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I am Singaporean XXIV – Education. April 22, 2007

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean, Vol. I.

What is education? To answer this question, perhaps one would look in a dictionary. But, education and the perception of the word have many very different aspects. In this article, i intend to problematise the word ‘education’ in the Singaporean context.

So, what is education? Wiktionary defines it as ‘The process or art of imparting knowledge, skill and judgment.’ That’s the Western view of education. Indeed, many Westerners come across as being very knowledgeable, having a vast bank of general knowledge to draw on, and no, i don’t mean the academics yet. Teachers who come from Europe or other countries tend to be more open with their students and are willing to take a step back and consider things from another perspective – something which some local teachers do, but others don’t. That’s before they realise that their bonuses are pegged to how well their students do, as well as being part of a certain CCA with the same amount, or maybe even more extra-curricular activites than the students.

Yah, any student reading this – teaching very xiong one you know!

Then, they start to look for ‘success formulae’ – you know, model answers, 10 year series, question spotting, attempting to persuade students to focus on this subject and forego CCA/third language classes/enrichment stuff/whatever, because the grades are important for their entrance to JC (as well as their own bonuses.) Isn’t it horribly ironic that being teachers, they themselves are also so egocentric when they are supposed to teach their students how to live with their neighbours? I’m sorry, money talks. I forgot.

In the course of this attempt to make their students ace their exams, for whatever reason it may be, (no, angry teachers, money is NOT the only motivation. It really could be that sense of achievement.) education loses the original meaning above and becomes probably ‘The process or art of imparting how to score well (skill).’ How many times did you hear the teacher say ‘just memorise this and this and that’ or ‘this topic will confirm guarantee plus chop come out in the exams?’ How many times were you faced with an irate teacher demanding to know why you are reading this irrelevant part of the textbook because you were interested? (happened to yours truly!)

On the students’ side, it’s been impressed into them since they were young that good grades = good future. Meritocracy, mah. I remember getting caned in primary school for every stroke i got below Band 1. Not that i have something against it (because it worked to some extent) but the discipline and the desire to learn more comes from interest and not from fear. That much i know. At some point of time, i began to develop an interest for particular subjects – in secondary school, chemistry and math, in JC, german and chemistry, in the Army, philosophy. That involved doing a lot of reading, above and beyond whatever was required. But i did it out of interest. Honestly, if i studied out of fear, maybe i would be doing some stuffy science/engineering subject instead of Germanistik and philosophy. The interest has to be cultivated somehow, and the sad fact is that although many Kindergärten are already adapting the ‘learning through making it fun’ methodology to cultivate interest, this methodology is cut off, gone, not there anymore, once primary education begins.

Education in the Singaporean sense kills interest, because after awhile it degenerates into a grades chase and the real purpose of education, the imparting of knowledge, disappears. You’d expect a literature student to be very well read, knowing the texts of the world (or at least the classics) because of their wide reading, no? But many just study the texts they are given time and time and time again. Some schools even consider not offering Literature anymore because of how difficult it is to score in the subject (the average reflects badly on the school…) So, what happened to interest? No, pragmatism comes first. How about reading up on a particular school of thought for literary analysis, e.g., deconstruction? No, it’s a waste of time. Shut up and focus on your exams. UNLESS you’re a S-paper student. Then we can talk…

Students are taught what is right and what is not, and everything is shown in a black-and-white fashion. This is right and that is wrong. There’s not a lot of room for grey areas. A grey area would be, for example, the usage of Singlish. Or sex education. Given today’s circumstances, the educational stand is still that sex is bad and it will send you to Hell. Thus, abstain. But abstinence education is going nowhere! However many teachers still scoff at a more preventive than prophylactic method, which is the teaching of safe sex. Similarly, this problem can be carried over to the curricular aspects.

I have personally been blessed with having a General Paper teacher who was open, kind, and willing to look at essays from another perspective. She accepted writing styles which deviated from the norm of introduction, argument, counter-argument, argument, counter-argument, solution (which is good for planning but not necessarily the best for an essay) and encouraged the development of our personal style. She also happened to be Canadian. I got a B3 for GP though. Yeah, go on and scoff. Bet i’ll pwn you at essay-writing any day. I stuck to writing in my own style, and i didn’t follow the script every time. But i got a C6 for prelims, and my essay in terms of language was seriously marked down – apparently i didn’t follow the marker’s impression of ‘an award-winning OMGWTFyoujustgotanA1OMGOMGOMG essay.’ It was very disheartening and i almost gave up my writing style, convinced that there was something wrong. But, perhaps i did not consider that it could be the teacher’s perspective too.

My German teacher marked similarly too – as long as our essays were logically coherent and contained no blasphemies against the general morality of humans, it would be fine. So, perhaps i was lucky. But this shows what i have come to perceive of the Singaporean education system. It’s like once a success formula has been found (probably after consulting the Cambridge examination reports as if they were dissertations or the books of the Bible) teachers just stick to it for all posterity. There’s no room for the personal flair to develop, no room for creativity – just do what i teach you to. And students, who aren’t much interested in school (only interested in that it’s the key to their future, like a Gahmen scholarship) just lap it all up.

You, dear reader, can accuse me of being polemical and having been corrupted by ‘liberal Western values.’ But when you discover that you can’t hold an intellectual discussion over, for example, philosophical topics with most people, or you discover that almost no one has read, say, Shakespeare or Homer, then you know that education, to a certain extent, has failed. What knowledge are we trying to give?

I know i am going to teach German in the future. But perhaps all of the above was dedicated to education in general. I know that for what i am going to teach, i really have to start with the basics – grammar, vocabulary, reading and listening comprehension, and writing. But if i have the opportunity to i don’t see what’s wrong with giving my students extras – in terms of an extra theme, a different kind of assignment, attempt to open their eyes and give them more knowledge on a general background, or maybe just an experiment using different methodology. Why not elsewhere?



1. Ned Stark - April 23, 2007
2. Ned Stark - April 23, 2007

Even English lit seems to have a standard template, deviate from it and you are jacked. I guess aversion to all things different is deeply ingrained in our national psyche.

3. guojun - April 23, 2007

not jacked…ur farked!

4. Ziyang - April 27, 2007

haha great entry! enjoyed it =) How is mugging over there? (or perhaps i should ask are u having exams over there?)

But i guess to a certain extent JC education (GP as opposed to English) exposes one to pertinent issues or current affairs instead of focusing on grammar, vocabulary etc. I had a wonderful time in GP. Maybe cuz its my GP tutor.. i didnt score v well for GP, but hey.. i did had fun during the discussions/debates in class.

5. I am Singaporean XXVIII - The Hubbub about being a Hub « Die neue Welle - May 24, 2007

[…] top-notch: the ability to reflect, to think, to believe in what one believes and to defend it. What is, then, education? Education is the ‘process or art of imparting knowledge, judgement, and skills.’ In […]

6. phew! - May 24, 2007

Danker for a good post. Allow me to focus on certain points. Debates are crude traditional ways to approach a subject. There is no win-win situation here, based on your very own set of values, you seek to amplify your motion and destroy the other with the best critical bombast you and your confederates can conjure. It is primitive and lacked exploration. A new way of approaching a subject through systematic approach is required. Anyone heard of Six Thinking Hats?

Education is for all its intents and purposes, is the reason why we bestowed minds. As ridiculously simple it may sound, it holds truth lest everyone is a baboon and doesn’t know how to speak. It should be given to those who require knowledge, given to those who seek to enrich their lives. It is a tremendous gift to learn and unlearn. But it is also a dangerous weapon when totalitarian states use education as tools to indoctrinate, propagate and instill servitude right when the young is in schools. The child will undoubtedly grow up to be a conformed ‘individual’ with the illusory of patriotism to the State.

It is said somewhere ( I cannot remember):
A king may move a man but his soul his own to keep. There will come a time when God asks why, you cannot say “you were instructed by others to do thus”. This will not suffice.

Impart the knowledge of virtue, compassion and freedom. The knowledge of facts and figures can come later. What we so lacking in schools these days is the subject of freedom and ways to fight tyranny.

7. The Truth - May 24, 2007

Actually, no, i haven’t heard of Six Thinking Hats. Maybe you should post an article to educate us here?

All in all, debate is seen to be useless because of today’s context. I do not profess to be a sophist, and i do attempt to write what i feel or what i see.

Freedom and tyranny were never in the curriculum. Although in Germany, for example, kids do get politics classes in school, in Singapore, who wants to touch politics? We have to be ready and grab the right opportunity to teach what we know and what we believe in.

8. experimentality - March 26, 2010

I totally agree. the purpose of school is no longer education, but getting an A1 all the time, which is rrly annoying for me as a student :p

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