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Please Stop Saying the PSLE “Doesn’t Matter”

I do not particularly fancy the education system in Singapore.

For one, our teachers are severely underpaid and overworked, with many eventually fleeing into the wildly lucrative private tuition sector, leaving underprivileged kids who can’t afford extra classes at a disadvantage due to a drop in teaching quality at mainstream schools.

Secondly, the cookie-cutter teaching style that a) fills students with pro-government propaganda, b) punishes students for expressing individuality, and c) prioritises academic endeavors over non-academic achievements, I feel, will slowly prove to be the downfall of our nation severely lacking in creativity, soft skills and street smarts.

Also, school children are growing fatter at an alarming rate, but the generally atrocious school wellness system only adds to the waistlines of the nationwide epidemic. Physical education sessions are cut in favor of redundant calculus and trigonometry lessons. Cafeterias are serving reheated packaged foods rich in sugar and refined carbohydrates. No system is in place to ensure proper eye breaks, leading to students being crammed into humid classrooms for up to three hours at one go. It’s no surprise we have the highest myopia rate in the world.

Our towering literacy rates and positions in international academic charts are often lauded by the establishment, but the system’s crowning achievements merely serve as a facade to hide a disastrous emphasis on grades over personal welfare and development. This cancerous mindset has inevitably trickled down into society, highlighted by the jaw-dropping $1 billion tuition industry and the immense pressure forced upon children by their strict parents. Many unfortunately see their children’s academics as the only barometer to judge success by in a soulless, pragmatic Singapore.

Sure enough, such a case of ‘mistreatment’ has seen light shortly after the release of this year’s PSLE results. There was national outrage as a lady reportedly berated her son for not hitting her lofty expectations of 250, a score widely considered to be the start of the ‘elite’ score range. She also told him to “forget about getting a Nintendo DS” as a result of his underwhelming performance. It was later revealed that the irresponsible journalist tailing her for the scoop fabricated some parts of the story, but it didn’t stop netizens from a) criticising her harsh, tiger-mom parenting, b) lambasting her decision to offer her son a reward only if he hits a certain target, and c) questioning whether she should be focusing on her son’s grades. As per tradition, words of encouragement start pouring in, with countless people sharing their own scores and insisting how the PSLE doesn’t ultimately matter in life, because look, “we’re fine and doing alright”.

My other grievances with the system – lack of non-academic funding, disastrous homework policies, redundant grading activities, failure to impart media literacy etc. – can make for an article in itself, but I want to share my thoughts about why, despite my criticism about how the system prioritises grades, I think the PSLE matters greatly and should not be dismissed as something retrospectively trivial.

Photo: The Straits Times

Photo: The Straits Times

Firstly, I find that there is nothing wrong with tying rewards to grades. It’s how the real world works – hit a certain KPI and you’ll be rewarded with a promotion, hit this certain amount of sales and you’ll be offered a bonus etc. Different children will naturally react differently to this incentive-based system, but that’s what society has been like for quite sometime. How parents handle the morale of their child who isn’t receptive to this system is another issue altogether, but to shield our ill-prepared future generation from this fact of life would be counter-productive.

Secondly, I find it’s no coincidence that the people celebrating their low PSLE scores mostly hail from well-to-do families, or middle-class at the very least. You know, the people who can afford to fail. For many living in poverty, paper qualifications signify a glimmer of hope for the family to escape the cycle in the future. They can’t afford to support their children’s passions or hone their talents, so the only financially viable option towards success would be the traditional route – study hard, get a scholarship, get a degree, and graduate to a well-paying job. To them, the PSLE matters since failure usually leads to more failures down the road.

Some might then argue, hey, this person or celebrity I saw on Facebook hailed from a poor family, did badly for his PSLE, and yet he’s doing great for himself now! As long as you put your mind to it and work extremely hard, nothing’s impossible, right? Well, technically, yea, but here is where Survivorship Bias comes into play.

Yes, some dude on Facebook says he’s doing well in life despite scoring 190, but many fail to realise he’s the exception. For every single person who succeeded with a subpar PSLE aggregate, there are hundreds or even thousands more who’s fighting for a low-paid blue-collar position while living paycheck to paycheck. Not that there’s anything wrong with blue-collar workers, just that a surprising number of Singaporeans look down on their failures and see them as losers because of our elitist system’s tendency to celebrate grades over character.

Remember, people like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates didn’t just drop out of any ordinary college. They dropped out from Harvard. To even get into Harvard signifies academic excellence to begin with.

We assume a low PSLE score magically translates into a fairytale ending with a little bit of hard work, but we fail to see alternative outcomes simply because we don’t hear about them. The media is not going to run stories telling us how people who performed badly during their examinations ended up struggling in life later on. It’s against the government’s agenda, and frankly, why would Singaporeans, or anyone for that matter, care about news like that?

Photo: The Straits Times

Photo: The Straits Times

Let’s examine what the four-letter acronym is by nature. The examination mainly serves as a way to group students according to their academic competence while narrowing/widening the list of institutes to further pursue their studies. It’s essentially foreplay that lasts six years before the actual intercourse – the four/five most important years of a student’s life in Secondary School. The formative period is extremely vital in one’s holistic development, and the experiences we encounter there will significantly shape our future identities. I’m sure most would agree that it is the place where you learn the most, form the most meaningful relationships and find out who you really are in this complicated world. All this, while juggling mistakes, responsibilities and emotional turmoil brought on by teenage adolescence.

Let’s be honest here – not every school is a good school despite what the government will have you believe. The quality of the teaching staff, education, food, and even your fellow schoolmates all boil down to the school you attend.

  • Will you develop good contacts to aid in your future career, or will you be stuck around unmotivated, disenfranchised youths who lack long term goals?
  • Will you get bullied by gangsters who have fallen through the cracks, or will you be looked down upon by snobbish elitist teens with rich parents?
  • Will you meet teachers who are willing to go the extra mile, or will you meet those whose passion have been extinguished by a failing education system that betrayed them?
  • Will you successfully find love in the classroom, or will your feelings be toyed with and mercilessly exploited?
  • Will you learn relevant skills off-syllabus that are applicable in 21st-century context, or will you meet with an uninspired principal hellbent on hitting KPIs?
  • Will you shine in an all-star sports/arts team, or will your exposure be halted due to a lack of funding?
  • Will you be afforded time to explore your hobbies and hone your talents, or will you be punished for being different?
  • Will you understand groupthink, peer pressure and office politics, or will you be sheltered from the harsh reality of working society?
  • Will you develop an interest for world history and current affairs, or will you end up passing time by viewing .gif-infested listicles and Buzzfeed videos?

 

All these are more than just hypothetical matchups. These are experiences which leave emotional scars, impart vital life lessons, mould personalities and change the way we view the world accordingly. In short, they determine what kind of a person we are going to be – from the way we interact with people, to our attitudes on sex and love (don’t get me started on Singapore’s garbage outsourced sex education bombarded with religious agendas), and all the way to the careers we eventually settle upon. Although both negative and positive experiences changes who we are as a person regardless of when it happens, we are the most impressionable during our time in Secondary School, when we’ve just found our footing in this world and slowly discovering how it works.

It’s inevitable for different schools to adopt different learning cultures, but if you fail to find the correct one to cultivate and nurture your talents, you’ve already lost half the battle. Take my life for example. I’ve been a freelance art director for around four years now doing everything across the media spectrum from editing, marketing, journalism, all the way to visual communications. The highest qualification I’ve received was the O-Levels, and even then I barely qualified for a place in JC by one point. I eventually went for what I thought was my dream course in a local polytechnic.

A lot of how I turned my hobbies into careers, despite lacking any relevant education in those areas, has to be credited to the freedom I was afforded in my alma mater, the mentors who guided me through the bad times, and the opportunities put in place to ensure I continue developing even after graduation.

25078_104347592933589_6883290_n

Good times in Secondary School. (Photo: Daniel Pei)

During class time, while others were learning about some obscure Math concept, I remembered doing research on some marketing and social media trends of the new Internet age. It proved to be a gamble not paying attention in class since I proceeded to fail my Math consistently over the next three years.

I also got the chance to try out different ‘careers’, including one in biotechnology and another one in electronics, have access to the latest gadgets and softwares and join various programmes to help pinpoint the skills I was competent at.

Also, most of my homework in Secondary 4 aren’t really compulsory to complete. Well technically they are, but really, our lives could end any moment and I’m not going to waste my time finding out the value of x. I was told to complete my assignments, but there weren’t really any ramifications if I didn’t comply.

With my frowned upon multitasking and free time in the evenings, I had the means to pursue my other interests which gave me a decent enough foundation and subsequent headstart. With my teachers’ help and guidance from the various industries, including those overseas, I managed to progress quickly and learn on the job.

In contrast, some of my other friends from other schools weren’t so lucky – they were dumped with copious amounts of homework and were sent to detention if they were ‘lazy’ after coming home from a 13-hour school day. Their teachers were more interested in competing to teach the best class, so their focus were ultimately on the number of As their students got. If I were to be put in that learning environment, I, along with my passion for learning, will be metaphorically dead. I wouldn’t be writing this blog post now. Instead of helping conglomerates develop creative strategies for their campaigns, I’ll probably be in some JC rotting away with a learning style that doesn’t suit me at all. On the contrary, if a studios, book-smart person aspiring to enter academia end up in a school that has a ‘rigid’ culture, he/she will likely flourish and fulfil their potentials.

I do not want to mention any schools by name since that wasn’t the point of the above story. I just wanted to point out how differing cultures from schools significantly affects one’s learning and subsequent endeavors. Yes, the PSLE might not matter retrospectively since, well, you are alive and surviving, but your T-score will give you the freedom to choose the school that complements your path to greatness.

For reference, I scored 241 (+2 = 243 if the Higher Chinese bonus is counted) for my PSLE. Personally, I hit my target right on the dot, so I didn’t really feel much at that point. However, I was placed on the waiting list of my alma mater, and because of that very score, I just about sneaked in against. I will always remember passing by two of my fellow classmates, who were also placed on the waiting list, while walking to the stage for my Primary School principal to congratulate me. They say hindsight is 20/20, but as I chanced upon their beaming faces – they seemed really happy for me which made the bittersweet moment a little easier – I realised how lucky I was, because if I had gotten a single point less, my life for the next seven years would have been very, very different. 

26597_1332888612967_7112579_n

You’ll be alright, buddy.

Enough about me though. I feel the real talking point should be about whether a parent has the right to be angry at their kids because of their academic results. I know for sure we shouldn’t be casually dismissing the importance of the PSLE as a sign of social solidarity. In my opinion, we’ve reached a point whereby we’re just shielding our next generation from getting their self-confidence destroyed, rather than teaching them how to pick themselves back up when that happens.

Are grades the be all and end all in Singapore? If the societal mindset, perpetuated by our politicians’ elitist leadership, doesn’t change, grades will always remain the benchmark for success. They do have a place in society and serve obvious benefits, but children shouldn’t be made to feel that the amount of parental love they receive is tied directly to their grades.

Yes, children should be given time to explore their non-academic interests, and no matter how little room Singapore has for failed gambles, parents should still support their child’s dreams, no matter how far-fetched they may seem. If financial circumstances don’t allow for that to happen, perhaps we could encourage more positive communication between parents and their children instead of putting the latter down with cynical remarks. My family is middle-class, so I don’t want to pretend to know how to fix things for people who aren’t as fortunate as I am. For a good number of middle-class parents in Singapore though, as a fellow student like your child, I’d say that a grade veering on the average is good enough. If your child spends all his time studying redundant subjects from our failing syllabus, he’s not going to have time to develop his other talents. When he or she graduates from university riddled with student debt, he’s probably going to end up being employed by someone who did so-so in school, but now holds the power to destroy your kid.

As long as your child tries his/her best, positive reinforcement should be the way to go. At the same time, don’t be afraid to expose your child to disappointment – they’ll thank you later in life. Guide them in restoring their morale and give them a fighting chance to reward you for your vote of confidence.

Remember, your children are like kites. The more pressure you use reeling them in, the quicker they’ll snap. And when they drift off, you’ll probably never see them again.

“Don’t let school interfere with your education.” – Mark Twain

 

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If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in some of my other Unpopular Opinions, such as my latest one, No, You’re Not Beautiful.

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