Aug 31, 2014

Oppressive Freedom: To My Liberal Arts College

When Yale-NUS College was still being formed, we received a lot of flak, mostly from people from America and particularly people from Yale. They argued that a liberal arts college should support the free airing and discussion of views, and that won't happen in Singapore, where they restrict free speech. And so we, the Yale-NUS student body, are out to defend our right to this freedom here. We had Nicole Seah over for a talk, we have access to nationally banned books, we have the children's books that NLB threw out, we started our own little Pink Dot movement around the world. This student body prizes itself for being forward-thinking - we openly welcome discussions about feminism, prejudice and homosexuality; it's in our readings, our paper assignments, our lunchtime chats.

Or do we? Do we encourage discussion - a free, respectful airing of views from both sides?

With these issues, there is a "correct" opinion we hold; it's just different from most of society. We think that our forward-thinking views are not shared by others enough, and this college is giving people a chance to speak up, giving the oppressed us the right to express ourselves. The problem is that everyone is assumed to subscribe to this opinion, to the point that it becomes oppressive. There is no space to openly prefer the status quo that the rest are fighting against.

Try it. Use your supposed freedom to say something that the majority doesn't agree with, and you will be called names. You will be treated differently. The tyranny of the majority happens here too, just in reverse. If you believe that NLB did the right thing, if you are openly against Pink Dot, if you feel your manliness melting away when a girl's fixing your laptop, if you openly prefer to hang out with people of a lighter race, you will be slammed.

When I was disturbed by how all my American creative writing classmates in Iowa had chosen to write about divorce, a law student friend of mine made a loose and insensitive remark that criticised the American government and the First Amendment. Immediately the Facebook post exploded with extremely hateful, passionately angry comments by my schoolmates calling him names, denouncing him for being arrogantly ignorant, stupid, and a terrible person. (Disclaimer: I deleted the whole thing in the end, so I can't go back to it to check what exactly was said.) No one actually bothered consulting his views, or asking why he said that. None of them actually knew him, either.

Yesterday another friend told me that he preferred I not drive him around, because he'd feel really ashamed of himself. (While I passed on the first try, he has failed the test five times and has yet to succeed, and he felt inadequate, dependent, when I had to trouble myself for his sake.) He offers to carry bags for girls, he goes the extra mile to watch out for their safety. Is this being sexist? When I took the first statement out of context, within five minutes he was called a hypocrite; he was asked if he couldn't take having women in power.

And, in fact, let's suppose that he was in fact being sexist. Did that mean it was okay for the rest of the school to hurl him names, to verbally punish him for not being a part of the majority? Where is the freedom to talk about these things in a civilised manner? If we only call other people prejudiced but never accept the fact that the problem exists in our own community, aren't we simply avoiding the problem?

And so we self-censor. Of course self-censorship is vital, especially on the internet; but people feel afraid to say something unless it is entirely politically correct. People are afraid of unintentionally treading on others' toes, because they will get slammed for it. People are afraid of being called religious bigots, to the point of not daring to speak up for their own religious beliefs or even tell others about their religion. (If you do not share the same values, you deserve to be condemned.) People prefer not to speak, or remain anonymous when voicing controversial opinions. (It has become so easy to speak behind a veil. What if Alloy on Confessions had a name? What if we gave a name to every Confessions post? Why are they too afraid to give us a name?) We have become afraid to air our views. We said "we'll be nothing like the free-speech-restricting government", yet we are very much like it. The difference is that we have different kinds of censorship, and that Singapore codifies some of their regulations on speech.

Here, you tread the almost-invisible line of political correctness, not knowing if you've crossed it until you're hit; and many people choose not to try altogether. Keep your opinions to yourself. We have become oppressive, too, just like the people we said we'd never be.

We need more than people aggressively sounding alarms whenever someone unintentionally airs a controversial view - when their words sound ignorant or insensitive towards a specific community, or anti-feminist, or sexist, or homophobic. We need to be able to discuss why it's still a problem. Put this righteous anger aside and try to understand the reasons behind the matter, and accept that it isn't always us-versus-them, and that we haven't reached the ideal state of values yet, if there even is one.

(By the way, just in case you were wondering: Anyone who remotely knows me know I love Yale-NUS to bits, and that hasn't changed one bit. This is my one main gripe about the student culture. But many liberal arts colleges probably face a similar problem, and I'm writing this post not out of despair, but out of love and hope, because love is also about believing in the best for the school, and love makes you want to not give up.)

Aug 24, 2014


[by Seneca, translated by Robin Campbell. Decided to put this up because I thought this piece was hilarious, and also had some really nice ideas that I agree with. The two other great pieces I read tonight for my Creative Nonfiction class are Plutarch's Consolation to His Wife and Seneca's On Noise.]

Ill health—which had granted me quite a long spell of leave—has attacked me without warning again. “What kind of ill health?” you will be asking. And well you may, for there isn’t a single kind I haven’t experienced. There’s one particular ailment, though, for which I’ve always been singled out, so to speak. I see no reason why I should call it by its Greek name [EDIT: haha this is hilarious because we ALL call it asthma now], difficulty in breathing being a particularly good way of describing it. Its onslaught is of very brief duration—like a squall, it is generally over within an hour. One could hardly, after all, expect anyone to keep on drawing his last breathe for long, could one? I’ve been visited by all the troublesome or dangerous complaints there are, and none of them, in my opinion, is more unpleasant than this one—which is hardly surprising, is it, when you consider that with anything else you’re merely ill, while with this you’re constantly at your last gasp? This is why doctors have nicknamed it “rehearsing death,” since sooner or later the breath does just what I has been trying to do all those times. Do you imagine that as I write this I must be feeling in high spirits at having escaped this time? No, it would be just as absurd for me to feel overjoyed at its being over—as if this meant I was a healthy man again—as it would be for a person to think he has won his case on obtaining an extension of time before the trial.

 Even as I fought for breath, though, I never ceased to find comfort in cheerful and courageous reflections. “What’s this?” I said. “So death is having all these tries at me, is he? Let him, then! I had a try at him a long while ago myself.” “When was this?” you’ll say. Before I was born. Death is not just being. What that is like I know already. It will be the same after me as it was before me. If there is any torment in the later state, there must also have be torment in the period before we saw the light of day; yet we never felt conscious of any distress then. I ask you, wouldn’t you say that anyone who took the view that lamp was worse off when it was put out than it was before it was lit was an utter idiot? We, too, are lit and put out. We suffer somewhat in the intervening period, but at either end of it there is a deep tranquility. For, unless I’m mistaken, we are wrong, my dear Lucilius, in holding that death follows after, when in fact it precedes as well as succeeds. Death is all that was before us. What does it matter, after all, whether you cease to be or never begin, when the result of either is that you do not exist?

[note: third paragraph left out - full essay here]

Aug 23, 2014

Can't save everyone

There's a Facebook friend of mine, a girl who's twelve or something maybe, probably a Children's Church kid who added me when I was serving there. I barely know her, can't remember what she looks like. She posted a picture of her hand holding a penknife on Facebook, and her friends were dissuading her from it, but she said she had already done it. Out of stress.

And my heart goes out to her so much. I want to send her a Facebook message or something. It doesn't have to come to wilfully being an enemy of your own body. As Plutarch says in the reading I'm currently supposed to be doing, "a troubled soul should itself receive support from a robust body". But, like, I don't even remember her, and she probably doesn't remember who I am either. Will it be of any use? Previously one of my City College ex-students posted something about his dad, and I felt like I should send him a message of encouragement, but he didn't seem to open about it. Probably a little weirded out.

And then there's everyone else who's going through tough or transformative periods but who would feel really weirded out if they realised I knew. Sometimes if you realise people know about your problems you'd feel exposed, naked. I mean, there are times I'm feeling crappy about stuff and if some random person were in the know about it I'd be like "what the hell, who has been gossiping?". Sorrow is often private.

I guess sometimes we can't show support explicitly. Sometimes, I guess, the best sort of help is to stay away. But this girl? I mean, she put it on Facebook. Then again, that generation isn't very cautious about what they post, and they might not realise that some Children's Church volunteer whom they used to see once a week would chance upon their self-harm post.

I remember Facebook-messaging her once to ask about how she was doing. Not well, she said. And I asked why, and she told me about school and stress and friends. And I empathised... and she stopped replying me after a bit but if I had had the chance I'd have asked her to stay strong and stuff...but really, how much can you do over Facebook? How much can you to for someone who wouldn't be open to external resources, for someone whose friends and other contacts you don't know, for someone you can't even recognise anymore?

I guess I'll still message her again, though. Show her someone cares. Probably better than nothing.

Aug 8, 2014


Thirteen minutes to class. The bus is taking too long to come. I'm brisk-walking along the pavement back to school, shoving my face into my chicken rice and trying to eat it like a biscuit because it's wrapped in that brown takeaway paper, and because the auntie didn't give a spoon. Struggling to manage my laptop and my lunch and the midday heat, I'm suddenly overwhelmed with the sense that I cannot do this much longer.

I have not slept for more than 3 hours per night in the past 1-2 weeks. Mornings I get up at 7 and rush to SOT, at 1pm I rush back to school to be in time for class at 2, and there has been acapella practices and CF prep meetings and start-of-the-year class meetings and whatever else; before that it was Orientation and all the preparation, starting from right when I got back to Singapore.

Yesterday after class it was cramps, Salvation Army, acapella, CF meeting. Tonight at 8pm it's the Morality class dinner, then acapella, then the overnight prayer meeting till 5am; tomorrow morning there's tuition, and then finally maybe I'll get the afternoon to sleep - but I cannot, because I really need to complete my readings for the Morality course, as well as my shelf of SOT readings. There is too much going on, I've been running around, barely been getting any time to sleep, let alone to myself, and the school term hasn't even started yet. I haven't even had the time to catch up with the friends I hold dear since I left for the summer. Barely had any proper conversations.

I watch as my bus passes me by. Twice.

Two tuition kids, Savation Army and Crest mentoring; Orientation, two acapella performances, CF, SOT, etc, etc. True, thank goodness I'm not overloading this semester - but instead I'm enrolled in two schools at once. "It's the life you chose, Karen." "You can't save the whole world." It's true.

I'm not sure how much longer I can do this, but if I persevere till mid-Sept when SOT ends, I will have done it. And then suddenly I'll be eight hours freer per day and I won't know what to do with my life.

Seven minutes late for class.

Aug 6, 2014

My door is closed

I've always wanted to get into the habit of leaving my door half-open whenever I'm in my room but also available. I like how Chris Tee does it because I know when I'm welcome to go in for a short chat, and when he doesn't want to be disturbed. Closed doors are less approachable.

But today I realised I can't do this open-door thing. When my door is open, my room spills out into the great big Outside, the suite's living room and all my neighbours and the corridor, and perhaps I feel like I need to expand to fill all that space. I end up feeling lonely with all the pairs of slippers outside my neighbours' rooms and all the voices through the walls (ikr, they're so happening), because I have opened myself up to the party, but no one's joining in. Actually I don't know. If someone pops by my room I'd generally also rather have the door closed anyway.

I don't know. It's absurd, I don't know how to describe it. But when I close my door I feel like I give myself a safe, comfortable space again. It's a bit like travelling alone versus travelling in a group of strangers you can't click with. Technically you're more alone in the first case, but in the first case I feel far less lonely, less small, because the quota is only big enough for myself.

When I close my door I am sufficient for the space. It is mine again, cozy and personal, not shared with everybody-and-nobody and the great big Outside. So I guess I'll be keeping it closed. But please feel free to come in for a chat - my heart's still just as open.