been incredibly blessed to have found that the road ahead carries endless adventure and our fear will be as big an obstacle as we allow it to be. My dad always says, that sometimes, “you just have to press hard on that accelerator and drive on”.

Counting down the weeks before most of my peers enter the new chapter we call “University”, may this be reminder to us to stay true to the values of resilience and verve that we had lived and breathed in school. Never settle for less.

Let’s talk about Race

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Absence is silent and for as long as we do not actively search for it, we will remain dangerously unaware. The last in a series of three on issues I strongly believe deserve a heightened awareness, this one is uniquely Singaporean, on race. Earlier pieces explored the ongoing regional Refugee Reality little of us are aware of and the Rape of Nanking, a forgotten but crucial chapter in history. Today, I take a few steps backwards and come closer to home, where we (arguably) live and breathe oblivion – I first hope to clarify that the intention of this piece is not to accuse but to encourage a more mature consensus.

*For the benefit of the rest of this piece: Racism refers to the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

Our late Deputy Prime Minister S. Rajaratnam composed the National Pledge that we recite day after day in school as students. The National Pledge encompasses not only the aspirations of our pioneers for Singapore as a nation, but also a promise within society about how we would treat one another as fellow Singaporeans. We pledge, I quote, “regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society based on justice and equality.” At a panel discussion as part of the Singapore Theatre Festival, the original draft of the pledge was quoted as the opening to the discussion. Once more, I quote, the earlier National Pledge started with, “We, as citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves to forget differences of race, language or religion to become one united people.” Understandably, it was edited by our late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to omit the “unrealistic goal” of forgetting differences.

The underlying tension with regard to race lies in the differences (in tradition, culture, language, amongst others) of races. For quite a while now, our concept of ‘multiracialism’ has revolved around what Mohammed Imran (a Singaporean interfaith activist) calls the “4 ‘F’s” – Food, Fashion, Festivals and Face. From my days in primary school, I recall the costume-swapping festivities in Racial Harmony Day Celebrations and the Match-The-Dots activity sheets associating the “4 ‘F’s” to the 4 “main races” (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others). Kudos to our National Education, as every Singaporean child who has undergone primary school education would be able to quote the horror of the 1964 Maria Hertogh Riots amongst others to illustrate the gravity of preserving “racial harmony” in Singapore. This model of “racial harmony” has effectively allowed for the co-existence of races in Singapore but also unintentionally allowed for brewing racism.

In the recent panel discussion on race, playwright Alfian Sa’at recounted his experience of having his play, “Geng Reibut Cabinet (GRC)”, receive an ‘M-16’ rating. The play takes place in a fictional country very much like Singapore in terms of its political system and meritocratic principles. The crux lies in that the majority and minority races of this country are swapped – the Chinese, a minority and the Malays, a majority. Then, in the course of the play, touchy issues with regard to subtle structural racial discrimination are raised. He remarked that the receipt of the rating surprised him because a “rating system originally devised to deal with immaturity towards sexual content and coarse language” was now used as a defense against racial discussions. The rating system, a tool for government intervention to regulate conversations and protect public good, now reflected Singapore’s “fear towards discussions of race”. It is as if constructive conversations about what “racial harmony” truly means are muted, ironically, in the name of “preserving racial harmony”.

The result, then, is that racism occurs along with our superficial understanding of different races (recall the “4 ‘F’s”). We create judgments and stereotypes, then silently reaffirm them with observations from our everyday. Simultaneously, blanket sanctions (like rating systems) initially formulated to guard against ‘hate speech’ are now confused to suppress ‘speech about sensitive issues like race’ altogether. It will be little surprise, then, to find the rifts between races slowly widening from the prejudices we form but do not talk about.

We can do better.

The danger in not talking about race and racism is the lack of understanding towards the grave consequences of the latter. The consequences here refer to more than the racial riots that we were taught, but the social problems resultant from our subconscious prejudice. For this, I thank the play “Geng Reibut Cabinet (GRC)” for my heightened awareness. The plot of the play follows a political party campaigning for leadership of a GRC. This political party consists of 3 Malays and 1 Chinese; the Chinese lead, Catherine, was regarded as a “token” in the party to show “proportional representation of the community’s needs”. In the play, Catherine expresses cumulated frustration towards the futile efforts of “self-help Chinese groups” – the incredibly slow progress of the Chinese community in the play was a result of limited resources passed down from generation to generation. She illustrates, at one point, that for a long time in history just as wealth had been passed down in the Malay families through generations, generations of poverty had been passed down for the Chinese families. Her fellow politicians try to explain to her that the social problems of the Chinese are a “community problem” rather than a national one, dismissing Catherine’s plea for the nation’s people to be regarded as “one human race” so that the Chinese community can be liberated from the psychological traps built by prejudices.

We learn from history that the cruelest of conflicts can arise from the sense of superiority based on racial (or other) backgrounds. Years ago in Singapore, the Chinese were the immigrants whose character was doubted as a result of British’s fear. Yet today, our sense of insecurity has similarly gripped us, allowing the future of those with differing religious or racial ba grounds to be restricted by our imagined future if they are allowed to prosper.

Our nation should celebrate the achievement of racial understanding in a broad sense – that we have standardized the recognition of our differences from a young age and drilled in the minds of our children the gravity of friction surfacing between races. Until we mature as a society to shift this consensus, though, we will always be socially privileged or disadvantaged based on the fact that our race is a majority or minority respectively. That, in itself, is the manifestation of our existing racism. I imagine that the landscape of Singapore’s “racial harmony” will, one day, allow Singaporeans to live their everyday not being “reminded that they are a minority race” as Mohammed Imran said and perhaps, we could begin with Alfian Sa’at’s suggestion of anti-racism campaigns. The difficulty lies in that such moves would require us to acknowledge the presence of racism in our society. We have to admit that we make irrational conclusions about behaviors and habits based on race and that these irrational conclusions influence the future of fellow Singaporeans unfairly. What happens, then, to our pledged “justice and equality”?

Let’s raise ‘race’ in conversations, I challenge you.

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Singaporean Taste of Nostalgia

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The arts have always been a medium for reflection and for learning: the value of plays (the carefully crafted scripts and skillfully practiced deliveries), stories behind exhibitions (the narrative we make of our past) and appreciation for art forms less explored – each offers profound takeaways. With the intention of uncovering more lessons as such, this month sees conscious effort invested into these artistic experiences. A recent visit to the Permanent Galleries at the National Museum of Singapore inspires this piece on the value of nostalgia.

The Permanent Galleries were only reopened to public in recent years after being closed for renovation. The entire re-curation and re-arrangement of the exhibits put together a more human recount of the “Modern Colony 1925-1935” and “Surviving Syonan 1942 -1945” chapters of the Singapore Story. Rather than grouping the exhibits based on aspect of society (i.e. food, fashion), the chronological categorization provided a relatively more holistic display of the lives of Singaporeans then. Consequently, museum-goers (like myself) can take away a nuanced illustration of society in the different time periods – the ‘entertainment avenues’ during the years Singapore was ‘Syonan-to’, the love stories that emerged from the Japanese Occupation or the affluent upper class in the 1920s were perspectives newly introduced into the revamped Permanent Galleries. It is promising that our national narrative continues to evolve along with the public’s growing thirst for historical truths.

My previous piece explored the Rape of Nanking and the lessons this historical atrocity offers for us even in present-day. Similarly, here, I would like to propose that our sense of nostalgia that holds onto the past is just as important as remembering to forget. (I once wrote about “remembering to forget” because of the detrimental effects the weight of the past can possibly have on us.) Offering another piece in the same puzzle, this reflection is uniquely Singaporean for its contextualized observations and experiences:

In a recent W!LD RICE Production as part of the Singapore Theatre Festival, the play titled Geylang told the story of tension between Geylang residents protecting their homes and members of the Ministry hoping to “redevelop” the neighbourhood, uplifting the old buildings completely. This story is relatable for many Singaporeans, regardless of age – given the incredibly rapid pace of (re)development, we would all know a place or two that once was without even a significant fraction of our lives passing. For me, I think of King Albert Park and Jurong Entertainment Centre where I played for a large part of my childhood. For as long as I’ve had to say goodbye to places, I have justified the farewell to these places with the necessity of economic development. “We have to stay relevant, stay competitive,” we were taught. A close friend recently shared her hesitation to reconnect with a teacher who had once influenced her greatly. Reason being, the school in which the teacher had taught her in was being demolished and there was no longer a “common space” for their reconnection to take place. I have attended numerous neighbourhood trails, each emphasizing the importance of our “common spaces” to create meaningful memories and forge friendships. Today, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) runs programs like Our Favourite Place that supports projects that encourage community interaction in “common spaces”. Yet, we are inconsistent in our attempts to value these spaces – ignoring cries against destruction of the old while expecting initiative in new “common spaces”.

Perhaps, we have become afraid of being attached to places we will one day have to bid farewell to.

A subsequent production I had the privilege of watching, titled Hotel, had 10 scenes. Each scene was set a decade apart in the same hotel room. In the play’s final scene, an old man diagnosed with terminal stage cancer had chosen to spend his final months in the hotel room rather than his own house because “it is easier to cope with something temporary instead of something permanent.” It leaves me to question if the ease with which we come to terms with buildings and places being temporary is a symptom of our choice to undermine nostalgia. After all, in Alfian Sa’at’s literature, he proposes that nostalgia has no value; for if it did, then some things will still be around. Here, I recall the futile fight for Bukit Brown Cemetery. The reconnection with the arts in this period has inspired a deep sense of nostalgia as it evokes reflection on the past of not just our nation but in my own life – the relationships once shared, memories once made and the values once valued. It is in nostalgia that we find the deeper lessons: when we start drawing dots, finding patterns, understanding change and continuity.

It is needless to say that the Singapore consensus to pursue economic development deserves much credit for how far and how quickly we have come to where we are today, in the past 50 years of independence. I am reminded, though, of the forward-looking attitude encouraged at a series of SG100 conversations. Just as it is important to celebrate, we have to actively create what would be worth celebrating. First and foremost, for our urban landscape, we have to start considering where nostalgia has a place in all this.

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The Holocaust We’ve Forgotten

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June was a month where ‘digital detox’ was consciously assimilated into my lifestyle. Then, I had begun picking up good reads instead of my mobile device and immersing in eloquent prose rather than 5-minute Youtube videos. One result of these conscious choices have been a heightened awareness. I quote my earlier piece about refugees in Southeast Asia – “absence is silent (and) for as long as we do not actively search for it, we will remain dangerously unaware”. It is for this same reason, to remain grounded in spite of privileged and comfortable lives, that I write this second piece on awareness. Thankful for the time I’ve had for reflections, reading and attending meaningful discussions, here’s another issue we do not talk about enough, the Rape of Nanking.

Those in the first row were beheaded, those in the second row were forced to dump the severed bodies into the river before they themselves were beheaded. The killing went on non-stop, from morning until night, but they were only able to kill 2,000 persons in this way. The next day, tired of killing in this fashion, they set up machine guns. Two of them raked a cross-fire at the lined up prisoners. Rat-tat-tat-tat. Triggers were pulled. The prisoners fled into the water, but no one was able to make it to the other shore. 

– Japanese Military Correspondent, Yukio Omata

Women suffered most. No matter how young or old, they all could not escape the fate of being raped. We sent out coal trucks from Hsiakwan to the city streets and villages to seize a lot of women. And then each of them was allocated to 15 to 20 soldiers for sexual intercourse and abuse. 

– Takokoro Kozo, a former solder in the 114th Division of the Japanese army in Nanking

A visceral description of the episode of mass rape and mass murder across 6 weeks continues on every page of The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. She uncovers the facts and findings regarding what she calls “6 weeks of horror”, tying together quotes from witnesses, victims and perpetrators. It is astonishing the extent of damage and dehumanizing acts that these soldiers inflicted upon the residents of Nanking in a concentrated span of 42 days. Even more surprising, is how the occurrence of the massacre has been swept under the carpets over the years. With most Japanese military records on the killings kept secret or destroyed shortly after the surrender of Japan in 1945, historians desperately trying to tell the story for those who suffered in this episode race against time to interview remaining survivors and discover the truth about the holocaust. In the words of Chang, “an event that 60 years ago made front-page news in American newspapers appears to have vanished, almost without a trace… the history of 300,000 murdered Chinese might disappear just as they themselves had disappeared under Japanese occupation.” Worse, there have been Japanese politicians who have insisted that the Rape of Nanking was a hoax and a fabrication. 60 years on from the rape, the Japanese as a nation “are still trying to bury the victims of Nanking – not under the soil, as in 1937, but into historical oblivion”.

It is, to me, terrifying, that we allow geo-political priorities to mask truth about history for the lessons of history will never be learnt if they are forgotten. Chang asserts that forgetting the rape (or worse, denying it) would be akin to committing a second rape.

We are complacent to think that history will never repeat itself and we are less adept than we think at learning from our past. The Rape and Nanking teaches us lessons of what Chang calls the “shadow side of human nature”. The atrocities committed were only possible with the government’s propaganda and conditioning of its people to believe in rationalizations of their killings – teaching the Japanese soldiers that the Chinese were “less than pigs” and ripping these soldiers of their dignity to cumulate deep-seated hatred. It warns us against the concentration of power in the government and the importance of international checks and balances so no country can produce efficient killing machines of its people with ideology.

Most importantly, we should be embarrassed and even appalled at the frightening ease with which our minds can accept genocide. Just as the people 60 years ago had been, we are all passive spectators to the unthinkable. By keeping this episode of history under the carpets, unspoken, we are dismissing the lessons that cost 300,000 lives in Nanking and many more to date with genocides that have remained ignored. Search up the recent Bosnian and Rwandan crisis, each a repetition of history that we have time and again remained silent about. The numbers and our cruel oblivion will surprise you.

It is sometimes challenging to find relevance in complex issues that we are afraid to unpack, especially when our realities are comfortable and safe. There is a story about a teacher who illustrates the concept of inequality through a classroom activity – seated in neat rows and columns in the classroom, every student is given a paper aeroplane to throw into the basket positioned at the front of the classroom. Clearly, the students in the front row have an advantage. Accompanying this advantage (that they have, by no means, earned through their own effort), is oblivion toward their advantage. Similarly, we would be selfish and ignorant to think of our privilege as our entitlement; silly to believe that the rape of Nanking has nothing to do with us. It is until those at the front row turn behind them and listen to the woes of those seated in the rows at the back, that we begin to preserve the most valuable qualities of ourselves that make us human. Our awareness protects us against forgetting kindness, abandoning gratitude and replacing our hearts for humanity with oblivious self-centeredness. In a time where information is so easily accessible to us than ever before, it is ironic (and almost embarrassing) that we fail to pursue truth and lend our voice to tell the stories of those who cannot speak for themselves.

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What’s in a ‘Home’?

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The morning smells of rain, like the aftertaste of what was torrential earlier. Walking home from the train station (a practice that has replaced the rushed bus rides since the intentions-based year began), the patches of soil bare from grass are moist and they line the familiar pavement that leads me to home. I grew up in the Clementi neighbourhood – learned how to walk and talk, attended kindergarten then primary school, made the closest friends, had the most childish fights; all in this vicinity. I recognize the faces, the buildings. The new Build-to-Order flats replacing what used to be big patches of green grass do not erase the memories once shared in the greenery. Easily, this is where I would relate to most closely as ‘home’.

From experience in Sunlove Home, conversations with the older generation never escape ideas of “what it used to be like” – with respect to neighbourhoods and ‘home’, then, it would be about the kampong spirit, the gotong-royong heart for one another. When we first embarked on Strong Mind Fit Body, hoping to ride on Housing Development Board’s Good Neighbours Project funding and foster neighbourliness, I was excited to actively uncover the kampong spirit that I believed to remain regardless of evolving infrastructure, of changing times. The excitement remains with every functional fitness session as we share stories and have conversations. I am reaffirmed that we still care for one another and that the gotong-royong spirit persists.

Days ago, I enjoyed an incredibly moving production by the local W!LD RICE Company titled “Geylang”. As part of the Singapore Theatre Festival celebrating the Singaporean flavor in more ways than one, this one was about the preservation of heritage and the comfort of the neighbourhoods that we call ‘home’. The key plot was centred around a modern-day ‘redevelopment project’ by an architecture firm hoping to uplift the entire old Geylang Serai and replace it with new infrastructure. A ministry, named “MYID” in the play, was supporting the project that was still in its planning stages and the architecture firm was struggling, trying to convince old tenants to move out from their stores.  Especially heartening was the scene where the residents of Geylang, spoke up for their memories in Geylang Serai in front of the MYID Permanent Secretary. They had stood in unity in spite of differing racial backgrounds, dialect groups, livelihoods and demographic altogether. With tears in their eyes and an indescribable passion in their pleas, they had found the basis for their sense of camaraderie in the common spaces they had shared within Geylang Serai and the gotong-royong spirit that they had lived out in the neighbourhood for decades.

At times, I find the distracting pace of our lives and the endless pursuit for financial security masks the still existing kampong spirit that we envy the older generation for. I believe where the situation calls for, we will stand together and fight for a place we consider ‘home’, alongside neighbours we consider family. It is the safety and comfort, the familiarity and the memories of these common spaces that create attachment. Yet, our attachment is silenced and we coax ourselves to be less attached so we can let go, giving way to ‘development’.

My latest read is A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, a story of war-torn Afghanistan and the slow progress in women empowerment slowed down further by the domestic crisis. History lessons about how superpower intervention prolong existing conflicts and the numerous push-pull factors for religious ideologies to fuel armed conflict made the read ever engaging, a page-turner round every chapter. The tale ends with Laila’s visit back home to Kabul – she reminisces “what it used to be like” and the memories that made her ‘home’ have a special place in her heart. There is unspoken sadness at the changes made to her ‘home’ in the years that she has been gone, how the places she once knew like the back of her hand were no longer existent and how the memories seemingly faded along with the landmarks. The reality reflected that “war, hunger, anarchy and oppression (can) force millions of people to abandon their homes and flee” (in the words of Hosseini himself). They turn into refugees and remain helpless to their homes destroyed and to the changing landscapes of where they consider ‘home’.

Juxtaposing their harsh reality with ours, it dawned upon me that we were changing these landscapes by choice. In the play “Geylang”, the MYID (representing the government body responding to what society appeared to need) was pushing for the ‘redevelopment project’ to be realized. Eventually, the play ended with the residents’ collective pleas and the Permanent Secretary whispering his response to the architecture firm head. My take is that the play was left intentionally open-ended to provoke reflection from the audience about what our answer would be. To what extent would we allow our heritage and landscapes to be wiped clean in the name of ‘development’? And would we consider the possibility of having the ‘old’ and ‘new’ coexist? The choice is our privilege and the least we could do is to exercise it with care.

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Uncertainty: What Would Dory Do?

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For the past 6 months, I have had the privilege of serving patients in the capacity of a “Patient Service Assistant” at the Raffles Hospital Rehabilitation Centre through the Frontline Service Experience Program. Tomorrow as I step into the workplace once more, I would be counting down the last two days in the space that has now become comfortable, familiar and filled with countless memories. The ‘normal’ will begin to evolve from the (upcoming) Tuesday evening when I step out of the Rehabilitation Centre, changing out from uniform for the last time. Henceforth, I plunge into a month of uncertainty – attempts at driving tests, attendance at scholarship commitments and a series of talks, plays, workshops and museum visits to enrich myself. The ‘normal’ that lies ahead holds surprises and prized experiences valuable for me. And yet, I am slightly nervous amidst my excitement.

The anxiety finds its origins in the uncertainty. This uncertainty is one that years of formal education have made me uncomfortable with. I wish someone told me this before. This time last year, with the end of Common Test 2, there was celebration and contained happiness. ‘Contained’ because we were all aware of how short-lived this break would be – just a time to catch a breather before proceeding towards months of closed-door studying, endless practice and mastery of exam skills. Then, one of my biggest motivations had been the ‘freedom’ that would necessarily follow this ‘‘A’ Levels episode’. “Things would be different then,” I had promised myself. Perhaps it was the desperate hope for space, for rest, to be away from the routine that had made us naïve and clouded our judgment. To my juniors who are treading the path I had trodden a year ago, the ‘freedom’ and ‘change’ is real, I still promise. But be careful to associate only negative feelings to your current mundane routine and only positive feelings to what the future may hold – this narrative you tell yourself may translate into disappointment. Nothing is only good or only bad.

I have seen the past half a year of uncertainty incite very real fear and anxiety; in myself and in my peers. It seems some have spent more time worrying than enjoying. Granted, there are those who thrive in this context but fact remains that our years of formal education have dished out ‘Scheme of Works’ and ‘Syllabus Outcomes’ as checklists to determine ‘success’. Additionally, formal education has paved the way with assessments and lecture tests to ensure timely milestones of ‘progress’. Thrown into this uncertainty, the meters of ‘success’ and ‘progress’ are to be determined by ourselves. I wish someone told me this before. The reminder that in every challenge we can discover some form beauty came this time last year as I was struggling to prepare myself for the ‘A’ Levels – I was reminded to appreciate the protection of a school environment, to be thankful for the community of learners I could find effortlessly in a school I call home and to savour the uphill battle of challenging my own academic limits. Today, the weekend before I welcome a new wave of uncertainty, this same idea is revisited.

One of the best movies I have watched in the preceding month for Digital Detox was Finding Dory. Pixar does it again, encapsulating important lessons in animation. A recurring line in the script was “what would Dory do?” which (in my opinion) represented a two-fold message. One was the intended lessons to be taken away from Dory’s character – the sense of adventure, the fearless risk-taking and the willingness to take chances. After all, “the best things happen by chance, because that’s life.” Coming to terms with uncertainty is not easy because we have to acknowledge that little we do today can guarantee us something tomorrow, as much as we wish that these promises can be kept. Mistakes can be made, people can be forgotten, memories can slip past us and words can be empty. A university graduate could very well be jobless and we could change our minds about what we hope to study in the middle of our degree programs. The uncertainties are endless and it is the presence of them that is the only promise that can absolutely be kept. How ironic, that our only certainty is the lack of. The sooner that we embrace this uncertain adventure, the earlier might we discover ourselves truly and forgive ourselves for what we cannot achieve in society’s definition of ‘success’.

Second to that, in this two-fold message is the idea that there is value in seeing things differently. In the movie, Dory’s fearlessness as a result of her ‘disability’ (short-term memory) is applauded. There are debates within the online community about Dory’s predicament representing that of persons with disabilities in society – that her ‘difference’ by birth leaves her in a disadvantaged position in the community, even considered ‘less valuable’ than others. This explains the intuitive anger and irritation towards her from Marlin, during their search for Dory’s parents. Parallel to our society, these are common perceptions of persons with disabilities that form the basis for society’s general sympathy or ostracism towards this community. We think them so different because their productivity to society is compromised. Similarly, we put greater emphasis on applauding the achievements of people with disabilities when they do productive things “despite disability”. Recall the articles about students with disabilities completing the ‘A’ Level examinations and think about the celebrity motivational speaker Nick Vujicic. Our conversations have, for so long, been about how persons with disabilities can ‘overcome’ their disabilities as if they were a problem because they hindered their productivity to society. I reckon it might be time to shift the conversation to answer questions about why it is so difficult for persons with disabilities to be valued in society. What does that show about how we value ourselves and each other? And are we okay with that?

An inspiring role model to me recently reminded me that we should not base our worth on our productivity to society and rather, recognize that we all have inherent value as human beings solely based on the persons that we are. Hoping that embracing this understanding will allow me to accept the uncertainty of what lies ahead, here’s to a hell of ride from this Tuesday on.