Saturday, May 3, 2014

Meditations on First Ideology

A bit over a year ago, working for Admissions meant that lots of people asked me why I chose to go to Yale-NUS. When people ask questions enough times, eventually one starts seriously trying to answer it, or at least think of an answer that sounds good enough for oneself. Some answers don’t think themselves into thought, but instead try to give articulated form to emotions or notions that just well up.

“I chose Yale-NUS because it gives me a sense of purpose and being part of this makes me feel like part of something bigger, in a way that no other college could.”

We might conceive of the educational horizon that Yale-NUS strives to push as a kind of brave new world, and in many concrete ways it is; in terms of curriculum, pedagogical model, etc. We are not daunted by the full and realistic expectation that what happens here will be dwarfed by future achievements, nor should we be. However large the building eventually becomes, the satisfaction stems from laying a reasonably significant brick. But ideology goes deeper than corporate purpose, into culture.

There is a similarity between certain pieces of literature (like the Bible and the Ramayana) and the Yale-NUS mission statement on the wall outside the lobby and dining hall: though not everyone reads it, let alone is conscious of it every waking moment, the ideas represented by words like ‘In Asia,’ ‘For the World’ come to pervade the culture they are a part of. Language and ideology are powerful social institutions, shaping our minds in subtle but significant ways. The language and ideology of Yale-NUS are no less compelling. One thing about Yale-NUS that we are proud of is a ‘sense of community’ that one cannot replicate on the campus of a large university because it is structurally impossible – and perhaps psychologically impossible to know 20,000 people. This ‘sense of community’ goes by another name in CSI: communitas.

Part of the Yale-NUS community extends into cyberspace, Facebook being one of the most significant reservoirs. Of all the possible groups we could find under the Yale-NUS banner, consider the Confessions page. It is a really interesting phenomenon which has a number of times emerged from the Internet, manifested and exerted power in the real world, commandeering the agenda of at least two town-hall meetings. When the whole debate about racism and constitutional politics got started, I got the sense that something had or was exerting influence over people’s emotions, including my own. Was it the Confessions page? No, the thing-that-was-exerting-influence was mediated through a webpage, but was not the webpage itself. After all, it doesn’t make sense to say that the ultimate cause for the sense of disturbance that many felt was a bunch of electronic signals in some data center.

Another observation was that the sense of disturbance people felt in the aftermath of that event (and one which I think subtly reverberates today) was not merely a sense of being offended at a racist remark. After all, we see racial discrimination a lot on the web, yet none of it produces the same psychological effect as the Confessions episode had on many members of the community. Contained within that disturbance was a sense of uncertainty or unhingement. As though something previously thought secure had come loose.

Some people felt a sense of disappointment, a handful articulated it (at least a few who I had the chance to listen to). What is disappointment but the sinking of an expectation? There is/was a certain expectation of the communitas that was threatened. Perhaps it was the expectation that everyone was at heart a nice person? What might we mean by nice people? People who disapprove of saying nasty things? People who see and choose to ignore or gloss over deep physical, religious, cultural, philosophical differences? People who don’t see those differences at all? People who compliment their Yale-NUS comrade’s every achievement out of care for their emotional well-being? Where do these expectations come from? Who told us that this is what ‘nice people’ look like?

The intangible collection of ideas and notions that form the Yale-NUS ideology are brought here by every single individual, each of whom comes from a different background, some more similar and others different depending on whose subjective perspective we assume. In the process of identification as a Yale-NUS student, we begin to identify with our institution. Everyone does it in different ways, but everyone does it to some extent. Somewhere, expectations are formed, conditioned not only by rhetoric we feed each other, but also by our backgrounds, emotions and our ideas of what a liberal arts college is or should be. The more we dig up and plumb the depths of ourselves and our institution (and reading Confessions is an interesting way of doing it), the more we might realize that there are similarities and differences which run far deeper than we expect. Let us also remember that any abstract Yale-NUS ideology is also a historical product of an American liberal arts ideology (whatever that is), rather than something we created ex nihilo here in Singapore. A fair number of optimistic, incoming freshmen expecting an ‘American-style’ education should attest to that. Many of us were not so different not so long ago.

Every bunch of people with a sense of communitas has a totem. This totem is not a physical object, online platform or person, but a collection of ideas and notions that flow together to form something we might call an ideology. To consider this thought piece as simply an attack on the totem we have right now would be a misunderstanding. Having been a part of this social institution for the better part of a year now, I think it is only appropriate that we start examining the nature of the totem we really have. Such a meditation not only demands that we dissect any ideology we hold, but also requires us to reach inside and reflect deeper than we might have thought necessary. And who knows until where those implications and conclusions might reverberate.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Reflectia: Isn't it funny how we aspire to the character of someone like Jean or the grace of Cosette, but in truth are more like Javert in his moral struggle or even Thenardier in his personal desires? It is sobering and somewhat...depressing to think of it that way or even know that we will never achieve 'goodness', free of sin. For in believing that we are free from sin, we immediately lapse into pride, that demon that existed before Lucifer. Thus it is that the righteous cannot know of their righteousness. Are they doomed to torture themselves eternally by holding themselves to a fundamentally unattainable standard?

Sophia: Isn't the same true of wisdom? Are the wise by the same principle compelled to think of themselves as fools even though they among all people least deserve the title?

Reflectia: I thought I was alone, but then are we are not siblings inseparable? It seems to me that it is not so for the wise. They seem to be and since they need to hide nothing pettily, therefore must be in perfect equilibrium, being in a position and having spiritual authority to judge. Yet they do not 'judge' as lesser men do, but induce those lesser men to judge themselves. But how does one achieve such a state?

Sophia: There's little one can do about lesser men. Leave them to their own karma and yours to yourself.

Reflectia: *sighs* I keep telling myself that. But it's at those times that I consider all the failures of self-discipline. The consequence of imperfect self-control is despair, but perhaps it is an ironic thing to 'desire' self-control, for it will not be found that way.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Righteous Indignation?

Adamantia: An annoying number of people seem to believe that the spirit of more liberal social practices is a 'loosening up' not just of the body but also of the mind. Yet the willingness to do anything does not necessarily equate to the willingness to think anything. The body runs free while the mind remains caged, locked into a singular worldview. The way these people behave reeks of conformity. What liberalism is this that sees no other mindset than its own? It seeks to oppress, not challenge opposing thought and in doing so acts against the principles it preaches.

Reflectia: But they think and promote this in good faith, to varying degrees of consciousness. Does that not mitigate? Or perhaps 'mitigate' is the wrong word - it implies they commit a crime, albeit informed by good intent. But perhaps that disqualifies it from being a true crime altogether. Whereupon we lose the jurisdiction to judge it.

Adamantia: But perhaps we assume a simplicity of mind on their part. Can we accuse other minds, nay souls, of failing to consider what we consider even now? What then is the rationale for this hubris? Regardless, do they think that we will so easily bend against principle or 'natural inclination' to peer pressure? Us, steel tested in fire is not easily intimidated and we should take pride in this brand of stubbornness born from courage not foolhardiness. One may drink or dance to relax - we have no objection to people seeking pleasure or solace from life in their own ways - but I take issue with juvenile exercise of social impetus hoping to bind all in a way which serves only to make oneself feel good about the unity of the community in a single set of social norms and nothing more. In the same vein I look down on those who, in a naked hunger for approval, bend willingly to the crowd.

Reflectia: It is true that we may not assume a simplicity of mind among all men. That would be deepest hubris. And speaking of hubris, it may be too prideful to think of ourselves as steel. We have been tested, but perhaps not by the hottest flames. Yet it is right that steel not yield to lesser fires than had forged it - we can allow ourselves that much pride. It is interesting that we mention social impetus. At the risk of recognizing ourselves as hypocrites, do we not deploy the same sort of social compulsion to achieve our own short-term ends? We act this way toward people we swore to die for, no less.

Adamantia: A fair point. Let us dwell on that hypocrisy-induced shame, lest we commit it once again. I admit, the mere thought of this dishonor makes me lose stomach for righteous anger. Perhaps no indignation can be righteous.

Reflectia: But are we still to have an opinion on social pressure? How do we make a stand against this conformity we are perhaps rightly opposed to without making a judgment against the unwitting oppressors? Maybe it is better and more courageous to judge oneself and others harshly and equally. But can we expect either ourselves or others to be able to live up to such standards? Are such unenforceable standards worth pursuing? Yet if the alternative is to stand-by and let the oppression roll over others and oneself, how can that be just?  

Adamantia: We know not!

Monday, February 11, 2013


Peering down, Kok Soon watched the waves beat against the parapet 8 levels below. Soon the entire 6th floor would be completely submerged, the resident mussels feeding happily, growing nice and fat for the human beings living on the levels above them.

The rhythm was almost soothing.

For now, only the occasional splash propelled itself over the wall and into the mussel pens. But the waves grew. However imperceptibly, the ocean would creep in and swallow the mussels’ lair, nourishing their tenants with rich aquatic dust. The harvest was good, and by the next low tide, the men would go down to pick from the plenty. And so it went. The sea would come, feed the shellfish, the shellfish would grow and the men would cook and consume them, retreating to their concrete eyries before the sea swallowed them up in turn. Kok Soon couldn’t help but remember a song about ‘the circle of life’, from one of those old movies, made before the earth was reclaimed by the ocean.


‘Oy, what’s that?’
Kok Soon could hear a light splash. But this one was quick, unlike the sound of the sea beating lazily against the walls. It was followed by a second, almost a crash. A dissonance in the waves' metronomic symphony. He swiveled the accumulator light’s powerful beam toward the general direction of the noise, its gaze melted away the darkness, but there was nothing.

The intervening moment was spent in silence. Badawi absentmindedly moved the light from side to side, in a probably futile attempt to see something he wasn’t particularly anxious to see. The beam combed over the ocean, revealing a piece of wood floating by. Kok Soon clutched his SAR. The two of them were up on the roof, at the absolute second highest point of the flat - the highest was reserved for the lightning conductor. No monster from the dark ocean could possibly touch them here. Yet, a sensation of unease continued to gnaw at Kok Soon’s soul. Badawi put down his weapon and lit a cigarette. He didn’t - couldn’t tear his eyes off the waters.

‘Just a sotong la. Maybe it want some night snack.’ Badawi let out a cackle. Kok Soon hoped the old man was right, but deep down he knew better.

Monday, September 17, 2012


The more I learn about the state of nuclear current affairs, the faster I want to grow up and die.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Rosetta Stone

The more Japanese lessons I take, the more amazed I am at what must have been the first linguistic bumblings between the Sengoku-era Japanese people and Portuguese traders who maybe missed China by a little bit. Maybe we would still be completely clueless about Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics had the Rosetta Stone not been found.

But when American, Singaporean and other journalists, students, academics and average private citizens set foot in each others' worlds, we don't have the benefit of a single Rosetta Stone pointing us toward a better understanding of the perspectives, intentions and meanings of our exchanged words. By no means are the two peoples meeting physically for the first time, instead, our worlds are colliding in a way which has never been done before - and this is a process which many people feel invested into, myself included.

It's an unholy swirl of identity issues, moral ideas, as well as hopes and ambitions common to many young people who believe in earning a good degree and enriching their human spirit intellectually and morally at the same time. It is natural to feel strongly about an institution which has been a key part of one's past journey through young adulthood, or an institution that promises to be a key part of one's individual and societal future. Clearly a fair number of Yalies, past and present, and Singaporeans, students or not, are invested in that. I know there are others still itching to enter the dialogue, be it on a public platform, between groups of friends or within the expanse of their own minds.

It can be frustrating to see the dialogue stagnate with a line drawn dangerously often at national boundaries between two adversaries duking it out. Keeping in mind that my previous post on this subject was/is meant as a private rage outlet, what I find actually, truly annoying, is the seeming lack of advancement of the conversation.

We seem to be stuck on asking おまえはだれ?
Trying to explain that my mates and I came from Portugal. Accidentally.
What do you mean by a 'free society'?
What does it mean to hold fast to the liberty I cherish?
What is that freedom anyway?

I think that rather than attempting, with good intent, to turn completely to convincing the other party with reason alone, we must acknowledge that feeling various emotions well up from within ourselves is a very human phenomenon - one that isn't just a vestige of our baser self, but is instead a clue to understanding our individual and societal psyche. As well as our own mental health. Arguments can carry on till the proverbial cows come home, but constant attacks are more likely to harden the mind as a bunker than open them enough for cultures and consciousness to flow out of it and touch another mind. I'm sure some Christians can understand when I say that the mind is never converted to understanding ('belief' is not the right word here), only the soul. And just as God can reach past the walls of Man's heart and touch his spirit, so too should we endeavour (in a secular context, but no less 'spiritually') to share the essence of what it means to be us with them - and for us to coax ourselves into allowing them to share what it means to be them with us.

I know of people who see what appears as HATEEEE and who lament, "if only they knew us". And they have a point, if only they knew us. But is that not an exciting challenge? To move quietly amongst fellow students to share about our differences and discover our similarities. We might never become close enough to be 'one people', but that should not be our aim in the first place. There is no room for missionaries or ambassadors, only people in constant Brownian motion.

Perhaps we may discover that it isn't fear of an authoritarian government that limits our freedom of speech, but cultural values rooted in events recent to a half century back or ancient as a couple of millennia.

Perhaps we may discover that keeping one's mouth shut sometimes is not an unenlightened, backward thing, but a grace.

Whether you are a first-generation student of YNC or an individual invested in another way, it may be healthy to be mentally prepared for a process that probably will take years, lack a grand finale/happy ending, and likely piss off lots of people along the way. Everyone has a piece of this Rosetta Stone, and the more pieces we elephantglue together, the closer we come to understanding hieroglyphs. Whether one views this as an exercise in society-transformation or a step in the journey of personal betterment or has some other motivation, it is humbling to think of this as a little school embedded on a small island in a big world in a bigger universe at one point in the expanse of time and history.

But it shouldn't stop one from dreaming big.