Don’t be Prefect: On Conformity & Complexity

Have you ever jumped through hoops?

I actually mean to ask: have you ever been a Prefect, Class Monitor, Student Councillor, or Officer?

I met a CJC schoolmate the other day as part of a gathering, the friend of a friend, whom I’d faintly had a mild distaste for in the past. I never actually knew her as a person. My impression of her arose out of what people said she did –  like drinking, clubbing, smoking. The kind of things in JC which you are told are not only Frowned Upon, but Taboo. It must have been the first time I had seen her out of her school uniform, dressed more like an Adult than I have ever been: makeup, clothes; perhaps a faint sneer at my shabby undergraduate attire. It struck me how I’d actually never seen her as a person.

I think I was in a strange mood that evening. I think I was mulling on positions and rankings; standards and social constructs. Why do we behave the way we do? I’ve been hanging with sociologists too much recently, perhaps. So seeing someone from a distant past again made things fall in a particular way. And like a quack soothsayer it struck me how strange it was, how naturally these things come out of our mouths, come out of our teachers’ and our parents’ mouth:

“Call yourself a prefect? Look at how you behave.”

“Is that how a monitor carries herself?”

fORmITY & DEfOrmitY

You must have experienced variations of this theme, on that bizarre journey called Growing Up. I’m not saying anything new here. But especially in some form of leadership position in school. If you are a student councillor, you must behave in a certain way. You are expected to uphold the values of the institution and all the things it pretends to espouse when you don that badge, that tie, that rank. Sit quietly in class. Work hard. Score well. Be charismatic. Be friendly. Don’t yell. Don’t run around when you’re not supposed to. Be polite. Talk to teachers and to adults in ways that don’t make them uncomfortable. Respect authority. Respect the rank. Respect the tie. Respect the ‘good’ values.

The list goes on, and spills into every aspect of your life, your behaviour, your thinking. If work dominates the adult life, then school dominates the child’s one. We all know this, as certified products of this regime.  From the day we are dragged kicking and screaming (or obedient and pliant) into school: made to cut our hairs in particular ways (2cm above the collar, or I will send you to the barber), made to dress in specific ways (Skirts below the knee. Tuck in your shirt. Ties on Monday. Shoes white.), the drumbeat pounds this tattoo in. Conform, conform, and conform. Individualism is allowed, of course, but only in approved manners. You can bring a different coloured pencil-box if you wanted, of course. Your waterbottles don’t have to be the same colour. But don’t you dare dye your hair.


Don’t you dare ask that question either. It’s not becoming of a School Leader. Perhaps this revelation comes years too late for me; you may have seen through it all much earlier. Perhaps I speak from a position of privilege, as someone who has been there, all of there, and done all of that. But it appears to me now, safely years away, how meaningless and banal it all seems.

The hold such things exerted over me as a little frightened kid was incredible. It cut so deep, to have that disappointment thrown at me. So i tried my best to be the best there could be. Down that path there was prestige, there was recognition. If  you said the wrong things, if you didn’t behave to specification, you wouldn’t get all these pretty things. Like attention. Like nice words. Everyone knows how a good boy should behave. Everyone knows how the Junior Josephian of the Year should behave. I remember my Chemistry teacher in Sec4 asking in exasperation, is this how a Head Prefect behaves. I remember being so affected by that remark for days.

Too Lazy to Revolt: The Necessity of Social Norms

And yet, like my grandpa told me the one time he caned me with a featherduster  (that encounter left welts on my legs for weeks), the little plant cannot grow without the support of a stick. To function in society one must be disciplined and bracketed, taught to sit and listen and read. Persistence and perserverance, commitment and respect are important things. We simply can’t get away from them, because that’s just how our societal systems function. I for one get irritated as well when some little upstart of a kid deigns to lecture me on social skills  (“do you even know how to human”, yelled a Year1 to me once). There are numerous interlocking mechanisms, codes and protocols of behaviour that maintain the social fabric. All societal ecologies necessarily require hierarchies and conflict resolution processes to negotiate and diffuse tension, to make sense of the disorienting complexity of living with other people.

I’m not actually calling for revolution, actually. To yank these things out, and live ‘off the grid’, live as some hippy, is simply untenable. Especially since we are such soft creatures now, so content with our laptops and our designer coffees. Our insatiable lust for electricity and Facebook and Pokemon Go. I’m too lazy to revolt, even though I’m revolted. Here, I’m more of the fool pointing out that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes: these standards and norms, these prefect ties and monitor badges, aren’t worth more than the significances we attach to them. Not we, just they, if you like.

 Thin, Stingy Rectangles

To be the very best in something, to win the prize and acclaim of some institution, you must colour within the lines the institution has drawn up. The lines don’t even have to make sense – all they have to do is be well-supported. Say the right words, and sing the right hymns. Be pious in the ways that have been announced, because you cannot love Authority in any other ways besides those prescribed by the Authorities Themselves.

“Is this how a Prefect behaves?”

I think we should stop saying these things to kids, to friends, to each other. It’s difficult, maybe impossible, because our conditionings run so deep, maybe because we need these stereotypes and standards to properly function in society.

But when you ask such rhetorical questions to children you hold them to an extremely narrow band of behaviour, and of thinking. I can’t help but think of Scout Finch, astonished by how adults talked and thought.

From the rich, evolving, messy spectrum that is an individual; an individual developing and radiating outward, you draw this thin, strange, stingy rectangle and say, This Is How You Should Behave. You tell them to sit, for hours memorising things, because you sat for hours memorising things. Then implicitly, because it’s not politically correct these days to say these things aloud today, you remind them that they should measure their self-worth. By the red numbers on a relatively more expensive piece of card.  The report book is supposedly a compilation of your worth across six, or four, or two years. Not the friends you made, not that time you furiously pulled this Primary 3 kid’s hair til he cried in the schoolbus because you called you a botakhead; not the grasshoppers you caught at the edge of the gigantic football with a used plastic waterbottle while everyone was playing soccer during recess. Just numbers.

Freedom is seeing that you can, at any time, transcend such rectangles, if you so chose. Can we, I ask myself. Is it really so easy?

Elephants in the Room

I remember reading once about how elephants are tamed, after being captured wild and maddened from the jungles. You chain them to a big log. A log so deeply hammered into the ground, so unimaginably heavy that even the elephant straining mightily could never snap her chain.

You chain the elephant there for days and weeks and months, until its will, rather than the chain, finally snaps. At this point it has resigned itself to the fact that it will never break free. From this breakthrough onwards, you could tie the elephant to the flimsiest sapling, and it would never even try to snap its chain. You see, the chains aren’t on its legs anymore. It’s the mind and spirit you have successfully bound and captured.

I wonder if we are elephants sometimes.

I wonder if there are prisons in our minds, which we choose to live inside. What is prestige, honour and glory, and why are we so bent on chasing them anyway, for people we don’t know, for acclaim confirmed only in pseudo-newspapers and impersonal testimonials? It’s not a rhetorical question; i puzzle at my occasional obsession with these things too. Don’t get me wrong, I remain a faithful and good rat in this race, I’m just a more vocal rat. Wouldn’t it be better to gain the respect and esteem of people whom we ourselves value and know? Who cares what some Opinionated Uncle at a coffeeshop thinks of your essay?

A Placid Middle Finger

I think it’s okay to be on the margins. I think it’s okay to not be the best. I think it’s okay if we are mediocre. To remain relaxed, composed and happy in a world that is trying its best everyday to make us panic, run and stress is perhaps the fiercest form of resistance there is; a placid middle finger to a machine that tries to squeeze the most toothpaste out of us toothpaste tubes.

I would hate to prescribe to you, so I pretend to speak only to my younger self, so many years too late. If you can, and if you want: don’t be a Prefect. Don’t be a bloody Pokemon master, yelling how you want to be the very best like no one ever was. Don’t be a student councillor, being tame and placid, a committee member Because You Care.

Maybe it would be more fun taking years to grow a rose. More meaningful to chill out with your Lv. 3 Slowpoke by the riverside on a hot sunny Sunday afternoon. Finding your self and your self-worth in the little things that are uniquely important to yourself. It’s incredibly difficult to shut out the noise: all the yapping, all the ridiculous cacophony. But maybe freedom lies in that.

Of course norms exist for a reason. Of course it’s unrealistic to call for the dismantling of our societal systems. History tells us that constructing new alternatives – like Robespierre, like Lenin and Stalin, like Mao, tried to do – often leads to destruction and disaster. Elaborate constructs of principles, beliefs and behaviours exist to regulate how we think and act. I think life would be more nasty, brutish and short otherwise (for now).

But there is also nothing wrong with not being the best. There is nothing wrong with being in the middle, or even an outlier. There is maybe some freedom in that: being undefined, and undefinable, by the markers and metrics of an often incoherent society with its puzzling norms and protocols.

Midnight Rivers

Because in the end, I am not my Facebook posts, nor this blog entry. I am not my university transcript, nor my testimonial. I am not my friends, nor the opinions people have of me. I am not even my failures nor my victories. I am all that; but I am also all the things you understand and don’t.

Have you seen the Singapore River by night, with all the light from the bars and discos bouncing like so many technicolour emotions of its rippling, broken surface? That’s not the river. The river is darkness flowing beneath: ever changing and coursing through and flowing away, even as it arrives.

I like to think we are all strange complexities, trying our best to live in a world we pretend is ordered by cause-and-effect; midnight rivers nobody will ever be able to understand.

Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a systemof indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.”
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook



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