I’ve never been one to follow rules all that closely.
I spent my teenage life running away from various prefects, dodging them in between corridors and stairs. I know all the prefects I ran away from (and only some of the ones from whom I didn’t) — I landed myself liable to detention much more than once. In junior college I skipped lessons wherever I could (which admittedly was not all that often), and we traipsed off to town (Coronation Plaza was too dangerous) right after our tutors dismissed us, saying the important thing was not to get caught.
It’s an oft-repeated mantra, the idea that you can get away with anything if you try hard enough. For some people it sums up the very essence of adulthood, because it seems impossible that life can and should consist of a ton of rules, made for people like us to follow. I say ‘people like us’ as if we were an entirely separate category, but part of me feels disbelief at how anyone can be content to work within the confines of everything. There are too many things to abide by, too many lines you cannot cross, there is invisible red tape here and there, and the most dangerous ones of all are the ones where they don’t tell you not to cross, before you cross them and they come after you.
But I wasn’t always like this. As a child I was a good girl, although I mainly attribute it to the fact that I didn’t care. As I grew older I realised my objections were not to rules as they were but simply rules which were unnecessary, or which didn’t make sense. For better or worse, I could never understand why it was such a big deal in secondary school to have your belt tightened within two fingers’ space of your waist, which seemed so arbitrary (what if you had fat fingers? What if the prefect had small hands? Why should your personal comfort be dictated by the size of someone else’s fingers? And how ethical was it for someone else to shove their hands down your belt just to check if you were following rules, which sometimes they themselves didn’t even believe in?) and disregarded personal differences entirely (what if someone had a really long torso and her belt only looked like it was at the hip?). It was the beginning of a journey in life where I saw that one’s personal discipline had to be measured by another person’s ideas of what should be, and it just didn’t make sense. I don’t know if anyone else saw that, but I’m pretty sure not everyone who disregarded the rules did so purely just because they wanted to look cool.
Then there was the issue of fingernails, for which I got booked more times for than my belt, because I figured out the trick to the belt after a while, but I could never be bothered to take out my nail clipper and trim them till ‘the flesh below could be seen’. The system was such that after a few bookings, you’d get a detention slip and have to go for detention. I managed to escape this till the last half of the year when I was Sec 4, and suddenly I was getting booked and rebooked every other day. You got booked 3 times, and a slip came. If you didn’t turn up for detention, you got booked again, and again, and again, and the detentions multiplied, until you eventually turned up. They threatened you with the scary-sounding ‘beta system’ into which your ‘records’ would be entered into and they pitched it such that your entire future would be ruined when you finally decided to apply for some scholarship or job or something or other and your future employer(s) saw your multiple detention bookings and turned away. It never worked on me and I never turned up for detention, figuring they could just book me till the end of my school term, and that they would never force me to stay behind and serve xx hours’ of detention before they would give me my O Level certificate. I refused to believe anyone could be so shortsighted as to refuse me for my long fingernails, and as it turned out, they never did ask me to stay back. I have no idea still if this mythical ‘beta system’ even exists, but in any case, there will always be something else in a similar form to take its place, intimidating generations of school kids into behaving themselves.
I feel as if I just didn’t care about the rules that didn’t make sense, and in doing so broke them, but now it seems like I was none the worse for it. Of course, there is permissible rule breaking, and then there is rule breaking. I saw fully the point of having a uniform, and so never really objected when flagrant disregard of rules was exhibited (like nail polish, for example, or makeup, which was entirely too obvious; or a belt that hung off your butt — of course they would book, what else did you expect?) and also where it seemed as if there was no point to breaking the rules. I admitted that sometimes I deserved to be disciplined. But I hated more that there was no room for allowances or flexibility, and that there was no clear-cut standard. Yet it should probably come as no surprise that I ended up here, in a career that some people view as dedicated to finding ways around the rules without actually having to break them.
I used to like law school, or at least the idea of it. But the idea of justice etc etc fades away quickly, and is replaced more urgently by the thrill of finding ways to justify things, and more often than not it seemed that justice was achieved not by following hard bound rules but by bending them. And that was what law seemed all about, or else the certainty vs. justice debate would not carry on so ardently. It was frightening, when I read cases that fervently stuck to the law, and it got even worse when I just couldn’t figure out why these rules made sense, because they just didn’t. As you get older you see through more and more propaganda, and there are less ways to deceive you. As children we can be conned, but not so much as we move on in life. It seemed ludicrous to me that anyone could believe in that kind of rhetoric in the judgments, when it was plainly obtuse and the tone incredibly servile, subservient to the wrong kinds of values and the wrong views of justice. It scared me more that there were people who existed and were making these judgments, and that all of them would be my boss, and in time some of them would be my friends. It struck me that there were people who saw through all this and were making themselves heard, just as stubbornly as the people on top who refused to hear them. I was aware that all of this was subjective. It was usually a case of ‘the greater good’. But years of literature and history told me that the concept of ‘the greater good’ was the classic example of how the road to hell is inevitably paved with good intentions. It ate away at me that politics was being allowed to so blatantly intrude into law. It was not always the case, but I felt as if I was running into rules wherever I went, rules that didn’t make sense, thought up by senseless bureaucrats in the comforts of their offices, spouting their antiquated ideas of the common good, ideas from which the common man could never escape once they fell into one of the many black holes that existed. The answer to a lacuna in the law cannot always be to make more laws.
It was still fine before I went to Holland. European law taught me less about substantive European law than their differences with Singapore law, and it showed me a life I could never have led back home. A philosophy, an idea of justice, the common good. Granted that they have had centuries’ worth of wars and warped ideas to teach them, and perhaps it is really one of those things which you must experience to believe in. People move back and forth across the world all the time because they are disillusioned with their country; one should not have to face years’ of criticism and government-made propaganda about how you are abandoning your homeland, nor have to listen to how your heart is still here no matter where you go — because it must be plainly clear, at least to those of us who can see, that home is where the heart is, yes, and so where their families and loved ones are, and not the ground on which they stand. There have been numerous government campaigns to this effect, urging us all to stay here, and not leave. But Singapore now is less about Singaporeans and more about the foreigners that throng in non-stop to take our places, just as we go elsewhere to fill up the gaps left by disillusioned citizens in other countries. It is inevitable. Leaving your country should not hold such a stigma.
I digress — back to law school. I liked its journey, the intellectual learning, the way I found new things to think and talk about, but I didn’t always like what I found. Constitutional law was draining, but I could still accept it as something greater than I was, that consisted of ideas greater than I was — at the end of it all, as just ideas. But Evidence law thoroughly threw me off, and there were times during the exam period where I felt like just flinging my textbook across the room, because it just seemed so blatantly unfair, how rules were being twisted and broken (and suddenly it was okay to break the rules, just because you were the one making them). I couldn’t write any of it down in my paper. What is this rubbish about how illegally obtained evidence can still be used in court to convict a person, whose commission of the crime you secured by entrapment? Or blatantly nonsense statements like how the police are not obliged to inform you of your right to counsel when you are arrested? Or, how even retracted confessions can still be used to convict?
Yes, there is justice. There is justice and there is justice and there is justice, and there is law. Some may say it is an idea of justice I still cannot see, and that the law must be bent this way so that we can keep all these people behind bars. It is, after all, for the greater good. One would not like rapists and drug traffickers on every corner of the street. But I see it, and it scares me, that so many rules are put up just to catch a select few. It may not strike you as entirely surprising that I choose to practice law in an area that has absolutely nothing to do with all these things.
But I wonder if I will stay forever. There are the small things. Things like PLC, which seems increasingly pointless and badly organised. Again I’m beginning to feel the strain of living within other people’s expectations, where your life and your time and your mind is not your own, doing what somebody tells you to, even when it doesn’t make sense. Life is increasingly about someone else having a marking scheme for everything that you do, except that you don’t know what is on it and you have no idea if you passed or failed, till it’s too late. If they meant to simulate real life in that manner, they probably succeeded. But this is probably our last chance to learn and fall without life-changing consequences. Again I feel myself stuck in an institution with too many strange ideas, too little flexibility, too many rules that don’t make sense (attendance taking when you are 23? Really? When four years of law school did not even require that? Declaring your attendance? What is this, secondary school?) and I feel myself beginning to want to struggle to get out. We’ll see. It seems weak to give up even before we have started, and so I shall not, and I will not till the going gets too bad. Maybe work will be better, when you’re actually doing things with people who have walked the same path before and who also see similar pointlessness. But we’ll see, we’ll see. I never thought I would say this, but given a chance, I think I might jump ship.