“I was not a person who was capable of empathy…”
In one short phrase at the opening of his blog post, Amos Yee, an aspiring online filmmaker (now himself a screenwriter’s dream topic for a film), explains why he has no friends. He even admitted that it was a personal flaw of his, and that he had to try very hard to repress this in order to interact with his fellow human beings.
The Oxford Dictionary of English’s definition of empathy reads: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.”
The key word in the definition is _understand_. You don’t have to agree with or condone a person’s likes and beliefs. But if you make the effort to at least understand, you are already more than halfway there to making friends.
How do you expect others to like you back, to welcome you into their social circle, when you cannot even afford them the basic level of respect and empathy?
I was a former Zhonghua Secondary School student from 1999-2002, and I emphatise with Amos Yee’s passionate complaints about the state of our education system in Singapore. Because it was exactly what I felt back then, when we were constantly pressured to perform well for our exams and upcoming O Levels.
There was no fun in learning. I hated A Math with a passion, and I disliked the way Mandarin was taught. And if you had somehow failed to produce good results, you were automatically condemned and arrowed as a lousy student who needed to buck up. There was no positive encouragement from the majority of my teachers, and I quickly began to rebel.
What was the point of putting in the effort to study, when at the end of the day, despite all of your hard work, you were still going to be scolded by your teachers anyway? And many times, I was the target of vitriol completely unrelated to school work. My Social Studies teacher once remarked loudly to me, in front of everyone in class, “WHY DO YOU LOOK SO SMUG?”
I spoke to four of my classmates in my cohort whom I still keep in contact with, and all of them agreed with Amos Yee’s complaints too. His anecdote about the Chemistry teacher who said that “copying was memorising”, was eerily reminiscent of our own Chemistry teacher who uttered something similar back then.
Needless to say, I also hated Chemistry as a subject and dropped it in Secondary 4, even though I liked reading about science. But that’s a story for another day.
Here’s the thing: the problems I just described above are not exclusive to Zhonghua Secondary. It is not the entire fault of the Zhonghua teachers, but a leftover flaw of our nation’s meritocratic society. We are not taught in school how to recover and cope from failure, and we never learn how important it is to emphatise with others who are not as bright as us, or who are more smug-looking than us.
While my secondary school life was a dark period for me, I am still grateful to Zhonghua for allowing me to meet some very good lifelong friends and one genuinely awesome form teacher. I am grateful to the school’s notorious disciplinary system, where the boys and girls had to submit to strict SAF hairstyle codes or risk an on-the-spot trimming session from the “African-trained” spot-checker. Zhonghua taught me the importance of discipline, and this prepared me very well for the regimental life of the army when I had to serve NS years later.
To everyone that has read Amos Yee’s blog post and is curious about our school: please, ZHSS isn’t really that bad. Parents, please don’t be afraid to send your children to Zhonghua after Primary 6. It is a good school, and you can be rest assured of that fact from this alumni. Look at how (smug) I turned out.
And to Amos Yee himself, if you are somehow reading this, I hope that you will stop repressing your lack of empathy and _learn_ to genuinely give it to others. One of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned in life is the concept of “balance”, kind of like balancing a Math equation.
If you want something in life, something equal has to be given or sacrificed in return. If you want people to become friends with you, you must first be able to accept them for all of their flaws and own individual beliefs. That means you have to stop insulting religions, stop flipping off the Zhonghua logo, and stop disrespecting Lee Kuan Yew during the one-week mourning period.
This concept of balance can also be used conversely for a destructive effect. If you use vulgarities in your videos, post obscene images on your blog, and challenge Lee Hsien Loong to sue you in court, then you better be prepared to reap the aftermath of your rampage.
Learn from your errors in prison, and I hope that you will emerge a better person. By the way, the polytechnic life in Singapore is very different from secondary school, and there are some good media courses that cater to filmmakers. Don’t deny yourself a font of knowledge because of one landmine blocking your path.
The author’s Social Studies teacher is still teaching at Zhonghua, and he would like her to know that everyone in his cohort still has fond memories of her (for all the weird reasons).