Responsibility and Accountability (Mt. Kinabalu)

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[Above Image from Yahoo]

Several students and a teacher from Tanjong Katong Primary School were killed in the recent Sabah quake.

I was quite shocked to read an overly defensive comment which compared climbing Mt. Kinabalu to “walking up Bukit Timah Hill.”

For starters, a “hill” is defined as “a naturally raised area of land, not as high or craggy as a mountain.” Mt. Kinabalu is 4,095 m while Bukit Timah Hill is 164m. A comparison of maps between the mountain and hill also show the difference in terms of scale and associated terrain.

A seismology expert, Dr Mohd Rosaidi Che Abas, 54, said the threat of an earthquake in Malaysia cannot be ignored, including “Sabah and Sarawak [which] are located close to the earthquake zone of South Philippines and North Sulawesi.”

Earthquakes have erupted at Mount Kinabalu every year for at least the past 10 years, and the route has been described as a very rough trek.

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[Image from Redwire Times]

Some comments from people who have been on the mountain before:

1) “I climbed the mountain before. I must say I was shocked for a school to embark on such an expedition trip for primary students.” — Randy Chong

2) “I was there on 5-6 may this year. I personally think this is a bit challenging for young children of such ages. Deepest condolences to victims’ families. — David Chia

3) “My 39 yr old daughter went there two weeks before the quake. She said she would not approve if any of her kids would want to take the expedition. What information was given to parents that made them approved their kids for this expedition?” — Mr. A

I have read quite a few comments which say that the authorities cannot be blamed for a natural disaster.

It is true that people cannot be blamed for the actual occurrence of the earthquake. The question is why young children are being approved to be sent to this mountain for “school excursions” when this area is a known danger zone.

Take for example, texting and driving. Just because a person drives and texts once and doesn’t get into trouble, doesn’t mean they’ll always have luck on their side. A tragic end sometimes comes sooner rather than later, and it is especially tragic when the situation is avoidable. Why would any parent want to put their child in a risky situation in the first place?

Some quotes by parents which reflect this view:

1) “People are saying no one could have predicted the quake and that it could well have struck Disneyland Tokyo. So we shouldn’t criticize the school or ask for a ban on such overseas excursions. I beg to differ as a parent. . .No incident doesn’t mean there will never be one. Try telling those grieving parents, ‘Accidents bound to happen, lah!’ And why in the world are primary school kids climbing mountains overseas?”
Andrew Tan

2) “PM Lee, I urge your good self and MOE to review allowing our primary school children to embark on such perilous trips. In our days, excursions were none other than Pulau Ubin or St John Island. Even though this is a natural disaster, the burden of failing their parents are simply too great on the teachers and schools.” — Lance Foo

3) “Please instruct MOE to seriously review school excursions for primary school kids. They are too young to go for such high risk adventures. It is tough for parents to say no to enthusiastic young children who don’t understand the risk involved. There are many other ways for leadership development. There’s an appropriate age and time for different types of school trips.” — Kareen Leow

4) “I sincerely urge MOE to commission a thorough review on the countries and necessity of such trips for “whatever valid reasons.” I am 100% sure if PM commission MOE for a COI, there will be 101 ways to improve on it.” — Freddy Choo

The MOE’s website states that there are several measures in place to enhance road safety around Singapore schools, as well as safety in the conduct of school sports, safety during hazy days, tree safety, and fire safety. This page on guidelines and procedures on school excursions (adapted from MOE Guidelines) states that “the authority to approve such excursions [and/or field trips] is delegated to principals.”

This was not an excursion organised by parents as an out-of-school overseas trip. If it were, then the responsibility for the safety of the children would fall on the parents and not other authorities who approved the excursion.

The website of The Department of Education and Training (Victoria, Australia) clearly states a policy to “ensure [school] excursions are planned and approved appropriately.” It goes on to say that the excursion planning and approval process should take into account “the suitability of the environment and/or venue for the excursion,” and the “assessment of excursion risks” in terms of safety, emergency and risk management.

A quick glance at the Dutch ministries states that The Ministry of Security and Justice is responsible for justice and public safety in the Netherlands.

Minister for Education Mr Heng Swee Keat’s and PM Lee Hsien Loong’s public statements on the matter — despite their emotional appeal — leave much to be desired.

A government’s job is to govern (i.e. to make and administer the public policy and affairs of a state). Singapore’s ministers are among the best paid in the world.

Surely they can thus be expected to be responsible and be held accountable when it comes to governance.

Singapore’s Education System – The Truth Behind The Myth

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* Featured on TR Emeritus, TRS, SG Daily, All SG Stuff, and The Insider.

1. INTRODUCTION

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. “YOU’RE THROWING AWAY YOUR FUTURE!”

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// 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.

3. 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”).

4. 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).

5. 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, Nicole Seah, and the late Jeyaretnam show the kind of treatment that “the opposition” has to go through).

6. 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 fosters apathy. It fosters inarticulation (uh, ah, um, hmm). It fosters subordination to the system’s one and only goal.

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)

7. CONCLUSION

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)

Katherine Mayfield, Interview

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Interview #78, with author of BULLIED: Katherine Mayfield!

Katherine was first interviewed on this blog in 2012. She has written a new, very important and socially-minded book titled BULLIED — so read on for more details on the project!

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Hi Katherine! Describe your latest book in 5 words:

bullied

Guide to recovery from bullying.

What inspired the book?

Two things: one is that I feel very sad when I hear about another teen who has committed suicide in response to bullying, and the other is that I was bullied as a child, and when I was in my thirties, I thought seriously about committing suicide because I was still so full of pain. It took me a long time to recover from the bad experiences I had as a kid.

With this book, I wanted to reach out to young people who are in distress and pain, and show them that there is a way out of the darkness, that bullying does end, and that by letting go of their bad feelings and focusing on what they enjoy and do well, they can move forward and create a much better life. I wish there had been a book like this when I was growing up.

Share a short excerpt and blurb of your work (10-100 words):

“If someone is bullying you based on what you look like—if you’re taller or shorter than other people, or if you have braces or glasses, or anything else—they are using one single characteristic about your physical appearance to judge the entirety of who you are. One trait does not define your real self. You are not a nose, or a pair of glasses, or the clothes you wear. Everyone has talents and gifts, and no matter what you look like, when you focus on your gifts, you can live up to your potential and ultimately become a much happier person.”

BULLIED: A guide to recovery from bullying, by Katherine Mayfield

Share some of your favorite quotations (10-100 words):

These are some quotes included in Bullied:

“Imagine the choices you’d make if you had no fear—of falling, of losing, of being alone, of disapproval.”
~ Martha Beck

“One must still have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.”
~ Friedrich Nietzsche

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.””
~ Lucius Annaeus Seneca

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”
~ Albert Einstein

“Fear is static that prevents me from hearing myself.”
~ Samuel Butler

“Instinct is the nose of the mind.”
~ Madame De Girardin (French author)

In the introduction, you mention that you were bullied during school days. Did you ever want to retaliate against the people who bullied you at the time?

Great question, Jess! Yes, I did, but I was way too afraid. The feeling of violence was in my nerves and wanted to get out, and so one day I started petting the cat a little too hard, and my mother said, “Gently! Gently!” I’m kind of embarrassed to admit it, but I spanked my dolls when I was a kid to try to get rid of some of those bad feelings.

I think that a lot of bullies have been bullied themselves, or violated in some way, so they take their anger out on people who seem quiet or weaker or less able to defend themselves. Sometimes the smartest, most creative and innovative people are the ones who are bullied, because others are jealous and want to cut them down to “normal” size. But I believe that people are meant to grow and explore and invent and create, and become the very best and biggest that they possibly can. I wish our society encouraged that more than it does.

Well-said! What were some of the challenges involved with writing BULLIED?

Another great question! There’s a part of me that really does not want to look at these issues, at the pain in my past, and at the continuing stories about young people who end their lives because they can’t stand the bullying anymore. So I had some resistance to finishing the project, even though I believe it will be helpful to others.

In my family, a huge value was placed on helping others and relieving pain, and that’s what keeps me writing books on these subjects even though sometimes it’s difficult for me. If I can help people heal the way I have healed, then the work is absolutely worth it.

What are some of your plans for the rest of the year?

Resting! Relaxing! Having fun! And I have two other memoirs in process, along with a workbook for people who have been emotionally abused that my muse is encouraging me to work on. And then there’s the novel I’ve been writing for about ten years…

I’m also going to be teaching a couple of writing workshops, and several workshops on writing and publishing memoir. I always think, “When winter gets here, I really want to hibernate for awhile,” but so far it hasn’t happened.

It’s good to be busy ;) Please share with us your websites/blogs/etc:

www.theboxofdaughter.com/dysfunctional-families-blog.html

www.katherine-mayfield.com

www.katherine-mayfield.com/bullied.html

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Much thanks to Katherine for stopping by — be sure to check out the above links for more info on BULLIED!

Katherine Mayfield

KATHERINE’S BIO: Katherine Mayfield is the award-winning author of Bullied:  Why You Feel Bad Inside and What to Do About It, The Box of Daughter;  Healing the Authentic Self, and Dysfunctional Families:  The Truth Behind the Happy Family Façade.  She blogs on dysfunctional families on her website, www.TheBoxofDaughter.com.

P.S. Here’s Katherine’s Q&A with JCS (2012) and her guest post on Recovering From Being Bullied.

You can also preorder a copy of BULLIED on Katherine’s website.

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06 and 07

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My favorite pieces from 2006, and 2007.

~

1. Multi-Coloured Pillars (done in mid-2006)

mechanical pencil + digitally colored

mechanical pencil + digitally tweaked/colored

The pillars really are that colour IRL (In Real Life). I think it’s the IT building at Temasek Poly!

~

2. Hummingbird / Watercolour (Dec 2007)

hummingbird watercolor

hummingbird watercolor

Watercolour piece. Reference from a Nat Geo issue ^^.