CHILDREN IN SINGAPORE

CHILDREN IN SINGAPORE

John Aglionby wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, “Vinn Yip is not sure when she last did something that was really fun. "It was probably in the holidays with my dad but I can't really remember," said the 11-year-old who is in the top 20 percent of year 5 pupils at her primary school. Vinna's experience is typical in the tiny island nation. The fear of losing or failing, known as kiasu, is all-pervasive here. Indeed, it so ubiquitous that there is a popular cartoon character named Mr Kiasu. "I'm worrying about my son's education already, and he has only just started kindergarten," says Lim Poh Chay, a shopkeeper. [Source: John Aglionby, Sydney Morning Herald, September 7, 2002 *-*]

“By the time most children reach year 5 there is little time for anything other than eating, sleeping, washing and working. A recent Straits Times survey revealed that the average child has only about 1 to two hours' free time a day. More than a quarter of the 332 year 5 pupils polled said they had less than an hour a day. In addition to school, most pupils attend remedial or supplementary classes several times a week. The well-funded schools cannot be blamed entirely for the cramming complex. "We have clear guidelines for the teachers on homework," said Teo Kun Fung, the principal at East Spring primary school. "They write up on the board what they have given and so those coming later know not to give so much." *-*

Most pupils agree it is not school-set homework that fills their lives. "On average I only take about one to two hours to do my homework," said Laura Tan, from Rosyth primary school. Nor is it an abundance of drama, music and sport after school. The serious time-fillers are tuition classes and assessments. The former are either one-to-one or small group lessons, while the latter are assignments and tests that are among the nation's bestsellers. "If you go into any bookshop you will see more than 1000 different assignment books to choose from," said Evelyn Foo, from Rosyth. *-*

“Parents usually want the best for their children and in Singapore that means getting as good grades as possible, according to Seah Jiak Choo, the director of schools at the education ministry. "We have few resources besides our human talent, so it is important that we equip our young with the skills and knowledge, and the right values and attitudes to prepare them for the challenges ahead," she says. While the process appears to be paying off academically, there is widespread concern that the system is producing a nation of automatons who can answer academic questions but struggle in real life when asked to think literally and laterally. *-*

“This manifests itself in the country's lack of entrepreneurs and risk takers, particularly compared to Hong Kong, according to Margaret Thomas, a media analyst and women's rights activist. "From an early age people are inculcated with the importance of following rules," she says. "In Hong Kong people who are not sure about something will do it until they are told they cannot, whereas here they will check first to see if there's a rule or law that states they are allowed to do it." This adherence to the rules and lack of creativity is being addressed. Thinking skills were incorporated into the revised syllabuses and assessment modes in 1999 and the following year project work was introduced.” *-*

The Singaporean government is increasingly trying to encourage its youth —stereotyped as cowed and materialistic—to become entrepreneurial, creative and outspoken.

Sheltered Singaporean Kids

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star he once observed a 12-year-old girl leap in fear and hang on to the dress of her mother at the sight of a cat, apparently because rarely sees them. He also described mother who wouldn’t allow their kids to take a bus to school, bicycle within the estate by themselves, climb trees, go camping, play on swings or climb over "dangerous" amenities in the HDB playground.[Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, December10, 2003]

“As a result, Singaporean kids are raised in a fishbowl, deprived of any harsh lessons needed to prepare them for the real world. Instead, our MTV generation, raised by maids, is being caught between two forces, molly-coddling parents and a society that still largely considers obedience as a virtue. Maybe we don't have any PhDs who can't change a light bulb, but we do have junior college girls who don't know how to iron a dress or boil rice.

Some time ago, during Racial Harmony Day, I was invited by an elite SAP (Special Assistance Plan) school to share my experience in reporting Singapore's race riots. The audience was some 700 Secondary 3 and 4 students, representative of the best in Singapore. Quietly, they filed into the auditorium and sat on the floor in neat rows. It was a strong display of obedience and discipline. My own school days some 50 years ago were a lot noisier. The format was a 20-minute talk, followed by a question-and-answer session,but the teacher cautioned me not to expect too much. "You may not get any questions," she warned. Things went according to plan. The talk ended and the teacher invited questions and, as expected, no one stood up. Obviously, she was used to this reticence, which I later learned was reflective of Singaporean youths in general.

She announced refreshments in the next room and said anyone with questions could approach and ask the speaker there. During the meal, two boys approached me and one began asking a series of sharp questions about the state of race relations in 1964, while his friend listened intently. When they left, I turned to the teacher and remarked: "Well you were wrong.At least one of them did ask questions." She smiled and replied: "Yeah, except the boy who asked the questions is from Taiwan."

There's a danger of our over-protected, obedient children growing up to be wimps and softies unprepared to face the challenges of the real world when they grow up. They are raised to obey the rules, not to speak out of turn, far from being "mavericks" that Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew is exhorting them to be. It's quite a contradiction, right? But as the world becomes more competitive and dangerous, we should start thinking of further loosening control or diminishing protection for our youths.

Money Culture Spreading to Singaporean Youth

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “A pre-teen pupil offered $1 to his classmate to do his homework. Another gave his friend 10 cents as a tip to buy canteen food for him. These Generation Y tales told to me by a mother over lunch recently touch on one of Singapore’s maladies after years of affluence. This wealth has given Singaporeans a good life but has also moulded a lopsided view that money is a quick fix for all problems.[Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, June 26, 2005 +++]

“But these schoolboy horror stories have been around for decades. In the early years, even when Singapore was less wealthy, some students in elite schools were known to flash Rolex watches, Gucci bags and other branded goods. Dr Tony Tan, the current deputy prime minister, once spoke of a spoiled brat who burned a $5 bill to show off how “successful” his parents were, and his friend promptly replied by torching a $50 note. +++

“Some time ago, a friend told me his son had come home one day complaining about his pitiful pocket money after being shown a classmate’s birthday present from his father. It was a $200,000 deposit in the 12-year-old’s Post Office Saving Bank (since taken over by DBS Bank) account. The stereotype of youth is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of none. It is, of course, exaggerated and hardly fair since he lives in his parents’ mould. +++

“The rapid transformation from Third to First World has created an attitude towards money more profound than in many other comparable cities. “If you have a problem, just throw money at it and it will go away” seems to be a viewpoint that has been passed on to the young generation. +++

“Take the case of nine-year-old Jeremy Tio, who was lost for three nights recently in Fraser’s Hill with his three Malaysian cousins. When he was found, he emotionally hugged his rescuer and said, “I love you.” But he revealed his Singaporean upbringing when he told his Malaysian rescuers, “If I give you money, can you take me home?” His gracious rescuer Rapi Bata replied: “No need to pay us. We are here to help you.” +++

“This episode raised concern at the direction in which Singaporeans are being raised. Very few people blame Jeremy for the remarks because of his age and the severe fatigue he was under. But spoken so matter-of-factly by one so young, it has placed the whole society, the education system and his parents under the critical spotlight. One Internet writer said, “It belies a very serious problem with our society at large. From such a young age, little Jeremy knows the power of money.” Another cynical response: “Can’t blame little Jeremy. He is only money-minded, that’s all. This is a true blue Singaporean. Money talks every time. I think Jeremy will be an exemplary Singaporean when he grows up. He appreciates the value of money.” +++

“The general view is: “He thinks money can solve everything or it can make people work!” It flows down from the highest level of leadership, which has long used money as a weapon to fight corruption. Singapore’s Cabinet ministers (and senior civil servants) are among the world’s most highly paid. Several years ago, the son of one of Singapore’s billionaires said in a public speech that “greed is good” because it served as a builder of human enterprise and wealth. “ +++

Singaporean Primary School: Rat Race Begins at Age Seven

Elaine Ee wrote in CNNGo.com, “It’s time to join the mad rush to secure a primary school place. The process starts in July and drags for about two months. Parents are first told where on the priority list of their desired school their child falls and then given a few days to apply for a place. A quota of places is allocated to each priority group, or “phase.” If the number of children jostling for places in your child’s “phase” exceeds the school’s quota, the school draws lots and parents start praying. If your child doesn’t get a place, he or she gets bumped way down the list, and, if all else fails, is assigned to the nearest school that has room left. This whole experience is nerve-racking. Much has already been said in the press recently about the lengths parents -- wealthy financiers and celebrities included -- will go to just to give their child a leg up.[Source: Elaine Ee, CNNGo.com, August 11, 2011]

We are talking about primary school here, not Harvard.V olunteering with a school, which means giving 40 hours of work; moving to a school’s zone, which for many top schools, means fancy neighborhoods; and politicking their way onto the school board, are some of the things parents do to claw their way up that priority list and hopefully past the competition. So why this mass anxiety, after all we are talking about primary school (seven- to 12-year olds) here, not Harvard.

The reasons are plentiful: our “kiasu” culture, status consciousness, over-emphasis on elite education and the fact that in Singapore, education is completely dominated by our national education system. The crux really is: “good” primary schools bear affiliations to “good” secondary schools. Get your child into the right primary school and hopefully that will mean better performance at key exams, especially the dreaded Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE); this leads to admission into the right secondary school, which should lead to the right junior college or polytechnic, and that in turn to the right university, the right job, the right career and therefore eternal “success” and happiness.

So prevalent is this mainstream path to success in Singapore that -- even if we acknowledge it is blinkered and excluding in many ways -- it holds many hostage. These blinkered notions means the desirable, or “big brand” primary schools are ridiculously oversubscribed, while lesser recognized neighborhood schools can’t fill their classes. A friend who refuses to succumb to the rat race and deliberately enrolled her son in a low-key neighborhood school reports that there are barely 30 students in his class. A typical primary class in a big name school still holds around 40 students, despite MOE officially reducing primary class sizes to 30 in 2005.

That must be a relief to my friend and, I can imagine, to the teacher. But my friend has to contend with the prejudice that, in Singapore’s focus on helping the good get ever better, the best teachers and resources are believed to be allocated to the better schools and that her son is therefore “losing out.” So until there is a meaningful alternative to mainstream primary school education or more varied paths to success in Singapore’s education system and what constitutes “success,” come this time every year we will see this madness resurface again.

See Education, School

‘Kiasu’ Parents Volunteering to Give Their Kids and Advantage

Well-to-do, highly educated parents are volunteering to help at elite schools to raise the chances of their children being admitted there, and thus gain a headstart in the paper chase. Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “TV star Zoe Tay has joined a growing trend in Singapore’s high pressure education system. The actress volunteered to work without pay at the elite Nanyang Primary School to improve her son’s chances of being admitted there in two years’ time. The demand for a good primary school, regarded as a crucial start in life here, has soared since the government encouraged the intake of thousands of bright students from abroad. In 2009, US investment billionaire Jim Rogers, who took up Singapore citizenship, and his wife also performed more than 40 hours of volunteer work at Nanyang Primary. Today, their 11-year-old daughter Happy is getting the bilingual education that her parents had intended. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, July 30, 2011]

This practice has become more widespread in recent years as competition for admission into elite schools intensified during registration of Primary One pupils. Singaporean parents are prepared to make sacrifices to get their kids into a premium primary school, which they consider as winning half the academic battle. As a result, top institutions are swamped with applications every year. Even as the practice spreads, the concept of parent volunteers is under attack for promoting elitism in Singapore society and widening the gap between the rich and the poor. An online survey which asked whether schools should do away with the scheme attracted an almost unanimous “yes”.

There are benefits for everyone to get parents involved in the activities of their children’s schools, according to ministry officials. The broad complaint is, however, that it is helping to put the top primary schools further out of reach of poorer families, at least during registration. At the same time it smacks of corruption; instead of paying money for a school place, parents are paying in service, said a social studies student. “The scheme works in favour of the well-heeled parents who have the time and qualifications to do it,” she said. “What happens to the ill-educated and poorer parents who are unable to do so?”

In fact, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, in a visit to a premium girls’ school last November, admitted that the primary school admission system was not meritocratic, as a child’s family background played a part. Whether a child went into a good school was based on the social class of the parents, Lee had said. “So it’s not so meritocratic. That’s inevitable in any society.” The aim, he said, was to eventually balance things out at Primary Six. “That’s what we’re aiming to do: regardless of who your father or mother is or was, we go by your performance.”

The education ministry has put in place a registration system giving priority to Singaporeans and PRs, with the first option being given to children of former students. The second is reserved for families who live within 1km of the school. Next is given to members of an association or a religious group, followed by community grassroots workers. And if there are too many applicants, the parent volunteers – or PVs – are given preference but without guarantee. In many cases, supply so overwhelms demand that parents who applied had to be interviewed and only a fraction are chosen.

In one school, only 44 were given the chance out of hundreds who applied last year. “It has become laughable having parents anxiously trying to pass a test, something the kids do,” said a private tutor. “At certain times you can encounter groans and smiles from these grown-ups while their children run around oblivious to it all,” he added. The number of PVs has doubled in recent years, partly as a result of increased immigration. Most PVs are wives of Singaporeans (now increasingly expatriates), some of whom have taken time off from their jobs to fulfil the role.

Some parents are surgeons, lawyers and corporate high-fliers with highly impressive application forms. “A few submitted pages and pages of their achievements which were mostly a waste since, as a rule, parental qualifications do not count,” a school official said. Most volunteer work entails reading to pupils, helping to re-organise library books or, as in the case of actress Zoe Tay, it may relate to one’s skills or profession. School authorities say it is the parents’ commitment to the school that is often decisive, including the number of volunteer hours. Forty hours is the minimum, but the popular ones fix it at 80 hours. One kiasu (a Hokkien term meaning ‘afraid to lose’) parent is said to have clocked in a staggering 600 hours, or more than four months’ full-time work.

Charm School for Kids in Singapore

In 2010, AFP reported: “Pricey etiquette classes designed to turn little girls and boys into proper ladies and gentlemen are becoming popular among Singaporeans who are not content with traditional ballet classes and piano lessons for their children. will also stay with them for life," said Eunice Tan, a trainer and consultant at the Image Flair Academy of Modern Etiquette. Tan, 37, says "please" was the first word her own daughter Ethel, now six, learned to speak when she was just one year old. "The skills they learn in the social graces classes will stay with them as they mature and will influence them in all areas of their lives," she told AFP. "I feel that it is best to train children before bad habits have a chance to develop, and such skills.” [Source: AFP, October 7, 2010 ==]

“After breakneck economic growth turned Singapore into one of the world's richest societies in just one generation, commentators and government officials admit Singaporeans have yet to catch up on the etiquette front. One government campaign urges Singaporeans to make it a point to show small acts of kindness in their everyday lives. "I think the soft skills are something that parents do see as important," said Jonathan Goh, an associate professor at the National Institute of Education of Singapore. "I do see a lot of benefits," he added, stating that children well-versed in social graces would have a "special advantage in the working world" when they grow up. ==

“Typically held during the school holidays in June and December, children's etiquette classes don't come cheap, with hourly rates ranging from 30 to 48 Singapore dollars (about 22 to 35 US). Tan, who conducts classes of 10 students each, said she had to open a new class during the month-long June school holidays as all lessons were fully booked, a far cry from her company's quiet start four years ago. Lessons are divided into three levels, with the introductory grade teaching children as young as three how to meet and greet people. Level two teaches telephone manners as well as anger management techniques, and the most advanced course imparts values such as honesty and responsibility in a step-by-step method. ==

"The quiet encouragement they receive when they do well and the extra coaching given to quieter children makes them good learners," Tan said. "After the sessions, children are eager to showcase their new graces in front of parents, family and friends, be it their newly-acquired dining skills, tolerance for siblings or sensitivity to their pet!" But not all parents pay as much attention to their children's social graces, said Elaine Heng, founder of a self-named image consultancy firm which offers similar classes as well as one-on-one etiquette consultations. "Nowadays, parents send their kids to lots of enrichment classes to discover their musical, artistic talents and focus more on academic results, but many forget that their kids require coaching in social graces," Heng said. ==

“The former beauty queen also conducts etiquette and grooming sessions for schools and organisations, and says she has taught more than 2,000 youths so far. "It is much easier for a third party, like us, to teach the students on the proper social graces as parents may not know how to go about doing this." Agnes Koh of training firm Etiquette and Image International suggested the attitudes of some children of double-income parents could be attributed to growing up with foreign maids as their main companions. Lack of social graces also resulted from over-emphasis on academic work, Koh said. "Parents are competing among themselves on making their kids score on education and achievement-oriented results. The basic modesty of humanity has thinned," she said. ==

Singapore School Program Singles Out Fat Kids for Extra Exercise

In 2004, Associated Press reported: “The fight against obesity starts young in Singapore. Fat children are separated from their classmates and ordered to do more exercising until they lose weight. Ten-year-old Mona Siow has been trying to lose weight for the last four years. Instead of joining her friends at the canteen during recess every day, the fourth-grader and other chubby students gather in the hall and follow a teacher’s instructions to skip rope, run, and dribble a basketball. “I feel sad to be overweight when I look at people and they’re so skinny and can wear so many clothes,” says Siow, who needs to shed about 37 pounds before she can leave the program. At 4 feet 8, she weighs 128 pounds. [Source: AP, October 5, 2004]

As a member of a Singapore primary school’s “Health Club” — where membership is compulsory for overweight kids — Siow does special exercises on top of the regular physical education curriculum. Teachers monitor her height and weight every month. While the school does not put restrictions on what Siow can eat, teachers meet her parents regularly to recommend healthier ways to prepare their daughter’s meals at home. Siow says she used to hate eating vegetables but has since grown to like them.

More than a decade ago, this tiny but modern city-state’s leaders decided that the best way to fight the war on expanding waistlines, and ballooning health care costs, was to begin with the generation growing up on a diet of fast food, television and computer games. The government created a school-based intervention program that includes rigorous exercise for plump children and recommendations on food sold in canteens, where the aromas of Western-style meals mingle with the sometimes spicy and exotic smells of local fare.

Associated Press reported: These new habits are proving hard to break. The so-called “health clubs” have reduced the proportion of overweight students from 14 percent in 1992 to 10 percent in 2003, education ministry statistics show, but many, like Siow, don’t shed the pounds. “It’s quite disheartening to see students remain in the club for a number of years,” says Lim Ee Kheng, the school’s head of physical education at Siow’s school, the elite Singapore Chinese Girls’ Primary School. “To keep them in the club for a long time is bad for their self-esteem because there’s a stigma tied to it.” [Source: AP, October 5, 2004] For example, if Siow fails to lose her required weight, she is doomed to stay in the program until she completes her pre-university schooling.

Singapore Scraps Extra Exercise Classes for Overweight Kids

In 2007, Singapore announced it would end its anti-obesity program in schools after parents complained that overweight children were being singled out and teased by classmates. Associated Press reported: The city-state will scrap the 15-year-old "Trim and Fit" campaign and replace it with a holistic program that caters to all schoolchildren instead of just the overweight ones, the education ministry said. The new holistic campaign will focus not only on raising fitness levels but also mental and social health by promoting a healthy lifestyle, the ministry said. It did not provide details. [Source: Associated Press, March 20, 2007 /=/]

“The "Trim and Fit" program reduced the proportion of overweight students from 14 percent in 1992 to 9.5 percent in 2006, Masagos Zulkifli, senior parliamentary secretary for education, told the Straits Times newspaper. Nevertheless, the scheme has drawn flak, especially from parents who argued a program that singles out fat children makes them easy targets to be teased by their peers. Zulkifli acknowledged the program stigmatizes obese students. "If you want to focus on just overweight children, then no matter what you call it, there will be a stigma associated," he said. /=/

“Health officials and educators say school-based intervention effectively targets a generation growing up on fast food, television and computer games, and is integral to the city-state's war against expanding waistlines and ballooning health care costs. The Education Ministry has disputed a study that linked the "Trim and Fit" scheme to eating disorders among girls, saying such disorders were complex psychological problems that cannot be attributed to a single factor. “ /=/

Singaporean Prime Minister Urges 'Pampered' Youth to Toughen up

In 2001, Jake Lloyd-Smith wrote in the South China Morning Post, “Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has taken a swipe at the country's youth, saying their pampered existence has left them ill-prepared to meet the challenges of the future. In an unusually forthright speech, Mr Goh said young people should rely less on the government and rediscover the "self-reliant spirit" of the city-state's early immigrants. "I think many Singaporeans too, especially the younger ones, take their comfortable lives for granted. "They were born after the tumultuous early years of our independence and never knew the hardships of their parents' generation," Mr Goh said. "They grew up with a silver spoon in their mouth, a maid at their beck and call and a car to bring them around. They have only experienced strong economic growth and ever-improving standards of living." [Source: Jake Lloyd-Smith, South China Morning Post, August 27, 2001 <+>]

“The Prime Minister conceded, however, that the problem of dependency had in part been created by success of the People's Action Party (PAP) administration, which has ruled Singapore since independence in 1965. "Ironically, the efficiency and thoroughness with which the government has provided for and looked after the needs of Singaporeans, have contributed to this attitude of depending on the government to solve even simple problems. <+>

“In his speech, Mr Goh contrasted the drive and ambition common to workers and students across China, who were eager to better themselves, with the sometimes complacent attitude of young Singaporeans. He said Singapore should send more of its young people to placements on the mainland so they would "understand more intimately the fierce competition we are facing from China". "We should rediscover some of the self-reliant spirit of earlier generations of Singaporeans," he said. "When our immigrant forefathers came here, they did not receive nor expect help from the government of the day. They built their homes and their fortunes from scratch, without any government help. In times of hardship, they counted on their own wits and resources." <+>

Success Drive Sends Singapore Children to Psychiatrists

In 2001, AFP reported: “Singapore psychiatrists say they are being swamped by children unable to take the city-state's pressure-cooker education environment that demands success. More than 20,000 children received treatment in 1998, the latest figures available, up 250 percent on the 5600 who sought psychiatric help in 1990. Two-thirds of the patients were in primary school or pre-primary centres, according to data released at the opening of a new behavioural health services clinic. [Source: Agence France Presse, March 2, 2001 <<<]

“Tan Chue Tin, a consultant psychiatrist, said Singapore's competitive environment generated stress. "The school system is very result-oriented. As a result, parents become anxious and push their children to succeed, sometimes beyond their means," Tan was quoted as saying in the Straits Times Mar 2. Most of the children seeking psychiatric help were suffering from anxiety disorders and behavioural problems. <<<

“The senior parliamentary secretary for the community development ministry, Yu-Foo Yee Shoon described the trend as disturbing, and said a secure family environment was optimal for child development. Divorces in Singapore have risen nearly 66 percent in the past decade and "this means that young children are caught in distressful marital break-ups and the problems of single parenting that follow," she said. Tinkle Friend, a child-help hotline in Singapore, said it took an average 1500 calls a month, mostly from primary school pupils.Across the population, nearly 17 percent of Singaporeans have neurotic disorders such as anxiety and depression, double the number of 20 years ago. <<<

In 2006, Wee Sui Lee of Reuters wrote: “Children who are cared for at day-care centres, by foster parents or maids are twice as likely to develop mental health problems than those cared for by their parents, researchers in Singapore said. Their study of more than 2000 children, from the ages of six to 12, showed a direct association between parental absence and emotional and behavioural disorders such as depression, anxiety, aggressive and disruptive behaviour. In particular, children whose mothers are either single, divorced, widowed or dead are three times more likely to develop mental health problems as other children, Dr Bernardine Woo and researchers at Singapore's Institute of Mental Health and the National University of Singapore found. [Source: Wee Sui Lee, Reuters, October 18, 2006]

“Woo, who led the investigation, said the team did not study the reasons for the link. "Some postulated reasons were the children received less support from their parents and the quality of care may be different," Woo told Reuters on Wednesday. "It may affect them psychologically." In Asia, it is common for both parents to work and to leave their children in the care of a maid, a relative or professional day-care centre. The study also found that in general, boys are twice as likely as girls to develop emotional and behavioural problems. Boys with a lower IQ, or intelligence quotient, were also three times as much at risk compared to those with a higher IQ.” [Ibid]

“I Not Stupid”: Film About Pampered but Bullied Singapore Kids a Big Hit

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “In Singaporean fashion, several mothers are talking about motivating their pre-teen children in school, drawing one cracking advice from one: “Use the cane. Got cane 90 marks, no cane 40 marks.” Invariably, the subject moves to grades and streaming, boastfully or ruefully whatever the case may be. “Wah, your son only EM3, mine EM1!” EM stands for English-Mother Tongue, with top students rotating to the latter stream. These scenes are from “I Not Stupid”, a local film now playing to packed houses here. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, February 24, 2002 |=|]

“The reason for its popularity is it pokes fun at the way intelligence is measured by exam marks and reflects public disdain for imported foreigners when unemployment is growing. It strikes an emotional chord among Singaporeans who interpret it as an indictment of government policies they dislike and ridiculously over-expectant parents who drive their kids to suicide. The movie speaks up for poor graders, who are suffering the ignominy of being branded as stupid by their own parents and society at large. It has provoked a lot of discussions at Internet chat-rooms. |=|

“Several boys act well as first-timers. One of them plays the role of an overweight pampered son of a crude but rich dialect-speaking businessman, whose wife scolds her children for buttering their bread at breakfast. “Aiyah, how many times I tell you to leave the maid to do it.” Her rationale: the maid is paid to do the work. Symbolising the government, the matronly mother, dressed in white (colour of People’s Action Party) whacks her son into obedience so much that he dares not do anything without his mother. He is in his pre-teens and he allows his mother, strong-minded but well meaning, to make all his decisions. She knows what’s best for them. Some fans say she represents the nanny, interfering state; she keeps telling her children: “You are so lucky to have such a good mother who gives you everything.” The result is a son who hasn’t a thought of his own and a rebelling teenage daughter. Once at a party at their bungalow, he is bullied to tears by some other boys, and later complains: “I'm in my own home, why should I be bullied by outsiders?” This is seen as a criticism of “foreign talent.” |=|

“The fat boy, who is lousy in his studies but is a great artist, angrily shouts “I Not Stupid” when his mother tears into him over his report card. His talent is revealed at the end when he wins a world-class painting award and matures to develop a mind of his own. The message is: “Stop raising children who are hopelessly dependent on parents or government.” The movie’s comment on politics – or so some fans believe – comes in the form of the teenage daughter (the opposition?) who is always demanding more individual freedom. In one scene she resists the efforts by her mother (allegedly the government) coming into her room to replace some “goofy” decorations she had put up with old-fashioned ones. “But this is my room, leave it to me to decide,” she protests to no avail. She is also unhappy because her mother keeps her ang pow money, saying it is hers. When her mother says “I’ll keep it and invest it for you,” she bursts out: “Yeah, you keep my money and you lose it in some of your stupid investments.” |=|

Singapore Education Minister: Please Don’t Belt Your Stressed Out Kids

In 2000, AFP reported: “Singapore Education Minister Teo Chee Hean has pleaded with parents not to belt children who fail exams, after a survey exposed deep fears among primary pupils under pressure to succeed, a report said. One in three primary school children finds life not worth living, according to the survey which found a clear link between the sad outlook of 9-12 year olds and fear of not achieving in exams. The academic pressure on primary school children led Teo to urge parents not to push their children too hard or over-stress them, the Straits Times reported today. "It's not a good thing for a parent to be caning his child just because he failed his exams," the minister said during a weekend walkabout in his constituency. [Source: Agence France Presse, November 27, 2000 <>]

“Academic stress was "something schools and parents have to work at together." Teo said the government had taken steps to reduce the workload of students, but he acknowledged that parents in the fiercely competitive city-state would not accept a total ban on homework. "Parents will go and demand that the schools give homework, and if the schools say no, they will go to bookshops and buy assessment books," he said, summing up the attitude of families in a society which demands success. <>

“The survey by Singapore Press Holdings, publisher of the Straits Times, found one nine-year-old who had to be stopped from jumping from the third-floor of his school because he was not doing well in class. Another nine-year-old told of being caned after getting 83 percent in a science exam and 73 percent in a mathematics exam, and said he had become so nervous he suffered diarrhoea and asthma attacks and broke into a cold sweat before and during tests. His mother, who makes the boy do six hours of homework a night, made no apologies for the punishment saying her son "is a clever boy who has not reached his full potential." She said the diarrhoea would cure itself after the exams and the asthma could be controlled by medication. <>

'Smug' Youngsters Told to Be More Open-minded

Barry Porter wrote in South China Morning Post, “Youngsters are smug, narrow-minded and stuck in a "comfort zone". Plus, their arrogant "gimme" mentality prompts them to "ask for the sky" at job interviews. That's the opinion of Singapore's National Youth Council after a series of workshops conducted with young people last month. The council warned that unless Singaporean youngsters showed a greater willingness to be open-minded and continue learning from others, they might flounder when they have to compete on a world stage. [Source: Barry Porter, South China Morning Post, February 25, 2000 ***]

“It discovered from 60 young people who attended its workshops that many seemed to think that, given Singapore was already top in a number of areas, they could not learn much from other people. The council warned that such narrow-mindedness could lead to a loss of Singapore's competitiveness. The government has long been concerned about a lack of creativity and buzz in Singapore society as it tries to transform the island state into a hi-tech regional hub. ***

“In 1999, school teachers were instructed to shift away from rote learning and to teach youngsters how to think. To help youths change tack, the youth council has suggested revamping employment and rewards systems. It also recommended the civil service lead the way by shifting from the present system of using academic results as the key yardstick in hiring and promoting staff. ***

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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