10th November, 9 am – 12 pm, Student Lounge, NUS High School
Attendance: Cheong Tien Yang Clarence, Lee Si Yuan, Lim Yi Fei, Ng Ri Chi, Soon Hao Jing*, Stanley Quek Tee Kai, Uriel Tan, Zhou Ruohua *Denotes moderator and recorder
The National Conversation is a community engagement exercise aimed at gathering the views of Singaporeans on matters of importance to Singaporean society. The objective of this meeting was to engage in a close reading and critical analysis of a letter by a member of public, Theresa Goh CK. The letter, dated the 11th September 2012, was published by Our SG Conversation on its website.
The subject of the meeting’s discussion was a letter signed off by ‘Theresa Goh CK’, presumably a Singaporean mother with perhaps a child of primary or secondary school-going age.
The letter, entitled The Singapore I Want To Be Born Into, narrated from the first-person perspective of a child living in a hypothetical transformed Singapore experience rather different from the situation of stressful living we have at present.
By means of clear comparisons between the current typical experience of growing up in Singapore with a remodeled Singapore Experience 2.0, the author calls attention to issues that have been commonly discussed in the National Conversation.
The members present divided the letter into individual parts and contributed their individual analyses on these parts, while lending their remarks and observations to discussions about broader implications concerning Singapore. The full text of the letter, with some grammatical corrections, is appended after the ‘Proceedings’ section.
PROCEEDINGS OF MEETING
The essay reads, ‘if I am born today, I want to be born to happy parents. Happiness [is] defined as contentment with what [we] don’t possess.’ It was agreed that this suggests that Singaporean parents today are dissatisfied or unhappy at their current situation, due to their materialistic desires and escalating expectations. This has been discussed publicly before, in light of the problem of high and increasing living costs and mostly stagnant incomes for most Singaporeans.
Members accurately identified from analysis of the passage that the perception that many Singaporean adults and even youth are career-oriented rather than family-oriented is of concern to the Singaporean public and government. Highlighted in the essay was a growing inclination among young Singaporeans in opting to have small nuclear families and in making career plan-influenced decisions to forgo having children.
Members recognized that the author is supportive of maternity leave policies that help working mothers balance work and their duties at home. This can be seen in how the speaker, a young child living in a remodeled Singaporean society, tellingly opines, ‘If both my parents have to work to defray any costs, [that] is not ideal because I would prefer mummy to be at home…’
Members distinguished that the phenomenon of domestic helpers raising children in Singapore was raised by the author. A sizable minority of households here employ domestic help to help with chores or to take care of elderly persons or young children. Members acknowledged this was a common sight in Singapore, with two of the members present relating their previous experience with domestic helpers. Members agreed with Yi Fei’s concern that children with maids as their primary caregivers spend less time their parents and thus receive inadequate ‘character education’. Examining the issue in greater depth, it was contemplated by the members that parents are the natural and main provider of such character education, which shapes their children’s values from young. In contrast, maids in Singapore would lack the expertise or language competence (in English or their wards’ mother tongue) to educate their young wards. After all, most maids serving in Singapore are young, inexperienced, come from underprivileged backgrounds and do not receive significant training that might allow them to handle more than just their employers’ household chores.
In response to ‘I do not want to attend any preschool till I am 5 years old’, members commented that this would be impractical in Singapore though preschool is not compulsory here. This is because important skills such as arithmetic, spelling and grammar are imparted to preschoolers, without which young students enrolling in primary school would lag behind their preschool-educated primary schoolmates in the early stages of primary school. Moreover, many parents here are employed, meaning childcare services are a necessity for their young children.
Members’ critical appreciation of the narrator’s description of an ideal preschool education prompted discussion that such a preschool education model bears similarities to Steiner schools, which emphasise experiential learning through guided free play in settings resembling conditions found in typical homes.
The third paragraph of the letter believes that ideally, all primary schools in Singapore should be equally good so that no households living in certain geographic locations are favoured unfairly. It suggests a tweaking of the bilingual policy here, where students can freely select their second language learnt. The author also described being able to learn about ‘the world’, how ‘to appreciate people’, as well as to appreciate ‘the beauty of numbers’ and ‘how things work’, to pick up social skills, a sport and a musical instrument of her choice, showing an underlying assumption that education should fulfill deeper purposes beyond grades and equipping students with skills needed of the workforce – in other words, that Singapore needs to move towards a truly holistic education.
Deepening their discussion of holistic education, members critically analysed paragraphs 4-5. It was said that the author expresses her hope in paragraphs 4 and 5 that teachers should be emotional experts who understand their students, and are concerned and involved in their students’ extracurricular development.
Members noted a description of the current ‘situation’ with parent-teacher meetings. It was suggested in the essay that currently, the teacher-parent interaction and relationship is a superficial and cursory engagement not unlike that between an employer and an employee. As such, the essay suggests, there is currently limited teacher involvement in their students’ education.
The author’s last statement in paragraph 5 expresses her hopes that the Ministry of Education will truly recognize and accommodate ‘multiple types of intelligence’ of students, developing students with a ‘humanistic approach’ while exposing students to a broad spectrum of experiences beyond the schoolyard.
Next, Hao Jing added that schools might also in this sense be viewed as corporations that focus on extrinsic measurable short-term goals, grades, so as to report favourably to parent-shareholders, while failing to invest in their students’ inner development.
Subsequently the concept of streaming and the author’s attitudes towards it were considered. The author wrote an indirect commentary about the streaming system in education, and the related concept of meritocracy: ‘I am glad they no longer practice [streaming], [for] it would kill my spirit for learning… we are able to discern that different children will produce different outcomes because of their talents and motivation… the education system is fair and holistic and everyone is given equal treatment and choices.’ She cites how at present (or the ‘past’, from the narrator’s retrospective view) we have bred a fiercely competitive education here, with foreign scholars specially chosen based on their academic prowess and invited to study here on funded scholarships, and parents sending their children to tuition and enrichment classes just to ensure their children do not fall behind. The author lets slip to us the fact that besides merely wanting students to learn at different paces so they can learn better, Singapore’s education makes no qualms about providing more resources to students who are the cream of the crop, and turning a blind eye to excessive competition and stress on students to go for tuition and enrichment classes to do well and fight for opportunities.
Members suggested how meritocracy in Singapore bears much semblance to our capitalistic system, in which the rich are favoured as the most efficient managers of resources – students with the best grades are showered with educational opportunities and resources, as it is held that they will maximize the effectiveness of such investment. In the Singaporean education system, those judged as the best-performing students are allocated more educational resources to further boost their performance.
Members contrasted our education system with the Finnish education system (perceived as ‘egalitarian’), the object of many MOE studies. The Finnish system provides assistance evenly to schools and students so as to provide to all a stronger motivation for the attainment of improved results – this implicit support of equality is conceptually related to the strategy of providing resources so as to get better results. This was contrasted with a strategy that rewards better results with more resources.
Members saw parallels between this and Singapore’s pragmatic strategy of national development (in use since independence). A key pillar of the strategy is that ideology is not the guide but rather pragmatic evidence-based adapting of models that have witnessed success in other societies. It was suggested by members that such a ‘ruthlessly efficient’ stratagem lacking in the department of human touch may not be entirely appropriate when applied in the context of education, as it undermines education’s key role as a social leveler and provider of equal opportunities or at least, starting points.
Members assessed that the expectation that streaming should produce better results overall is a misguided one. Members drew on evidence that mixed-ability classes have also been shown to produce improvements in learning achievements. In that sense, members expressed reservations towards the policy providing for extensive streaming at the primary and secondary levels.
Members suggested that streaming also assigns a social status to students, and denotes a form of judgement by the educational system, accepted by society, on the ability of students. Rather than recognising that each stream caters to students of unique aptitudes and interests, society instead believes that streaming imposes a vertical hierarchy that makes students unequal in ability and thus status. It is this misguided discrimination that has made streaming increasingly unacceptable in society (while ironically, the perceived harms of streaming partly come from societal discrimination). While the MOE has taken some steps to reduce streaming, streaming is still readily observable – members attribute this to possible inexperience with reforms and hesitation at abolishing streaming at most levels of education.
Members appreciated that meritocracy is one of the nation’s guiding principles, and it appears in our education most prominently. As meritocracy seeks to promote and provide better resources to those deemed to have merited it, it relies on some universally applicable, measurable statistic. In education’s case, standardized testing (such as the Primary School Leaving Examinations as well as the General Certificate of Secondary Education O and A level papers) was originally meant to ensure that every student had learnt the minimum required knowledge before graduating to the next stage of education with sufficient preparation, and grades were meant to help measure this preparedness. However, perhaps due to the competitive culture in Singapore (kiasu, or ‘afraid to lose’ mentality) as well as the government’s ambition to outpace its regional competitors, grades and test results became warped measuring standards, used to compare students against one another.
Members added that students’ merit, entitling them to more advanced education as well as more resources, has been measured so far by a quantifying metric, one that asks ‘how much?’ instead of ‘what?’, one that cares more about, say, the quantity of CIP hours than the quality of such community service that students put in. Even as our educational system attempts to address this shortsighted assessment of students’ merit, in asking ‘what merit does a candidate possess?’, we may also rely on ‘stereotypes’ such as leadership positions attained in school clubs and organizations, awards won, etc. We must transcend ‘how much?’ and moreover improve the way we assess what merit each candidate has, for a fairer meritocracy – however, this would be akin to comparing apples and oranges as it would be impossible to rank different ‘types of intelligence’, and would chip away at the system of meritocracy, which demands a universally applicable metric to measure merit with. Ultimately, meritocracy if carried too far will lead to excessive competition, something that is lamented in the letter in multiple places. When Singaporeans compete so fiercely for what are ultimately finite resources, people will be unduly harmed and much effort would go to cancelling different people’s efforts.
Then members moved into further topics.
Hao Jing invited the foreign scholars present to speak about the topic of providing scholarships to foreigners to study in Singapore. They shared that they had first gone through a series of aptitude tests in their schools, and underwent interviews, and were subsequently made scholarship offers. Ruohua was initially undecided about an offer to study in Singapore but heeded her parents’ instructions after much disagreement, keen to avoid the heated competition in China to prepare for college education. She expresses that she is willing to learn about Singapore. She would like to contribute back to China if she feels she has a chance of effecting change there, but she does not feel that she will be allowed to take part in Chinese reforms. Yi Fei mentioned that the programme of inviting foreign scholars to study here is mutually beneficial – she benefited from the advanced curriculum here, while local students in an otherwise insulated culture also got to interact more with scholars from different countries, and the scholars [from various ASEAN and East Asian countries] also had the chance to learn from one another about their diverse cultures.
The author also wrote of an ‘alternative NS’ for females aged 18, whereby all Singaporean females of that age would enrol in nursing schools for two years, and enter university education at the same time as local males of the same age. She cited the important benefit of this move, equipping more Singaporeans with the ability to care for their elderly or unwell kin in light of an aging population, which members accepted. However, her suggestion was deemed to be detrimental to females’ standing and unlikely to be accepted. Enforcing nursing education for Singaporean females would only enforce outdated stereotypes that women belong at home caring for the family, and that males have no obligation, unlike females, to do the same, as they have military service and other ‘male’, breadwinning obligations.
Members found that the author also made repeated allusions to the need for a more communitarian society, with more mutual concern and help shared between citizens, something colloquially referred to as the ‘kampong spirit’ by locals, a reference to Singaporeans’ early days spent living in small village communities. With a more caring society where each individual is raised to be selfless, Singapore will become more closely knit, with less harmful competition.
Members pointed out the letter’s optimistic tones. The author hopes Singaporeans will eventually create the kind of society and education she envisions for herself and Singaporeans. However, how will this come about, and who will make it true? Members identified how the essay does not offer strategies for the creation of the ‘utopia’ the author has written of. Members shared their thoughts on how we might work towards a remodeled Singapore Experience 2.0: Popular consensus and support must first be sought, but there is a risk of all talk and no work – a passive acceptance or consensus of the importance of change, but no active public efforts to effect these transformations in educational policies and society’s thinking. The government has already realized its overweening influence on Singaporeans and recognizes its contribution to generating very high public expectations of its quality of service as well as a passive citizenry. The opposition in Singapore is not a source of dialogue, initiative or consensus.
SOON HAO JING