Memoirs of an Ex Ah Lian

The Ah Lians and Ah Bengs of Singapore will always be the bane of our society's existence. Rightly so, as they are a bunch of obnoxious, uncouth, insolent, loud-mouthed (and insert whatever unpleasant words you can find in the dictionary) punks who hold no regard for their lives or anyone else. Unfortunately, I was classified as an Ah Lian in my young teenage years. Definitely not something to be very proud of.


I have never been the perfect, straight-A, polite and all-rounded kid that my parents could brag about to their friends and relatives. As a young child, I was hyperactive, lazy, messy, inattentive, mischievous and constantly getting into trouble. I scored borderline grades in primary school, neither splendid nor atrocious. Nonetheless, my parents, being typical traditional Asian parents aimed for perfection; there is no room for error. I would get reprimanded whenever my results did not hit 80% and above, which was all the time.


Then I reached the age of 13 years old and entered secondary school. It was a total 180 degree change for me. I experienced hell. The teachers didn’t get me from Day One, they mistook my confusion and uncertainty about things for rebelliousness. I didn’t know it was wrong to have dyed hair in secondary school, I didn’t know that we weren’t supposed to alter our uniforms, I didn’t know that our shirts had to be tucked in at all costs, I didn’t know that there were so many rules to follow and I didn’t know that it was wrong that I wasn’t instantly aware of these rules. Well, in our authoritative society, a Singaporean couldn’t expect anything less.


So it begun, I started speaking up for myself and my fellow school mates as the others would choose to remain silent even when wronged. I was ostracized as a result. Deemed and labelled as THE “gangster girl” in school, I was revered by students for my supposed “bravery” and “coolness”, teachers despised me for being belligerent, insolent and defiant. Though I somehow knew that I was at fault and getting into trouble for being so head-strong and opinionated, I refused to change my take on things.


I was immensely miserable and I dreaded going to school. I had amazing friends there but I was failing all of my subjects because the teachers kept picking on me for every single slight flaw that I made and as a result, I could hardly attend any classes as I was constantly being berated somewhere by some teacher. My parents were utterly disappointed in me though I did try to explain to them my predicament, they would pass it off as an excuse.


I started blatantly just walking out of class in the middle of being lectured by a teacher and escaping from school to meet friends I made outside. These friends I made were less than desirable members of society; they were school-dropouts, involved in gangs and illegal activities. But they were the only ones that I felt that understood my position and it helped that they were rather fun to hang around with; there was never a dull moment when I was with them. Before you knew it, I was behaving, speaking and dressing like one of the teenage delinquents of Singapore. Smoking and drinking under the legal age, causing public disturbances and mischief, running away from home, intimidating others with threats, getting tattoos and piercings... Just to name a few.


I had anger management issues. I was exceptionally vulgar, violent and explosive; I would blow my top at anyone for the slightest thing.


I had this favourite phrase I loved to use back then, “I will not conform to society, I shall rebel against all authority”.


It was only a matter of time that they were to persuade me to join one of their gangs that they were involved in. So they did. I refused. I knew my limits and I knew that once I was in, I would wind up as one of them, wasting their lives away committing offences, never having enough money, never able to enjoy the finer things in life but always worrying about the law catching up to them. That is not a life I would want to lead permanently. I decided that I had my fun, broke off all contact with every single delinquent friend I had made and went up to my father requesting to be home-schooled.


By then it was my last year in secondary school, I had endured 4 years of torture and had 4 years worth of studies to catch up with within a few months time as the Cambridge “O” Levels were approaching. My home tutors struggled through my subjects with me, and eventually our hard work paid off. My results were a lot better than expected and the teachers in my secondary school were flabbergasted, they initially were sceptical about my home-schooling idea and were criticizing that they were sure I would not be able to make it without the help of the school. Well I showed them, and in turn also proved to myself that I could achieve anything if I set my mind to it and persevering to the end. Thus ended my havoc and rebellious years of my teenage life. I am well in control of my emotions now and actually know how to use my spunky and audacious character to my advantage for delivering pragmatic ideas and suggestions that are able to get people excited about.


Throughout this phase as I was hanging out with my fellow delinquent friends I made outside, I often wondered to myself how we ended up being the way we were then. It has got to be more than just the lure of freedom or the authority and power asserted by a gangster. Many might think that teenage delinquency occurs in broken homes, abusive or poor families, but some of them were like me, brought up in a well to do family and yet, they turned to the “dark” side. I was intrigued by this phenomenon. I had a lot of free time on my hands back then as I was frequently playing truant, I wanted to know what made me the way I was and whether teenage delinquency should actually be viewed with sympathy instead of abhorrence. To use a more specific psychiatric diagnosis developed by the mental health community, my gangster friends and I were conduct-disordered adolescents. Conduct Disorder applies to individuals, typically adolescents, who consistently act in ways that violate the rights of others' or society's rules. This includes physical aggression and intimidation, destruction of property, deceitfulness, forced sexual activity, theft, truancy, and running away from home. To qualify for a diagnosis of Conduct Disorder, teenagers must show a repetitive and persistent pattern of these behaviours as opposed to isolated incidents of inappropriate behaviour.


I observed my delinquent friends, the words they spoke, the things they said, their family backgrounds, their behaviour to certain stuff and other little aspects. I deduced that in order to find out the reasons behind Conduct Disorder in teenagers, I had to look at both the social as well as the personal causes of both myself and my friends’ behaviours. My friends and I did not “just happen” to become delinquents, there are definitely reasons why we turned to delinquency and others did not.


Based on what I know about most of my hoodlum friends, they have at least one relative who is persistently engaged in anti-social/illegal behaviour. I remember reading a verse from the Christian Bible once that said “the sins of the fathers are visited to the second and third generations” (Exodus 20:5). This does not apply to me as my parents and most of my relatives are law-abiding citizens. However, it might be one of the many reasons in general in why adolescents turn to delinquency. I have heard stories from them bragging about which gang their father is in, what his position is in that particular gang. Children whose parents and significant relatives or adult friends of the family model anti-social behaviour are much more likely to develop conduct disorders than those with law-abiding relatives.


I had friends from my secondary school who joined or wished to join me in my conquest to “rebel against all authority”. This was then that I contemplate about the association of teenagers who exhibit delinquent behaviour. I read about it in the internet that a high percentage of children with conduct disorders act out their delinquent behaviours with their peers. The pressure to rebel in order to be accepted by one's peers can be incredibly strong, either that or they were enticed by the prospect of a cool, badass image.


Other things I found out through online research are that physiological factors are another major contributor to conduct disorders. Neuropsychological factors (brain structure and function) have been shown to be related to some types of delinquent and antisocial behavioural patterns. Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), for example, are more likely to develop conduct disorders. These children often have difficulty concentrating and paying attention, and tend to be impulsive. Such traits often undercut academic performance and cause children to behave disruptively at school and at home, thus leaving them frustrated and feeling bad about themselves. As they develop into teenagers, these same individuals often struggle increasingly with impulsivity which makes it all the more likely that they may engage in risky, foolish, or illegal activities. The end result is an increasingly low self-image and a revolving cycle of bad behaviour. This would depend on how they are able to cope and deal with it.


An additional risk factor for delinquency would be the presence of other mental disorders in the child. Teenagers with depression, for example, are more likely to engage in conduct disordered behaviour. This makes sense since sad, depressed teenagers will be looking for something to bring excitement into their lives. Anti-social actions can bring a temporary feeling of excitement or a thrill from "beating the system" or "outsmarting" people in authority. In addition, we know that boys in particular are not encouraged in today's world and society to express feelings of sadness, they are often ridiculed and made fun of if they cry. This sometimes drives boys into "burying" their sadness, ultimately letting it surface as anger. Perpetual undermining of a child’s abilities, expectations set too high for a child or incessant rebuking could drive a teenager to depression that comes out as anger and often lead to Conduct Disorder behaviour. Children with severe mental disorders that distort reality like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or paranoia, are also more likely to engage in delinquent acts.


Children imitate their parents/adult role-models.


Peers can have negative influences on each other.


Some children are born physiologically different.


Teenagers with emotional problems.


Surprisingly though, quite a number of my friends with conduct disorders show few, if any, of these factors. From my own experience, my friends’, and some research on the internet, I have deduced that there are two other emotional factors that lie at the very core of the personalities of nearly all people who consistently engage in antisocial behaviour. These are the capacity to care for others and the ability to experience healthy guilt.


The deepest human emotion and the one that will most likely ward off potential delinquency if it is fully developed is empathy. Empathy is simply the ability to understand and experience the feelings of another person. It is the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes. Empathy has two components: a cognitive component (understanding what another feels) and an emotional component (experiencing what another feels).


When we care for people and suffer when they suffer, we won't want to cause them pain. But when caring is lacking, people can be vulnerable to everything from inaction to actual destructive behaviour. Teenagers in particular who don't feel for other people can become prone to delinquent actions. Since they don't love or feel for others they may think, Why not rebel, steal, hurt or violate their rights?


All human beings, and particularly teenagers, struggle to some degree with the tendency to be selfish, rebellious and insensitive to others. I postulate that it is within each and every adolescent’s capacity to control their lives and rule it right.

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