Incredibly I’ve not really talked about the time when I was in secondary school. I led a bit of an aimless life. I used to be a top student in primary school but after I got into secondary school my grades slipped. It was a combination of my getting edgy about being a teenager, not really being motivated to be a great achiever, and getting tired of my parents being more interested in my grades than me as a person. My grades were still decent. I just wasn’t motivated to be perfect at all my tests, and looking back, I don’t regret that at all, because I still ended getting into the schools I wanted to get into. When I was in sec 3, I quit playing piano. That freed up quite a bit of time for me, and I used to spend a lot of it wandering around shopping centers and frequenting record shops. I spent hours in looking at cassettes and wondering how much my dollar would stretch. I had a reputation for being lazy, but probably I loved my freedom too much to really commit myself to anything and everything. In retrospect, it was something that I did put to good use.
I compartmentalized my life. Perhaps you have to do that when you know that you are walking amongst other people who don’t always share your values. There are some paths that you travel alone, and you know that whatever you do you will always be alone. I had a reputation in school for being an underachieverI watched a lot of TV back then. Any opportunity, I got, after school, I would just head down to the bookstore, and I would spend hours at the magazine racks, reading up on popular culture. It was supposed to be leisure, but in the process, I must have read hundreds of movie reviews. I suppose I endured being called a slacker precisely because I somehow liked what I was doing way too much to give it up. (Later on, I learnt that my grandmother as a teenager had the habit of hanging around some guys so that she could “borrow” their books and read them. My father went to a missionary school and always got last week’s newspaper from the friars. This love of cheap / free reading material runs deep in my family.)
In hindsight, it was one of the best educations that a person could receive. People can say what they want about how critics are always wrong, but for a young mind, I would totally recommend that you read reviews, not for the answers that they give, but the questions they throw up. You don’t need a lame ass book like “what to watch out for when reading fiction” when there are trashy magazines out there all there to deliver it to you on a platter.
And I had a good friend in school, we had a long on-going conversation about popular culture. It’s a real blessing to have friends like that. I’m going to refer to him as my “collaborator” from now on.
I had three dreams when I was 15. I told myself, you will achieve something in creative writing, in mathematics and a third field that I will not name for now because I’m still working on it at the moment. I’ve quit creative writing because I’m happy with my achievements. I am still employed in work that utilizes my ability at mathematics. The third thing – we’ll see how that turns out.
Through the experience in making my creative writing dream come true, I had discerned one or two truths about the creative experience. There has to be a collaboration between people. For whatever reason, I had travelled a long long way without a true collaborator. Perhaps I had a fatal weakness in not being good at working with people. And perhaps this third weakness is something I need to resolve in my future pursuits.
So, as I have mentioned before, I entered and won a play writing competition, with the first real play that I wrote. There were classroom skits that I had written before, but nothing really on the scale of what I submitted in.
On a personal note, it will be a little bit of a curiosity that this was the biggest part of my ECA when I was in secondary school. People have this notion of me as a maths guy but I was only solid, not spectacular when it came to competitions. I very rarely made the school team, and certainly could not compete with my sister who was having a great time representing her school and Singapore in science and mathematics competitions. For whatever reason, whether I decided that creative writing was a better bet, or whether I got more interested in the creation of art, or whether I was getting tired of all that maths / science training, or I didn’t really want to go up against my sister, I ended up being a playwright. I had no big fancy trophies in science and maths like my sister, only a few minor “awards”. I attended scout camps and they were part of what made my life in school pretty wonderful, but I was just a bit player. In the end, this was my main claim to fame, and it wasn’t achieved in the conventional way, working closely with students and teachers, but by watching TV and hanging out at bookstores in Orchard Road and reading magazines on popular culture. Utterly nuts!
And yet I also knew that if I had stayed on the straight and narrow, if I had just gone to school and ECA and spent all my time studying, I would not have written that play, and if I had written something, it would not have been a quality product. I would not have understood what artistic achievement means. What I did could have been construed as delinquency, as being a slacker, but since I ended up with an end product, it wasn’t.
That was some of my time. The other part of my time, the bulk of it, was in procuring and listening to great music. And since I consider myself to be even more of a musician than a playwright, it could possibly be something of even greater consequence. But that is a story that has yet to be written.
That’s why when I look at the children today, I get a little worried. I didn’t have that much freedom, because basically you don’t have very much freedom when you’re a student in an elite school in Singapore. But I had a bit of it and it’s OK. I was working with two other guys in my office and they were Malaysians who attended RI. They were in the boarding school, so basically they were boarded up, and they didn’t have the freedom to wander around Singapore like I did. So they had even less freedom. And the kids today, they’re being assessed on their GPA, so they don’t have the freedom to slack most of the time and then buck up in time for the “O” and “A” levels like I did. Their hours and minutes are jam packed with tuition and “enrichment” activities. I put enrichment in quotations because I’m not exactly sure their experiences are as enriching as mine were. They’re not going to … if you look at people like Steve Jobs and Sergey Brin, they grew up in stimulating environments. They weren’t bored to death when they were kids. It’s terrible to bore children to death, and it isn’t good for their development.
But how much of this “enrichment” is really stimulating if you don’t make it open ended enough? Too much of it giving them questions and asking them to find the answers. The biggest thinking skill of all – trying to figure out what the questions really are, trying to find the question behind the question – you’re not giving them the freedom to do it. Maybe you don’t really want them to have that freedom. Too much education these days is about making children to be smart working within the system, but almost by design, nothing about interrogating the outer parameters of the system.
Perhaps we were lucky in that I was attending RI around a time when we were transitioning from it being an government (albeit an elite one) school to one that was more customized to the individual needs of the students, with all sorts of special programs and funky stuff. A few of us were pretty cynical about a lot of the stuff that our teachers were telling us: how we had to shout and sing very loudly at campfires so that the whole neighbourhood could hear what was going on. How we had to dress neatly and present an acceptable image to outsiders. (That seemed so superficial). How everything we did and learnt was dictated by the syllabus and we had to obediently learn everything that was put before us, no matter what. But that was OK. We were questioning, and we were thinking. Later on in the workforce, I don’t think I really endeared myself to my superiors in the beginning when I was always pretty skeptical about what they gave me. But eventually they accepted that there was some value to me thinking a little bit more about the larger picture.
And I don’t think it’s only me. A few people who attended RI during or near my batch have been successful. And in all the three examples I can think of, they’re rebellious people. There was the startup founder who attended Hwa Chong and was supposed to be a lawyer and decided to go found a company instead. There was the guy who ran away from Singapore and the NS, and became a prominent academic who was heavily involved in making online lectures become very popular. There was a dissident playwright. You had to think for yourself. You weren’t going to be just a follower, that’s for sure.
And the funniest thing about RI: I used to walk through a neighbourhood school on my way to school. But that was just about the entirety of my contact with neighbourhood school students. RI had just about zero contact with the school across the road. Maybe when RGS takes over that building, things will change.