Of Passion and Privilege

by Shaf Ghani


I remember one of the Raya gatherings when a distant cousin, whose opinion I did not need (but had to listen to anyway because I was obligated to kuehs and protocols), casually commented that I read too much. It was pre-contact lenses days, and he said that the next time he saw me; I would be wearing coke bottle glasses. Firstly, how did he know, because I always made sure I wore artfully chosen ones, those with a little better style than his attempts at friendship. More importantly, it could mean that I was too serious to take a joke or that his conversation attempts were bordering on offensive. Even at a young age, he had always portrayed himself as someone extremely worldly and considered books outside of school to be of no significance. That was just the beginning of the war between knowledge-for-knowledge’s-sake and knowledge-for-money’s-sake.

Years passed, everybody grew up, and I met said cousin again in another Raya year. You would think that adulthood would make people generally more civilised at the very least. But said cousin had to go on being nothing but his good old self. Said something along the lines of “Study Literature? What for?” He sure knew how to push all the right buttons and I was completely floored by his ignorance. There was nothing wrong with having opinions but a wise friend once said that you have the right to have opinions but it should not hurt anyone. Honestly, any opinion could hurt anyone but maybe it was the way he said it.

For a few days, I thought about what he said. Maybe said cousin did not mean it. After all, said cousin was not the only person that insisted that I had to study things that led to the next step. You don’t just say you study to find out truths or because you were curious about the world. Truth is a pretty loaded concept and the world should be lived, not just read. It was years later that I understood why it felt uncomfortable to be able to proclaim and study what I loved. In my secondary school years when many people were flocking to the hard sciences because they were clear routes to getting concrete, uncontested, examination marks and perhaps, easier future job prospects in Singapore, studying humanities was a little going against the grain. It meant that you were not carefully thinking about your future if you were too involved in the arts. To be able to make a living should be forefront in everyone’s mind but isn’t it also poverty if your soul was deprived of understanding people and the workings of the world deeply? They said arts was fluff and what sweet dreams are made of. Except that it opened my mind in a way that the sciences never could. But of course, holding the minority opinion is not always easy. It was not easy then, has not been easy now either.

As a Malay student, I was also not supposed to be very good at Math and Sciences so the other options were languages and maybe, painting. Except that I actually did well enough to have the freedom of (limited) choice to study whatever I wanted. I could have studied more Chemistry, but I chose not to. So year in year out, I followed my passions. It was all still school and structure and I suddenly realised that the reading and marvelling over the fun facts would be a challenge when I had to apply them in exams. That being said, I did not think that applying scientific concepts would be any easier. They both had their unique sets of challenges.

Being educated in Singapore meant that I learnt mostly in English and my mother tongue, Malay, was viewed as secondary because it is just how the education system works. How often have I heard people from my own community dismissing their own language or culture either in jest or seriously and I thought to myself have I been taught my mother tongue, the language of my family and identity (Malay), as a lesser tongue?

Also, the educational institutions I went to were to be intrinsically affiliated to my personality. People still talk to me about neigbourhood and non-neighbourhood schools and I even learnt a new term for it, the NSK or the Neighbourhood School Kid. The quintessential NSK smoked, had her skirt hiked up all the way up her thighs or his pants made tight, got bad grades, probably got into trouble with the law as well. Now if one came from a good school, which was not part of this ghetto-like ‘hood’, one was considered a good child more or less. Sure, girls from good schools do get pregnant at 16 once in a while, but people were generally good there, they had hopes of making it in society. You were supposed to be thankful that you were not an NSK. Hope existed in a good school, people there loved knowledge and they talk politics, books and ideas. People in good schools also underwent puberty and dealt with body issues. But a lot of them notably came from wealthy backgrounds, those whose parents could afford tuitions worth three thousand dollars per month and Adam Khoo motivational speeches that made people bawl their eyes out at the sheer thought of doing badly in their studies and disappointing their ancestors.

It reminds you of branding, a good school is a good brand and a neighbourhood school is not as good a brand. Here, it becomes some kind of social capital for you, this string of ‘good’ schools that you came from. Anywhere else around the world, nobody could care less.

I remember streaming, EM1, EM2 and EM3 back in primary school and noting that EM3, the stream for students not so academically inclined, was made up of a specific race. I remember some people in school looked at them a certain way. At such a young age, an iron curtain had already fallen amongst us but we did not really talk about it.

Passing by some old school acquaintances from EM3 in adulthood as strangers in the same transport cabin spurred so many thoughts in my head. I thought about how their lives had turned out and I questioned myself, how did my life turn out so far? I wondered if it was that different from what my child-self was made to think. Regardless, I heard of friends who found happiness in their lives no matter which stream they came from.

There were people from lower-end streams who had happy families and successful businesses and people from top streams who made permanent bad decisions in life, just to paint a picture. All the truths that I was educated with, or what I was made to believe were shattered time and time again and though I am forever indebted to the system that taught me to think well, I wish that in time to come, learners could learn and do what they love by the passion that is in their hearts. It would make our world so much better.


Shaf Ghani writes poems and short stories. She also teaches children and copywrites for a living. More of her works can be found on shafikassanctum.wordpress.com

Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu