A little rebellion now and then is a good thing

This recent article really caught my eye and heart. It was a beautifully succinct piece written by Alvan Yap, an advocacy executive with the DPA (Disabled People’s Association).

In his blog post, Alvan referenced the written exchanges between Professor Tommy Koh and the LTA in the Straits Times a few years back. What initially started as a simple discussion on the LTA’s capability to make public transport more accessible to people with disabilities became a controversy on government organisations’ obligations towards its citizens.

While not heavily relayed by mainstream media, the episode showed how one person’s determination against the current can result in real social progress.

Basically, the professor (who is now Ambassador-At-Large in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) had written letters to the LTA to plead for more accessibility in certain public transports. LTA’s response, written in a way that put an end to the discussion, stated that it was too expensive and impractical to retrofit the existing transportation system for wheelchair accessibility.

The matter probably would have ended there had the LTA not used a condescending tone that insinuated that advocates for the disabled were an emotional lot who lacked financial knowledge and prudence.

This stirred up a fair bit of citizen outrage (imagine if the netizen outrage had this taken place today!) and ultimately changed public policy pertaining to the disability community.

Another thing that stood out from Alvan’s article was the part about a Minister telling Professor Koh “not to make trouble”, as if asking questions and suggesting different approaches could only be seen as “suspicious” or “counter-productive”.

I found this quite interesting, as the Koh/LTA saga clearly showed how one man’s “troublemaker” can be another’s “hero”.

Many historical events have showed us how “activists” and “dissenters” have been called “martyrs”, “revolutionaries”, “traitors”, or even “terrorists” depending on who they are criticising and who gets to write the history textbooks.

Science, too, is full of extraordinary people who have been labelled “crazy”, “dangerous”, or “heretic” for proposing theories that were later proven sound.

Great thinkers have consistently been the ones to help push the boundaries of knowledge, thought, and progress. Yet some of them have also taken a few hits for their creativity and “difference”.

On the one hand, the government fosters innovation, supports risk-taking, and encourages creativity, as long as it generates revenues, contributes to the country’s economy, and gets people talking about Singapore in a positive light.

But on the other hand, people who actually think outside the box and strive to innovate in areas not necessarily relevant to the nation’s money-making machine are told “not to make trouble” or are openly punished for their art.

All our lives here, we’ve been told to obey the rules and respect authority because the pay-off is way bigger than disrupting the system. In the army we are taught to follow orders, no matter how silly or outdated some rules may be. In school we are taught to learn by heart and not question what we’re learning. In the office we are taught to strive for the top by following strict codes and hierarchies.

What’s the point of talking about driving innovative excellence when the very foundations of our education system have been designed to quench all semblance of creativity in children from an early age?

Isn’t this why Apple could never have been created in Singapore?

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

–Steve Jobs

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