Singapore’s Education System: Luck, Hard Work Or Prejudice?

This is a Shortlisted entry in the Rice Media x DLS Op-Ed competition. This article represents the views of neither Rice Media nor Dialogic Learning Services and is solely the opinion of the author. Authors’ names and schools have been hidden from readers and Rice Media’s judges so as to prevent bias during voting & judging. 

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The education system is a metaphorical battlefield. Many proclaim it is a fight between one against oneself. I think that it’s a full-fledged war between one and one’s peers. 

The climb to success in education alludes to that of a rock wall. Students start off on level ground, harness attached, confident that they are strapped in and safe. They start climbing, but along the way encounter challenges. Some find companions to push on together, lifting each other up. Some palms get slick, loosen their grip, and fall all the way to the bottom. With only a harness and the weightless feeling of the plunge, some decide, it’s too much. I’m not going to risk it again. So they climb slowly, surely, but always a step or two behind. 

But what happens next is a chain reaction, or the Domino effect. One step turns to five, turns to ten. But is it the student’s fault, or the education system’s? Neither. However, Singapore’s primary school education is conventionally rigid. Most, or perhaps all, primary school students are required to sit for a national examination, the PSLE, which aims to consolidate all the learning of the past 6 years. 

However, I’m fairly certain that the phrase ‘different and unique styles of studying’ have been slyly weaving into conversations recently as parents and educators find themselves being more susceptible to the idea that the ‘default’ pathway of primary, secondary, JC and university education is simply not the ideal for some students.

Of course, every parent wants the best for their child, including but not limited to: the best education and the best chance at success, a good future and a steady career. Hence, it is the mindset that the more distinguished the institution, the faster and more efficiently a child transcends success. 

While this is true for some, not all students function best trapped within the four walls of the classroom. With this in mind, the Ministry of Education has constructed multiple education choices to better suit preferences such as kinesthetic, interpersonal education. Some students prefer group projects, some individual. Some prefer reading and writing, some lean toward math and sciences. Some institutions cater specifically to students who learn slightly slower than their peers, some help develop the skills of fast-learners.

And yet, to date, stigmatised institutions and educational pathways such as the Normal Technical stream (NT), Normal Academic stream (NA), Polytechnics and the ITE face unwarranted disdain.

Personally, I am neither a Normal Tech nor a Normal Academic stream student. However, I’ve observed a recent trend on the overgeneralization of NT, NA, Poly or ITE students as either ‘stupid’, ‘not smart enough’, ‘did not do well for O Levels’, or, to put simply, ‘dumb’.

This stereotype has been lingering in the wake of many ‘low-scorers’ success stories. Many push the idea that the student had succeeded despite being placed in a NA or NT stream, instead of succeeding because of the skills incorporated into them when studying at that institution. On the other half of the spectrum, many students’ ‘intelligence capacity’ are reduced drastically, in some people’s eyes, when affiliated with NA or NT streams. Their self worth as a person is suddenly and unreasonably disparaged, an almost total annihilation of the image they so carefully construct, be it for others or for themselves.

Does class and school streaming define academic success? 

All of us in Singapore’s education system have, at one point in time, heard the phrase ‘every class is the best’ or ‘there is no such thing as a bad school’. While technically, every school does serve its purpose in educating young minds, in my experience of schooling in a slightly more prestigious school, competitiveness is definitely much higher here than that of a typical neighbourhood school. Peer pressure is part and parcel of school life, but it remains a fact that people, especially both students and parents, automatically assume students in foundation classes or non-triple-science classes are less intelligent than their peers who had received a better result in their end of year examinations. 

Sometimes, privilege comes into play as well. Many do not receive the same level of enrichment for their education like some students do. Take for example, tuition classes, private tutors. Does this mean that these students are less capable of achieving success in their lifetime?

My purpose in writing this Op-Ed is not to throw shallow pity on the mass population of students who fall under the NA, NT, Poly or ITE category, and are marginalised as a result. Instead, I’d ask you to challenge this perspective.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Or does it? Parents and elders influence our lives greatly, and no doubt they want absolutely nothing but the very best for us. But it’s never been too difficult to peel away what little truth of the matter; that the stigmatisation roots from many of our parents. When we venerate and exalt someone, take for example our parents, we even start to mimic their actions, attitudes, mindsets and beliefs. Growing up in a comfortable home, my goals were to ace the PSLE, get to a good school, and make my own way from there. 

It was only when I reached secondary school, did I start to realise how we individually defined education. In some cases, education defines us. It’s an ubiquitous shadow lurking in the far corners of Instagram graduation photos. 

Elders think honour, especially family honour and pride, is bequeathed from one generation to the next, along with the congenial pressure to uphold the family name. But is it the family occupation, or is it the family vocation? Blood is surely thicker than water, but it doesn’t contain a personality, with likes, dislikes, and personal preferences. The whole point of having a plethora of education pathways is to open up floodgates for aspiring and hopeful students, and yet it seems to be an obdurate, ugly pimple protruding on the unblemished skin of the education system. 

Many seem to be beguiled by the idle idea that Science stream JC students are the more ‘superior’ or, kiasu parents’ favourite word, ‘smarter’, than your average student. Talk about an ego boost. On the contrary, a design student in Poly may get sympathetic glances and eye-darts and the occasional, bold, ‘Your O Level never meet the cut off ah’. At the end of the day, I sincerely doubt the community would much rather have a triple science student with a god-complex rather than a hard-working, meticulous ‘average’ student. 

One day, when that rock wall is finally scaled, and the champion pronounced, with victory reigning in the triumphant cries of those who had gone through hell and back, how long would he be able to remain there? How long till he, too, feels that trembling, palpitating tremor of hanging off a cliff with two cramping fingers that only steeps to rock bottom?  

The education syllabus is set in stone. We alone cannot try to change it if it refuses to budge. But we can alter mindsets and regard every student with an open mind and heart. To place yourself in the shoes of them, and respect, but not pity. After all, the only way you can go from rock bottom is up. 

As Nelson Mandela said, “ Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” But then begs the question; when will education be considered a weapon against oneself?

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