I never knew I could be this good!


Two months ago, I was conducting the weekly open house at The Workers’ Party HQ. Two young men came in panting midway through the session. They had gone to the wrong end of a rather long Syed Alwi Road, finally located our office and rushed over before the session closed. I had an interesting chat with them despite the short time remaining.

One is a Singaporean who has been working and living in China for several years. He is happily married there with a young child and is now the investor manager for a China public listed firm. He was back on a holiday to Singapore.

As we chatted, we strayed into their education background. Both were classmates in a neighbourhood school in Bedok. They were from the Normal Academic stream. One went to polytechnic and is now a home-based entrepreneur in Singapore. The one currently in China went to a private education organisation in Singapore and graduated with a degree awarded by an overseas university. He paid full fees, with no subsidy by our government, of course. He had failed to make it to our local universities.

He spoke well and confidently, not showing any indication that he had previously come from a neighhourhood school. He held a good and demanding job, having to deal in mandarin daily with all sort of investors in China. So I asked if he believed that he is good. Without hesitation, he replied, “If I had not gone abroad and landed this job, I never knew I could be this good!”

A confident young man indeed. Independent, articulate and fluent in mandarin. We conversed further as I was curious what it was like for them in our local schools being behind many others academically and having failed to make the cut into our local universities. Throughout their academic studies here, they had felt they were not good enough. They had not done well in their examinations. Yet here they are now, doing well in their careers.

His words have stuck in my head since that day. “I never knew I could be this good!”. Why? Because he had not done well enough in examinations. He became confident later after striking it out abroad and discovering he could actually be quite good.

His family had to fork out a lot for his education in a private institution. He was not one of the 25% of his cohort that qualifed for our local universities. I had asked in February this year on the number of Singaporeans pursuing private undergraduate courses. The figure is astonishing. 41,000 locals are currently enrolled in private universities and private education institutions on undergraduate programmes alone. That’s about the number of locals in the government funded universities. The government does not keep track of Singaporeans enrolled in undergraduate courses overseas. There must be many more in this category.

I see two issues here. The first is whether the number of places in our local universities are sufficient to meet the aspirations of Singaporeans. 41,000 locals in private undergradate courses plus many more overseas. Are we grossly underproviding and the market had to step up to meet this aspiration, with no support from the government? The young man I met is one of them. Fortunately for him, his family could afford it. He received the education, landed a good job in China and did well there.

A study on higher education has been going on since last year. I await eagerly to see the recommendations that will come forth to see how we can better meet Singaporeans’ increasing aspirations for higher education and to make fees affordable.

The second issue is whether our system could have made some who did not do as well academically become less confident of themselves. Our young friend was one of those until he was given the space to flourish later in life. It made me recall the words of the senior Finnish educator I had met by chance in London earlier this year. I had asked why they decided not to stream students but instead put students of mixed abilities in the same class. His answer was simple but thought provoking, “We do not want students to be labelled. Otherwise, later in their lives, they would remember that they were branded as ‘no-good’.”

I am glad the story turned out well for my new young friend. It could have turned out differently. How much do our students believe that they can be good at something, regardless of academic results? How sufficiently have we provided for to meet rising education aspirations? How well are we preparing students for the test of life?

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18 comments on “I never knew I could be this good!

  1. Jenn Jong, this is an interesting piece. Generally, “over-streaming” into different abilities of sorts (e.g. mathematical skills or language skills) either too early or based on too academically-driven outcomes (e.g. national examination scores) often results in low self-esteem such as lack of confidence in students. But having said that, “self-confidence” should be developed “within a person”, not from external manifestations of one’s capability to make money, to win in a competition or to do well (e.g. a job promotion). From my work experience in the last 20 years, I find the “form-versus-substance” mindset in terms of one’s confidence is absolutely critical if one wishes to be self-confident.

  2. From what I understand, this is why the govt deliberately throttled/throttles the number of local public uni grads – they want output to be calibrated to local industry demand. X uni grads, Y poly grads and Z ITE grads. Surplus uni grads will result in them moving overseas in search of jobs, which has been the case in many developing Asian countries. IMHO, this is a rather myopic point of view and I dare say that the lack of uni grads in the 70s and 80s contributed to the demand for uni educated foreigners as the economy couldn’t progress in the 90s without such skilled workers

  3. Well they did went to the wrong end of Syed Alwi Road and missed most of the session, so they aren’t that good really. Nothing to do with education just look and connection

    • They did tell me the cab took them to Mustaffa at the opposite far end of Syed Alwi and insisted it was correct and asked them to alight. And if you have been to Syed Alwi Road recently, you will know there has been a temporary divider along Jln Besar road blocking the 2 parts of Syed Alwi Road for several months already. From one side of Syed Alwi, one may not see the other side and may assume the road ends at Jln Besar. It is common to have visitors telling us they could not find the place. Even cab drivers have difficulties because of the road configuration.

    • Here’s a thought provoking article about Singapore’s education, and all you want to do take a cheap shot at the young men. Yes I’m sure you need to excel at directions to be successful in life. Well done, you. I hope your self-esteem issue wasn’t caused by the system.

  4. Our education system has been helping those who are test smart and who are academically oriented to rise to the top. More recently it is recognizing those with leadership qualities or multiple intelligences to develop their core areas of strength. What is still lacking is the impartation of character and values – something that the mission schools tend to be stronger in doing, but I think they are also overwhelmed by the school ranking system and the need to produce students who excel in their CCA that will help add value to the schools’ so-called USP. Time and again you will find scholars who are found guilty of offences like indulging in pornography or compromising in integrity. Someone once said that when character is lacking, everything’s gone.

  5. Having good academic credentials would probably lead to better chance of advancement in job and career successes. But thats only part of the total picture and cannot be all consuming. Your friend who later appeared to have found his niche and succeeded is but a portion of a sample of those who succeeded & overcome the apparent but sometime realities of school of hard-knocks. For every one like him, plenty more probably couldnt make it good like him. Thats also a reality of life. There will always be quite a few who went thru similar paths to your friend, in the past. I believe it would be so in the future.
    Tell you a real life story here…
    In my earlier years in an UK university, I had to work part-time to help lighten the burden of living expenses from my parents. So I worked in chinese restuarant in the city. And became quite friendly with a cook from NT/HK. At that time, he was very well paid, and was also made a shareholder of the restr. He was always lamenting that he didnt have much schooling since he started learning his skills in kitchen at very early age. He could hardly speak or write english, and really wanted to improve his english and general education.
    He was being paid more than 2-3 doctors combined as he was one of few cooks in UK who could do authentic “dim sum” and HK dishes. I help arranged a private undergraduate tutor for him. Btw, he eventually married the english tutor.
    I told him that he should be too disturbed by his lack of formal education, for his qualification and training all those years in the kitchens of HK/UK would be as relevant or as “qualified” as any university graduate or post-graduate. Also reminded him that in the then popular TV “master-mind” program where general knowledge competition are conducted nationally. The top contenders there were not graduates, or professors or academics. but in fact included taxi drivers and garbage collectors.
    The main gist here is that to administer a national education prog can be fairly complex and plenty of balancing and rebalancing along the way. Constantly there would be tough decisions taken which cater for the general good of most but not necessarily all. There is always room for improvement and tweaking.
    There should be ventures for the “minorities” who may have “missed” the main stream routes
    to find later niche of their own. Such phenomena will always be with us. It would be unwise to single-out individual cases to project as a general case; especially without further stress-testing.

    • I think this blog is not about a “singled-out” case. The spirit of education is to build up the person, and not to crush the person with unsuitable “labels”. Why should our children go through 10 years of education only to come out with the impression that he/ she is \”not good enough\” or worse still “not good”.

      We do not need to be afraid that our graduates cannot find jobs or become saddled with debts from their tuition grants. If we can use education to develop self-confidence and emotional well-being, we would have achieved the greatest hope for our future and for the future generations to come. The “pay-back” of a good education system to society will be many, many times what is invested.

      All of us are made of more “steel and stuff” that we can learn in school. Let’s not allow our education to break our confidence and prevent us from achieving our real potential.

      True education does not intimidate. It empowers, opens the mind. True education liberates.

      • Good thought, Sguser. I am reminded of Sir Ken Robinson’s video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U which discussed about how the education paradigm we are having now is based on the industrial age, where students are like production goods with a batch date (by age) and we sort them by standardized tests. How can we use education to empower and liberate? The video raises some of these issues for discussion.

  6. Quite a nicely written article. It will be better if more effort can be put in to gather more examples, or conduct proper survey, to better support the views or concerns that are stated in the article. To rely on 2 young man experiences to form views or concerns, may risk having wrong views or concerns.

    In my opinion, the young man quoted as an example in the article has shown the result of Singapore’s education system. The primary and secondary education that he received, had laid a solid foundation for him during his formative years, giving him the confident to go to the private university and later striking it out aboard to create an alternative “success” path for himself. Some will deny or down play the benefit of the primary and secondary education, or even run down on those benefit. Some will “饮水思源” and acknowledge that the primary or secondary educations that they received in their formative years provide good foundation for them to handle their life challenges ahead.

    First, should the the number of places in our local universities cater to meet the demand of all Singaporean who aspire to have a degree? To what extend? Should this be done at the expense of the quality of the education they receive? Is quantity more important than quality? Should tertiary education be treated like market commodity? Treating it like a pure market, govern entirely by demand and supply? Should the mentality be, if there are “great demand” from the aspiring “customers”, then great “supply” should be step up to meet the demand so as to avoid grossly under providing for the market ?

    Depending on our interest, we unknowingly form our views which may be biased toward our interest . For example, if I am in the private education business and own a private tertiary education outfit. From business and profit stand point, my view will likely be that as long as there is demand, supply should go up to meet it because it is profit making. And the government should even subsidy private educators to made the cost of education low so than more will get their degree (without considering the quality and focus only on profit and quantity) as that means more profit for me. This type of thought process is quite common among human and being mindful of such pitfalls, what do you think should be done for the interest of students and nation?

    Next, is education streaming a tool or weapon? I think whether a knife is good or bad, will depend on the users. It can be a weapon to kill or a tool to prepare food. Whether streaming will stereotype our students, will depend on our society. We can choose to teach and show the students to face the reality or “truth” as it is or hide from them. Streaming may “teach” students at a young age the reality and “truth” that some is better in academic than others, or non streaming may “hide” it from the children but the it will not change the fact.

    Educator has to decide. If they choose to stream and “teach the children the truth”, then they SHOULD NOT FAIL to educate and teach humanity and the “reality” that those “better in academic” is not equal to “good” and those “not as good in academic” is not equal to “no good”. Then for either those “good” and well as “not so good” in academic, “the truth may set them free”.

    I think whatever systems we have, if the education is lacking in teaching humanity, then it is a matter of time that we eventually will prison our self by stereotyping or label ourselves or others as “no good”, “not successful”, and “successful” etc. In this article, I think most of us, like the author, will label the young man with a degree in this article as “successful”. Are we then indirectly “label” his classmate who went to polytechnic and become a home-based entrepreneur in Singapore “less successful”? Are we not all guilty of stereotyping “success” and making our students doubting and that they can be good at something, regardless of academic results? Are we not the main culprit here instead of the streaming education systems?

    Teaching humanity is important. Humanity is not thinking poorly of one self. Humanity is the honesty in us to recognize our quality and capacity. It means self knowledge. it is acknowledging our limitation in face of the many challenges and uncontrollable situations that confront us in our daily life. With that self knowledge, you can than decide on what is important to you and what to pursuit. It may not be “fame” and “wealth”, and it may well be to lead a noble life. With humanity, why should any one who did not do as well academically become less confident of themselves?

    If not doing well academically causes you to become less confident of yourself, then will you feel less confident of yourself if you did not earn as much as those top wage earner? Education system? Social and economical environment? The list goes on.

    After all, humanity made no distinction of which education stream you are from. I believe that like all a real human being; regardless of your academic performance and capabilities, we are facing some of the real struggles that all human being faces in life. Struggles such as self doubts, limitation on understanding, the fear of unknown and failure, greed and discontentment, pride, self centeredness, envy etc.

    Lastly, in my opinion, if we are in a position where our views may be taken as views that representing a group of individuals or will be read by many, the responsibilities are great and the demands are heavy. Then we owe the community the obligations and responsibilities to provide feedback supported by good research. And to be mindful and not add to the stereotyping of human. Why? This is because wrong views/skew views/incomplete views may lead to undesired consequences that affect many.

    ——————————————————————
    Quotes from the educator 孔子 for thought:

    孔子 论语 【卫灵公】
    子曰:“有教无类。”

    “因材施教” :

    孔子 论语 【雍也】
    子曰:「中人以上,可以语上也;中人以下,不可以语上也。」

    孔子 论语 【为政】

    子游问孝。子曰:「今之孝者,是谓能养。至於犬马,皆能有养;不敬,何以别乎。」
    子夏问孝。子曰:「色难。有事,弟子服其劳;有酒食,先生馔,曾是以为孝乎?」
    —– 朱熹集注引宋程颐曰:“子游能养而或失于敬,子夏能直义而或少温润之色,各因其材之高下与其所失而告之,故不同也。”

    孔子 论语 【先进】

    子路问:「闻斯行诸?」子曰:「有父兄在,如之何其闻斯行之!」冉有问:「闻斯行诸?」 子曰:「闻斯行之!」公西华曰:「由也问『闻斯行诸?』,子曰:『有父兄在』;求也问,『闻斯行 诸?』子曰:『闻斯行之』。赤也感,敢问?」子曰:「求也退,故进之;由也兼人,故退之。」

  7. I believe there are many Singaporeans like your new friend, who are ‘written off’, deemed not good enough for the education system here BUT made good somewhere else. And many more who couldn’t afford the ‘alternative way’ of going to a foreign university and deemed not good enough for the rest of their lives. Another instance of the incumbent govt not valuing all of its ordinary citizens very much.

    What irks me is the number of places in our local universities set aside for foreign students. Yes there should be some but presently we don’t really know how many. 22%? Also the scholarships given to foreigners – yes they should be given to the ‘best’ but we don’t really know if those given the scholarships are really that good. The ministry of education is not very forthcoming with the numbers; not much accountability, transparency. Seems like a lot of taxpayers money are spent but not much is known to the public. I heard there are many messed-up cases but not sure how pervasive. I think it’s great you are keeping a tab on this and writing this article; put some pressure on them to be more accountable and transparent to the public.

  8. Pingback: Daily SG: 13 Aug 2012 | The Singapore Daily

  9. I am a teacher and I have a student who fails tests but he is very eager to learn. When I asked him to help me with planting herbs, he willingly contributed his entire break period. To me, he is a good student. We should not look at students as numbers but as kids with the interest and passion to learn. There are no failures in the class, only kids with potential to be developed. If they fail at this stage, all it means is that they are not ready yet. We must have patience.

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