In Singapore, This is How You Play the Rebel
Illustration by Lam Yik Chun.

Once upon a time, we were “stubborn” for going against the norm. Our parents wondered why our passion didn’t lie in something simpler, like banking or law. Our peers found our penchant for breaking every rule we came across both inspirational and idiotic.

Now, we are “brave” for being different.

Our uniquely Singaporean brand of rebellion sets us apart from our strait-laced nation. It earns us respect and admiration. If we play our cards right, we could get a feature on CNA Insider.

These are the stereotypes that shape our understanding of what being a rebel in Singapore entails.

Unfortunately, even our attempts to be different can feel so similar.

1. We are all talk, very little action

In Singapore, because of how strongly the norm is emphasised, sometimes mere talk is all we need to be called a rebel. In school, we were the ones whose report cards read, “Outspoken and opinionated.” Occasionally, grownups called us “rude” and “disrespectful”.

Now that we’re older, our rhetoric revolves around particular topics, such as the importance of straying from the norm, having passion and dreams, and how status quo kills these dreams.

But most of the time, talk is cheap. We say we hate it, yet we accept that “that is life”. We rarely invest in any ‘adventurous’ life decision that would risk leaving our comfort zone.

Even though we know doing trumps dreaming, few of us ever make good on our “passion” and fulfill what we talk about accomplishing. In our defence, there is no need to. Here, to have an unpopular opinion is to rock the boat.

2. We get straight A’s but choose poly over JC

From young, we develop a fixed idea of how to pursue success. We learn that getting stellar results means we’re expected to take certain paths, such as attending a top JC, heading to an Ivy League to read business or law, and being a President Scholar.

And so, when seasoned rebels are pressured to conform, we buck the trend. We may work damn hard to get good grades, but only because we understand this gives us more opportunities to pick an unconventional path.

Whether we do it just to be different, or because we want a different kind of success, we retain control over our lives by doing the unexpected. We achieve six points for our L1R5 and choose to go to poly, or attain straight A’s for A-levels and head to Paris to study baking.

Whatever the case, picking something we’re supposedly ‘too good for’ only reinforces how rebellious we really are.

3. We say we won’t get married or have children

As rebels, we subvert family, cultural and societal norms by proclaiming our disdain for marriage and procreation. Marriage is “an institution” and “just a piece of paper”, both of which are legitimate reasons for our cynicism.

When we’re single, we often crack self-deprecating jokes about our singlehood, indirectly implying how much better off we think we are. If we’re coupled up, making digs about getting married or having children emphasises how cool our partners are for also going against the grain. Sometimes, we even specifically choose to date people we know our parents would disapprove of.

As much as rebels are mostly independent thinkers, we’re not completely immune to social pressure. In doing any of the above, we inevitably let our views on marriage and children shape how we live.

Ironically, this is precisely what we dislike about our more conventional counterparts.

We seek the thrill of rebellion by doing little things to feel like we still have some say in our identity.

4. We hate our job, the government, and “the system”

All rebels have a natural anti-establishment streak and a seemingly consistent tendency not to give a fuck. To ordinary Singaporeans, this is as badass as it gets.

For rebels, it can result in pervasive cynicism. This manifests in hatred for the government or any mainstream ideology that perpetuates a system where the privileged become more privileged.

We also tend to hate 9-to-5 jobs. Where most Singaporeans would see this as making a living, we call it “selling out”. We mistakenly assume that we only fulfil our potential when we pursue something outside the norm.

All these arbitrary guidelines for how we’re supposed to act mean that even if we eventually develop a genuine optimism for the corporate world or the government, our jadedness already informs our identity as a rebel. Some argue this makes us rebels without a cause, a hopeless cliche.

They’re probably right.

5. We challenge the status quo in really, really small ways

If all else fails, forget being radical; the devil is in the details. At least, that’s how we justify being ‘safe’ when we defy convention.

So we seek the thrill of rebellion by doing little things to feel like we still have some say in our identity.

For example, we smoke socially with friends who are fellow rebels, and get a streak of colour in our hair that pushes HR rules at our corporate job. We get a nose piercing or a barely-there tattoo on a visible part of the body. We wear brightly coloured socks to give a business presentation. We find a job that’s impossible to explain to anyone born before 1980.

It’s as though we take pride in being different enough just to be admired, but not avoided.

Ultimately, because of how we’ve been brought up to respect tradition, the ways most Singaporeans choose to stand out follow a template that in fact cause us to blend in.

In fact, true individuality should be celebrated. Being a rebel is, above all, about commitment to being who we are without external influence. Be it art or accounting, mainstream or minority, a rebel is unapologetic and unwavering when making any life choice.

It’s as Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

In Singapore, that is possibly the most rebellious thing we can do.

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