A young valedictorian popped the ‘f’ word into her convocation speech at the Nanyang Technological University. Trinetta Chong delivered an enthusiastic and exuberant speech to her cheering classmates, their parents, teachers and other guests at what is meant to be a solemn occasion. Opinion has been predictably divided, with some supporting the ecstatic punchline “We f-ing did it!” as a natural outpouring of youthful sentiment, and others criticizing the inappropriate interjection.
Our education system is based on high-stakes assessment which makes the transmission model of teaching much more time-efficient than any other more participatory and heterarchical model. Large class sizes make it difficult for teachers to conceive of and implement pedagogical innovations. We need foreign talent because the products of our own education system are apparently not creative or intelligent enough. We teach our children only how to pass examinations and then say that that is all they know how to do.
And then along comes a Trinetta Chong. Not exactly run-of-the-mill. She is, after all, valedictorian of a batch that represents the cream of the students in Singapore. Not many make it to university level. She may not have planned her little interjection very far in advance, but it is highly unlikely that it slipped out totally subconsciously. “Fuck” is a word that still has some shock value in largely conservative Singapore, which is why young people enjoy using it. The content of her speech was far from the usual stock phrases that such speeches are made of. Light and informal, she did her best to capture the experiences of her classmates. That this young lady felt confident enough to make the speech she did, and end it the way she did, is a sign of the times – whatever your opinion of the appropriateness of her speech. She reached out to her classmates, roused them and spoke in their voice. If their voice is not one that their elders approve of, it may not matter very much.
There are winds of change blowing through our little island nation. This is not a time when military force, political repression, educational stagnation and social rigidity are tools that can take any society forward. What army can fight an enemy from within? Events in Oslo and Mumbai have shown us that our best hope for peace lies in minds that are open to change, to expressions of diversity, and to the essential humanity that ultimately links us all.
So many things we teach our young people, whether by words or by example, turn out to be useless in helping them cope in a rapidly changing world. We do our best, of course, but ultimately we are staring blind into a future that grows more obscure by the minute. When once in a while they attempt to shine a light on their own path, just to make the journey a little brighter and to make their mark on it in a way that they think is memorable, perhaps the best we can do for them is to graciously accept their need to try.