Educating our children

Clarence Dorai

Of all the public goods such as housing, healthcare, social welfare, which societies make available to themselves, arguably education may be said to be primus inter pares, that is, first among equals.

It is indispensable both to the overall betterment of the community as well as to individuals and their families. How an individual thinks, how he or she perceives life and how he or she functions as a person are central to the betterment of the community.

And so, over the generations the provision of education has become an institution in itself. It is of paramount importance to human evolution. It is, therefore, a ‘hot topic’, if you will.

If you take a look at the Ministry of Education website,, this paragraph may catch your eye:

“The Ministry of Education aims to help our students to discover their own talents, to make the best of these talents and realise their full potential, and to develop a passion for learning that lasts through life.”

It goes on:

“The task of our schools and tertiary institutions is to give our young the chance to develop the skills, character and values that will enable them to continue to do well and to take Singapore forward in the future.”

This general approach seems to suggest that the overall objective of stated-provided education is the development of the whole person. However, an emerging sentiment across the country seems to suggest that the education system in Singapore has reached a point which is too stressful for our children and young people, based, as it is on a system of testing of core knowledge and less so on the development of the total human being.

Children and (perhaps even more so) the parents face a great deal of pressure to perform well in the PSLE examination, the first of the series of testing points that children will encounter in their educational career. The PSLE introduces, and calibrates, the child (and their parents’) attitude and response to knowledge.

A testing system that depends on an aggregate assessment of the quantity of pupils’ acquired facts and figures, with the attendant stress produced in learning them may hamper the development of the total person, in whom facts and figures are – or should be – but a preliminary to the real value of education which is to mould a creative, thinking individual.

Families up and down the country are faced with significant pressure. What happens if the child does not get the desired grade to enter a school where a better quality of education is provided or an independent school? What happens to pupils if they are pushed to the brink of emotional stability due to stress? What happens to a child who may be talent-rich but academically poor? Would such children achieve their ‘full potential’?

I was in primary school in the 1990s. Classes were numbered such that better students were placed in the first classes. We had committed teachers who would drive us to excellence; we in turn would drive them up the wall with our atrocious handwriting and inability to spell! What strikes me now in retrospect is how we were subject to a system of comparison even at the start of our educational training. Streaming was the principal way of comparison. How good we were, how bad we were.

Secondary schools produced a similar framework. The three streams of Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) infused our thinking and in fact our self-worth as we measured ourselves in terms of our placing in this threefold ranking system. The system itself was devised as a way of channeling talent and ability into different sectors of the economy. With the advent of independent schools, a further ranking element was introduced into the framework. Attitudes to academic ability became less about developing a child to her full potential but to take her place in the better academic stream because of the social stigma attached to the lower rungs. Elitism, the reverse side of meritocracy, became a definite outcome of the educational experience.

In fact, the treatment of children in the different streams was also variable in that resources such as better teachers were apportioned more liberally to the Express stream. When this is coupled with additional resources available through book prizes and scholarships to better-performing children, the widening of academic performance increases exponentially. Children’s capabilities were not just the outcome of their innate resources but also of the resources that were available as they progressed through school. The first Prime Minister’s limited understanding of the Nature-Nurture debate, which is actually a widely-contested and broadly-researched part of developmental psychology, was the key propellant of the arrangements of education. In focusing on nature, the system forgot about nurture, thus entrenching his view of the matter: a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In short, upon an incomplete understanding on the Nature-Nurture debate, children are compared from the day they are inducted into the education system. They are told where their futures would lie if they did not get an ‘A-star’ grade in primary school or an ‘A1’ in secondary school. Too early in a child’s cognitive existence, a delicate period deserving of a sophisticated nurturing process, we became all to ready to use blunt assessment tools to determine, far too early, who would and would not make it. Amidst the deafening preachment of the first Prime Minister, teachers had few avenues to feed back their reservations of the system and educational trainers and researchers, largely contained within a state-sponsored Institute (later National Institute) of Education, had little leeway (indeed, motivation) to do so.

Receiving an education is a process far broader and wider that the mere gathering of desired grades accumulated in high-pressured testing environments. The word stems from various Latin roots that imply ‘raising up’, ‘leading forth’ and ‘showing the way’. Education, if it is not a process of leading a proto-citizen, a proto-adult to better ways of thinking, feeling and acting, counts for little. For as robots begin to replace those whose employment consist largely in mechanical or rote behaviour, our very economy may be jeopardised as we compete with countries at lower levels of economic development. In short, a nation of doers rather than one of thinkers may reach a functional glass ceiling from which only a total overhaul of our education system may help to extricate us.

Having gone through several generations of the Singapore education system, we must become enlightened enough through a range of methods to recognise the strengths and weaknesses in our children – all of them, for they are the nation’s future. As the history of philosophers and great thinkers has shown us, coding and labeling children too early in life can be detrimental to their self-worth and also limit our collective ability to identify and nurture genius.

The fundamental change, above all, is mind set.

The ideals of elitism must be discarded. We are one people, all with different strengths and weaknesses. Educators should be able to recognise these attributes early and tap into them. If such resources at present do not exist, they should be created. Every child should be provided an appropriate avenue, an appropriate pathway to tap and grow their strengths.

The stigma associated with certain educational establishments should be wiped clean. Uplift such institutions. Promote them and highlight their advantages. Stress the fact that as educators, all schools and institutes should see to it that each and every pupil reaches their potential.

Education is indispensable. It will shape us or break us down according to how we have subscribed to its concepts. And upon the quality of our children will depend the quality of our nation in the next two to three generations whose changes in global patterns, industrial structures and technological agenda will be of crucial significance to us in Singapore.

Clarence Dorai

is a member of The Young Democrats.

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