My brother has stage 2 lymphoma cancer. He is in the midst of his treatment and has lost all his hair, but apart from that, you probably couldn’t tell he’s a cancer patient. He has a few shitty days after chemo, but most of the time remains happy positive and occupied, like most others his age – or perhaps even more positive than most.
He was recently selected to be amongst the pool of students that his teacher would choose a valedictorian from; he’s due to graduate from his diploma on 3 May. So he duly prepared his speech, attended the rehearsals, and it was finally down to him being either the valedictorian or the spare.
Then he came back from school and told us that he wasn’t going to be the valedictorian, because the teacher thought his speech would be too depressing (as an opening for the graduation ceremony) and because the other person had more awards.
Which is the point of this tirade really – not being sour about my brother being the spare, that’s his issue to deal with not mine to write about – but that in our society, it’s still not okay to openly talk about things like having cancer. Or mental illness, for that matter. And that ultimately, despite what the Singaporean government has dreamed up to get students to learn for the sake of learning, we are still a society focused on awards.
Awards are good, or can be good. They acknowledge hard work and effort, excellence and commitment. But when we publicise and focus only on those who have achieved the most awards, it creates a gap. It causes other students to believe they will never be as good, because they never got this award, or that scholarship. And as most pedagogy goes, causing students to think their potential is limited is probably the worst you could do. Plenty of ‘successful’ men and women you see today probably weren’t students who won the most awards. Or scored the highest GCE ‘O’ or ‘A’ level score. Or Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) score for that matter. So why do we keep emphasising that, with headlines and pages in our national broadsheet The Straits Times dedicated to talking about these students every year? I think it would be interesting to see an article on the top scorers from the 80s/90s and what they’re doing now.
Never mind the awards culture, a more insidious problem is that we just don’t talk about important issues enough, but non-issues too much. Just cos my brother has cancer doesn’t make him depressing, or sad. He wasn’t even going to say that he has cancer, he is doomed but you know ultimately every dies so don’t let fear tether you, go forth and do great things. He is positive and upbeat, and him mentioning his cancer was a way of starting his speech. For him to go up and not even mention having cancer is like ignoring the elephant in the room, which is actually a thing that we commonly do in Singapore society. But why should that be? Why can’t we talk openly about cancers and other terminal illnesses, or mental illnesses? Ignoring problems don’t make them go away, and by our reluctance to talk about them in a casual everyday context, we make it harder for people who are suffering to seek help and talk about them. And there are many who suffer in our midst, with afflictions that may not be visible to our eye (though I think the worst and most incurable affliction is our addiction to non-renewable resources). I think that teacher just lost a great opportunity to show how open and forward-looking that polytechnic is, and for it to be a chance for others to talk about issues like young people having cancer in a more positive and upbeat light.
That I’ve come back after 4.5 years of being abroad, to a country that’s advanced much technologically, yet still retains its close-mindedness in the way people are valued and important issues are sidelined is something that I’m still trying to get used to. This issue might just be limited to the polytechnic my brother is attending, but I think that’s highly unlikely. Though to be honest, I think my vested interest and greatest loss is that my younger brother would have brought up issues of sustainable seafood and reducing food waste in his version of the valedictorian speech, which would have had a far greater and ranging impact than any ranting of mine on this platform which preaches to the choir could do.