Friday was a harrowing day for a large swathe of students across the island. The release of examination results for the candidates of the 2016 Singapore-Cambridge GCE Advanced Level (often just called ‘A’ Levels for short) would undoubtedly represent a momentous closure for many students after the typical 12 years of formal education one typically undergoes in the local education system. And this could be momentous for better or for worse. Having friends who went through that moment yesterday – and having undergone a similar one myself – made me deeply aware of how significant it was to so many young people across the country.
I had been far from composed. The back of the school hall was lined with teachers standing behind identical plastic desks, ready to hand out sealed envelopes to students one by one. Each envelope contained a few sheets of paper printed with numbers that were simultaneously inconsequential and important. People laughed, cried, screamed, hugged, posed for pictures, shook hands. I was both comforted and overjoyed by my own results. It was feeling like the final step in a flight of stairs had been laid to a series of doors I could access. I felt like they were something I deserved; accessories to my expected set of achievements. It was giddying, and at the same time frightening to realise how much my results mattered to me personally.
But I have friends who weren’t as lucky. And in a system where one’s academic achievement can seem to make or break your chances at a good future, it must have been crushing to know you had achieved less. And it must have been an equally momentous moment for them to feel those same doors shut off to them for just a different set of numbers.
It is hard to discuss the life of a Singaporean, I feel, without touching upon the climate fostered by the local education system. The notoriously competitive education system here has been the subject of both admiration from abroad and acrimony from within. It has indirectly resulted in mothers placing reservations for places in top-ranked primary schools upon the birth of their children, four-year-olds being placed in after-school tuition centres, and an eleven-year-old plunging to his death for fear of academic failure. It has produced batches of students who perform above the world average in standardised assessments, and for many, a set of expectations they have felt pressured to fulfil. The average student tries to go to a junior college and aim for the Science stream to do well enough to become a doctor or engineer. Or they try to become a lawyer. Or they try to get past the prying questions of family on how they are going to get a life with any other job – god forbid, an arts-related one.
Perhaps some of what I’ve mentioned above is exaggeration. But from the stifling effects of the local education system seem to have made themselves clear to others. I recently read a comment by a user on a college-related forum commenting on how Singaporean university students were ‘uninteresting’ and advising another user not to go there for further studies due to a ‘general lack of spontaneity’ on local campuses. It saddens as much as sobers me. From what I know of my peers, I don’t deny that the average Singaporean high-school-age student may have a tendency to put their studies over many other aspects of their social and emotional well-being (many of my classmates survived their last year of junior college on 2 hours of sleep a night). There are exceptions to this stereotype, and I’m glad to have met many people who were capable of both working and playing hard. But it is still upsetting that we should all be collectively seen as a bunch of dullards. Characterised, for all our academic achievement, as a stagnant learning environment.
Would this environment have the potential to only lead to a cold, career-driven urban society? I’ve heard of numerous parents who take their children out of the country to escape the rigours of Singaporean testing, and other students who express serious thoughts about migrating out because ‘Singaporeans are so square’. This kindled my desire to create my blog. I wanted to try to show them that they were wrong, by searching out and finding things to love about this island I call home. But at the same time, I know that true change can only come from within the individual, and can only blossom slowly throughout society.
It will take a long time before a results-oriented culture can be tempered in the education system. Efforts have been made to change the way in which achievements are recognised by student troupes competing in the Singapore Youth Festival, as well as to stop revealing the top scorers for each of the national school-leaving examinations to prevent an unhealthy emphasis on exam results. It hasn’t led to a significant shift in attitudes, because many students and parents fundamentally believe in figuring out where they (or their children) stand in the pecking order both on academic and non-academic fronts. But in order for the academic environment to be revamped, a more holistic assessment of every student’s strengths has to be made.
One of my classmates once remarked that some of her cousins were ‘under-achievers’ because they ‘didn’t even go to junior college’. By what measure is an under-achiever? Who says that you have to take the most prestigious-sounding route in the system in order to succeed? Is it really for everyone? I have met some peers who had been coerced into taking certain subjects because of the assurance that it was their route to success, only to perform below expectations. And there are still others who have gone to the sometimes-vilified polytechnics and vocational institutes and managed to become successful in their own right.
I hope that those students who have been crushed by their results will not be made to inferior just because of a bad grade. They may feel trapped between re-taking the exams within a system that frustrates them, or having to face what they might feel is a despondent future. Sometimes, society can blind us to other routes of achieving our potential.
But there are routes outside of the system – they may be unorthodox, but they have worked for many. And I hope that they will be able to find and embrace other forms of achievement – quality time with family, loving and supporting friends, a healthy spirituality. Or even just the sheer potential that comes from being young and alive. They can mean a lot more than a bunch of numbers on a results slip.