Childhood, Education, Prose

Protest the test

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Really?”

The most important thing I’ve learnt from being a teacher in Singapore for the last 15 years (teaching at Primary, Secondary, Junior College levels and in both Government and Independent schools, MOE HQ and now in a private international school) is the importance of “learning how to learn”. Kids who figure out how to do that are a little less unprepared for the real world.

To do this “learning how to learn” well, students need to have a a good understanding of:

  1. the fundamentals of language(s), numbers (which is but another language) and logic.
  2. how to sift through information, facts, data, concepts, arguments, theories.
  3. how to piece them together and take them apart.
  4. how to share perspectives with others, argue and agree to disagree.
  5. the world around them, past present and where we might be headed in the future.

These skills are fundamental to the education of all students in all our mainstream schools, and not just for those in upper-tier, elite programmes (however you wish to label them: Independent, Integrated Programme, IB, Express stream, Higher, Gifted etc.)

At the moment the system is great at churning out students who excel at taking tests but are awful at learning how to learn. And can you blame the kids?

We’ve built an education system that is primarily designed not to teach, but to sort (hence the test-taking expertise and hydra-like tuition empires).

In doing so, we’ve distorted fundamental drives in education. Students don’t learn to discover, they learn to avoid failure. Teachers don’t teach, they reverse engineer assessments, machine tool model answers and drill their students to parade square precision.

Discovery is messy, slow and riddled with necessary failure. The path to success is paved with Popular 10-year series assessment books.

We’ve built a system that celebrates the top 25% (those who make it to local universities), and in doing so throws shade on the remaining 75%. (And think about it, if you’ve gone though school hating school, as an adult would you be so keen to go back to school/training under the SkillsFuture programme that encourages adults to go back to train and learn?)

Our education system has fundamentally not changed after the 1979 Goh Keng Swee shakeup. It’s still pretty much the same system now as it was back in the 80s and 90s.

Except that now got internet.

Except that now the world has changed radically. (Except for Mahathir)

The govt. has been cautious because education is political kryptonite and the denizens of will confirm complain if any changes derail the carefully laid plans for their DDs (darling daughters) or DSs (dear sons).

But meanwhile, rolling off the assembly lines of our every-school-is-a-good-schools are intellectually-stunted, partially-literate, docile toad-in-a-wells…

… who are really good at taking tests.

#singapore #education

Critical thinking, experimentation and

Update: I wrote this note on Facebook in June 2018. In Oct 2018, the Ministry of Education in Singapore announced a slew of changes to the way student assessment will be done in schools.

Childhood, family, love, Poetry, special


at the children’s section
of the library
you read six books to me,
us both huddled on the floor,
surrounded by other children,
mothers, fathers also
reading, jumping, running
punctuated by the occasional

For a while I felt
we were like everyone else;
just another seven-year-old
breathing life into words
and his father also,
fearing, hoping, tearing
punctated by the occasional

My son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) when he was three.

At that time, he couldn’t speak a word and was very sensitive to certain stimuli (for example certain sounds or images would cause extreme pain or fear). He had frequent meltdowns because he could neither understand the world around him nor communicate with it.

The child psychologist cautioned us that our son might never be able to talk, have friends or get a job. He might need long term care for the rest of his life.

Those were dark times.

But now, four years on, with early intervention, occupational and speech therapy, an amazing mother who spends almost every waking moment trying to figure out ways to help him, a loving grandma who is his comfort and shelter, ever-supportive relatives and friends; and by God’s grace, whenever I look at my son, I am reminded how he is beyond my imagination.

Childhood, family, love, memory, Poetry

ice cream soda dreams

grandpa was not rich
but bestowed us a fortune
of sweets, chocolate coins
or twenty cents to buy our own.

grandpa was not rich
but gave us our first wheels,
scavenged from spare parts
racing corridors, pounding hearts.

grandpa was not rich,
but he made butter sugar dream
sandwiches, washed down ice cream
soda at a rental flat in Ghim Moh.

grandpa was not rich,
but he always had time,
voice booming, confident, kind,
escaping, eluding, memories of mine.

He was never ever rich
but we could give him nothing more
than what we had, ourselves, in which
my grandfather was never ever poor.