Dropping out of school was probably the most significant decision of my life. Because I was by no means a bad student, I consistently scored in the top 10% throughout the 10 years of my school life. I did all my homework, studied hard for exams, and was proud for a long time about my academic accomplishments.
So for me to abandon school was huge; especially in Singapore, a traditional Asian country where it felt like exam results completely determined your life, where your entire purpose and worth in society revolved around results in English, Chinese, Mathematics and Science.
Admittedly, I think making the decision to drop out of school was far easier for me than with most people, because I actually had a talent outside school.
Since I was 12, either in between school or during holidays, I'd devote time to making videos. They were mostly light-hearted comedy skits I made in my room with a cheap $90 camera. But apparently some were good enough to become viral (amassing a few hundred thousand views), win film awards, and nab me a supporting role in a mainstream Singapore movie.
I was pretty much considered a child prodigy by many. So there were hints early on that I could make it in the real world without a college degree, which I suspect subconsciously gave me the boldness to eventually drop out of school.
All throughout 2014, I was an obedient student, studying for exams daily. Yet how I came to the decision to leave school was simply from a 3-4 day period of thinking in my room.
O-level is the name of the final-year school exam that would determine whether I'd go to a good junior college or not.
I had studied for hours every day for the past 2 months. So 3 weeks before O-level, I decided to take a break for just a few days. And ironically, after dutifully following the school system for 10 years, only when O-level was near, and I was directly reminded of what I had been working towards all this time, did I start reflecting on why I was studying.
As though by fate, I came across two pieces of media that started provoking thoughts on why school was bad.
The first was Daria, a 1997 animated show which gave a generally negative portrait of school in the perspective of a rebellious, introverted, but highly intelligent girl.
And the second was this short 2-minute video by The Amazing Atheist, sharing why he hated school. He mentions that the curriculum doesn't accommodate every student's unique styles of learning, hindering their growth. And how school with their focus on rules and rote memorisation, stifles thinking, probably the most important part of learning.
The video, looking back, is needlessly hate-filled, and not well thought-out or researched by any means. However for someone who lived in Singapore, where the necessity of going to school was regarded as universal of a truth as Christians believing in God, that video shook my world.
And strangely the moment I was exposed to those alternative opinions, it was as though something dormant that existed inside me all this time, had awakened. And it didn't take long for me to go from a hardworking, devoted student, to deciding to drop out of school.
Next, I started having an internal dialogue, asking myself tough questions related to school: Should I drop out? What did I want to do in my life? Does School fulfill that? Is there a way to fulfill that purpose better outside etc. I furiously paced back and forth in my room, typing down all my thoughts. This process I'd organically developed, of asking myself hard questions and writing down whatever thoughts arose. I eventually discovered this was a common journaling technique used by millionaires when making major decisions, and in mental health practices like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
So after 4 days of journaling and 30 episodes of Daria, I came to the revelation: that not only should I drop out of school, but that I had wasted 10 years of my life. I was pissed.
Here was my reasoning: For those who don't want to go to school and instead focus completely by working in the real world, people would counter that by saying 'if you manage your time well, you can do both'.
There's a big reason why you shouldn't do both. When you learn skills in the real-world, 80-90% of it is either interesting or relevant. In school, if you're being very generous, at most it's 30%, but really it's much closer to 5%. So you're squandering at least 3/4 of your productive hours by staying in school. Just from the single decision of dropping out, you can literally learn 5-10 times more useful information in a day.
When I dropped out of school, I only had a vague idea of what I wanted in my life, which was: a life with adventure, a life with creativity, to do something bold and valuable for the world. So somebody like an artist or an entrepreneur, the type who thought outside-the-box.
However in school, all you do is follow rules and do tests, any creative ideas are not encouraged, and even stifled. Of course teachers will say school promotes creativity and innovation, but it's one thing to say something, and another to actually do it.
Not to mention, truthful opinions that oppose standard views (like being against the Singaporean dictatorship), are downright condemned. This happens in most school systems in society, but even more so in Singapore, a traditional, dogmatic, Asian country where there's biased pro-government propaganda everywhere, from the history curriculum to the national pledge recitation every morning.
I had no concrete plan when I decided to leave school. I was only equipped with the undeniable understanding that school wasn't for me. Placed in the real-world alone, I told myself that whatever happens I'll 'figure it out'. And looking back, I am so glad I didn't wait until I had goals before dropping out. Because when you're 16, in an ever-changing, mysterious world, how on earth are you expected to have long-term goals? So what I did was just to lead life, and figure out my goals along the way.
Now worse-case scenario, my family becomes so pissed off that their child has dropped out of school, that they kick me out of the house. Or they harass me every day about going to school until the environment becomes so miserable that I'd want to leave. As much as they'd think having a child that's a school drop-out would tarnish the family's reputation or whatever, underneath I still think they care about me, enough that they probably wouldn't let me be homeless no matter what. However if that really happens, I'll try to get housing from a friend or a relative. And if there really isn't any help available, then fine I'll go back to school. There'd be many layers to cross before there's that real threat of danger though, so I took the risk.
It all turned out well. Of course the social backlash of dropping out of school was huge. People on Facebook who were office workers or college professors told me I was: stupid, impulsive, and would turn out to be a useless bum living in my parent's basement (It's largely my fault for choosing to talk to these people).
Fortunately my family didn't think of kicking me out, and they didn't harass me constantly about going back to school every day, my mom only harassed me for 5 days.
I wouldn't have imagined any less of a reaction from my mom (in fact for most Asian families, they might ask why she didn't react even more harshly). My mother was a primary and secondary school maths teacher, she has literally been teaching the maths syllabus in O-level for over 30 years. And she was by far, the biggest reason why I chose to study in school. I remembered when I was 11 years old, I didn't care about studying at all, I was a C student who barely passed my subjects, who just played video games and watched youtube videos all day.
So one day, after seeing how bad my grades were, my mother coached me for months on all my subjects. And more importantly, she convinced me on why school was important, and why I should take control of my life and succeed. With her motivating me, I was finally willing to start studying. And not only did I study, after 1-2 years I became a top student.
So I think dropping out of school made her feel like all the years of help she gave me, was for nothing. But hey, even though 10 years of her efforts were wasted, 10 years of my life was wasted even more.
Initially she tried to broach leaving school with an open mind, and I calmly explained my reasoning. But she didn't get it, or rather, she didn't accept it. And so for days she'd constantly come up to me and ask: Why do you want to drop out of school? What are your plans etc. Even though I had literally answered those questions multiple times.
I eventually realised that she was asking, not because she wanted answers or didn't understand, but because she was trying to inject her opinion that I should go back to school, and framing it as though it were a question. So when she asked 'What are your plans?', she really meant 'You don't have plans that will work'. And when she asked 'How will you succeed?', she really meant 'You won't succeed'.
She continued this interrogation for many hours a day for 5 days straight. I initially answered her questions in details, and then I answered less, and then I ignored her, and then I eventually snapped. I remembered shouting at her face. I forgot what I said, but I think it had the f-word, it almost certainly had the b-word, and it was pretty mean. After that she didn't bother me anymore.
3 weeks before the final-year exams that I'd been working hard towards for the past 10 years, I decided to drop out of school. I still took the exams though, and got results that were in the top 10% of the country (L1R5=11 (minus 4 for CCA and Malay)).
Afterwards, there was also a high school prom. Right from the start it was already expected to be a disappointment. The students initially wanted it to be in a fancy hotel, but the school didn't care enough to provide the funds for it. So the prom was run in our dinky school hall.
When I got to school to attend it, the principal, whom I had never talked to before, came up to me and called me to his office.
Because after the O-level exams, I made it a point to write a blog post telling people why I thought school sucked. How the curriculum was bad, how the teachers were mundane and made students write pointless word-on-slide notes, how the information taught was not applicable in society, etc.
The principal basically lectured me about my blog post, saying that it's one-sided and bringing shame to the school or something. He told me to delete it.
And I was like.... What are you doing? It's the end of the year on prom day. You can't give me detention. I've already left school. What do you want? I think he just thought that his authority as a principal would have an effect on me. It didn't.
The funny thing was at the prom, everyone was wearing bright, glitzy clothing with ties. Typical prom attire you know? I wore my school uniform to the prom. And when asked I explained: well we're celebrating our school life aren't we, so why wouldn't we be wearing our school uniform?
However, after 20 min of the prom, listening to jokes from an unfunny MC on stage that nobody asked for, I got bored and left.
All my other friends stayed, happily taking pictures with everyone in the class. Why? I knew the class wasn't connected, everyone always stuck to their own cliques and was unwilling to go outside of them. Everyone in the prom was taking pictures as though they were lifelong friends about to say gxoodbye. After 2 years together, we barely knew each other, and this photoshoot was an attempt to experience an illusion of closeness, when there wasn't any.
Before leaving completely, I took a picture of my hand giving the middle finger in front of my school. I then posted it online with the caption 'Goodbye School, Welcome Life'.
Looking back, I am shocked I was able to make such a decision. I wasn't even that informed about the reasons why I should have dropped out of school. I just left simply based on a strong gut feeling that school was definitely not right for me, and I needed to get out.
But over the years, I felt more and more confident about my decision, the more I learned about the flaws of the school system. How school doesn't increase your chances of making it in the workforce at all, the anguish of how overly expensive most colleges are, leaving students in years of debt (Imagine placing a 100-dollar-bill before each 1-hour class lecture), how much more effective homeschooling and democratic schools are, where children pick their own curriculum and teachers, how the school system we have now was literally taken from an education system in 1806 developed by the Prussian monarch, after losing a war and needed obedience from its citizenry.
This is a quote from Johann Ficte, one of the main proponents of the system: 'education should aim at destroying free will, so that after the pupils are thus schooled, they shall be incapable of thinking and acting otherwise, than as their schoolmasters would have wished'
People often tell me how impressed they are at how brave I was, that I was willing to make a video criticising the Singaporean dictatorship and get arrested for it . That's nothing. Dropping out of school, crushing all your family's hopes for you, coming to terms with the fact that you wasted 10 years, and throwing everything that you've worked for all your life, that's fucking brave.
Dropping out of school, was the best decision of my life
Specific: My Short Film 'Jan': The Moment I became a Child Prodigy
Related: The Story of Amos Yee