Lessons From My Brushes With Authority

The sinking of the MV Sewol was a national tragedy in Seoul and what transpired really upsetted me at that time. My take was that many deaths could have been avoided if not for the blind adherence to authority.

Apparently, when the ship was already showing signs of capsizing, the 400 plus passengers (who were mostly Seconday school students) were ordered to stay in their rooms and not to move. Half an hour later, the Captain jumped ship and somehow, the decision to evacuate was not communicated to the passengers. Minutes later, about 150 to 160 passengers and crew decided to ignore the instructions and jumped overboard. Most (if not all) of these passengers were rescued. Those that had remained were trapped, and perished in this accident.

You could say that this was an isolated incident and failures of authority on such levels are rare. But I have had my fair brushes with authority and I am starting to wonder if we could be relying too much on authority even when it could be obvious that it is not in our interests to do so?

I have so many examples to substantiate my case since authority (which can be defined as the right to control, command and determine0 is present almost everywhere in modern society: in school, at work and even in personal finance.


In School

I guess I was a smart kid and many teachers appreciated my precociousness. But that trait was accompanied by a willingness to challenge conventions, which incurred wrath from just as many educators.

During my Primary school years, I was always more inclined in Math than English. However, by Primary 5, my English was improving rapidly, helped by a growing voracious appetite for books. I started to neglect my Math Homework (2 problem sums a day) in favour of reading Hardy Boys mysteries. I repeatedly lied about forgetting to bring the work to school and was eventually found out.

Actually I didn’t have any difficulties at all in solving most of those problem sums quickly as i was consistently scoring ninties in tests and exams (please pardon my younger self). I just hated the repetition but let’s just say that the teachers and parents (authorities) couldn’t completely empathise with me as remember being caned pretty badly at home.

Is your teacher more concerned about your welfare or keeping order in the classroom?

At Work

Even after turning from Ah Boys to Men, we turned up at the workforce as the lowest lifeforms and are subjected to the whims of authority from Day 1, even though we were already well into our twenties in our first job.

During the first few days, the Human Resource department would brief you on the rules and regulations. Basically, you wouldn’t be authorized to leave the office compound or go home without consent from your supervisor. So for most of your waking hours on weekdays, the supervisor takes over the role of “parent” and “teacher”.

An email from this supervisor detailing about the new project he had earnestly volunteered to undertake could turn your nights into days as you are tasked to perform the basic research. If the slides are needed by tomorrow, there goes your evening dinner with your partner/spouse.

You might have totally differing views from your supervisor and lucky you might even be able to voice it out. The supervisor will probably take it into account and move on with his plans because afterall he’s the boss and has the final say. He imposes his authority first, and seeks to earn your respect later.

Is your supervisor more concerned about helping you or taking care of his interests?

Personal Finance

The confusing realm of money and finance is often littered with many imposing jargons, seemingly requring authorities like the banks and insurance agents, the supposedly experts in their fields. to help us with our financial life. So if we follow their advice and buy their products, we would be doing well. No?

Banks, unlike people, are organisations that primarily exist to make profits for their shareholders. If it can make money for its clients along the way, then great. Othewise, it would prefer to earn money from clients rather than not. And insurance agents often have quotas to meet so sometimes you can understand where they are coming from when they sold this product to me and Mrs 15HWW.

Is the bank or sales person more concerned about your financial well-being compared to his own profits?


Before you dismiss me for being an ultimate cynic, let me reiterate that I have been taught by (what I feel) are some of the best teachers in the world, learnt from supervisors I admire and also met a few sincere financial advisors.

My point is that one simply shouldn’t put blind faith in the assumption that so called “experts” know best and will always have our interests in their hearts. Whether it’s making an investment, having a haircut or even bloggers telling you that the Government is siphoning off your CPF monies. Instead, everyone needs to make an effort to think critically, form his/her own convictions and take action.

Label me a skeptic if you must, since I also believe that most will benefit from having a healthy dose of skepticism regarding authority. And feel free to disagree, because I will never profess myself to be an authority on such issues. =p


8 thoughts on “Lessons From My Brushes With Authority

  1. Jared Seah


    Ah! Someone is awakening…

    The trick is one day when we become “authority” ourselves, what do we do?

    Tell others what to do, or encourage them to think for themselves?.

    The proof of the pudding may come when you have your own child. Smoulder the child to death with good intentions, or encourage the child to think for themselves?

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi SMOL,

      I guess I was never asleep. Probably just dormant and looking for an opportunity to come out of my shell? =p

      I don’t have children yet so I might be easily admonished for my ideas. But well, I won’t keep quiet. Ideally, I would want to encourage them to think for themselves but by showing them some of the limitations/consequences of their actions, I could be exercising my “authority” with better than good intentions.

  2. Richard (Invest Openly)


    Totally agreed with you, authority, rules or guides are here to handle common/general situation. Hence, it is still important to practice own judgement when face with the situation (as I believed that each situation are different).

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi Richard,

      Good for you that you trust your own judgement. Because I can see in real life that many don’t. =)

  3. LP

    I think we should obey rules first. Learn the rules, then learn to break them. The problem from following rules blindly is as bad as not obeying rules at all. Wisdom (and perhaps experience) comes in when deciding which rules are to be broken and when to do so.

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi LP,

      I agree that disobeying rules wantonly is equally bad. But whether to accept and obey rules first, I still prefer people to think about them first before accepting it just because it comes from authority.

  4. gagmewithaspoon

    i think the sewol case is not about authority per se but more a reflection of what humans tend to do in a crisis situation. i read the book by amanda ripley “the unthinkable” – pretty insightful.

    you are right on authority, the most important thing is thinking things through to see what makes sense, and the most accurate answer is usually the simplest, and not some complex conspiracy theory which Hollywood films like us to believe. =)

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi GMWAS,

      I haven’t heard of that book before but will try to find it following your recommendation.

      Apparently, “thinking” is difficult for most. Too many prefer to follow, even when the answers could be simple. =)