It occurs to me that there are quite a few JC students who read my blog. Someone linked to one my articles, writing “I wish my parents would read this.” Which makes me relize that there are some students in JCs every year who are going through what I went through.
As an entrepreneur, I know that one of the best ways to do things is to ask yourself what you wish you had, and then go provide it for others. I wasn’t satisfied with my own t-shirts, for instance, so I decided to come up with what I thought was a superior alternative. And sales have been good.
I’ve often said that I feel strongly about ‘saving Singapore’ in an abstract sense. Now that’s lunacy. Who’s to say Singapore needs saving? Who am I to say that? What does it mean, anyway, that a country needs saving? It’s like saying “Save the Planet.” It’s arrogant and presumptuous. But I believe that the fundamental intentions are good, that intuition suggests that something’s not quite right- but it takes a while to really figure out what needs to be done
JC sucked for me
I recall that my JC experience was a generally miserable one. There were some highlights, of course, and a few good moments- but these moments happen in all environments. The JC environment and experience, by itself, did very little for me.
Let’s get more specific. Every year, there are going to be a few students in JC who struggle to cope, and simply can’t perform.
More specific. I believe that there are students who get into JC just by coasting along- these students are intelligent. They are intelligent enough to get somewhat existential. Their critical skills are developed beyond what the system expects of them.
Self-sabotage: When your brain doesn’t buy the bullshit
Good artists will tell you- your creativity doesn’t exist to serve you, you exist to serve your art. The art comes first. If it’s going to create something destructive, vengeful and ugly, then that’s what it’s going to do. You can’t force it. Similarly, highly intelligent JC students- we’re using MY personal definition of intelligence here (which isn’t fixed by any means) will naturally find that their minds turn on themselves, and on the system that they’re in. The result can be severe apathy, listlessness, frustration and existentialism.
Now, true practical, holistic intelligence knows how to manage this. How to manage the emotions. How to manage your time. How to structure the challenge in front of you in a way that is meaningful, interesting and exciting. The JC experience isn’t particularly interesting or meaningful on its own. You have to figure out how to make it interesting or meaningful for yourself. And nobody really teaches you how to do that. I suspect that few people really know how to, either.
Different people live different narratives
Why study? Some people do it because it’s the only thing they know. They studied hard all their lives, and they keep at it. They find a certain pleasure in working hard at things. Anything. These guys typically end up on the honour rolls. They’re also quite rare. Some study hard because of parental pressure. They listen to their parents. The kind of students I’m describing don’t really buy into that. They know that their parents don’t really know very much. They know that their parents’ advice could very well be obsolete in a few years. The world is changing. They know that.
Some people were brought up in a culture of excellence and achievement. Their parents have degrees, perhaps, or are highly accomplished in some way. They look around and they see success stories. Perhaps they have goals that they want to achieve.
One of the girls in my JC went on to get stupendous results despite her humble background. Her family was poor. She read broadly, and I imagine that she burned with passion. She really, really wanted to get somewhere in life. She wanted to go to study something amazing, somewhere fantastic. I imagine that she set her sights on that goal, and as such she saw the JC experience as means to an end- and so she studied relentlessly, worked incredibly hard, and got her straight A’s. I’m fantastically proud of her, and I wish I were like her.
Apathy is a rational response to narratives that don’t make sense
Unfortunately, I never had such specific goals. I didn’t know what I want. In fact, all I knew was that I wasn’t going to know what I want, at least not anytime soon. How can you trust a 16 or 17 year old to know what he wants to do with his future? I wouldn’t trust anybody else, why should I trust myself? It seemed delusional.
On hindsight, a lot of this sounds kind of silly- but I’m speaking with several years of life experience under my belt now. I have perspectives that I simply couldn’t have had then.
As I write this, I realize that this is why parents and teachers simply cannot and will never truly be able to relate to angsty students- because they have the Curse of Knowledge. They have life experience. And life experience teaches you things that nobody else can teach you. Otherwise, we’d all be incredibly wise by the age of 18- just from all the wisdom that other people share with us.
But we’re naturally equipped to defend ourselves against the words of others- after all, how do you know that your parents and elders aren’t fanatics? You have to insure yourself- and as such, you can’t truly trust anybody but yourself. Unless you really, really respect and admire them.
My parents are admirable in the way that all parents are- they’ve stuck it out together and raised a bunch of kids. That’s never easy. But I never thought of them as admirable in a deeper sense than that. I look at my parents and I see people who are somewhat unfulfilled. 
My parents run their own business, but they aren’t very good at managing their finances. They aren’t perfect. (Nobody is.) Life is a bit of a struggle. Just getting by. There’s no room for contributing beyond the household very much. They don’t have the time, energy or money to make a real difference to the world. Of course, you could see me as their investment- and perhaps that’s what they’ve been doing all along. You put your hopes and dreams in your kids. Funnily enough though, if I’m to make a dent in the universe, it can only be through pursuing what sets me on fire from within. And this is a part of it. Talking about this. Writing.
So I never really had any immediate role models. I looked around me and I didn’t see anybody that I wanted to emulate. I didn’t want to be my parents, as much as I owe them for giving me Life and all I have today. 
The JC students I’m talking about now- these are the guys who don’t trust the system, but don’t really trust themselves either. They don’t really see any role models that they want to emulate- nobody’s quite good enough, nobody has everything that they want. They’ve read broadly enough to develop an awareness of what they don’t want, but they’re too young to have any good idea of what they actually do want- and they live in a world that isn’t quite okay with that yet. This disconnect, I think, is the chief source of a lot of frustration.
 I realize that it’s a rather cruel, judgemental thing thing to say, and it’s not something you should share with people, but I think sometimes as a writer you have to talk about things that make you (or other people) uncomfortable. An observation is subjective, but it is what it is.