Dulce et decorum

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.

7 thoughts on “Dulce et decorum

  1. i agree on your point that the “fuck” word does raise eyebrows among people of our parents age when we use it. i believe young people like, and want to use it cuz they wanna gain attention and drive a point across. i’m no social linguist, but i believe one day, “fuck” will just become another mundane swear word that singaporeans will sprinkle casually in their speech just like “shit”. juz as i’m saying that it will be another “swear word”, perhaps it won’t be considered one 10 years down the road. society changes, and so does the usage of words.

    my two cents, ;P

  2. You are completely wrong. Trinetta Chong is in fact remarkably run of the mill. So run of the mill that even when given the valedictorian’s pulpit, she doesn’t dare rise above the culture of mediocrity to talk about more than the mundane aspects of her school life. She is hardly a sign of the winds of change you talk about.

    When I first heard about her F word stunt, I was intrigued because I figured she must have the gumption to be really different to do something like this. Yet, contrary to other people who take issue with her speech because of her F word, I think that was what saved her speech from being an unmemorable load of frivolous drivel that any other student would have said.

    To say that we should tolerate her for being prepared to speak for her generation is just further legitimisation of a generation of Singaporeans who are afraid to be different, afraid to have gravitas, and afraid to be interested in more than lining up for bubble tea. Too often I have seen conversations with university students who try to rise above the cabbage patch and engage in intellectul debate, be dragged down by others who deride them for being too “cheem” or too “square”. And I have seen scores of students lose their ability to speak well because their friends practise reverse snobbery and give them a hard time for being pretentious for not speaking Singlish.
    By glamorising Trinetta Chong and her ilk in your blog, you are merely endorsing the culture of mediocrity that plagues young Singaporeans, that holds them back from being smarter and more outstanding, that will let them be eaten alive by foreign talent.

    Please, we owe young Singaporeans more than this.

    1. I didn’t mean to glamorise her as such, but the spirit of her speech. And I have had many conversations with young people who do care about the bigger things in life. In the classroom, I have seen how accepting a young person’s perspective can be the start of a journey of deep learning for both teacher and student. I don’t know Trinetta or her classmates personally, and have no idea what they are capable of. There are a couple of issues that I feel are getting tangled up here and I apologise if I have not been able to untangle them in a satisfactory manner. For example, even if we accept that foreign talent is “eating up” our own, that may not be entirely the fault of the latter.

      Our brightest and our best tend to leave our shores for higher education. It is generally the next level that steps up to fill the space left behind. Whether these young people can rise above mediocrity depends upon many intervening factors. I’d like to suggest two important ones that may need to coexist: people like you who encourage them to rise to your level and beyond, and people like me who try to give them a push from below. In the specific case of the NTU convocation, the fault may lie with their selection criteria for valedictorian or the messaging they provide about the preferred content of the speeches. The fault may lie with the girl herself for not understanding the messaging. I have never attended an NTU convocation or any student events there so I don’t know what their culture is like.

      I agree that we owe young Singaporeans an ideal to work towards. I also believe that we owe them a little leeway to find their own path towards that ideal. In time they will fashion their own ideals. Their best assets, as far as I can see, are people like you who care enough to get involved in their lives.

      Thank you for sharing your point of view.

  3. hmm as observed in the debates, it’s quite clear the use of the word has caused a sharp polarisation in popular opinion. if the word was absent, no one would have paid attention to her description of facets of life in ntu. in fact, everyone would just casually dismiss her as ‘just another school girl’ who enjoys indulging in harry potter.

    imo, her use of the word revealed an ideological struggle between the everyday facets of youth vs. the high-brow intellectualism of the elite. perhaps wat i really find strange with the whole fiasco is this: for all the crudeness and lack of class in the f-word, some have directed their harshest criticisms on her descriptions of her school life instead. why this diversion, i ask?

    for one, trinetta used highly intelligible and down to earth language for the greater half of the speech. she’ll probably sedate her audience if she brought up issues abt the world economy. if she should be judged, it was only because her final sentence was crude, ‘inappropriate’ and a rude trip out of the box. yet to judge her for tt would make one appear close-minded and not open to change.

    but i still think we should call a spade a spade and not use an ‘ugly sandcastle’ as an excuse. there is a sense of incursion because what she did simply subverted the norms/no-nonsense image of the institution we have been accustomed to. yes, trinetta may represent a culture of mediocrity (again mediocre according to whose terms?), but more often than not, it’s this particular group that will throw us the most creative of surprises by taking the ordinary out of the box no?

  4. I agree. The definitions of mediocrity, gravitas, etc are constantly being negotiated by the very people and institutions these terms are placed upon. What is appropriate today may not be so tomorrow. What is intelligent today might be deemed irrelevant tomorrow. None of these social meanings are written in stone.

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