Disclaimer: What I have posted is my perspective, and it may not be representative of how others feel about their academic life in Singapore. Many of the things I share here are my own experiences, and I originally wrote these to send to my students in the debate club of Cedar Girls’. Considering that I have spent a large chunk of my formative years in hyper-competitive environments, the insights I’ve gleaned will discuss my experiences in debate/Singapore’s school culture.

1) Dealing with friction: How to respond to antagonistic behaviour?

Maturity is knowing how best to deal with a sticky situation. When someone behaves antagonistic towards you, be the bigger person — either politely clarify yourself, or ignore the individual. In my youth, I would get mad and sometimes quite upset. Person X has misunderstood me, or has unfairly pointed fingers at me, I’d say! I would attempt to dissolve the rumours by speaking to a third part about it, sometimes putting myself in situations where others could say that “Nabila talked bad about you.” It is so easy to retaliate by talking bad about another, especially with toxic personalities who will egg you on and sympathise/thrive on gossip. Oddly, in social situations, the popular kids often may be the mean kids, for it is easy to create the illusion of closeness with others by sharing “secrets”. It’s the social phenomenon of bonding over mocking the black sheep, or picking at others’ weaknesses.

Sure, is is easy to show anger. It is easy to take words to heart, and spend all night mulling over matters that really are quite insignificant in the grand scheme of life. The tricky part is telling oneself that there is no point in wasting precious time over people who do not matter. To discern between bad company and good company is to think deeply about whether an individual’s intentions are in the right place. If their words are constructive, if their words are justified and if it is meant to edify, reflect, apologise and attempt to change.

Otherwise, if you know it comes from a place of maliciousness or clear misunderstanding, try to laugh it off. If you’re still thinking about it, approach a close friend or family member who you know loves you, and talk to them about it. Trust me, this is the company that will know your personality best, and they will be the best agents to gauge your progress from youth to adulthood. This is the time where we grow and understand ourselves.

2) Putting oneself in others’ shoes: Are you checking your privilege?

One of the hardest things to do is to remain humble as we progress and climb social ladders. When we move from one rung to the next, we may forget to turn around to look at the situation that others face. Other times, we skip the lower rungs completely and we start climbing from the middle, or the top. Understand how fortunate we are because we struck the birth lottery. We come from a place of privilege. Not everyone is that lucky.

(In debate, when a team has bad decorum, it may be because they feel insecure or inferior, and are overcompensating to give themselves a boost of confidence. Learn to forgive that, and treat everyone with kindness. We all, somewhere or another, have starting points we are not proud of. If a stronger team mocks you in the face of their victory, smile, shake their hands, mentally cluck your tongues and hope that one day you can be there to witness when they get off their high horse. They may not understand how hard it is to come from a school with limited funding or unstable support structure. They may not understand how absolutely terrifying it feels to come forward to speak for six minutes to an audience of strangers who look back at you with expressions you cannot read.)

In a system that prizes meritocracy over and above many other values — with one of our principle of governance even being “work for reward, reward for work” — it is easy to overlook the fact that individuals are often caged by their circumstances. At times, no matter how hard someone works, how motivated they are, their stars may just not be aligned in helping them to achieve their goals.

I truly understood this when I was in JC2 (I was 18 years old at that time). At the beginning of that academic year, I volunteered to help my friend, Syirah, tutor three little children aged 7 to 10 years old. Prior to meeting them, I was told that they lived in a one-room flat with their grandparents. Syirah informed me that their grandparents spoke limited English, were highly suspicious of strangers, and that I had to proceed with caution when I met the kids.

I met the children on two occasions. On the first visit, what struck me was how small a one-room flat could be. I knew that there were people who lived below the poverty line in Singapore, but this was the first time I could picture their lives in my head. It was a shoebox apartment, neat, tidy but too small for a family of six. The children were shy. Having seen Syirah in the past, the girls aged 7 and 9 screamed in elation and hugged her. The 10-year-old boy looked on at us with a glimmer of a smile on his face, and I could see that he was definitely glad to have company. Yet, wanting to be seen as a grown-up, he did not outwardly express it.

“This is Kak* Nabila… She’s going to be teaching you.”

Quickly, the little girls warmed up up to me. Both of them competed for my attention. “Kakak Nabila, can you carry us?” I complied, and the girls quickly wormed their way into my heart. I spoke in Malay to the grandparents who were watching me warily. They communicated the difficulties they faced raising the children on SGD $1000, barely enough to make ends meet. The grandfather worked as a cleaner, while the grandmother stayed at home to take care of the kids (including a 9-month-old baby). Life was tough for them. Most days, they ate plain rice. The baby was fed with formula milk diluted with rice flour for they could not afford to give him more. I quietly observed their lives. I listened aghast as their grandparents described the kids to me: “these girls are stupid…” I immediately gazed at the girls, who were clutching my hand as we sat cross-legged on the floor, and I felt a pang of pain. Though I knew these statements came from a place of care and concern, I cursed to myself because I feared that these loving, bright-eyed curious children would grow up internalising such sentiments.

After two hours, Syirah and I got up to leave. The kids, including the macho ten-year old, earnestly asked me when I’d be back. I told them that I’d be back very soon. Afterwards, Syirah and I had a deep conversation about the poverty cycle, and the kind of destructive mindsets the children might grow up with if no one intervened to imbue more positivity into their lives. At the moment, they had no direction, no motivation, nothing to look forward to. Their school books had been thrown away to make more room at home, and the only objective was to survive.

The next two weeks, I texted the grandparents every alternate day asking when I could come again to start tutoring the kids. Each reply would be some excuse or another on why I couldn’t visit (eg. kids have a fever, grandpa is sick). So, the next time Syirah went (a month later), I accompanied her. Nothing had changed. The kids were genuinely excited to see me, but I knew that the grandparents had erected walls of distrust so high that nothing I did could have torn them down (especially because I had a communication barrier with them).

Nonetheless, I hoped. Before I left, the kids tugged at my sleeves and asked me to bring them fruits the next time I came. “Can you come tomorrow? I want to study, and I miss you already.”

I laughed. I promised that soon, I would.

I haven’t seen them in more than a year. And still, they cross my mind. Even as I write this, I pray that I have not been added to the list of people who’ve disappointed them. How could I not have seen this side of Singapore? I have had my fair share of hardships, but this, this broke my heart.

As a young child, when I visited Pakistan, maybe it didn’t hurt as much because the in-your-face poverty had become normalised. Maybe I didn’t understand that the kids on the streets who laughed and smiled would go on to become the domestic workers households hired (and underpaid, and abused). Maybe I didn’t understand that parents had no choice but to sell their children to support the rest of their family. Perhaps, it was because I did not realise that this was the reality people lived everyday. As a child, I looked on with fascination but also a lack of maturity. Not long later, I ended up back in my reasonably comfortable life in Singapore.

The experience with those little kids was one of the most career-changing/life-changing things I’ve experienced. Perhaps, it was because it shattered my perceptions of my own country. Or maybe it was because I was finally wise enough to comprehend concepts that I had intellectualised, but had never lived through the eyes of another.

Years later, I can. So be it poverty, emotional hardships, family issues, etc, I have come to understand that each of us has a story to tell. It isn’t right to undermine the struggles others face. Listen. Digest. Understand. Empathise.

3) Exuding confidence: How do you become the master of your own mental state?

Do not let people get to you. Believe in yourself, and love yourself even if you are flawed. This does not mean that you don’t constantly try to become a better version of you. It means you summon the strength to say: “I am human, I am flawed and I have many areas to improve on. But each day, I will wake up loving myself and living in the moment.” It takes bravery to say that, and it takes bravery to forgive your own “failures”.

In fact, take your “failures” in stride. These are learning lessons, and it is inevitable that in your years of trying, you make mistakes. Stop letting what-ifs rule your life, for truly, “you see, the what-ifs are as boundless as the stars.”

A great friend of mine lives by this motto each time something doesn’t go her way, and I thought it was quite powerful — “is it really the end of the world? No? Carry on.”

Just remember, everything you need is at the end of your fingertips — positive energy and a sound mind are gifts you can employ to attain your versions of success and what makes you feel whole.

4) Find what makes you happy: How do you live life by your term terms?

Societal expectations are the root cause of many of the unhappinesses we feel. We’ve fetishised so many notions of what it means to be successful, such as but not limited to: a) Pursuing tertiary education b) Being rich c) Getting married and having children d) Raking up achievements.

The pressure of all this gets to our head. People nowadays are so stressed. They don’t have a work-life balance, and they do not give themselves time to grow. Especially in Singapore, where meritocracy has been drummed into our heads, and where we judge the worth of someone by looking at their paper qualifications.

It is okay to take a break. It is okay to give yourself time to relax. Ask yourself — do you want to be a part of the rat-race? Do you even know what you’re chasing?

At this age, we have angst, we have frustrations, we have stupid love interests that boggle our minds… but we also have dreams. Follow YOUR dream, not what others impose on you. Every dream is as legitimate as the next, it is putting thought into action that matters.

Don’t be a mindless sheep.

It is okay to be both a follower, and a leader. Some groom themselves to lead (partly innate, partly nurture I believe. please just be a responsible one), while others prefer the role of followers. Either is fine, as long as you are satisfied. All this hype over nurturing leaders is hogwash. Own time, own pace, own desire, own self-fulfilment. Some of the most successful are depressed, or insecure, or unhappy (I have met so many elite, accomplished people like this) while some who have the least in life are showered with blessings of genuine love, loyalty and wholeness. Keep your ambition checked. Know what you are working towards. And anyone who judges you for the choices you make is not worth keeping in your life, unless of course that choice is coerced, or made without consent.

Start prepping yourselves for life. This whole “school is a microcosm of society” seems like a good argument in debate, but like all arguments, it fails to encompass the nuances in life. It is too simplistic. The world, especially when you venture out of Singapore, is much richer. It values many different aspects of life. Life is too short, and too dear, for us to complicate things. At the end of the day, it is your contentment that you want to strive for — even when you work, you really work to earn big bucks/get a good job etc, for your own happiness. Once, after training in Cedar in Sec 2, I asked Adrian why he didn’t quit debate and pursue a better paying job. His response is one that I still keep close to my heart: “I love what I do. I am content with living in a HDB, getting an average pay and travelling to do what I enjoy.” That struck me. It is what we would consider mediocre. It is “unambitious”, or it is “this is what happens to you when you don’t do well for Os”

Adrian taught me this, early in my life — success and ambition should be defined by you, and you only. Do what brings you joy, what makes you feel whole and makes you want to come back for more. You want to wake up everyday excited, not reluctant/pressurised/aimless.

Take the time to know yourself. Find direction. Find purpose. Find yourself.

*Kak Nabila – Colloquial term in Bahasa Melayu for the word kakak. It means sister.

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Here are some excerpts of the message I sent to my girls. They don’t really fit well anywhere in this post, but I thought I’d just post it here.

1. On debate: Debate, ideally, is NEVER about winning, and it isn’t about the breaks. It is really the process of growth. Of watching yourself blossom into confident, eloquent, independent and strong women. Sometimes, I know that the pressure gets to your head. Especially in Singapore, where achievements and merit are weaved into what we deem as success. This is particularly prominent in debate, which is an elite sport for the intellectual. In all honesty, debate can reek of arrogance and self-righteousness. Often, the individuals who debate as the years go by have inflated egos — but this may be attributed to their own insecurities, where they pin their self-worth on the medals and championships they’ve won. For a while, I too believed that. I used to feel somewhat superior when I did better than others. It took me time to realise that at the end of the day, these medals didn’t bring me satisfaction. It was the joy of sharing ideas, of recognising that we were discussing real-world issues that right now, were amorphous, but one day could become a reality. Debate gave me peep into the crevices of the world I would have otherwise never bothered to find out about. It isn’t about matter-cramming. It is about genuine curiousity. Right now, I am someone who tries my best to put myself in other people’s shoes. It taught me what it means to be empathetic…. Not everyone is able to do that. Not everyone wants to dedicate their time to debating. Sometimes it feels pointless. Sometimes we get frustrated at people’s behaviours. Sometimes we wonder, why do I bother when I cannot enact change? In these instances, you must realise that it’s all a matter of perspective. It’s how you synthesize what goes on in the debate floor. How you manipulate information, how you critically think and how you change your world-view. It is about presentation, influence, the pursuit of knowledge. Understandably, debate isn’t a sport for everyone. If it bores you (as it bores my best friend from Cedar called Sandy who was from soccer), there’s no harm or judgment in that.)

2. On ambition: On being overambitious — piling on things to your CV will do nothing for you if you do not have focus. I advice you to please do what you love at the moment, and what you can envision yourself doing in the future. Nobody likes cookie-cutter perfect GPA kid. The world is looking for unique individuals with personality. In a time where it’s so easy to mimic styles, and to have the same thoughts because of the shared marketplace of ideas, the ones who stand out are the ones who dare to be different. Do not, and I repeat, do not do something because society tell you it is your path to success (eg. joining Prefectorial Board, seeking leadership positions, starting projects you aren’t passionate about. Success is really not about how many things you’ve piled on your plate, it’s about the quality of the activities you have, your ability to prove that you can excel in it, and your genuine love and passion to fight for the causes you love).

3. On being a woman: There is a quote by Sheryl Sandberg that I would like to end off with: “I want every little girl who someone says ‘they’re bossy’ to be told instead, ‘you have leadership skills’ because I was told that and because every woman I know who’s in a leadership position was told that.” There is the societal notion that when women are headstrong, domineering, assertive or humorously sarcastic, they are arrogant, uptight, unfriendly etc. However, when men do the same, it is sexy, hot, admirable and even fetishised (think: Christian Grey). Although debate discusses and intellectualises gender inequality, there is, as there is in any institution, some form of inequality and hypocrisy. I have discussed this with Isabella, and we both realised it’s possibly due to the expectations we have of women — to be constantly laughing, to be approachable, to have a soft voice and to not be bossy, or domineering.

As you girls grow up, you will definitely come across people who put you down. Part and parcel of life. Be discerning, evaluate if these words could be true – if yes, take it constructively. Sometimes, you may need to change yourself. Other times, it’s unfounded judgments, absolute hogwash. Why? In social situations, it’s often so easy to bond over gossiping, and as easy as it is to start gossip, it is also easy to become to target of it. Gossip spreads, but don’t let its seeming negativity affect you. Take it in your stride, alright. Nothing wrong with being headstrong, or bossy.

As a woman, take pride that you can hold your head high in a room full of people. Perhaps it’s the age, but teenage girls usually feel more fear competing with boys. Life, too, has double standards – at work, in MUN, in debate, in co-ed education. We women have to fight our way to the top, some even claw their way there. We can choose to be overpowered by the stature of men, drowned out by their deep voices as they interrupt us, be intimidated by their blazers and smart tuxedos, and feel insecure/unsure as they look at us smugly. OR, we can choose to smile, be confident, poised and make much, much more sense than them. Girls, just remember, don’t easily give people the right to dictate how you feel about yourself. Have pride and confidence in being a Boss.

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