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F-word was no big deal

F-word was no big deal

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Harmless speech by a NTU valedictorian blown out of proportion by sensationalist media and moral police.

By Terence Lee

“WE FUCKING did it!”

I can’t imagine how that swear word, spoken at the end of a valedictorian speech by Trinetta Chong in Nanyang Technological University, could create such a media circus and capture the attention of the entire nation (almost).

The news report made the front page Lianhe Wanbao, a trashy Chinese tabloid, followed by The New Paper, well-known for twisting facts and misquoting interviewees. Soon, people all over the Internet were yakking about it.

I was there when it happened, as one of the happy graduates donning the silly gown and mortar board. I honestly wasn’t offended by the speech and — gasp — I even felt it was appropriate and resonated well with the students.

(Wan Bao headline: Caucasian professor supports vulgar-mouthed girl. Quote: Using the F-word was not a big issue)

Save for the speech and the moment my fellow cohorts went up to receive their transcripts, I found the entire ceremony dreary and overly formal. At the beginning, the professors walked in line at an excruciatingly slow pace to the sound of regal music —  five minutes was what it took to get from the back of the hall to the stage.

The national anthem played twice, once at the beginning of the proceedings and another at the end, like assembly in secondary school. How nolstalgic.

It took some crazy students to shake things up with their on-stage antics and make the event less like a ceremony and more like a party. And the speech brought the event to its appropriate climax.

Not everyone was pleased, of course, and Wan Bao capitalized on this with their report questioning the use of the swear word. Predictably, some parents complained, which was not entirely unexpected. Some members of the public chimed in too, complaining about how inappropriate it was.

What we’re seeing is a clash of values: Between a dressed-down faction less accustomed to arbitrary rules of behavior and our buttoned-up, more traditional peers and predecessors who are used to obeying such regulations and seeing it enforced. We saw it manifested in the ceremony itself. Clearly, the attendees have divergent visions about what a convocation is about, and both the student body and university administration tried to define it in their own terms.

The speech encapsulated what people like us have been feeling for a long, long time: That we feel constrained and helpless in a regimented society governed by arbitrary rules that make no sense; and that we admire that someone, who even for the briefest of moments, dared to rebel.

The difference is in some ways generational, with the the younger, millennial generation  much less tolerant of customs and traditional rules. Perhaps the younger folks have come to see how hypocritical many rule enforcers really are.

Our generation has witnessed how religious authorities, particularly certain Roman Catholic priests, have time and again succumbed to predatory sexual behavior despite their own strict code of conduct.  Or cue politicians who preach one thing but do another. Or our local media, who in this instance sensationalized what was essentially a harmless incident into the Greatest Moral Crisis of the Century — all for the sake of feeding their fat, overweight, coffers.

There’s no mistaking the fact that us millennials  do have morals, but instead of one code of conduct, we have codes of conduct.

We’re a generation that is more tolerant of differences, but less tolerant of conformity. Standing out is the new cool, which was why we gave the valedictorian a standing O. We are far more adept at seeing beyond the rules of society, and peer into its soul. In other words: Authenticity rocks, hypocrisy doesn’t. Honestly, has The New Paper done any better by using ‘f**king’ as opposed to ‘fucking’ (or f*cking, for that matter)? Is there really any difference at all? Who defines these rules anyway, and who is to say what is right and what isn’t?

So far, reactions by my peers to these media reports have been defiant. And judging by the reactions on the Internet, it looks like most people of my generation don’t really think it’s a big deal either. In fact, the speech and media coverage that followed probably inspired more swearing.

Beyond just being great fun, I felt the speech encapsulated what people like us have been feeling for a long, long time: That we feel constrained and helpless in a regimented society governed by arbitrary rules that make no sense; and that we admire that someone, who even for the briefest of moments, dared to rebel.

The sad reality is that many of us would most probably leave that spirit behind the moment we step into the workforce and become part of the very system that we find so restraining, or when we raise kids of our own and find ourselves needing to enforce rules that our kids will one day fight against.

Or we could choose to do otherwise.