Thinking Ahead

January 20, 2014

Singapore seems like that ambitious overzealous younger sibling desperately trying to crawl out of the shadows of its predecessors. It strives to excel in all areas, especially education. In terms of academics, just from my brief research and observations, Singapore far excels America in mathematics, reading (but, not necessarily comprehension), and knowledge and usage of elevated vocabulary in text. Students in local schools are indoctrinated into a highly competitive, rigorous, and rigid form of instruction from Kindergarten and are already sifted and categorized according to intellectual prowess by Primary 1, which is age seven.

Though I’m told there was a shift in focus from a “survival-driven education” system to an “ability-driven” one, the remnants of the survival instinct are still prevalent.  Students are (still) taught how to receive, respond, and recall quickly in a structured and disciplined environment. They are taught, in fact, required to operate within a very limited scope and set of boundaries. This was initially implemented when Singapore first developed its own economy and autonomy to ensure that graduates would be viable employees and “provide a skilled workforce” for its industrialization program while lowering unemployment; which overall last year was 2%! So, in those regards, it’s working.

On the other hand, because of this focus, there is little if any tolerance for failure or mistakes. Friends of mine here, both local and foreign, complain often about how their children are punished, scolded or “tapped” because they failed to answer a question correctly or hold their pencil properly.  In local schools, many “expat” (expatriate) children are viciously taunted for their lack of grasp of the Chinese language, though English is the official language and the most dominant one used for instruction.  I’m also told that often teachers are not willing to offer additional support or materials to aid in a student’s progression outside of the classroom. They only do what is required of them, no more or less. I have found that this carries over in every facet of service in Singapore. (see upcoming post “Can-Not.”) Though this form of rigidity may be beneficial in terms of the labor force, I have found that it can also be crippling in the aspect of developing the whole person.

ImageMany Singaporeans I’ve observed, especially in the service industry, lack critical and creative thinking skills. I have witnessed evidence of this repeatedly.  Everything must be in order, must follow the rules; no deviation or modification. There is no allowance for thinking quickly on your feet or spontaneity; no concept of thinking outside the box. If there isn’t a box, they will follow the set of instilled instructions and build one. They do not question authority, or anything. “We do things this way. That is all,” a native Singaporean once told me. He was almost offended that I inquired about the reasoning for such structure. 

I’m reminded of a recent Saturday when we went out for breakfast. My husband called ahead to make a reservation, but he was told there was a two-hour wait. I thought this was unusual and decided that we should go anyway.  When we arrived, as I expected, there were dozens of empty tables. The eager host greeted me with the question, “Do you have [a] reservation?” I scrolled the restaurant to bring attention to the abundance of empty seats. He asked again, completely missing the hint. “No, but we can just sit at any one of these empty tables,” I uttered through a patronizing smile.  Image

“These are all reserved,” he quipped.

“These are all reserved? For what time?” 

“12:30.” He leaned in to show me two reservations listed. 

“It’s 11. Pancakes won’t take long. We’re sitting,” I declared before marching to the table. Never in America, would a business turn away business for potential business. 

“If all you people just followed the rules, things would be better in this country,” an irate self-appointed condo security officer reproached when we took an alternative exit from our building. (That sounded familiar.) He became so agitated and disrespectful that my husband had to address him as only he knows how, and later took his picture to report him. There seems to be little room to color outside of the lines, and certainly very little encouragement to draw your own picture. Though controlled, or maybe because of it, the work ethic of many Singaporeans surpasses that of many Americans. In the U.S., people tend to “work smart” using innovation and technology to ease the workload. Here, they work hard.  And, that starts early as well.

Students that I’ve encountered are overburdened with hours of daily homework, extended school days, and private tuition. A little girl, no older than ten, once told me that she didn’t have time to play. “{Here}, you stop playing when you are 3,” she said so certainly that I almost accepted it and felt pity that my two-year-old would be ending her leisurely play in the park very soon. All of them must meet the pressure of excelling on their regular assessments. The results of which determine which track, academic or vocational, they’ll take throughout their educational matriculation.  Their futures are almost predetermined and there is little room for deviation from the structure. Think of “1984,” and “Fahrenheit 451.” According to the Washington Post:

                   “After six years of primary-school education, Singaporean students take a test that determines whether they’ll be placed in a special school for the gifted, a vocational school or a special education program, and another test later determines their             higher-ed options.”

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2012/12/11/heres-why-other-countries-beat-the-u-s-in-reading-and-math/

The heavy role of testing actually isn’t so different from that in America, where many students are tracked and even the number of prisons estimated to be built is determined by results from standardized tests administered when students are as young as nine-years-old. Just as in America as well, the disparity in the quality of education is vast, and mainly based on race, income, and resources. Once again, I’m seeing firsthand how the poverty line and color line intersect and merge, and how students are failed before they even start if they were born with an excess of melanin or a lack of pedigree. Here, however, Indian is the new Black, and the Bangladeshi are the “Latinos.” Image

In America, the coined phrase, “school-to-prison pipeline,” describes the most likely path for those who are disadvantaged academically because of their socioeconomic (lack of) status. Because of the extremely high penalties for crime and the lack of tolerance for such, I would say it’s more the “school-to-harsh manual labor” pipeline for those who don’t make the grade in Singapore.

It’s one of the reasons many expats I know enroll their children in international schools, which all have formal names, but are referred to as “The American School” or “The Canadian School.” It’s also one of the main reasons now and here was the opportunity to utilize my educational experience and passion and begin providing private tuition for other students and to open my own educational center for my daughter and other toddlers who like to paint their own canvas.  Visit http://www.isisgenius.com.

(Please post any comments and inquiries directly on the blog so that I can compile them.)

[Read :The Modern American, “Buying Into Prisons and Selling Kids Short.” http://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1141&context=tma]

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