On discipline and education (as well as being open to constructive criticism)

I am working in NIE today in an ungoverned lounge for postgrad students. The tables were segregated, and people were sitting far apart. When I entered, I was expecting to see people with their masks off, but it surprised me that every one of them was doing the right thing. It is a Sunday. Who is going to enforce it? Isn’t it uncomfortable? What will be the impact since the tables are all far apart and separated?

In contrast, there were many instances over the past months where I saw individuals who did not abide by the “mask on” rule in far riskier settings; such as in a room where there are many individuals, or where extensive conversations are going on. When I look at these people, I admire their discipline, even when they are not in a profession where discipline is the hallmark. I felt embarrassed as I set up my devices, making some noise while I do so. The room is dead silent, and you can hear a pen drop if it weren’t on a carpeted floor. My mind started to wander – Maybe education is indeed the key to how we can make a difference in the world. And when I talk about education, I am not just talking about schools. Education takes place in all kinds of organisations and diverse settings. It happens when we conduct training or just through a normal conversation. When we shape the mind of others, or when others change our minds, education takes place. And this is also why I thought my postgraduate degree would be relevant regardless of where I go.

In contrast, the rooms for the undergraduates are often full of noise, people taking down their masks and eating all kinds of food without any due regard to those around them. Is it more education? Or is it maturity? Or perhaps even a cultural shift between the young and the old? A young colleague surprised me not long ago when he told me that he wasn’t aware he should not be sitting in the back seat when I was driving him. Then again, the undergraduate room has always been noisy since the days when I was an undergraduate. So maybe it wasn’t a generation cultural shift. 

It brought to mind something a commander told me when I was serving NS. He said that discipline is not something you do only when you agree with it or when you are comfortable with it. It is something that you do regardless of your personal belief. His words have stuck with me ever since. I remain deeply inspired, and I am still trying to live up to it, balancing complying with rules and not adapting to the situation. As someone more concerned with the intention behind the rules and the outcome, I sometimes risk appearing inconsistent. After all, everyone’s interpretation of why we do certain things is different. For example, the intention of not jaywalking, to me, is to prevent accidents. If it is evident to me that there is no risk of an accident happening, such as on a completely clear road, it would not seem much of an issue to jaywalk. But to someone else, it could be different. It would seem hypocritical of me to be selective with the rules I follow. We all have a different yardstick, and opening up to such discrepancies seems like a slippery slope. Yet can we afford to follow the rules blindly?

When I see someone not wearing a mask when they should, I always try to be consistent in reminding them, regardless of how much of a difference there is when it comes to power and authority. I struggle to do that for fear of offending people, especially when I am in a junior position. Other times, I find them quite likeable, and I want to keep a positive relationship. I don’t want to come across as that guy whom people avoid. Yet, my inner conscious is screaming at me. Perhaps to the nature of my spouse’s career, the words “without fear or favour” always come to mind, and I will be compelled to do what I don’t want to do but is what’s right nonetheless. It is clear to me that the more powerful the person is, the less inclined one will be to say to them that they are wrong. Hence, we need to be even more proactive as leaders to demonstrate that we are open to constructive criticism.

This brings me to my final point. As humans, we are not infallible. Sometimes, we fail to see our blind spots. There are times when we fail to act according to the values we preach, intentional or not. I am a fierce defender of my beliefs. I must be, because I need to test whatever someone else is selling to me before I accept it. But I state categorically that if there is any inconsistency in my actions or words or that I have failed to act according to how I am supposed to be, never be afraid to tell me so. Let me have the opportunity to clarify or correct myself. So long it is done respectfully.





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