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.
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.