At What Cost Excellence?

When my little sister did not make it past the second round of Gifted Education Programme selections, she lay face-down on our living room sofa and cried her eyes out. 

“Why could 大哥 (big brother) do it? Why can’t I?” At the tender age of 9, she was already made to feel like a failure.

Growing up, I’ve been blessed with parents who have been reassuringly upbeat when it comes to academic results. They never once scolded me for failing my math exams, nor do they demand that my little sister study in a conventionally ‘elite’ secondary school. In fact, they’ve always sought to temper our expectations. Whenever my little sister says that she’s going to score 275 for her PSLE and enter Nanyang Girls High, my mum will always give her a big hug. “It’s not the grades you get which matters. Just try your best, and we’ll be proud of you.”

No one at home has told my little sister to strive for perfection or finish top of her class. Yet, after every examination, she makes sure to check if she’s scored higher than the other ‘bright’ pupils in class. She endlessly compares herself to her friends. She wants to do better than her older siblings. Despite our best efforts to coax her out of a mentality of fierce competition, she is very much a product of our country’s punishing education system.

When I read the tragic story on how an 11 year old boy was found dead at the foot of his HDB block, I felt sick to the gut. His case is one of an unfortunate confluence of events – of an overbearing parent who pushed him too hard, and of a sudden drop in grades – that may have pushed him over the edge. Seemingly isolated events like this one, however, are occurring with alarming regularity. There is no need to go into specific instances; one need only pay attention to the news.

The sad reality is that ours is an education system that places children under the crushing pressure of expectation. It is a model designed to pick champions; that seeks to separate the wheat from the chaff. From the age of 7, students are subjected to tests of ever-increasing complexity. The ‘winners’ of those tests are internally streamed to better classes, the best of whom are hand-picked for elite formative education under the Gifted Programme. At an age where one should be enjoying the thrills and spills of childhood exuberance, our nation’s youth are bundled into sterile air-conditioned tuition classrooms, forced to memorize essay outlines and model answers with metronomic consistency. Primary schoolers then sit for the PSLE, where a single missed mark could mean the difference between attending a top school and not making the cut. We then put our better-performing youth through the daunting gauntlet of the ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels; examinations significantly harder than their international equivalents.

Those who make it through successfully aspire to become doctors, lawyers, top executives, start-up entrepreneurs. Some are absorbed into the civil service through a bevy of prestigious public sector scholarships. They are the ideal products of a relentless process – highly competent over-achievers who can go toe-to-toe against the world’s best. In fact, it is my belief that our education system is a deliberate copy of the civil service template for talent identification. Students are continually put through tests of ascending difficulty so we can winnow out those not fit to be part of an administrative elite. Those who excel are again tested ruthlessly in the civil service, thrown into the deep end to either sink or swim.  Michael Barr, in a research paper for the Griffith Asia Institute, described the end-state of this model best:

“It is a system that feeds people through a high-pressure, streamed national schools system that is dominated by exams, private tuition and rote learning from kindergarten to matriculation … Most of the successful candidates pass through a handful of elite schools that add strong elements of both service and conceit to that recipe.

The brightest of the cohort – including the women who have not done NS – will have been offered bonded scholarships by one or other of the arms of government to study at a top foreign university, whereupon they return to Singapore to serve out their bond for their employer. The most promising performers in the Administrative Service (whether because of “talent” or a combination of talent and connections) are funnelled through one or several of the six most powerful ministries that make up the inner core of the system (Prime Minister’s Office, Defence, Education, Trade and Industry, Finance, and Home Affairs) where the socialisation and networking are intensified commensurate with the demands of the job.”

Moving forward, there is increasing political and bureaucratic recognition that more needs to be done for those left behind. In re-tooling our education system to be inclusive and future-proof, it is important for our policy-makers not to be affected by survivorship bias. There’s an excellent example of how British World War II fighters would return from bombing runs against Nazi Germany with significant damage to the fuselage and wings. Despite heavily armouring these sections, however, the RAF saw no improvement in pilot mortality rates. It took a statistician to point out that the data sample was significantly biased – the RAF was only taking into account planes that had returned from combat. He counter-proposed armouring sections of the plane that were free from damage, arguing that aircraft hit in those areas would by definition have not returned. It worked, saving the lives of numerous British airmen.

Similarly, our education policy is being shaped by men and women who survived. It stands to reason that the beneficiaries of our nation’s harshly meritocratic model may find it hard to see why changes need to be made. Recent efforts to broaden the definition of success and widen the catchment for civil service talent give me hope that policy-makers from varying educational backgrounds will be able to build a more inclusive and compassionate system. This, however, should be qualified. Often, those who come from humble backgrounds to succeed are themselves the most ardent advocates for preserving inequitable institutions. To them, if they could overcome their disadvantages to excel, so should anyone else.

It is also up to us as friends, mentors, and perhaps even future parents, to help dull the fear of failure and inadequacy that the education system inadvertently encourages. While I was still in school, I was guilty of making jokes about grades and academic achievement at others’ expense. Thankfully my peers took it in good spirits, oftentimes needling me back in response. But small instances like these add up over time, contributing to a toxic culture of credentialism and naked competition. I might well have accidentally hurt someone when laughing about their grades, even if it was in good faith. This extends to the dinner table as well – whenever my extended family reconvenes for Chinese New Year, academic achievement and university admissions invariably become the main topic of gossip among parents. I’m eternally amused by the passive-aggressive one-upmanship, the need to interject with their son’s or daughter’s latest great achievement, or the endless comparison of grades and co-curricular involvement.

There is nothing wrong with expecting students to pursue excellence. But when we turn education into a rigid zero-sum game, demanding of our children that their excellence comes at the cost of someone else’s failure, we rob students of their childhood. Ours should be an education system which celebrates the various intelligences that our students possess, not one which funnels children into narrow conceptions of talent. It means that we as Singaporeans should stop thinking of sports, or fine arts, or theatre, or vocational education as next-best options to be pursued only when one is unable to display general academic ability. Only then we stop sacrificing our youth at the altar of efficiency in order to produce champions.

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2 Replies to “At What Cost Excellence?”

  1. “Recent efforts to broaden the definition of success and widen the catchment for civil service talent give me hope that policy-makers from varying educational backgrounds will be able to build a more inclusive and compassionate system”

    i dont think it is a recent effort in any case. This has been ongoing quite some time already. A lot of Admin officers are not scholars and my friends working in the civil service can attest to that. However, it is a section of the public (i think oppo supporters) who make claims otherwise in an effort to demonize the public service as a rigid organization who only promote scholars. For others, it is a case of survivor-ship bias whereby they only perceive those who are scholars but not others who are not.

    Lastly, ppl also 4get that actually lots of scholars get kicked out because they are judged to lack organization ability despite having good thinking and writing ability. Hence, they become the proverbial “ivory tower academics” in the civil service. So scholars whom we see got promoted are judged to be ppl who possess both organizational and thinking ability. I can give an immediate example why these 2 skills are not found in the same person all the time. A lot of people who blog about social issues are well-educated uni graduates, they can think and write well on social issues, write good articles on social media (Just a generic example). But it does not mean they are equally good at resolving these issues practically in the real world. The civil service has recognized that some scholars suffer the same fate and would not hesitate to stop their promotion in this case.

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