Open letter to Minister for Education on the Hair for Hope incident

By Stefanie Yuen-thio

Dear Minister

Almost 2 years ago, Minister, I wrote to you with my concerns about the education system. I am writing again now because of the recent incident involving three brave girls who shaved their heads in solidarity with cancer-stricken children.

Hair For Hope is an initiative to support children with cancer who lose their hair due to chemotherapy treatments. Already devastated by this terrible disease, standing out because they were bald made matters infinitely worse. Hair For Hope allows members of the public to express empathy and solidarity with these brave children. It has grown into a movement where awareness and funds can be raised for the cause.

I unreservedly applaud the young ladies who had the personal courage to be shorn for this cause. I confess that I do not have the bravery myself to do this. So it is with dismay and disbelief that I read about the Principal, Mrs Marion Tan, who took her students to task for not wearing a wig to school.

First, I would like to point out the obvious. Wearing a wig defeats the purpose of shaving your head for the cause. Secondly, it takes much more courage to appear in public without hair than with a wig, which should have factored into the Principal’s evaluation of the actions of the students. Third, surely an act of charity trumps technical compliance with rules on ladylike appearance. Fourthly, it is important that an educator be able to espouse and communicate the substantive objectives behind rules. The rule was to avoid “punk, unfeminine or sloppy hairstyles”. If it is apparent that the reason for a bald head was not a style choice but for a good cause, then the mischief the rule was intended to prevent was not a relevant consideration.

I turn now to the Principal’s ostensible justification. She had told the girls that they would need to come to school wearing wigs, and when they didn’t, she scolded them for failing to keep their promise. First, it’s not reneging on a promise when you’re simply declining to comply with the Principal’s direction (especially if the direction was misguided and, in my opinion, not justified by the school rules). In addition, the girls could have felt, having shaved their heads, that the message would be lost if they wore a wig. Next, and most importantly, the Principal’s action in requiring them to wear a wig was flawed – she not only failed to commend them for their act of sacrifice and charity; she was also insensitive to the plight of the thousands of children who suffer from cancer, a plight which these young ladies were trying to identify with.

Leaving aside the value judgement of whether having a shaved head actually contravenes the school rules (I would take issue with it being characterised as any of  “punk”, “unfeminine” or “sloppy”), I would point out that based on the Principal’s application, students who lose their hair from chemotherapy would actually be required to wear a wig at St Margaret’s Secondary School.

St Margaret’s Secondary School’s website speaks of its mission: “Building Character” and “Inspiring Grace” to build “A Community of Learners growing and glowing for God”. Clearly Mrs Marion Tan had lost sight of these aims.

Minister, I write to you to express my grave concern for the state of our education system. It worries me that this form of technocratic rule compliance is the mindset of our leading educators. I would hope that this is an isolated incident and not representative of our educational system. I would hate to think what kind of generation we are bringing up if this is the calibre of our educators. I ask you to look into this personally and make clear that your Ministry values the spirit of sacrifice, charity and community-spiritedness that these girls exhibited.

Thank you for your time. I appreciate that you have a big task in continually revamping and enhancing your Ministry, so I know you are a busy man. However, yours is one of the most important portfolios and has arguably the most far-reaching impact for our nation, so I hope you will pardon the intrusion. We cannot hope to teach our children well if we do not start with foundational values.

Sincerely Stefanie Yuen Thio