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I am Singaporean VI – The Melting Pot September 21, 2010

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

As a teacher-to-be, coming across articles like these really makes me wonder about what being an educator is going to be like. If being a teacher is about “Moulding the Future of our Society”, then it is worth reading such articles and thinking about what we can do to make sure that the society we are supposed to be moulding is the one we actually want to mould.

The question is: Does Singaporean education teach students all about the world and nothing about themselves?

On paper, Singaporean education is great. Our universities are in the Top 200 in the Times Higher Education list. We win Olympiads all the time. When it comes to knowing a basic inventory of facts, Singaporean education is just about the best you can get. And that is a fact. And many people swear to the system. A friend of mine thinks I’m crazy when I say that I want my children to be educated overseas, because “Singaporean education is so good.”

So what’s missing?

Well, Singapore is a true melting pot. In the past, as is today, and as will be tomorrow, many cultures came together into one. It has been lauded as one of Singapore’s big selling points – an eclectic fusion of Orient and Occident, a quaint East-meets-West mixture which happens to work. But have we taken this metaphor and looked at it from another perspective? Many cultures came together under the band of meritocracy – may the best rule, and may they rule with wisdom. And since they are the best, they are paid the best money one can get too. This is the fire which managed to melt, or should i say meld East and West into a functioning whole.

And since we are such fans of meritocracy, society has been geared in that direction too. This melting pot which is Singapore has had certain repercussions, which the post I have linked to above shows. It seems that in developing the concept of meritocracy, what “The Best” is was artificially defined. And in artificially defining something, you create an artificial standard to compare everything against. In doing so, everything else becomes irrelevant. It creates a strong tendency towards conformity, which is the negative result of the melting pot. The individual loses his/her uniqueness and becomes part of this stew of uniformity. In school, you are told to study hard, you are told what you have to study, without any care as to what you actually think.

I’m not saying that that is per se wrong – this works naturally for math, the natural sciences, and even for the languages. But for subjects where you have to think, where critical thought and analysis is important – does this method work? The method seems to work because we have an artificial standard of what’s deemed as good. The method definitely works in Singapore. For GP, you just have to memorise these points, write this way, and Nothing Bad Can Happen to You. In fact, when you put your personal style into writing, you sometimes get penalised. Individuality is not really encouraged, because there is a tried-and-tested formula for becoming good. Why would any sane person abandon that?

(And, by the by, an artificial standard of what is Good is also very easy to objectify. Just look at the obsession with grades, and the thought that cramming is the panacea for all your examination woes.)

But in the midst of all that, something has gone missing. I think learning what it is to be a person has gone missing in Singaporean education. People assume that a sense of identity is a coming-of-age thing, that it will come with the times. And for the most part, that really is true. But this article is a case in point. I think that the melting pot has left little room for the individual to develop, since all differences have been swept away, and everyone is chasing after this artificial Good. True, you can decide what you want to do for your CCA. You can also decide your subject combination. You can choose your job. You can choose who to marry. You can decide this, and decide that. But how many choose to walk down the road which everyone else happens to be walking? How many choose to have an opinion? How many choose to believe in something? How many are doing what they are doing out of conviction? How many choose to be just a part of our uniform stew?

That having an individual opinion is sometimes seen as trouble-making is a symptom of this problem. That people know a lot, but don’t have a view on them is also a symptom of this problem. It’s all about working hard in Singapore. But after that, what’s left? Yet, working hard and sticking to that same old success formula is so ingrained into our society that it is hard to see how concrete change can come about. We should be asking questions if “The Good” we are striving to be was misconstrued. We should be asking “What is Good for Me? What Should I Be?” And these are questions which should be asked, not only during the formative years of adolesence, but also constantly throughout one’s adult life. And these are questions which don’t have a textbook answer. And the asking of such questions should be cultivated in our youth, when they are ready for it.

We shouldn’t be doing what we are doing now – filling their lives with so much work, so much obsession with chasing after this artificial good that they don’t have time to stop and reflect. Nor will forcing them to reflect help – because then, it will be more work, and what’s worse, their reflections may be graded. The melting pot comes into play again. As educators, one should ask if we want to produce smart people or if we want  to produce wise people.



1. Daily SG: 22 Sep 2010 « The Singapore Daily - September 22, 2010

[…] Re education – Die neue Welle: I am Singaporean VI – The Melting Pot […]

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