Educating our youths to develop empathy, appreciation and resilience


 The letter in Dec 26, 2011′s TODAY paper, “Disparity in tertiary education facilities” by JC student Kwek Jian Qiang caught my attention.

It was written with a good command of the English language. I assume Kwek is a bright student. What alarms me is his assumption that the best facilities must be reserved for the brightest students. He compared the facilities of ITE College East with that of Anderson JC and Victoria JC. Yes, I agree ITE College East has excellent facilities, better than in most schools and colleges. I have been to Victoria JC many times and I think the facilities are fine enough to educate our brightest students. It may not have the sleek floors, a swimming pool nor a stadium fit for the Youth Olympics, but I do not think the lack of these outward facilities will impede education for our best students.

There is a wrong assumption we must have the best outward facilities for the best education to take place. Education is much more than just physical infrastructure. The quality of teachers, the culture of the school, the learning programmes, the interaction amongst students, the CCA programmes and many other softer aspects are immensely more important than physical facilities.

I had the opportunity to visit and live amongst rural schools in Indonesia, Cambodia, China and Bhutan. Once you have seen these facilities, you will appreciate the resources we have in all our schools, including each of our so-called neighbourhood schools. I am not asking that we should accept the physical conditions of schools in developing countries for Singapore. I am concerned that our youths have grown so accustomed to being so well-endowed that they look with envy if another institution has better physical resources than they do. They forget to appreciate that we do have good enough resources to meet our education needs. In fact, I often see waste of resources when we over-equip our institutions and leave equipment underutilised. I do not think we suffer a big lack of physical resources in JCs or polytechnics to fulfil schooling objectives.

Kwek’s letter may reflect a deeper sentiment that lies in our society. He was brave to express it, and he could be expressing what some amongst his peers might be thinking. This alarms me. The sentiment is that the best and brightest people deserve better stuff that the weaker ones. He ended his letter by stating that “Our brightest students, who will become Singapore’s future leaders, should get the best facilities in order to excel and grow. We should reward according to merit.”

We are often told that our society is based on meritocracy. Is that the type of meritocracy we have educated our next generation to know of? There is a sense of jealousy that the weak students in ITE get plush facilities which should be instead given to those who had done well academically. When these bright students graduate into the working world, they could well end up as our future government, corporate, business and political leaders. With such a mindset, we could then get a lot of resources pumped in to reward these leaders, who are already endowed with much, and in the process alienate the weaker ones in society. This will lead to further cracks in our society, something which we have already seen happening.

I fear we have ingrained this attitude in our future generation since young. Our education system endorses it. I am against the gifted education programme. I am not against exposing bright students to more learning opportunities and challenges. What I am against is congregating them together. It sends the message that they are the elite and must have the best. Over the years, we have increasing expanded the number of examination points where we sieve out academically better students and pull the distance apart between good students and weaker ones. The aim is to push students according to their academic abilities. The effect is that it segregates students. The good schools progressively get better students and less reputed schools get the weaker students. The better students congregate amongst themselves, not mixing with weaker one. This lessens the opportunity for people of different social backgrounds and abilities to mix together and better understand one another. Hence, students believe that under our meritocratic system, they are the best and deserve the best; we should not waste good resources on weaker students.

We may think that the gifted education programme selection and streaming exercises will help maximise learning for students. Indeed, having such a competitive education system has raised our ranking in international benchmark examinations. I believe though there is more to education than achieving stellar grades. We have begun to lose the ability for people of different backgrounds to mix together. We seem to have lost that empathy for the weak amongst us. Those who ‘have’ may feel they well deserve to be where they are and that those who ‘have-not’ are failures in life.

Another danger I see is that we may have cultivated our next generation to be over reliant on the physical. We need things to be up neatly for us, with top facilities before we can do anything. We have lost the ability to improvise and overcome shortages in resources. In the past, when Singapore had little, our founding fathers struggled to make do with whatever resources were available and achieved much. Not all education institutions will have equal physical resources, but I do not think that should stop one from learning and achieving. It will be useful for schools to get students involved in community projects in developing countries to get them to appreciate what they have here. Parents too, can play a part. In our family travels, where feasible, we can sometimes plan visits to local communities for our children to experience local living conditions.

My post is not to condemn Kwek for his letter. I see it as a brave attempt by a young man to ask for better resources for JCs and polytechnics. I am concerned about an attitude trend in society which seems to be highlighted by his letter. Today, we speak of character and values-based education. I see Kwek’s letter as a signal that we need to work harder on this aspect to cultivate empathy, appreciation and resilience in our youths.

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Post article note: Several years ago, I was invited to attend an EXCO meeting of ITE alumni over a business proposal. I recall that in the meeting was a polytechnic lecturer and many entrepreneurs. One was a successful entrepreneur of a big paper company whose products are widely used in the region. My dad used to teach students in the monolingual and 8-year Primary programme many years back. One of his students now owns an oil supply business. One of the key technology staff in my former IT business graduated from a vocational institution. Some of them are late developers in life; some learn better in other ways; some are great doers. We need to change our mindset of meritocracy and of the worth of individuals.

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58 comments on “Educating our youths to develop empathy, appreciation and resilience

  1. I believe education should empower a person with knowledge,skills,good characters and what is necessary for him/her to survive in the society. Therefore, I don’t agree with the current education ideology of school ranking, streaming system, prematurely kicking out those disadvantage ones out of the education system. No one should be left out of the education system for whatever reason!

    Let Our Education System Return To The Confucian Ideology – No One Should Be Discriminated !

    • Not that I don’t agree with your comment, but I just want to point out that one of the fundamental tenets of Confucianism is discrimination: by societal classes, by gender, by hierarchy etc :) Its belief is that people of different classes have different roles to play in society. Though of course it also strongly believe that a “warrior” can come from the poorest of background :)

  2. I spent a term at Stanford in 2000 and they were using blackboard and chalk. Yet was some of most amazing learning experiences and environments I experienced across 4 universities in 3 countries.

  3. Pingback: ITE Students Shouldn't Have Nice Campus

  4. I’m not a teacher but i would tend to believe that from the perspective of teaching a class, it makes giving instructions to students of similar academic level easier and more effective.

    Mixing students outside of the academic setting makes more sense in terms of increasing exposure of students to varying academic .

    Also not forgetting, in the pursuit of quality education, schools with somewhat similar students can benefit from the expertise developed by teaching staff sharing similar problems and experiences.

    Which leaves me to ponder about if mixing students of different academic success does solve the perceived problem of elitism? I think I dont quite understand what exactly promotes this so call phenomena of elitism. Is segregation purely the cause? Or are there greater forces at work?

    Ultimately, how can our system teach or inculcate empathy for the weak given that the system rewards based on merits? And what exactly is our definition of the weak, those without merits that the system rewards?

  5. Thank you for caring enough to have a blog on Singapore.

    We love this city state country.
    We love our people – young and old – and even applaud those – for speaking out… even whilst we disagree with them.

    Neither our people nor our government are even close to perfect. But in this small society, superlative results are achieved in cultural harmony and civic coordination – within an economic oasis.

    I am so pleased that people are now speaking out…… so that we can focus on what really would make our society better. Thank you for blogging,

  6. i think your post-note finely captures an observation that someone shared with me some time back: the ITE grads become towkays who hire poly grads that rise to manager positions, who in turn instructs uni grads who take orders.

    but as a JC student who later went on to a local uni, I can understand the simplistic perception expressed by the 17/18 year old author, that our leaders were good students who typically hail from JCs. We have been told this narrative and cautioned to follow this beaten path. But I won’t be too quick to label the writer an elitist or a snob. I would just say that his perception is immature because he has not learnt or seen that success can be achieved through different paths.

    • Thanks for sharing. I am sure Kwek will learn from this. Even politicians learn the hard way that when we make certain comments, others will form judgement in ways we did not anticipate. He might be echoing sentiments of peers and what have been unconsciously put into our minds through messaging by society at large.

      My post-note is to encourage those who have not managed to make the academic route to find their source of success. It would be simplistic though to say ITE grads all become towkays. Actually, it’s quite tough to be a towkay in Singapore, and I salute those who try and congratulate those who succeeded.

      • yes, I agree that anecdote is very simplistic. those are the success stories that we want to trumpet to demonstrate our meritocracy by diligence and entrepreneurism rather than by education, but these are far and few in between.

        someone who worked in ITE shared this with me: “Actually there is a reason for sprucing up the ITEs.  It is a social equaliser and a nation can only move ahead if the lowest rung moves up.” The aesthetically pleasing environment and functional facilities really are but just enablers to give the students a leg up in their vocational pursuits so that they can advance as well.

  7. Kwek Jian Qiang posted his apology post in TodayOnline 7 hours ago. I guess he realises his mistake now.
    His comment 7 hours ago:
    Kwek Jian Qiang
    Hi guys, I’ve read through your comments and what I’ll like to say here is that: you’re right. I was indeed too naive, biased and too consumed by materialism. However, what I’ll like to say was that this article was never meant to be a personal attack against ITE students, in fact, a few of my most inspiring friends and mentors hailed from ITE and up till today, I still cheirsh them for who they are. In fact, it was a teacher who came from ITE who motivated me to keep on improving and never give up on myself. It was due to my jealousy and materialism that in my mind, I only saw the shiny buildings and all I could do is moan of why I cannot get to enjoy studying in such facilities, I was wrong. To give an introduction about myself, I’m not a foreigner. In fact, I come from a low middle income bordering on poor. Everyday, I only have sufficient money to buy food, my notes as well as pay for my transport, and I never had the chance to own a lot of material goods that others get to enjoy. Hence, in me bred a sense of injustice, why do people have things I didn’t have, hence leading to this incident today. Moreover, I was also brought up in an environment where grades are everything. Since young, people around me have been telling me that only good results will get me through in life, and that ITEs represent ‘Its The End’. With such an incorrect mentality unchecked, I had incorrect stereotypes. As such, I’ll like to sincerely apologise for any insult or anger that anyone felt regarding what I have written. Thank you for helping me to realise my mistake, thank you for helping set my moral compass right, thank you for helping me wake up. I will repent and not commit to such mentalities again. Please do give me a chance to do so.
    http://www.todayonline.com/Voices/EDC111226-0000019/Disparity-in-tertiary-education-facilities#.TvfagqyflYU.facebook

    But the real problem now is not just our education system, it’s our education philosophy and societal values at large.

    • Sigh…. “Moreover, I was also brought up in an environment where grades are everything. Since young, people around me have been telling me that only good results will get me through in life, and that ITEs represent ‘Its The End’.”

      This should not be what our values in education and society should be, but it has become so. Kwek was echoing sentiments ingrained in our young.

      I like the way he so quickly apologised.

  8. Sadly to say, I was brought up in the relatively same mentality as kwek, where grades are everything, and ITE(s) represents It’s The End. I never had enough money to get other stuff more than just food and notes. I’m ashame but I’d like to admit that I have the same mentality as Kwek. It probably reflected that the stereotypes that was being educated and inculcated to us are bending our minds. I’m not sure whether mixing students of different academic capabilities actually helps, but I’m quite sure the education system works in a ‘the smart gets smarter, the weak gets weaker’.
    I’m afraid that this unhealthy mentality has set in and sunk in among majority of the young adults, not mentioning parents/adults, who are actually the ones who kept ‘reminding’ us about these stereotypes.

  9. Hi Jenn Jong,

    I was shown your prose through a recommendation from a peer and felt the need to comment.

    I felt that Kwek was headed in the right direction with his letter but his thought-process was (possibly) not well-developed enough. Instead of merely voicing his concern over the apparent ‘ITE opulence’ by asking “why are our best and brightest not getting the best learning environments?”, a more appropriate question would be “shouldn’t all schools have comparable facilities?”.

    While I understand that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and the measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens, it seems rather unjust to me that JC and polytechnic students who work as hard (if not harder) should be given anything less than their ITE counterparts. And we’re not even talking about merit or results here, just plain, old sweat and labour. While Kwek was benighted to think that JC, polytechnic, and ITE students should simply have their schools switched, I feel that an equitable allocation of resources amongst all schools should be put in place.

    If such an angle was taken by Kwek instead, would you still give the same response?

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, beyond the worrying youth mindset of meritocracy (which you have commented rather extensively about), do you agree with an education system that unfairly allocates resources to any one group of students? (i.e. do ITE students have more of a right than other students to have the best facilities?)

    Brandon Lee

    • Kwek has directed a lot of attention to this issue in ways he did not intended it to be. So it does generate a fair amount of attention now to resources in JCs and polytechnics, something he had wanted to achieve.

      Even amongst JCs/IP schools now, there are some with excellent physical facilities like in RI (RJC), Hwa Chong and ACS(I). I understand JCs are due for a MOE-wide review soon, just as primary schools and secondary schools had their reviews done last 3 years. So some recommendations may follow later on physical infrastructure for JCs.

      It is never possible to have all facilities upgraded at the same time, and even so, some schools will find means to have better facilities through other fund raising sources other than from MOE. Even amongst ITEs, the facilities are different.

      My personal preference is not to overhype up facilities and have grand facades. Education is ultimately about the softer aspects. There is already too much emphasis on physical things. No school here should lack necessary physical resources but over doing the physical is unnecessary as well. Whether ITE College East has overdone it is subjective. Do we need all JCs to be like ITE College East and will resources be well used if we had done so?

      • I feel compelled to point out that the schools you have just mentioned (RI, Hwa Chong and ACSI) are all independent schools that have a large pool of successful alumni which the schools rely heavily on for donations and fundraising activities to support the various upgrading projects they have no doubt undergone over the years. Thus I do not think it is fair to use these schools as a gauge, since most other JCs do not financial power anywhere near the mentioned traditionally elite schools.

        While I agree that there is no need to ‘overhype up facilities and have grand facades’, the fact is that one look at the various ITEs and that is precisely what one sees: opulent facilities and grand facades. I do not think it overly demanding for JC students to ask for similar standards. If we do not want to inculcate such materialism in students, then the question to be asked is why were such grand facilities built for the ITEs?

        Rather than worrying about elitism or how immature the author’s views are (as labelled by a good number of people), I think the most worrying thing is why are people so seemingly against what seems like a politically incorrect, but ultimately honestly held opinion which has some basis in truth? While the author was no doubt blunt in the portrayal of his opinion, I do not think it deserves such an uproar.

      • I don’t agree to the uproar over Kwek’s comments too. My article is not to condemn his views. I am concern about the subtle class differentiation / elitism building up in society over time, which he unfortunately happened to manifest (consciously or unconsciously) in his letter. JCs will at some point in time, have facilities upgraded by MOE. The JC review should be happening soon. Whether the same standard used in ITE Campus East should apply to all JCs is another matter to debate. I personally don’t think it is necessary to have everything ITE Campus East has. We need to see what JC education should cover and provide what is necessary for the education to be effective.

  10. In general, I agree with most of what you wrote, but would like to give my view on the Gifted Education Programme and other forms of ‘segregation’. Personally, I have always thought of such ‘segregation’ as just a simple way for teachers to focus their enegies on a single group of students with a similar range of abilities. More about efficiency than any real social commentary.

    I was from the GEP. Among my peers, vey few among us would go around announcing that we were part of the GEP. Partly because we do not think it is a big deal, but also because we know there are people who would willingly discriminate against us just for that. People who believe that we are arrogant, or elitist.

    My strongest impression of my GEP days was our teachers constantly reminding us that we were bright, and therefore MUST have a greater responsibility in giving back to society. Much of what they told us about ‘ability’ is not the rights that we should have as GEP students, but the responsibilities that we have in giving back to society.

    Today, in the working world, I do not see myself as any brighter than my colleagues, but I can tell you that that heart to give back to the community still remains. More important than any kind of segregation is the education that we provide our children.

    Having said that, I would remind all of us that it takes a whole village to raise a child, and education isn’t the responsibility of the school, or MOE, or the government alone. It is up to all of us to decide what we stand for, what we value, and to show that in our daily interactions with our children and with each other.

    • I was also from the GEP and remember the constant exhortation to repay society although this was not taken too seriously by most of my peers because we lacked enough life experience to appreciate the notion of giving back. Furthermore, during my time, GEP students tended to come from better off families, further stunting their awareness of the inequalities of society. This exhortation to give back was coupled to the constant reminder that the education of an average GEP student cost MOE several times more than that of the average non-GEP student.

  11. I agree with Mr Brandon Lee; when I read Mr Kwek’s article, I saw a socialist-ic mindset, rather than an elitist mindset. In my opinion, people tend to jump onto conclusions closest to the mindset that they agree the most.

    There were comments on ‘reverting to Confucian ideology’, quoting ‘Education without discrimination’ (which was also mentioned in Mr Yee’s article), but everyone had forgotten that Confucius also promoted ‘Education according to one’s merits (因材施教)’, which was what Mr Yihao pointed out earlier in the comments. In layman terms, we should open the door to education for all, but once they are in, the students need to proceed to different sectors according to their capabilities, interests, needs etc.

    While I agree with you that meritocracy does hinder the efforts of educators to educate the young, we still need to teach our young to work for what they are worth. I work in a so-called ‘social work’ industry, where I interact with the marginalized people in our society. However, many of them had this mindset that the ‘society owed them’, and thus refused to accept our advice that they should work their ways out of this vicious cycle they are in. Interestingly, most of them were school drop-outs, but this is a case of chicken-and-egg: Were they driven out due to the segregation system, or was it due to their non-meritocratic (refused to work for their worth) mindset that made them leave the system?

    I would also like to point out that your post-note was not in agreement with the whole article. To me, those examples you raised in the post-note were the best examples of meritocracy: people who worked their way to success according to their merits, only that their merits were not in getting straight As in their studies.

  12. although i think the letter was written (or published, for that matter) as a form of ‘trolling’, one very valid question is the definition of meritocracy. i truly believe that the undertone of the letter invites populist sentiments and ad hominem reactions that could be a convenient distraction from something we may be refusing to come to terms with; to what extent are we comfortable with meritocracy?

  13. i will keep it short

    i dont fully agree with kwek in what he writes, but only if he meant that all students should have an equal opportunity to facilities.

    His last paragraph on meritocracy was his achilles’ heel. But i suspect it may have been edited out of context.

    Having nice posh facilities in ITE but “run-down” (comparatively and relatively) in JC are a source of disenfranchisement and discontentment.

    What they could have done was to move on equally. Equally nice, posh buildings for all levels of education, or equally run-down.

    However, we always tend to highlight the handful of successful ones (be it JC/poly/ITE) and quietly forget about the other hundreds of thousands slumbering away, in financial, spritual debt, and physical debt (prison).

  14. JJ,

    C’mon, we both know that congregating top students produces superior learning outcomes and extensive contribution to human knowledge than it otherwise wouldn’t. Think Harvard, Oxford, IIM, HEC and Tsing Hua. Sure, there are college-dropout billionaires but we all know that they are the rarity.

    The strategy that is controversial in Singapore is that we try to sieve out “giftedness” while they are still too young at 9 or 10 years old. This, I disagree.

    • Yes, I should have added that we sieve them out too young and unncessarily so. At some point in life, people will need to be branched out into systems that fit them best. I cited Finland’s case before and they do have to sort out students too, but at 15 years old, not at 9 and 10. The constant sorting out, branding and ranking send a message to those that did well academically that they have arrived.

      • Exactly. Hence it is the TIMING of streaming (at a young age) that is controversial and needs debating, not streaming itself. Your article conveniently ignored this.

        Meritocracy is about providing affordable access to every student to achieve his or her full academic potential regardless of the student’s economic or social background. If a student demonstrates great academic potential, the system must provide him or her with pathway and access to the very top and very best. Doing otherwise limits the student’s potential and is AGAINST meritocracy.

        It’s dangerous if we don’t preach it correctly. People who take the view that the brightest should not be identified and given the best opportunities are against meritocracy. It’s hypocrisy.

  15. The true measure of a person’s character is how a person make the best use of the abilities and gifts he is given and do his best and in turn give it back to society. You do not need the best chef with the best ingredients to cook the best dish. In the end, how many people will get to appreciate it. A dedicated chef can cook an excellent dish with a few good ingredients that is enjoyed by many. Some of the people I admired most are those who make the best use of the limited resources they have and strive to achieve their goals. What you have too many resources, there will be considerable time spent making choices. Education is not about pursuing academic excellence to attain a better life. Education is fulfillment of an inner need to better one self. Self education is even better when one learns to focus and unleash the potential that each one is capable of. If the attitude is right, ITE graduate may progress further than JC or Poly students and becomes more knowledgeable in their fields than others.

  16. I personally don’t feel that the mindset of meritocracy should be changed completely, but simply that it is important for other values to be imparted to children to prevent them from having the mindset that the smartest deserve the best.

    I come from a background that is much like Kwek’s. I am brought up in a family where I have sufficient money for my food, notes, transport and other miscellaneous things that I probably don’t need, and my parents have always emphasized the importance of good grades. I am an ex-GEP and ex-JC student myself so perhaps it would be right to say that I have been on the receiving end of all the ‘goodies’ that so-called ‘excellent’ students like myself tend to receive from the government.

    But having taught classes of less privileged students locally and abroad, I have to disagree that we shouldn’t branch out students from a young age. Being a teacher myself, I have had many difficulties trying to coordinate my classes, even for the young ones who are about 10 years old.

    On one hand, there is the first group of students who are doing fairly well academically without much guidance, And surely you cannot fault me for hoping to push these students past their limit and give them more challenging work to do so that they can excel in what they want to do.

    On the other hand, there is the second group of students who are weaker, either because they are not putting in enough effort, or because they truly do not understand. These students, I wish to challenge as well, but yet not at the same level of the first group, because they are not yet sufficiently ready to take on these higher level challenges.

    If I insisted on pushing the second group to take on the challenges of the first, simply because I wished to let the first excel, these students would probably end up more discouraged than ever when they couldn’t excel at these new challenges. At the same time, I felt like I wasn’t giving the first group their time and money’s worth, since they were coming for class and doing things they were already good at.

    My solution, in the end, was to have regular classes, and additional classes on the side. These different sets of pupils require different ways of managing. You said it best – some learn in different ways – and so to help the different groups I would come up with different methods of teaching them the same things.

    But in a regular school term, teachers have several classes and usually at least 40 pupils per class. How would it then be possible for them to coordinate such an effort?

    If we do not segregate the students, even at 10 years old when some are already coming out ahead of others, yes, you help to ensure that those who are weaker do not get “shortchanged” and “neglected”. But how do you also ensure that those who are stronger, still get the mental stimulation that they need to push them to excel? Surely, it must be unfair to these students as well if you do not let them develop to their maximum potential.

    That being said, I would like to emphasize that here I am not trying to be ‘elitist’. While I am ex-GEP and a former JC students, I have never seen Poly/ITE students as being lesser in any way. And neither have my parents ever let me think that way.

    I participate in external activities which have exposed me to people from many different backgrounds and beginnings, and to me, they are all one and the same. My teachers have also frequently emphasized the need to give back, and the only time they mentioned that we were the “cream of the crop” was while they were lecturing us for bad behaviour (… and hence better behaviour should be expected from us.) Furthermore, my circle of friends and cousins hail from a variety of backgrounds – JC/ Poly/ ITE/ Secondary School dropouts – and I am still very close to each and every one of them.

    Furthermore, my parents have never suggested that I am ‘better’ than my cousins in any way – in fact I am inferior to them in some ways. I have a cousin who is only three years my senior who has attained complete financial independence from her parents while servicing a car, a part time degree, and a HDB flat.

    I believe it’s the upbringing that shapes a person’s attitudes. So often nowadays do you hear parents telling their children not to mix with some other children because their grades are not good, and to only mix with the good ones (perhaps to absorb some smart genes ^^). Once, in primary school, my friend told me that her mother even asked her to find out what the smartest girl in class ate, and “eat the same thing as her”. This is the kind of guidance that will bring about elitist mindsets in youths nowadays rather than due to a meritocratic education system.

    After all, when those who learn later, learn in different ways, and those who do well gain recognition later in life, it is because they have demonstrated ability in other ways, albeit later, albeit slower than others – and to me, that is considered meritocracy as well.

    I dare not claim that the education system in Singapore is perfect, but I don’t think that taking away the segregation in schools is the solution. By taking away this segregation, we may end up penalizing other students of opportunities to fulfill their potential. What I believe makes a difference is the values that are ingrained into the children.

    Perhaps it is the parents who can make a big difference in that. :)

    • Thanks for sharing. Class size is one issue WP and I have touched on. 40 in a class is too big. GEP class sizes are smaller. If there’s 25 in a class, it is easier for teachers to handle students, even with mixed abilities. Additional lessons after regular classes to challenge better students are alright.

      Parents attitudes are certainly important. Two years ago, my brother in law told me when his daughter (in a good school) got into a good class in Pri 3, one of the classmate asked his daughter the grades she got last year and then exclaimed to her, “You don’t deserve to be in this class. I got 95%. I am much better than you.”

      Gasp. At 8 years old and she is thinking like that! She wasn’t born with that mindset. Must have come through family and society influence.

      I still think we are too morbid about young children losing out if we do not identify them early to put them aside for special learning. I am not sure if it makes a lot of difference when it comes to adulthood. We learn how to ace examinations at formal schooling age because there are ways to do so. When it comes to higher learning, it requires different set of skills.

      • Just a point to note, I had a small class – 15 students, because mine was a tuition class. Even with a small class, I found it difficult to manage the mixed abilities due to the different degrees of how much I wanted to push the different groups and the time and commitment needed for such an effort. So, even reducing the class size to 25 to alleviate problems caused by mixed abilities may not be as straightforward a solution as it seems, especially if you are suggesting absolutely zero segregation between the students – so the students can be of any degree or level of ability.

        Also, fewer students per class means more classes for the teachers to take, say, in a 5 to 6 hour school session. That could dilute the teacher’s energies and concentration further (they are human too!!), which would be bad for the students.

        If the solution to that is to hire more teachers, again then you’d have to think of how to attract more teachers, especially at the lower levels, since giving tuition or finding other alternative jobs requiring the equivalent qualifications may be much more lucrative. (Of course, I understand that teaching should be based on passion, not financial benefits. But not many people may feel the same way.) :)

    • Just to add on! I came from a very small class myself in my secondary school days (<25 students). Being in GEP meant that we had already been "streamed" in some way or the other. Nevertheless, in a single class of less than 25 students, we all had vastly differing abilities in math. Some of my classmates excelled at it while the rest of us struggled to pass the subject.

      Ultimately our teachers had to reshuffle the students from three classes, and put the weaker students (like myself) in one class and the better students in another class, just for math. Class sizes were kept the same, at 25, but during the math period, we would switch classrooms just for that hour.

      Yet this move eventually helped to pull up the grades in the classes, perhaps because the teachers could focus their energies on the student-type and provide the appropriate kind of guidance.

      So I would think that this shows in a way that, reducing class sizes may not help to completely solve the problem, since the class size was already tiny to begin with in this case. Also, segregation is not necessarily a bad thing. Without the segregation I may have had to suffer bad grades in math forever, since my teacher had to cater to the "average ability".

      Perhaps smaller class sizes makes it "easier" to handle the students with mixed abilities, but more importantly, can it still help each student (whether weaker or stronger), maximise their potential?

  17. Yee,

    1. Do you believe in any kind of segregation at all? I was in secondary school when streaming was introduced with a lot of controversy. But even without streaming, schools were always separating the students into A, B, C…F classes by ability. So segregation happens with or without official streaming.

    2. Indeed, even within the same class, students form cliques, and it is rare to find students from different social strata mixing together. The Chinese-Ed type will mix with the Chinese-Ed types, while the eat-potatoes type will mix with the same. The Malays too will gravitate to each other. Indians will join one or the other groups, usually because there’s too few of them to form their own clique. These are real observations, and they show that your ideal of having everyone interact with everyone else regardless of race, religion or social class, by not having segregation of students, doesn’t pan out in reality,

    3. While it is ideal that schools should not just concentrate on academics but also teach values, I doubt most teachers are equipped for that kind of responsibility. Clearly such values cannot be imparted by classroom lessons. Yet if we seriously want teachers to do so, it means their job is to get involved in the personal lives of their students, by like a mentor or big brother to the students, etc. Clearly there cannot be any kind of standards or controls when teachers act like this. There’s no syllabus to follow, no templates. In fact, different teachers will have different values, and the whole education system then becomes a box of chocolates. Is that what you’re advocating?

    • Thanks for sharing. Class size is one issue WP and I have touched on. 40 in a class is too big. GEP class sizes are smaller. If there’s 25 in a class, it is easier for teachers to handle students, even with mixed abilities. Additional lessons after regular classes to challenge better students are alright.

      Parents attitudes are certainly important. Two years ago, my brother in law told me when his daughter (in a good school) got into a good class in Pri 3, one of the classmate asked his daughter the grades she got last year and then exclaimed to her, “You don’t deserve to be in this class. I got 95%. I am much better than you.”

      Gasp. At 8 years old and she is thinking like that! She wasn’t born with that mindset. Must have come through family and society influence.

      I still think we are too morbid about young children losing out if we do not identify them early to put them aside for special learning. I am not sure if it makes a lot of difference when it comes to adulthood. We learn how to ace examinations at formal schooling age because there are ways to do so. When it comes to higher learning, it requires different set of skills.

    • I feel there’s a big difference between sorting through major exams into schools and streams, and sorting by going into classes of differing abilities by the school. Parents and students feel the stress from these major exams and behave differently compared to school-based exams. The streaming, branding and ranking exercises create a kind of ‘class’ difference between students.

      There are many channels for imparting values and character. Besides classroom, there are the CCA and CIP activities students to be involved in as well as the culture of the school. It starts with a conscious effort to inject these in at various appropriate points in the education process. Classroom is one of these channels.

      Having visited many schools, I find some aided schools with strong culture/history have rather polite students and there are many visual reminders of courtesy, respect, honesty, etc throughout the school, as well as programmes to engage students in these. It takes a lot of conscious effort to drive through these values at every teachable moments.

  18. Parents are stressed out because they want their students to go to the best schools, the best streams. Whose fault is that? The system’s? Or the parents?

    I remember when I was in secondary school, going to science stream was prestigious, going to technical stream or arts stream was bad.

    But that was because my parents were not educated themselves and they had no clue what this meant.

    Today we have people who voluntarily go into school of sports, school of the arts, etc. because they think that’s where their children’s interest and future lies. Not everyone thinks their child should go to science stream any more. There is even talk of starting a liberal arts college in Sngapore. Not everyone wants their child to be a doctor or lawyer any more,

    The world has changed.

    I think you should consider if it is parents who are stressing their kids out unnecessarily. All the volunteering and donations just to get their kids into a “good” primary school, all the cramming and tuition to get top marks for psle just to get to a “top” secondary school. What they don’t realize is that our schools have improved so much that children are assured of a quality education even at a “neighborhood” school.

    Is the stress caused by parents?

  19. After reading through your post and the comments above, I have a few comments myself to make:

    1/ Your article talks about the congregation of gifted students. As noted by a few other commenters, this congregation does make it easier for students to be taught – after all, the true objective of the education system is to develop students to their full potential. Unfortunately, this means that there is a propensity to breed a certain sense of elitism, but this propensity is not (i don’t think) a systemic flaw of the education system, but the environment surrounding it.

    2/ When considering the context of the education system (of development), I think that while it should be noted that the presence of physical resources does not necessarily equate to good education on its own, the fact remains that this presence does facilitate development. For example, with investment of resources in building facilities such as laboratories with proper research equipment, students’ learning capabilities are enhanced simply because they can do so much more within and outside the school curriculum.

    3/ Your article also talks about how “the better students congregate amongst themselves, not mixing with weaker ones” and how “we have begun to lose the ability for people of different backgrounds to mix together”. I think that there should be a distinction between the types of backgrounds you are talking about. If you are talking about the loss of ability for people of different educational backgrounds to mix together, I would point out that this will naturally be the case anyway, when students go into different lines of work based on their educational backgrounds. However, if you are talking about the loss of ability for people of different social backgrounds to mix together, I would just like to point out that education is often one of the pre-eminent factors in social mobility -> meritocracy means that regardless of your social background, as long as you are good enough you can move up the social ladder. While education may not always create this social mobility (as seen from MM LKY’s comment about 50% of students in good schools having parents of similar backgrounds), I don’t think that this is a systemic flaw of the educational system itself, but rather the environment surrounding it.

  20. I glossed over what was written here, I’m sorry, but I have no time to finish everything. What I wish to say, comes from my observation and interpretation of Mr Kwek’s writings. I see a young man expressing his views objectively. While it may be contrued as being elitist, it struck me as an individual’s fight for more equality for his peers, instead of himself. Though he may lack the experience and knowledge to completely understand the dynamics of the post industrial, post knowledge based economy, which resulted in his undermining of the roles played by technical education, he is also lamenting the amount of wastage that is happening right now. Yes I do agree with him. ITE’s having plush decor and and sports stadiums that not only put the facilities of some of our other institutions to shame, but rival that of facilities used during the Youth Olympic Games. A few of you defended the use of funds for the upkeep of these facilites, by comparing the difference in fees paid by ITE students and JC students. Let me ask everyone this; if we took away these unnecessary spending, thus drastically reducing the fees paid by these technical students, wouldn’t that put matters in the right direction? Have you people seen ITE East when you travel on the east west line towards EXPO? Shouldn’t the money go towards enhancing the skills and knowledge of the students? WHilst we lambast Mr Kwek by comparing JCs to schools in developing nations, and how these students are doing very well despite the lack of these “luxuries”, have we then completely missed out on the very institutions that are “guilty” of ….. outright wastage by way of external glamour?

  21. Interesting insight, Jenn Jong. Never thought you’d be a politician, given your AskNLearn days, and even almost won by a few votes in Joo Chiat. Well done! In any case, it’s well enough to poke holes in existing policy and draw upon the failures of our education system by looking at the by-products of it – our spoilt children, which you have clearly expounded. However, you have not put forth clearly an alternative education policy to challenge current norms. I feel that too many Singaporeans love to complain that we have an imbalanced system, etc. But they don’t have a real clue as to how to fix this at the macro level. Taking a few puck shots here and there is easy, especially when the target is large. Any shot will hit some part of the target. Let’s be real – come up with real holistic education policy suggestions and challenge existing norms. After all, you should be best placed for this, given your extensive background in our own education system. Our system was great in the past for creating a huge middle class and moving from third world to first world. Now that we are first world, we are moving to higher ideals and policies that befit us.

    • Alan, JJ has been looking at all alternatives. But putting together an alternative policy (regardless of domain and degree of holism) cannot be achieved in an instant or even a year, especially in the domain of education. Such policies takes a lot of research, not just experiences, to put together. There is also the issue of presenting it to Singaporeans for concurrence and approval though I am not sure if Singaporeans can stomach the cost of such a change. Change requires courage and a gut to stomach it.
      It’s a challenge that JJ has taken up courageously (at least, he’s not complaining!). It’s a work in progress and I think he appreciates all who can contribute in terms of feedback, suggestions and constructive criticism. Even non-constructive criticism provides clues!

    • Nice hearing from you again Alan. It isn’t that WP has not made any concrete implementable proposals. Our manifestos in the past contained many proposals in all sectors including education. Some were eventually taken up, though they may not be openly attributed to us by the government. In education, off-hand I can think of the smaller class sizes for Pri 1 and 2 and setting up an academy for in-service teachers, amongst others.

      Yes, we will be putting up proposals, questioning implementations in and out of parliament for the purpose of improving them and engaging people along the way. Feel free to send me any suggestions.

      Other than through political engagement, I also believe in directly contributing towards education through both my business and volunteer work engagements.

      Observer: Thanks for your encouraging comments.

  22. I worked hard to get to a good secondary school. I am proud of my secondary school because, at least in those days, everyone got in on pure merit and nobody could get in based on family or social connection, unlike some other popular schools. I remember we were occasionally even “mocked” by students of less well regarded school because of the reputation of my school.

    However, although I came from a good school and am proud of my school, I am not a fan of our education policy for the following reasons:

    1. It only favours people who do well at a certain age (and a fairly narrow window, mind you). A fairer and better system must be like a well planned expressway. If one does not get on it early (say if he is a late bloomer), he can still get on the expressway later and once on it, he will still enjoy the same advantage as his peers who got on the expressway earlier. A good system should not disadvantage any child who may not shine at an earlier age. I know of many friends who became better at their studies as they got older but the opportunies they had were not as good as if they had started shining at an earlier age.

    2. The system of old boy affiliation and primary-secondary school afiliation contradicts meritocracy and equal opportunity. For example, there is a certain well known boys’ school in Singapore where it is notoriously difficult for children to get in if their fathers did not study in that school. Such practises encourages elitism and such elitism may not even be fair and meritocratic. What is so meritocratic about a child getting a place in a primary school purely on the strength of his father being from that school and then subsequently in a secondary school affiliated with his primary school and in a junior college affiliated with his secondary school? This will only encourage elitism and discourage (to some extent at least) self reliance and industry. The increase in the DSA and other similar schemes will only make it worse eg a ‘late bloomer’ in the 80s may, if he does well at O-level, more easily make it to a good college. Now with the “direct entry” or affiliation schemes, it is getting much more difficult. Can we say the system is meritocratic? Maybe yes but with lots of qualifications.

    3. While there is some merit in the argument of putting students of similar standards in the same class, it should not mean that the better students should get better facilities. If gifted students need good resources and better attention from their teachers, then students with relatively poorer results need more of such resources and attention. If smaller size class is good for GEP students, it should also be equally good, if not more necessary, for weaker students. My short stint as a relief teacher in a so called “neighbourhood school” was enough to help me conclude that big class size was bad news for the most rowdy class I had and I thought that a smaller class size would have benefitted my students greatly.

    • Hi Dennis,

      A few thoughts I had about your comments:
      1. I was curious about what kind of “equal opportunities” you were hoping for for the late bloomers. Using your expressway analogy, those who got on the expressway earlier may be well ahead of the others who got on the expressway later (simply because the expressway, is a ‘fast track’). So if a late bloomer gets on this expressway later, he may not have the same opportunities as his peers who got on earlier – but that doesn’t mean he will never have the same opportunities, it just means he will take a bit longer to obtain those opportunities. I am in university now, and I have peers who came from poly, or even from ITE, then to poly, then to university. Hopefully these qualify as ‘late bloomers’. They have the opportunity to go to the same university, and they can do as well as, or even better than any of the other who came in via their A levels. It’s just that they may be quite a few years older by then, and many may make the choice not to take on a university education by then because they wish to work to earn money rather than continue studying. This may not be absolutely fair, but nevertheless, they still had the ‘opportunity’.

      2. I strongly disagree with the parental affiliations and all as well, but just a note: primary school admissions aren’t based on meritocracy, since they don’t compare kindergarten scores to determine admission. But I would like to think that if the student makes it into the subsequent affiliated secondary school and junior college, it would at least be partially meritocratic. After all, affiliation comes with its own set of academic requirements. It’s still not fair, definitely. But let’s not reduce the student’s own degree of effort put in to get into the higher level schools to nothing. :) However, I think the DSA is a double-edged sword. The DSA benefits students who are academically superior at a younger age, but they also benefit students who are bloomers in other areas other than academics. DSA also allows students who excel in sport, music, community service, and so on, and many students who may not have gotten into good schools purely based on their academics now can, when their other talents are taken into consideration. This is one group which we have been screaming about neglecting for a long time as well – people who are talented in other areas other than academics – and the DSA has helped to cater to that.

      3. I think education policies are never a “one size fits all”, which is where the problem usually arises. GEP students need good resources and good teachers, and therefore, weaker students need equally good resources and teachers. But it is important to consider whether these resources and teachers are equally suited for both groups. What may be a good resource for GEP students (e.g. Math Olympiad classes, etc.) may not be appropriate for weaker students. Likewise, a good teacher in a neighbourhood school may be one who is very personally involved with the students and is able to relate to them, but a good teacher for a GEP class may simply be one who is not involved with the students, but very involved in the subject. If we simply decide that we should migrate resources, facilities, and so on from GEP to weaker students just because these resources are “better”, it may just result in a mismatch and worsen the situation.
      W.R.T to the smaller class you suggested, do you think a segregated smaller class size would have made a different, or just a smaller class size? For example… a segregated class could mean dividing the class based on a certain criteria (academia or otherwise), while a non-segregated smaller class means a random divide. Would a segregation help the students as well, perhaps?
      :)

      • Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself made the observation about parental advantage when it comes to education. He noted that in the 4 neighbourhood sec schools he was given data for, the highest was at 13.1% for students with graduate fathers. Contrast that with RI, where half of fathers were graduates. He also noted that entry to primary schools was based on social background.

        Actually, I do think DSA is alright. The % set aside for DSA in schools (other than for niche schools like SST, SOTA, NUSH etc) is not very high. It is usually used to recruit students with specific CCA talents. Having said this, I have heard of feedback from parents whose children are gifted in music/art and SOTA imposed a rather high PSLE score expectation for enrolment. Reason being you are expected to do well academically on your own because with all the time spent on art training, there may not be time for studies. School still expect good academic results on top of strong art talent. This will cut off those with great art talent but poor in studies, thereby missing out some students who are gifted in art alone. Anyway, that for another topic of discussion.

  23. The minimum requirement for hardware upgrade is still vital . Look at AJC ,TJC and VJC , they are seriously not supporting the students’ welfare and maximising their potentials. EG. The canteen of AJC is as small as St andrew Junior School’s and the class is really small and crampy. Of course , AJC used to have a big pool of caring teachers but with the hardware upgrade everywhere, the teachers are free to choose to teach in better school like HCJC and RJC , so where are the good teachers now ? Comofort is vital , this is singapore now 3rd world country. TRy running your business with lousy facilities?
    Kinderland/kindergroup have great facilities too and everyone wants to give it best to the students and used them to entise customers.
    The only mistake this boy commits is to tag good facilities to good performance.
    The big mistake HERE is why AJC and TJC are not renovated at all and with the biggest joke, to build such a new HOSTEL next to a very old building

  24. Thank you, Jenn Jong, for sharing your thoughts. You have sharply brought up many issues that are embedded in our system. Having grown up under the Singaporean education system and cultural environment, and lived outside of the country, I am now looking at our city state with fresh eyes.

    I appreciate your caring. It seems like many Singaporeans have developed a sense of apathy to their home country, myself included.

    As I reflect on my growth as an individual, I am seeing how Singapore’s environment has played a big part in shaping me. Numbing of resilience through a system of comfort and provision… attributing failure or inaction to the lack of perfect conditions… and an unwarranted sense of entitlement. I would say that a greater ‘damage’ would be being conditioned to measure our and others’ worth by performance and achievements.

    Indeed, the education system was designed to serve a promising intention. Now, decades into its execution, we are seeing how the effects are compromising the well-being of our society.

    I am with you in the call to re-shape our education system. It takes a lot more for change to happen and be sustainable, especially on a scale like this. I wish for Singapore and our people the wisdom to see the need, the courage to take the lead, and the tenacity to keep it going.

    Cheers,
    Hui Min

  25. When I was a JC student myself a decade ago, my friends and I whined a lot about our homework load but no one griped about physical facilities not being fancy enough.* So my first response to Mr Kwek’s letter was to find his complaint bizarre and wonder about the mindset of youths today. But after thinking about it a bit, I feel that the controversy stirred up by this letter has over-focused on the elitism and meritocracy angles while ignoring the question of, “Do our educational institutions, be they primary schools, secondary schools, JCs or ITE, require such opulent facilities in the first place?” Because I absolutely agree with you that education is so much more than physical infrastructure, and I worry that even as enormous investments are made in terms of physical resources, there isn’t the same amount of emphasis placed on nurturing/cultivating the human talent who will use these physical resources.

    (IMHO, it’s a similar situation in other areas too such as transportation — we have the money to buy the hardware (railway tracks, trains, electronic signboards, etc.) but the “software” or human response (e.g. in terms of how SMRT handled the immediate aftermath of the recent major MRT breakdowns) has been criticised by many as lacking.)

    Anyway, I do wonder what the response to Mr Kwek’s letter would have been if:
    - the same letter was written not by a JC student but by, say, a working adult, a parent, or a retiree
    - the angle on meritocracy had been left out altogether and the letter had simply questioned the opulence of the ITE campus
    - the target of the letter’s complaints was not an ITE campus but some other school

    * I’ll admit, though, that I envied VJC students because I heard that their canteen had an ice kachang stall. My JC canteen didn’t have one!

  26. WOW!
    Firstly, I would like to praise Kwek for his courage and honesty in voicing out his concerns, and Jenn Jong for being the catalyst to bring about all the different views and responses above. Well done, everybody! This is a truly particpative people.

    Now, before I state my opinions, let me say that I came from a poor family ( my family was on social welfare ), I was in a neighbourhood secondary school ( using free textbooks ), but my son was in the GEP and just completed his A levels in an elite junior college.

    So, here are my observations:
    1) There is nothing wrong about the GEP: it is just another option, albeit for faster learners. As some earlier writers have commented, if some GEP students go on to exhibit elitist behavior, this can be ameliorated by more value inculcation experiences from the family, school, and the community in that order of priority. My wife ( with only O level ) always make sure my son is just a regular guy.
    Why deprive faster players from a more advanced game level? Why pull others down to your level so that you can feel good? Why don’t you pull yourself up to their level? If you pull others down, you will not improve. If you pull yourself up, you will improve. And there is still no guarantee of future success for GEP students ( they still need interpersonal skills, leadership, humility, courage, luck, etc besides intellectual / conceptual capacity ).

    2) Educational pedagogy is dynamic: it has to follow, and better still, lead the political, social, economic and technological environments in which we live. Do we have leaders who can do this? Do we have leaders who dare to do this? Or do we just have people good at making or earning money? Or worse still, good at complaining and pulling or putting other people down?
    In other words, how can our education system be more effective in encouraging more winners who can then lead us into greater happiness?

    The WP has done well in making some ministers sit up and listen; now it is time to make practise active listening and take more action, but only if our proposals are well thought out, with reference to the future. After all, we are the architects of our own futrure, not engineers of the past, to quote Professors Gary Hamel and C K Prahalad of Harvard University, in their book “Competing for the Future “.
    So, let’s continue to praise and encourage each other, and move towards greater happiness for most, if not all in our society.
    Kok Boon

    • Thanks for sharing Kok Boon. You taught your son well :) Actually, I did say that I am not against providing special lessons for faster students. I prefer not to separate them from a young age. They can still be with regular classes and have additional lessons/activities to stretch them after regular classes. Just another way of executing it.

  27. Hi, your article and comments have inspired me. As an educator that attempts to reach students on an everyday basis, just so they might walk away having proper values inculcated in them, I am fueled and encouraged to hear many take their positions with regards to the matter at hand. The author’s written ‘apology’ revealed deeper issues that further reinforced why I am in this line of education. In my pursuant to recruit potential educators, I am asking if you would allow me to use your response as an article review during the interviews I conduct. I will be following your blog henceforth.

    • Thanks Elgin! Good to know you are an educator and wanting to make a difference in lives. I do worry sometimes in our drive to meet observable KPIs, we forget that education is to develop a whole person.

      The blog post is for all to read. Anyone may use it and I am happy that you have found it useful.

  28. It is a wrong to generalise ITE students getting good facilities, it should be newly built schools having better facilities especially those build at ulu location, thats about it.

    I am not going to condemn that boy on his mindset, instead I doubt his intelligence.

    Given a choice between a run down but convenient location and a new but ulu one, majority of the people will take the run down one anytime anyday

  29. Pingback: Sadly Uniquely S’porean « Thoughts of a Cynical Investor

  30. Dear Mehby

    Sorry for delay in reply. I agree with your example of students from different paths reaching university. I would like us to be more ambitious than that. Let’s make it easier for people to switch streams within a shorter time. Make it less easy for school affiliation to allow students to stay in the same school except through their own efforts (now that is true meritocracy, isn’t it?). Many parents whose children are in good schools may frown on this but the easier it is for child A to stay on in an afiliated secondary school or college (with handicap), it will be harder for child B to ever get in. The current system may make it possible for say an ITE grad to reach university. It may sound exaggerated but it is very difficult for someone who did not do well in his early primary years to get into a good secondary school or college especially one with affiliations to a primary or secondary school. Dispensing with O-levels enhances the rift. Affiliation promotes elitism and is anti-meritocratic.
    I am not against GEP per se but starting GEP in primary school should be avoided; it may help the GEP students but it increases the rift with less able students and certainly late bloomers.
    I still think the govt should distribute the resources in a more equitable way between better and poorer students.

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