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Jonathan Koh reports on the Workers' Party's Youthquake forum held on Saturday.

“Singapore penalises you if you are too weak or too strong.”

Jonathan Koh

“Singapore penalises you if you are too weak or too strong," said Dr. Roland Cheo, one of the 4 speakers, at the Workers’ Party YouthQuake Forum Series. The topic was on Singapore Education, and it marked the start of the second series of forums organized by the Workers’ Party Youth Wing.

Dr. Cheo, a visiting fellow with the Department of Economics at NUS, was rejected 4 times by the National Institute of Education after he graduated from an US university with a double degree at the tender age of 19. At his 4th rejection, he was told by an insider that “it’s because you did not do your A levels”. Disillusioned, he stopped applying after that. Speaking to an attentive crowd, he argued that outliers tend to get ignored in our system. While the norm tends to perform very well, the outliers are often left behind by the system.

It is a view that Miss Kuik Shiao Yin, creative director of a collective of social enterprises including the well-known education institution School of Thought, concurred with. She also believes that another problem with the education system is how too many students are afraid of failing - a problem perpetuated by a success-driven society and demanding parents. This has bred a generation of Singaporeans too scared of taking risks. Singaporeans are very exam-smart and have fared well consistently when it comes to international rankings of math and science, but generally, not enough focus is placed on providing a creative education. Teachers are constrained from teaching creatively, in part because they are taxed too heavily already, she said.

A more personal opinion was provided by Mr Bernard Chen, secretary of the Workers’ Party Youth Wing, who has experienced both JC and polytechnic education. He thinks that the academic benchmark of university admissions is placed too high for polytechnic students - with the average GPA (Grade Point Average) of polytechnic students who have gained entry into local universities at 3.5 to 4 (out of 4). Furthermore, the system seems to be biased - for polytechnic students, 20% of their O Level results determine whether they get into a local university, which seems to be “penalising late bloomers”. JC students’ admissions, on the other hand, depend entirely on A levels. Bernard considers himself fortunate that he’s been accepted into a local university as the top 10% in his cohort - but he believes more can be done for the other 90%, a group he said would be caught in the debt cycle - if they do not receive subsidised university education.

This intellectual forum had its fair share of fun and laughter. For example, when Mr Chia Yeow Tong, a Ph.D Candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, shared his research dissertation on history education in Singapore, he mentioned how there used to be a subject called Education For Living (EFL). Miss Sylvia Lim, chairman of Workers’ Party,  who was sitting in the audience appeared to be nodding. Mr. Chia later added that EFL is a subject that “most of us don’t know”, which triggered Miss Lim’s witty comment: “What are you implying?” The audience broke into laughter. Later on, in a response to a question an audience member posed, Mr. Chia also argued that citizenship education in Singapore typically does not have enough focus on teaching democratic principles and individual rights, unlike in Canada.

There were other relevant questions brought up by the audience too. One of them pointed out that some students who have been rejected by local law schools have gotten into top law schools overseas, and quizzed whether that particular acceptance letter from top law schools should be used to appeal for local entrance. 

Another pointed out that perhaps Singapore lacks the critical mass and resources to cater to outliers. In response to this, Miss Kuik argued that the problem is not so much that, but that Singaporeans need to champion that it is okay if “you are outstanding beyond the pack” and it “is okay to stand out (in a different area). You can be the David Gan of dog grooming and claim that niche. The question is: do you have the guts?”

On the nature of holding such forums, Mr. Bernard Chen said that YouthQuake Forum Series is about “healthy and constructive policy discourse”, and is not politically motivated.

The next YouthQuake Forum will be held in late May or early June. The topic is on the Media. More information can be obtained from the Workers’ Party Youth Wing website.

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