Eddie Choo / Writer
I had ended my morning jog when I saw my childhood friend walking to the bus stop. I was in a bit of a surprise, since I thought he would be at school studying or working. So we chatted a bit about ourselves and what we were doing now and all.
He told me that he was still studying, having repeated one year at polytechnic education, and that now he was doing holiday attachment at a computer shop at Sim Lim Square. So fair enough, I told him that my NS had just ended, and was now waiting to go to university. To protect his identity, I’m calling him Syl. I told him I was interested in buying a new computer, one that could support the latest games.
He then asked me about my National Service (NS) experience, so i told him quite a fair bit. We chatted about our studies, about the course that he was studying, and the course I was going to study at NUS. So I just gave him an advice that he should study hard and get a decent diploma, and that he shouldn’t drop out from school like a mutual friend that we knew.
Now you must understand that he’s a childhood friend, and we had a really fun childhood playing games together and doing some other innocently fun stuff during primary school. We went to different secondary schools, and there, things started to diverge. It seemed that he became a little too playful, and his grades suffered, but still, he managed to go to a polytechnic, which seriously, isn’t bad at all. But then at poly, he didn’t focus on his studies, and had to appeal to the poly in order not to drop out, sort of like repeated a year.
Because we still stay in the same neighbourhood, we would run into each other. So we would have all these informal chats and do a bit of catch up.
After talking to him, I don’t know why or how, I would feel this sense of great emotion, a potent mix of compassion and humility, obligation and this sense of connection. To have friends like that means a great deal of other things. One of them means a sense of responsibility, that these people whom you were having fun with in your younger days now sort of like look up to you, because you are going somewhere they can’t go, that you are doing things that they would never have the chance to do. Its a kind of leadership, in that sense, that the rest of our community who didn’t have the chance to go to university now look up to you to give something back for the community in the future.
I’m just concerned that young people go to university with a sense of entitlement, that they think that they can to university deservingly, that they are the supposed cream of the crop of Singapore academically, and they want to get their way because they deserve to. Now, in a meritocratic system like Singapore it’s fine, because I think that truly, some people deserve to be studying in university because they’ve really studied, heck, I had to study hard to get to university too. But I hope that the sense of entitlement not be too great and becomes arrogance. What I hope they would have is a sense of duty and responsibility, a sense of obligation because of the education they will receive, because of the power that has been vested unto them, implicitly or explicitly.
I learnt about these things as I was serving NS. Now, it might be weird, like, how would an experience in NS be related to these feelings of responsibility? After all, for those who know me, I was not a commander, and there wasn’t much I could do in terms of proper leadership and all. All true, but the point that kept gnawing at me was that throughout NS, there were those dull idle times where man and commanders would all gather together by themselves, and just talk stuff. And every now and then, talk would revolve the generalities involving Singapore, NS and things like that, and here on, it gets sort of interesting. There was a regular commander – he had signed on for ten years as a specialist, so he was the de facto senior commander, since his signing on means he would be more committed and not slack off as what tends to happen with those commanders serving just the 2 years of NS. Anyway, so talk would revolve around our future.
By some twist of paperwork, the kind of people who were the rank and file were not the usual direct-intake, who were usually school dropouts. They were people who usually came from JCs and Polys, from Tekong which was known for having more ‘relaxed’ training compared to the training of those in the direct-intake who would immediately go to their NS unit – the place where they might stay for the next 2 years for their lives. So here was a different kind of people – people who lost out on the chance to become commanders – that issue having been hyped up at Tekong, and more importantly, people who had so-called ‘more of a future’ by virtue of their JC education and their upcoming university education.
So some of us would sit next to the regular commander, and we would just talk about our futures after NS. He would tell us to study hard, and go have a decent diploma or degree, and most surprising, this plea not to be like him, without a proper education, and had to sign on as sort of like a last resort. And because of his lack of education, he was being sidelined in terms of priority for courses.
All of these conversations tell me something. That those who are studying in the universities and all, people who are most likely going to have a decent shot of success of their own futures, have an implicit responsibility towards the rest of society. We are expected to be ethical in our dealings and conduct, and we should be doing things to give back to the rest of society.
The system might be elitist, but the people shouldn’t be.