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20 June 2003
Dear Dr Chee,
I’m a student currently in Australia. I’m going to finish my course soon and I’m having my final exams now. Most people will say: ‘Well, it’s about time you came back and served in the country.’
I’m sorry but I’m not planning to go back to Singapore anytime soon, at least. (I’m applying for PR and I’ll be here for a long time I’d say. Unless there’s a total ‘overhaul’ in Singapore.) It’s not that I’m not patriotic. I’ve told my friends countless of times over the Internet that if anyone tries to come and ‘bully’ Singapore (I don’t think I need to spell it out more clearly, directly than this) I will take the first flight back and fight next to my fellow countrymen.
The reason why I chose to ‘leave’ Singapore at the moment is ever since I’ve come to Australia, this beautiful country has ‘opened’ my eyes to a lot of issues. I’m not saying Australia is a perfect place to stay in, there’s a lot of crap going around too. But at least I feel more ‘free’ here. I can openly talk about the politicians here and I know I will not be crucified! Yes it’s a very powerful word but it’s how I feel!
Whenever I read online in Straits Times, I can’t stop laughing at articles where politicians tell Singaporeans to Speak Up and be Creative! Just look at anyone who has really spoken against the government? Bankruptcy is only a minor issue. How the government goes about it is the scariest horror movie in the world! Who in their right minds will dare to speak up against them?
If I have political asylum to shield me from being prosecuted I’d be the first one to stand up at rallies to ‘open’ the Singaporean’s eyes to the real world!
I understand why the government wants to prevent ‘dissent’ because Singapore is a small place, they can’t afford to have ‘disobedient’ Singaporeans walking down the streets smashing things up and etc. I’ve gone to many peace rallies (before and during the Iraq-war) no one went berserk! Everyone was sitting there, quietly listening to the speakers, occasionally shouting slogans but that’s about it! Why can the Aussies can be mature enough to do such things? How are they educated to be like this?
My next point is about creativity, with such rigid education system, who cares if Singapore students get the highest science and maths results in Asia? When I first got here, I was always overwhelmed by the locals who spoke up in front of the whole class of students whenever the lecturer asked a question.
I spoke to one of my lecturers who has taught in NUS, his comments about Singaporean students was, ‘They’re very nice, quiet, obedient students.’ How nice! But this kind of students, how can they have the ‘creativity’ needed desperately currently by Singapore to rebuild the economy? The ‘I Know Best’ in Singapore will sort it out! But apparently, these people can’t! That’s why they try to ‘move the blame’ and demand Singaporeans to be creative? From this sort of education system?
I can’t see it happening anytime in the near future. The system in Singapore punishes severely people who make the slightest mistake. Take myself for example: Like everyone else, I was told since young ‘Study hard and you will be rich!’. I finished my ‘O’s (with a bit of luck), got admitted to Ngee Ann Polytechnic. During the six-months holidays, I did a course (from the ‘study hard! learn lots of skills!’ mentality) in NCC Diploma in Computer Studies. I grew to love computers (that was in 1990). Then I started Poly in July. But I’ve lost interest in Electrical engineering then, I did very well in my computer programming subject, Turbo Pascal. But eventually, I was kicked out of poly, because I can’t pass the other subjects.
They were never the subjects I loved! Then was waiting to be enlisted. But I managed to get into Temasek Poly, this time, doing Electronic Eng! But, the same thing happened. I did very well in computer programming, but couldn’t get pass the Electronic principles subject (same subject which I failed in Ngee Ann). OK I know it’s not anyone’s fault but my own, for not studying hard enough during my ‘O’s so that I can get admission into Computer Science in Ngee Ann! But does everyone see where I’m coming from?
I’m forced to do these subjects (which at that time, was the ‘in-demand’ subjects) which I had absolutely NO interest in! So, I ended up getting stuck with a O levels, served NS. By then, I thought, my life’s stuffed! What can I do with just a ‘O’ level?
In 1999, I came to Australia. Then my life changed, I was given a chance! And to pursue the course I loved passionately. I’m currently doing the Bachelor of IT here. It’s not a prestigious university, but the baseline is, I get to choose the subjects I want to do, which I can do best, and I’ve done it! Who would have expected? An O level, twice Poly dropout, a ‘Goner’ in Singapore, would be receiving his degree in IT?
And on top of that, I’ve revived my passion of studies. I’m going to work for some years, then I’ll be going for my Masters degree. But maybe in Environmental studies? Or IT, I’m not sure yet. But one thing is for sure, I’m given a second chance! Sorry I’m going all over the place, but I hope whoever reads this letter can make something out of it. (Hope to see Dr Chee’s replies/comments at the end.)
A few months ago, there was an article on Straits Times about the younger Singaporean’s attitude towards Singapore,’ I want to be proud of Singapore, But about what?’ I feel the same too. Besides the foreigners’ opinion of ‘Singapore’s a very clean country’, what can I be proud of? But I’m not giving up on Singapore yet.
Although I’m not in Singapore, I love Singapore and miss her dearly. I will be back for a short holiday soon after my exams. Thanks for reading my letter. Best wishes!
Over the years, I have received many letters and heard many stories such as the one you have related in your letter. Many talented Singaporeans have not been given a chance because of the rigid educational policies that the PAP has adopted.
I have discussed this subject in my books: different types of intelligence, individual differences in developmental rates, and the various test tools/classroom approaches all contribute to bringing out different performances in people.
A once-size-fits-all approach by the PAP is both outdated and unhelpful. As a result many Singaporeans such as yourself have gone overseas and made good. If you have read Singapore, My Home Too which I wrote in 1996, you will see I experienced a similar problem during my tertiary education years.
Tragically, many Singaporeans are not returning to Singapore after that education for obvious reasons. This exodus of local talent is a tremendous drain on our only resources human talent. Unfortunately the PAP adopts the attitude of good-riddance-to-bad-rubbish and embarks on the Foreign Talent Policy to replace what has been lost. At least overseas workers here in Singapore are obliged to remain quiet and obedient lest the Government ships them home.
The question is: Is this good for Singapore in the long-term? How will this affect the social fabric of our society? What happens to the identity of Singaporeans as a people? My worry is that the PAP doesnt give much thought to these questions. What matters to it most is that it remains in power and that Singaporeans remain servile digits to work hard to improve on the GDP figures.
How do we solve this problem? Singaporeans must make that sacrifice to come back work for democracy where we the people can take back control of the public process and stop the PAP from hijacking it. There is no short cut and there is no painless remedy.
I realize that the obstacles are enormous and the goal seems unobtainable. But thats how the PAP wants us to feel and if we believe this, we are doomed even before we start. If everybody stayed away until things changed we will all be staying away forever. In the meantime we have to think of what to tell our children when they ask why we didnt speak up when we had the chance.
Let us have some faith and courage for freedom and democracy demand no less from its servants.
Chee Soon Juan