Should students wear school uniforms?

That we live in a time of tremendous inequality is now almost a truism. As an example, Oxfam claims that the annual income of the hundred richest people in the world could end world poverty four times over. In schools, inequality is also commonplace, whether it takes the form of grades, money, or possessions. Given the assumption that the most important aspect of school is the activity of learning, inequality in the form of how teachers treat their students is then a crucial ill to tackle. This is where school uniforms prove to be important. It is my opinion that school uniforms should be worn as a symbolic reminder to teachers (and students) that discrimination due to perceived inequality should never be acceptable.

It may be an ugly fact, but it is a fact that teachers are human beings, and are therefore naturally biased creatures, even when they try to be completely fair. We witness this when teachers decide that certain students are ‘bad’ or ‘badly-behaved’ individuals. I have witnessed students who, rightly or wrongly, are labelled as troublemakers, and are henceforth found guilty for any wrongdoing that they could conceivably be blamed for, whether or not they actually are in the wrong. This produces a vicious cycle where these students decide to be troublemakers anyway, since they will be treated as troublemakers whether they are innocent of any wrongdoing or not. A student who expands energy on this unfortunate social phenomenon will always have less energy to commit to the task of learning.

The school uniform, in the above-mentioned phenomenon of the “troublemaker-bias”, can be used by students to convey the sense that they are not troublemakers, and do not deserved to be labelled as such. Human beings are often superficial creatures, given to rapid judgements based on outer appearances. Students can take care to obey school rules with regards to the uniform, and thus convey on the outside what may be on the inside — the desire to obey the rules and hence be treated the same as everyone else. Consider how different the situation would be if students did not wear school uniforms. Street clothes would have the effect of reminding teachers of the differences between students, instead of the similarities, and would have the potential of further reinforcing whatever biases are within the teachers.

In contrast to street clothes, school uniforms serve as a reminder of the similarities that students share. While students may not be completely uniform, they all deserve the same amount of compassion, attention, and care from teachers. The Telegraph recently reported that teachers give their favourite students higher grades, which is a very clear example of unjust treatment. Teachers may unconsciously decide that students with richer or more successful parents will also be more successful than their peers, especially if students show off their parents’ success via expensive clothing. With the school uniform, there is less opportunity for the ostentatious display of wealth. The school uniform is also a lesson for students that as human beings, we share more similarities than differences.

While it is only one weapon in the fight against discrimination, the school uniform is too valuable to do away with. The value of the individual, as opposed to the group, is also an important lesson to learn, but I believe that this lesson is continuously taught anyway, in this era of social media and irreverent social commentary. The school uniform is sometimes seen as a tool of subjugation, but all it takes for it to be an empowering tool is a shift in mental attitude, to view it as a symbolic commitment to justice and learning, instead of some kind of metaphorical prisoner’s garb. People who argue for the abolition of the school uniform have to deal with the problems that I have outlined above, with all the opportunity for differences in wealth and sartorial ability to be displayed. As I have explained, inequalities can affect the activity of learning, and the school uniform has the power to mitigate these problems.

Looking at the bigger picture of the development of the human being, the school uniform is perhaps pale in comparison to issues like justice and equality. However, with the right mental attitude towards the school uniform, we can use it as a tool of progress instead of viewing it as a straitjacket. All I ask is this: that designers update uniforms for schools regularly, and to give boys the option to wear long pants if they so choose.

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Fear (a young writer’s journey)

My teachers used to instil a sense of fear into me, when I was learning how to craft essays. I was never to use contractions, I never could write about violence, and trying to write in a fantasy realm was a definite no-go. There were so many rules to writing, so many rules I was so afraid to break. As a result, writing short pieces in school was a pain, for it was so boring — especially when the prompt was “About Myself”. Not that I am a boring person, of course.

If a teacher asked me to write about myself, I thought, should I not be allowed to break any and all of the rules that came with writing in school? But there was always that sense of being afraid of the teacher, for one, and having a real fear that if I broke the rules, I would come away without the skills I needed to ace my examinations.

This sense of fear became so ingrained into my mental processes that I almost thought not to question it. I have always been a voracious reader, and I noticed so many of my favourite authors using “don’t”, and “shouldn’t”, and “wouldn’t”, and worst of all, “ain’t”. Still, when I was in school, I would always dismiss those things as “bad” writing, rules that these authors could break because they were paid professionals.

This changed when I was in secondary 4. I remember reading a novel that featured such intense violence and action that I had a vivid dream about it. It was a novel that took place in a skyscraper, that had the protagonist running up the stairs of this building. I dreamt it, all hundred-and-some storeys of it. I remember waking up not only tired, but exhausted, and in some strange way, exhilarated. If an author — who celebrated violence in his writing — could make me feel this good, and bad, with a single piece of writing, I was going to try to be like him.

The next essay I did in class, I threw caution to the wind and wrote about a massacre. There were hangings, there was shooting, there was a car chase, and even a scene where my narrator jumped from a helicopter onto a moving truck. (Thank you, Hollywood.) It felt like a release, breaking that violence rule. Of course, now that I had broken the rule, I did not expect to get a terribly high grade.

When I got the essay back, I was gratified to see that I had gotten a very high mark. My teacher had written something to the effect of “I’d say try to avoid violence, but you do it very well, so I don’t know”, and I was absolutely delighted with that. Not only had I broken the rules, I had gotten approval for it.

That was the point when I realised that rules about writing were meant to be broken, sometimes, by some people. I had overcome my fear of breaking the rules, and my grades improved for it. No longer did I have to think about creating some boring story about going to the market to buy vegetables with my mother, I could write about disembodied voices (reason: schizophrenia), violence (reason: political unrest), fistfights (reason: violent criminals), and so on.

Overcoming that fear caused me to make some mistakes, of course, but learning how to break the rules wisely was probably the start of my journey as a writer. If I had never overcome my fear of breaking the rules, I would probably have abandoned writing and indulged in some other activity instead, for I would have never started to thoroughly enjoy writing.



What is your idea of a civilized society? Do you feel that Singapore has achieved that status?

A note on spelling:
I am aware that some people insist on spelling “civilized” as “civilised”, in the attempt to stick to a British style of spelling. However, I encourage everyone to check their Oxford Dictionaries for the word “color” (Br: “colour”) and compare that entry to the entry for “civilized”. Not all “z’s” turn into “s’s” when you use a British style.

When most people think of “uncivilized” societies, they often think of pre-modern tribes, tribes that are ignorant of the marvels of science and technology, that are made up of people still dressed in skimpy animal skins. In that sense, Singapore is undeniably civilized. Most Singaporeans have smartphones, and most people that I know of have stopped dressing in animal skins. However, I would like to think of a “civilized” society in the sense of it being refined and advanced. In that sense, perhaps Singapore is still a significant distance from being a civilized society.

A refined and advanced society, in my mind, cannot simply be one that enjoys the benefits of science and technology — it also has to be one that is compassionate and just. After all, a society made out of violent criminals could look very attractive and civilized on the surface, but underneath that facade, the violence and crime that would surely occur would force us to consider that society to be uncivilized. Looking around us in Singapore, we see some amount of compassionate behaviour. There are charities that attempt to help the unprivileged in society, that are well-supported by the general population. The government has also attempted to shape students into compassionate individuals by making community service compulsory. However, it seems to me that these efforts only pierce through a thin layer of injustice in our society. That we still have an army of old people collecting cardboard for a living is testament to a society that is not completely refined and civilized yet.

The injustices in Singapore are many. In addition to the above-mentioned army of old people, we have foreign workers being treated unfairly, and a worrying level of income inequality. A refined and civilized society would not accept these injustices, and would work towards making society a little bit more equal, and a lot more just. That some old people here have to collect old cardboard boxes for a living is perhaps only a symptom of the larger problem of income inequality here. I grant that there is already some level of civilization in Singapore, since nobody has to starve and die on the streets. However, in an Asian culture, many people value their pride (their “face”) as much as they do their lives — for some, their pride is probably even more important than their life! With that in mind, it is unacceptable how vast income inequality is in Singapore.

I use the word “unacceptable” in the sense that a truly refined society would find it unacceptable. There is a section of society whose children can afford not to work anymore, those who live in multi-million dollar mansions in secluded areas, and who sit on massive bank accounts. Then there is a section of society who cannot afford the privileges of having smartphones and nice clothes, even though they work their fingers to the bone — the lowest paid in our society, including the foreign workers and uneducated among us. Smartphones and nice clothes may be seen as unnecessary to some, but without these privileges, it is very difficult to participate in mainstream life — think about how difficult it would be to get a good job when you cannot send an email or a text message.

Therefore, even though on some level, Singapore is already civilized, it is not completely refined. As long as there are glaring levels of inequality and injustice in our society, we cannot say with conviction that Singapore is completely civilized. If we close our eyes to injustice, we cannot claim to be civilized.

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“We can’t do without mobile phones today.” What are your views?

Mobile phones are everywhere these days. We see people of all ages — from toddlers in strollers to their grandparents — using mobile phones, particularly the ubiquitous smartphone. We use smartphones to indulge in leisure activities and to work. It certainly seems to me that most people in Singapore nowadays cannot, or dare not, imagine life without a smartphone. In that sense, the statement above is true.

Among those who can afford it, the smartphone has become a status symbol, and for those who are concerned about projecting an affluent image, the smartphone has become a necessary part of themselves. Like branded clothing, the smartphone can be used to signal to others that we are ‘civilised’ or at least fashionable. It is no longer enough for some to own a functioning smartphone. There are, in fact, functioning smartphones on the market now that have very much the same capabilities as branded, more prestigious smartphones. Branded smartphones can cost up to five times more than their cheaper, less prestigious counterparts, but you will never catch certain image-conscious consumers with non-branded smartphones. It is not about functionality for these people — it is about projecting an image that says that they are up to date with the latest fashions and equipment, and that they can afford such toys for themselves.

Another two groups of people rely on the functionality of smartphones. One group would not mind using cheaper equipment if it can help them send emails, access research material, and aid them with other work-related tasks. This group of people values the smartphone for the portability it affords them. In the past, workaholics had to stay in the office or in front of a computer to do their work. Now everyone can take our work anywhere we go – on public transport, to social events, to dinner, and even to the toilet. Another group closely mirrors the first, except that instead of being addicted to work, this group is addicted to entertainment. We can see this type of smartphone user watching videos, playing games, and so on. Just like the workaholic who is able to carry work with them anywhere they go, entertainment addicts can take their entertainment anywhere they desire.

The smartphone as status symbol, and as a vehicle for addiction – these are two uses of the mobile phone that have a negative sheen to them. However, it is my view that we cannot do without smartphones today simply because with them, we can engage more with life away from them. Instead of having to sit down with pen and paper, or in front of a computer, people can now write essays on their phones. It is a good practice, for example, for students to train themselves to write essays quickly by giving themselves only an hour to write essays that are given as homework. Students, especially those who take an hour to get home from school, can simply spend an hour typing an essay out on the way home, and then print the essay for submission. Office workers, instead of having to rush to the office to send that last-minute email, can simply send it from wherever they are, saving the time they would have spent traveling.

Of course we can do without mobile phones in the sense that we can do without clothes or baths, but there is a danger that civilisation as we know it might just fall apart. In that sense, we cannot do without mobile phones and smartphones today. Our heroes these days are users of technology; our heroes are more like Iron Man (a great user of technology) than Hercules. Iron Man probably would not want to go without his smartphone, but let us also not forget that he used technology well — to save the world.

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‘Time flies…’. Do you always spend your time wisely?

“Time really flies,” my friend remarked, chewing on his food.

“Yes, and fruit flies,” I said, grinning like a monkey with a freshly peeled banana.
My friend looked at me, blinked a couple of times, gave a mock sigh, and shook his head. It was a joke so bad, it was good.

I will fully admit it — I like to play. Like most people, I would prefer play to hard work, especially boring or painful hard work. This is antithetical to the usual idea of spending time wisely. For most, when we think about time wisely spent, we often think of a student or office drone quietly poring over some difficult thing, his entire body tense with concentration. I will admit that sometimes I work hard, to the point of pain, but most of the time I prefer to play, even when it comes to work. Moreover, I will contend in this essay that play helps me to spend my time wisely. Perhaps, then, it is not such a stretch to say that I always spend my time wisely.

    I play the guitar, and have been pretty good at it for a number of years now. I will admit that the first few months of playing the guitar were pretty painful — sore fingers and terrible noises were par for the course — but it was fun. That element of fun means that I have continued playing the guitar for many years, when most people who try to learn the instrument give up after awhile.

    I also like to think that I am pretty handy with the English language (you may feel free to disagree). My facility with the English language has mostly come about as a result of enjoying reading. I would read anything I could get my hands on, when I was younger. Comics, magazines, novels, newspapers — I would read them all. When I picked up a text that I found boring, I just put it down. There was, after all, so much to read. I instinctively looked for something fun to do, and reading served that purpose well.
This element of fun that I associate with the English language is in direct contrast to my former disdain of the Chinese language. Whenever I tried reading something in Chinese, my brain would scream at me, “difficult, boring!” I honestly tried working hard on my Chinese, in school, but I still just barely passed. I blame my failure to learn Chinese effectively on my failure to look for material that was fun to read. Without that element of fun, my brain simply shut down and refused to take in any information.

    Do I always spend my time wisely? The word “always” in that question may force me to answer in the negative. There must have been times in my life when I have wasted time. However, prioritising the principle of play has helped me to enjoy my work. Counterintuitively, playing more has helped me to work more. Hence, since my life has always been a mix of play and work, perhaps it is not so unreasonable to claim that, by and large, I always spend my time wisely.

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