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WannaCry hero schools us on education

And why that pesky "which school were you from" question, that Singaporeans like to ask, needs to go away

It’s unwise to advocate a wild abandon of formal education, as our accidental hero did. But his triumph may point to a bigger lesson for Singapore, as students must brace themselves for a more uncertain future.

THE global ransomware scare has ushered in an accidental hero of our times - a 22-year-old from South-west England boasting an impressive mop of hair - who had stemmed the spread of the cyberthreat with about 10 bucks, and 48 sleepless hours.

MalwareTech, as he is known via his Twitter handle, holds no degree. He told the Daily Mail that he became "very sick" with school, after he was falsely accused of hacking his school's IT system. He did his O-level exam on information technology, on paper - an exam that he then, for good reason, failed.

The modern-day hero's background made me examine my own formal education.

One little epiphany in life came when I wrote a silly over-analysis on a piece of selected prose for a literature assignment. I did not in fact believe that the writer was describing a protagonist who was drowning in his deep thoughts while tracing the circular shape of the crockery. I was simply desperate to fill two pages with the pretext of intellectualism. My crock scored 16/25, which at that time meant an eventual A for A-levels. That week, I aged a lot.

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My disillusionment with the education system began early in life, after a teacher selected a right answer out of multiple choices based on the number of votes an answer got in class. At 12, I too got "very sick" of school.

I only realised much later in my teenage years how to game the Singapore education system. There was, at least in my experience, no time to indulge in deep learning if you wanted to get top grades. Rote learning is still the engine of exam strategies. I was obstinate about learning my own way for a long time, and so somewhat "failed" the system in the early years.

Still, the study-till-your-nose-bleeds complex in most parts of Asia, has, for me, meant an in-built anxiety about making mistakes. Take, for example, a recent test that I took to secure a proficiency certificate in business Mandarin. I felt raw irritation at my 31-year-old self for making a few mistakes in the test, and then I was irritated about feeling irritated in the first place. It wasn't a bad score, and in the grand scheme of things, it did not matter.

That mild neurosis took me further back to a time when I was 15. Feeling ashamed of a B3 that I had scored - incidentally for my Chinese preliminary exam - I wrote a note to my parents to say I'd do better (which I did), instead of delivering the bad news in person. I still remember the note being sealed in a pink envelope.

Today, having not gone to an elite school but being surrounded by interviewees who have, inevitably, I would be subjected to the guessing game of which school I came from. I don't belong to a web of connections that conveys some convenient and preconceived idea of success based on a girls'-school uniform. I'm not cut from the same cloth.

A broader view of life on this small island is something I mostly relish.

I find just as much creativity from good books, as I do from the dictionary of the Hardwarezone forums (though the lack of civility can get nauseating). I don't have a problem with the use of Singlish or "bad" English if the speaker has something to say. Too much money is spent on strategies to use perfectly formed English sentences to say absolutely nothing at all. That may be clever in theory, but it hardly counts as progress.

Still, the persistent question of "which school were you from" is also an inevitable judgment of underperformance in Singapore, a "mistake". It is a damning form of social awkwardness. And so in the narrow, cookie-cutter system that is Singapore, there is as much tension as there is freedom in not belonging anywhere.

Mr Malware-Tech-with-Big-Hair is a success today because he decided he could be good at something, and pursued it with ragged determination - presumably with a better attitude about "mistakes" than mine. He threw himself into his interest, which probably explains why he worked on the WannaCry attack though he was away from the office.

There should be no illusions that having such a singular focus would automatically lead to success. In some ways, it smacks of privilege to think everyone turned out just fine for bombing at the PSLE. Some in Singapore would do so much better in a different system, if they had the money to go elsewhere. And even hard work can run up against chummy networks that blunt the edge of meritocracy; passion doesn't equate competency.

I count myself lucky that my young and stubborn ideals worked out in the end (though, given the disruption in the media industry, saying I got lucky is a bit of a stretch). I chose to be a journalist at 14 - the first option of dolphin trainer seemed far-fetched even for a teenager then - and pursued the needed qualifications.

It's unwise to advocate a wild abandon of formal education, as our accidental hero did. But his triumph may point to a bigger lesson for Singapore, as students must brace themselves for a more uncertain future. To build resilient, thoughtful leaders who can adapt to sudden disruption, our society would do better to foster greater diversity, a genuine hunger for learning, and a deeper generosity towards mistakes. This begins with ensuring that schools do not get in the way of an education.