Tuesday, November 02, 2010

'A' is the new normal

FM says we should strive for excellence, and from the ground wells up an outpouring of insecurity, inadequacy and  indignation. We're already working so hard to score straight 'A's; what more could the man expect to wring from us?

Ironic for me to say, but scoring straight 'A's is the new normal. Excellence no longer resides solely in academic achievement because all Education can provide is just a common foundation on which every student can start from.

Education trains good habits, plays a role in character building, helps people develop some idea about how the world functions. For most people, that is enough. It is, really. It's great to be average. People like us are the base from which excellent people stand above the crowd. But we seem to be short of such people who develop interests in interesting things and in so doing become interesting themselves. It gets tiresome sometimes when we look at each other and see reflections of our own mundaneness. In our human sea of dull grey, we want to see a few shiny things that brighten the gloom.

I dunno. When I see the occasional shiny thing, I get inspired to do a little better. For most of my fellow citizens, when they see shiny things their first instinct is to shoot them down, like they represent an alien invasion, or something. Maybe that's not too far fetched an analogy: our sporting achievements tend to erupt into a War of the Worlds situation as we flagellate ourselves over why 'true-blue S'poreans' aren't excellent enough to compete against out imported talent.

We've grown a culture that chooses not to celebrate excellence. We discourage our youngsters from pursuing things they are good at or are interested in doing. We're afraid that if they do well in those things, they'll lose their place in the average mass where there is safety in numbers. Shining too brightly or swimming too far out at the edge is a sure way to get snapped at by a passing predator, so everybody swims in a homogenous unit, in a... dare I say it? A school.

If we're going to be a school, I'd rather not be in a school of ikan bilis (anchovies). Lacklustre, uninteresting, numerous, nobody sheds a tear when we crunch them with our nasi lemak. Let's be a pod of dolphins, creatures to be marvelled at, communicated with, studied like a fellow intelligent species; and even if we get clubbed to death by mad Japanese fishermen, at least someone will kick up a stink, rail at the heavens and miss us.

Maybe we don't know how to be excellent. We do have living examples among us, believe it or not. You have to admire the audacity of Fusion Garage CEO, Chandra Rathakrishnan, for launching the Joojoo just ahead of the market-changing iPad, probably against all good marketing sense and advice. If not for comparisons against the iPad, the Joojoo would have been a decent enough device, but Excellence was in the belief and conviction to launch before the gargantuan competition could. And survive.

There's this little 12-year old girl who has just become S'pore's latest world title holder... in yoga, of all things. I'm pretty sure she does just fine in school, but so does everyone else. But watch her through her routine and be amazed at her technique, poise and flexibility. What kind of training does it take to become this excellent? Well, there can only be one world champion at a time, so what can we laggards do to match up?

Obviously, we don't have to match her in her chosen field of excellence. We each have our own fields and our own ways to be excellent there. But even if we don't have any particular talent in any particular field -- and that would be the majority of us -- we can still heed the exhortation of dual paragons of mediocrity, Bill S Preston Esq. and Ted "Theodore" Logan, to simply "be excellent to each other...!" We can at least do that.

Our studies are important, like rice is important. It's our staple and we can't live without it. Excellence is ice-cream with a cherry on top. But you can have it only after you finish your meal. I want ice-cream. I'm sure you do too.

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