Tuesday, 14 May 2013
A Response to The Ugly Truth about Hwa Chung JC
Note: The article re-posted by TRS was posted by the original author a year ago. She has since updated that all is well, even though she was going through a rough patch at the time of her posting.
An article on therealsingapore caught my eye as I was ploughing through my facebook newsfeed over the weekend. In the post, the writer (let’s call her XL) talks about her negative experiences in HCJC. Although her writing could use a fair bit of polish, Ms XL has brought up some noteworthy issues from the perspective of an 18 year old student struggling to survive in a top school.
Disclaimer: I do not represent any school and I am not associated with HCJC in any way. I speak from the perspective of someone who has endured Singapore’s education system both as a student and a classroom teacher.
“I remember there was this week in July 2010, when I was in J1 where I cried every single day, even during school time because I just cannot accept the environment here. It was too.... elite for me to handle. I was even judged for having come from a neighbourhood school.”
“In the first place, I came here almost all alone because I had no close friends with me. It was hard to find someone that I could actually pour everything out to and relate to and it just seem like everyone was just too busy trying to run to the top of the mountain and all I wanna do is to back trek. And the point is, even if you back trek, nobody really notice because you are just 1 out of the thousand. So small, so insignificant, that I was almost invisible.”
Each of us is one in 6 billion! Talk about insignificance.
Dear XL, the real problem here is not HC’s ‘elitism’ but your unrealistic expectations. Doing well in Primary and Secondary school probably boosted your morale and self-esteem where academic grades are concerned. Before, you were a big fish in a small pond but by choosing to join one of the top JCs in Singapore, you became a tiny fish in the sea. You were probably not ready for that. The resulting emotion you experienced was due to this contrast. I see it all the time – students with high PSLE t-scores suffer some form of ‘emotional trauma’ when they fail their first test in Sec 1.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that HCJC is not “elite”. (Elitism in the Singapore top schoolsis so prevalent that the topic deserves a separate blog post in order to it justice.) The school you chose is an elite school and unfortunately the school culture seems to be a poor match for you. But hey, learning how to cope with being judged and feeling insignificant will bode well for you when you start working in a competitive country like Singapore. If you choose to work in an MNC in the future, for example, you will start off as an insignificant employee. The harsh reality is, despite what you think and have been taught in school, your opinion and voice may not always matter. You will be judged and assessed by bosses who may not even know you and colleagues who may dislike you for whatever you do or not. Such is the unfairness of life. Consider yourself fortunate to have experienced these harsh realities in school before you get a bigger shock when you enter the workplace.
“The big reveal now is that I only had 1A for my A levels. I scored a grade of BBC/BA. Just a glance at it, this could well be the prelim grades for anyone from the higher-end classes in school. But this was my A level results. There wasn't a single H2 A, and the A I got in the entire cert was GP. Even my PW was a B. When I got my O level results, that moment was magical. But when I got my A level results, that moment was terrible.”
“We fear judgement, we fear expectations, we fear disappointments. These were the truly helpless moments where nobody could empathize with my feelings because everyone else around me either thought I was just kidding or they had good enough grades for them to not relate to this. There was so much uncertainty within myself yet so much expectations to live up to, it was suffocating but all I could do was to live with it and try to live up to it.”
1 A, 3 Bs, 1 C. These grades are ‘terrible’? Come on… have you compared your ‘terrible’ grades with your average counterparts who graduated from ‘neighbourhood’ JCs?
Anyone with any real working experience will tell you that scoring straight ‘A’s for examinations is highly overrated. Former-Singaporean and socio-political blogger Limpehft wrote an enlightening post on this (refer to "lesson no 3: studies are important but please keep it real"). I am not saying that academic development is unimportant. As an adult, I treasure the literacy, analytic and numeracy skills that have been accorded to me through my education. The basic education that we take for granted in Singapore is a privilege that is denied to many others, even in so-called modern societies. However, the non-academic skills you have attained in HCJC (those you have described but have marginalized IMHO), such as establishing camaraderie amongst your classmates and organizing events are as important, if not more important, when determining your success in JC.
From your post, it is apparent that academic success was very deeply ingrained in HCJC’s culture and you had difficulty conforming to become part of the ‘hwachong stereotype’ – someone with a perfect slew of ‘A’s. When I read your post in its entirety, I wondered if you recognized that you were largely responsible for making yourself miserable about ‘A’ levels because you chose to conform to the definition of success that the school had for its students in general, without putting deeper thought into how you define success for yourself.
Do you conform?
Granted, thinking out of the box is not easy when most of your peers are in blind pursuit of the rat race. From an early age, pursuing academic excellence is probably the only benchmark of success you know. Nonetheless, take a moment to consider the following examples (all three individuals are Singaporeans in their late twenties): According to society’s definition, have they succeeded? Do you think they have achieved success in life?
Lina* was always an above average student in school. However, she failed ‘A’ level Biology in J2 and was retained for another year to re-do her ‘A’ levels. Her school also forced her to drop Biology. With sheer determination and overcoming social stigma of ‘being retained’, she worked hard and did well for her ‘A’ levels the second time. She also aced her subsequent interview and secured a coveted spot in NUS Medicine despite not offering ‘A’ level Bio. Today, she is a passionate full-time doctor who is saving lives every day (at the expense of her health, I might add. She works 36 hour shifts!), has tons of good friends and colleagues and is getting married soon.
Tony* was a GEP student who breezed through all his school life with straight ‘A’s. Given his academic record and graduating from a ‘top’ Junior College, he secured a spot in NUS Medicine easily. However, today Tony freely admits that he is miserable as a doctor – it was what his parents wanted him to pursue because he could, not because he wanted to. At present, Tony draws a 5 figure monthly salary which he has no time to spend and feels empty at times because he has no other half to share his life with. He has thoughts of giving up his path as a doctor in pursuit of his interests, but lacks the courage to do so.
From young, Zoe* was an average student who did well enough to get by. In Junior College she was fortunate to have met her life partner, the son of a wealthy businessman. They married soon after both parties completed their university education, with Zoe’s husband taking over the family business. Today, as a full-time ‘tai-tai’ (who is educated), Zoe loves to spend time teaching her young children at home and feels completely fulfilled in her role as a mother.
*Names have been changed.
National exams – pretty much like the tree climbing test here IMHO.
If one equates happiness to success, then Tony has clearly failed. If one has to earn big bucks to be considered successful, then homemakers like Zoe will never stand a chance. Clearly, it is not so simple. There is no one-size-fits-all rubric to measure the abstract idea of success. Every individual should set their own goals and define success on their own terms, based on their own abilities. On a national level, our current minister of Education has recently acknowledged the need to “accept broader definitions of success” for our education system to progress. The Kiasu Singaporean way of using academic grades and as a measure of success in school and achieving material wealth as a measure for success in life is myopic and flawed – we can only hope that with time, Singaporean parents and teachers can break free of this backward way of thinking and stop subjecting our youth to meaningless misery.
The path of success… not so straightforward.
"It feels like I was fooled into this place because I was totally bought over by their marketing campaign of presenting the image of being so fun and everything. Our open house is all so warm and homely, orientation is so fun and enjoyable but when things get real, they get seriously real, and stressful, and competitive, and everything negative, for me at least.
In my opinion, this whole "top school" thing is a partial scam. The fact behind all this glory is in selective publication. All you have to do is to tweak the way you present your results. What used to be a 80% distinction rate for H2 Geography now becomes a 80% A&B for H2 Geography."
XL, it sounds to me that you felt ‘cheated’ and angry at the school because when you were a potential student, the school only presented the good aspects. The reality as a student, however, was not as wonderful as you imagined it to be. What did you expect? Platforms like Open House and presentation of ‘A’ level results are the means by which schools attract potential students, pretty much like a job advertisement used to recruit talent. Refer back to point 1 again on unrealistic expectations. It is easy to blame the school for ‘misrepresentation of information’ and complain when one’s unrealistic expectations are not met –many parents I have met are guilty of this.
On the other hand, let me assure you from the perspective of an educator that behind the scenes, all schools are well aware of the reality (or in your words, the ugly truth) behind their marketing showcase and statistical gimmicks. Behind the scenes (mostly unknown to parents and students), school management and teachers gather together to discuss confidential matters that are hardly ever disclosed outside the staff room, such as namelists of students who are failing despite their high entry PSLE t-scores, % retention of students for each level, % students asked to drop subjects, the reasons behind failures of programmes/initiatives/ CCAs etc. At Ministry HQ level, senior management and policymakers are well aware that some initiatives and policies that they have heralded in the past have failed to produce the desired outcomes (Teachers, do you remember Teach Less, Learn More?) as well as the bad publicity for MOE when more and more educators are involved in public sex scandals.
Such information is like ‘dirty linen’ – one does not simply wash them in public. But in reality, there is an unglamorous side of our education system that the school and ministry does not want to show the public and to their stakeholders: Yes, our system is flawed. Our programmes are not as brilliant as we claim. Our students are not all scholars like our school vision and motto implies. Our teachers are not all role models with integrity like we want you to believe.
Whether they admit or not, that’s the truth. And the truth hurts. Any school would respond to this with the most natural reaction – to cover up all the unpleasant truths with other facts worth celebrating over: the percentage of students who scored distinctions in national exams, percentage of ‘O’/’A’ level passes (never the percentage of failures – for that, you need to do your own subtraction) and number of prestigious awards and scholarships conferred to existing students and staff. These are facts that encourage and edify, that acknowledge and appreciate the efforts by the school and teachers. Not the ugly facts which may tarnish the school reputation and God-forbid, reduce the school funding.
At the end of the day, both school and stakeholders must recognize that results portraying excellence are not any lesser truths than the “ugly truths”. There are always 2 sides to the story. I have met too many parents and students alike who make facepalm statements and ask ignorant questions because of their own unrealistic expectations, absurd assumptions and unfounded beliefs based on hearsay. But that’s another story for another post…
Do you want to hear both sides of the story or have you picked a side?
For all Singaporean students feeling trapped in the rat race: the days of youth are too short to be squandered on misery and depression, especially where academic grades are concerned. Focus instead on developing social and interpersonal skills, as well as public speaking and presentation skills – and factor these aspects into your definition of success in school. Soft skills and character development will see you much, much further in your life.
Thanks for reading and do stay tuned for more education-related posts! And please leave your comments, if any :)