Last Updated on July 13th, 2019 at 8:30 AM
When I was growing up in Singapore — I migrated to the U.S. when I was twenty — what caused me a lot of grief was the education system.
I don’t have a vendetta against the schools I attended. Some teachers really cared about students, in a way which went beyond how the students were performing academically.
It is the education system itself which I don’t remember fondly.
I always feel disheartened with reports in the establishment media that paint a rosy picture of Singapore’s education system (like here, here, and here). Few of them give a comprehensive overview of the real effects of the system.
Such reports do not dilute the clear memory I have — through direct experience — of the disadvantages of the aforementioned system.
2. Is there Elitism in Singapore’s Education System?
Despite a lot of talk about “meritocracy” being a core tenet of Singapore society, I distinctly remember a very pervading sense of elitism and privilege as a student.
Schools like Raffles and ACS were (and still are) considered elite schools. The students were considered smarter and therefore had a brighter future, as if grades were the only thing that determined a person’s chances of success in life!
Sadly this was the perception when I was a student in Singapore, and in some ways it still is part of the road to success if you’re sitting squarely in The Singapore System.
On a more personal level, if your boyfriend or girlfriend was from one of these elite schools, it raised the perception of your social class or status in the eyes of your peers. They were definitely seen as a “quality” date, regardless of any big character flaws or incompatible traits the person might have.
Even though the Raffles principal has tried to downplay the institution’s association with elitism, it doesn’t erase the fact that the school has had a history of defining its students as a group of elites. The curriculum and communications of the school also emphasise that students are the future “leaders and thinkers” of the nation.
It isn’t rocket science to assume or deduce that this breeds a belief that this group is “better than average,” and thus entitled to govern and be in positions of power.
There’s nothing wrong with a group of people that has above average intelligence or greater skill and talent than the average person. It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to be average or super-smart, and I have had some friends/crushes/acquaintances from said elite schools who are well-rounded high achievers.
The problem is the entitlement (i.e. having a right to something) and privilege that often accompanies an elitist mindset. In a real meritocracy, an elite group of people progresses because of their ability and talent instead of class privilege.
It recalls Former Foreign Minister George Yeo’s words about remembering one’s “place in society” before engaging in political debate, and reminding people not to take on “those in authority as ‘equals’.” Does this sound like meritocracy and democracy?
For more information, check out The Ruling Elite of Singapore, academic Michael Barr’s book on how personal networks form the true core of power and influence in Singapore.
3. “You’re Throwing Away Your Future!”
Photo by Caroline Chia/SPH
I did quite well throughout most of my years as a primary and secondary school student in Singapore (Katong Convent Primary School and St. Anthony’s Canossian Secondary School, respectively). I attended Temasek Polytechnic for 1.5 years (I was enrolled in mass communications).
I switched from the pure science stream to arts stream when I was in Secondary 3, by choice, because I preferred the arts curriculum and the subjects there.
I didn’t hate math or science — I just had a higher level of interest in history and literature instead of a triple science combination (physics/biology/ chemistry).
Some of my fellow schoolmates at the time were shocked beyond belief that I made that switch.
Schoolmate #1: “But you’re the smartest student in the whole level!” (I was the top student for two years.)
Schoolmate #2: “OH MY GOD. What are you doing? You’re throwing away your future!”
I just kept quiet at the time as I thought to myself:
Dudes, all I’m doing is switching from the pure science to arts stream BECAUSE I want to study subjects I’m actually interested in. How is this going to limit my future? If things are really so confined or restrictive, I can seek out other avenues later, even if it means checking things out in another country if the situation is so bad that I have to extricate myself from it entirely.
Turns out that I did end up removing myself from the situation entirely. Why? Because (many years later), I realize the value of being capable of independent thought, instead of having to conform to a system.
Now I don’t mean the exact opposite, where systems are completely useless because everybody should be “free” to do what they want (and that’s coming from somebody who’s a self-described author/artist/non-conformist).
But when there is a problem, or problems, with a system, then it is in everybody’s interest that those points be made clearly and factually.
4. The Real Truth of the System’s ‘Mantra’
The extreme “rote learning” method in Singapore forces students to score well for the exams by memorizing and regurgitating facts.
The only time I started to enjoy reading and writing Mandarin was once I was out of school — because, hey! Things were actually more interesting (songs, comics, films in Mandarin), as opposed to the memorization of words/characters/vocabulary without the slightest element of engagement or fun.
“Just memorize, get good grades, and you’re The Perfect Role Model Student.”
Never mind if you can’t think for yourself or have no interest in formulating your own opinions on what is right/wrong, on what you like/dislike, on what you really want to do or be in the future.
“Work hard, study hard, get a good job (in the following lucrative sectors: banking, law, medicine, engineering, accountancy) — and you’re set for life.”
THAT was the real mantra of the Singapore education system, when I was a student in it for 12 years straight.
Notice that it is elitist in principle (the narrowing down of certain sectors that are “better” than the rest — and “better” solely because they are the traditionally financially lucrative industries).
There’s no room for any creativity or anyone to pursue their passion if it falls outside of what is deemed to be “good.”
The real truth is that it’s not what’s necessarily good for you — it’s what’s good for the Singapore economy (with citizens having been referred to as actual economic “digits”).
5. Stress, Homework, Suicide — And More Stress
I wasn’t ever miserable as a student to the point of suicide, though it has driven many others over that edge.
But I remember the dreariness of school holidays, which weren’t vacation time at all, due to the loads of homework designed to keep students “industrious.”
And if homework wasn’t enough, there were the tuition/supplementary lessons as well as extra-curricular activities which literally ate up any remaining free time I had.
Now that I think about it, I think the loads of homework were partly designed to keep me from having “free thoughts” about anything else apart from being a good student (refer to “the real mantra” in above section).
Kids and teenagers shouldn’t be growing up in a pressure-cooker environment that stifles their minds, on top of having their voices or opinions silenced and/or not valued.
Yes, there should be some limits. For example, if a student was expressing him/herself rudely, or being violently disruptive for the sake of being rebellious.
But in an education system that equates “stress” with “industriousness,” and anything that doesn’t neatly conform to it as “rebellious,” it’s easy to “feel like an outcast even if one is desperately trying to fit in” (I read that description off a friend’s blog ‘about me’ page when we were 17).
6. The Turning Point for Me
I quit my polytechnic course halfway because I didn’t feel particularly motivated, inspired or engaged with the course material.
Now again, I was enrolled in a mass communications course.
I didn’t enroll in that course because I had aspirations to be a deejay or TV news anchor. I enrolled because I had an interest in media and society, and maybe journalism, since everybody in Singapore told me that that was the field I should look into because I liked to write (dismissing the fact that what I like to write is fiction!).
There were several things that eventually made me so dissatisfied and disillusioned, that withdrawing from the course (with no backup plan or ANY idea what I was going to do thereafter) was still a better option than completing it just because I had to.
I remember one instance very clearly during my first year there.
During a journalism class, the very nice/friendly lecturer said with a compliant smile:
“Guys, as we all know, this is Singapore [so there are just some things you can and cannot say in the media]…”
My classmates were cool, friendly, and smart.
But I remember how everybody just took what the lecturer said — with no protest, no questions, no nothing. It was a very uninspiring moment because I was secretly expecting more.
While I admit that I didn’t do or say anything at that point either (I was a very quiet, unhappy mass comm student), that was the moment which made my 16 or 17 year-old brain “wake up” to the fact that I really wasn’t happy, with my life, situation, everything, and that I had to do something about it instead of being crippled by indecision.
Instinctively, I just felt it was wrong that it was accepted practice that nobody could really “speak their mind” in my country of origin without any serious repercussions (these articles on Gopalan Nair, Chee Soon Juan, and the late Jeyaretnam show the kind of treatment that “the opposition” has to go through).
7. I’m A Human Being, Not A Digit
As a student, what I really wanted to be educated on was how to be a happy, purposeful and productive HUMAN BEING (not a “digit” for the economy).
I wanted to study subjects I had a real interest in, in the hopes it would help me identify my potential areas of skill and expertise so that I could eventually make a living from doing something I enjoy.
What kind of message is the system giving, when generations grow up in a stressful environment where you’re separated into “elite” or “non-elite” schools, instead of being part of an environment that endeavors to identify and bring out the best in each student (not all of whom have solely academic talents!!).
The following paragraph from a perceptive article says it all:
“The views of some of Singapore’s ‘elite’ students are revealing and disturbing. . .While the education system can produce excellent engineers and scientists, can the same be said of raising potential leaders who are sensitive to society’s needs?”
(Seah Chiang Nee, The Star Malaysia)
To me, one of the primary purposes of education should be to enable students to become capable, global-minded citizens, who have some kind of mental/spiritual/emotional involvement with their chosen line of work because of the contributions they can make to society, big or small.
An education system which suppresses independent thought, discourages the act of questioning, and dismisses this thing called ‘passion’, is not going to produce ideal human beings.
Here are the things the system does promote the development of.
It produces people who are afraid to think, unable to question, and uninspired to seek out the truth.
Perhaps most disastrously, it fosters the belief that any kind of change is impossible. Heck, even the thought of any kind of change is an unwelcome thing (think of all the trouble you’d get into!).
But change is possible (which is what really scares the ones who are most invested in not disrupting the status quo).
People are not being delusional when they say:
“Every single action we take, however small, does have an impact on change…if we have the means to contribute, like with writing skills, it would be a pity not to use it.”
(Gopalan Nair, Singapore Dissident)
I published this blog post because like many other people who express similar views, what I’m interested in is The Truth.
That is just one of my many interests I developed outside of the education system that has been the focal topic of this article.
Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to share their informed thoughts with others.
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Websites With More Information:
(1) The Fascism of Singapore (by an Israeli Math PhD who studied in a Singapore university)
(2) Singapore Education Producing Timid, Robotic Minds (online political activist)
(3) The Educational System in Singapore (concise forum post on an overview of the system and what can be done to improve it)
(4) Singapore Schools Shaping Elitist Mindset (article by The Star)
(5) Observations on Elitism in Singapore (by a former teacher of an ‘elite’ secondary school, with a mention on how wealth can be a handicap)
(6) Why Do We Do This To Our Children? (on young students in Singapore committing suicide over examination stress)
(7) Celebrities leave Singapore because of kids’ education (The Online Citizen)