The paper lantern of elite education in Singapore

By Orean

It is no secret that many parents pine for their children to be able to attend the top institutions in Singapore, where the teachers are top-notch, the lessons are of the highest quality and the promises of higher education are undeniable. As students of the top schools in Singapore, much attention is often turned towards conduct and learning, since students from top schools often turn out to be the next generation of leaders of the country. I had the good fortune of being accepted into such an elite special assistance plan (SAP) school, where I spent several years of secondary and JC education, and which I graduated from recently.

On the very first day that I arrived in the campus, I found myself awed by its monumentality. Right at the entrance, there was a circular garden with a perfectly manicured lawn and a beautiful assemblage of garden plants, all framing the centrepiece: a larger than life statue of Confucius, elevated upon a stone pedestal: an homage to education and wisdom.

Throughout my six years spent studying here, I would never stop being impressed by the lengths to which my school would go to beautify and enhance its facilities. Just to name one, we had a massive performance theatre that was renovated multiple times in the time that I was there: snazzy new lighting systems, an incredibly expensive and fragile sound-reflection system designed to look like bamboo planks, and even professional ushers that were brought in to help students with their annual productions.

In our first year, we had a tea appreciation module, held in a classically decorated room. Seated upon embroidered cushions and dark oak benches, we would practice the ways that traditional Chinese people poured and prepared tea. I remembered this time because I found it particularly enjoyable, but in retrospect I realise that I never really learnt why tea appreciation was such a valued and respected tradition of Chinese culture. I just remembered the steps of washing the cups and cleaning the palate, because that was what we were assessed on, and that was what we were to memorise.

Yet, the more time I spent in the school, the more restless and unhappy I felt myself becoming. We had a beautiful performance centre, but our annual productions were spliced and re-combined such that the performing arts groups had less show-time with every passing year. We had a beautiful garden, but we were not typically allowed to tread there because the manicured lawns were too fragile and delicate. Our much-anticipated orientation programmes and level camps were cancelled, shortened and diluted as the years passed. Our arts enrichment programmes became more symbolic than meaningful: batik fabrics, dye and wax were swapped with cheap drawing block paper, watercolours and crayons. Our lessons were conducted unprofessionally, and I had heard and seen it all myself: teachers that unthinkingly plagiarised their lecture materials from other schools, teachers that would let students conduct lessons because they had no actual plans themselves, and teachers that set the class silent work while they whiled the hour away on social media.

Still, only those inside could see all this. Entourages of distinguished foreign visitors would tour our luxuriously air-conditioned classrooms during lesson times, snapping pictures of us and whispering excitedly amongst themselves. We were always told to be on our best behaviour, to greet guests and extend help to those that needed directions. We even had a souvenir shop, that sold various trinkets and themed memorabilia, which I myself never even stepped inside. We stood in the hot sun as visitor after visitor delivered their speeches and received adorable souvenirs as thanks of their arrival. It started to seem like I was mistaken: that I was not attending a prestigious institution, but merely a glorified tourist attraction, where we, the students, were zoo animals set against a breath-taking, Chinese-inspired environment. More and more the money, time and manpower was drawn away from programmes that genuinely enriched and livened up our days as students, and more and more it was poured into manicuring our beautiful bonsai trees, and planting still more bamboos that shed leaves every day, which the gardeners would then have to clear.

The greatest irony of all was that the school maintained that we were, unbelievably, a prestigious education dedicated to learning. Our discipline master spent mornings lecturing us on the theory that “we come to a school to learn, not to show off”. “Ostentatious” became the word of the day. Our code of conduct evolved from simple, easy-to-follow rules to a complex, arbitrary system of harshly enforced regulations, such as “no coloured shoelaces”, “ear studs with only simple geometric shapes allowed”, and “non-fluorescent sports shoes”. Our various “enrichment” programmes, though increasingly dull, mundane and pointless, were absolutely compulsory: the school never failed to remind us how much time and effort was poured into organising these activities for our sake and for our good. We were told that we were the lucky ones, and we had to cherish this opportunity because it certainly would not have been given to us if we had attended “other” schools. The message was clear: Students should not show off, they should leave that to the school. And what a job they did.

Once, the vice principal ordered all the students to the hall during assembly, and projected upon the screen statistics showing our air-conditioning bills. What followed was an hour of reprimanding and lecturing from the teachers, about how ungrateful, inconsiderate and selfish we were about the resources endowed upon us, and how unbecoming it was that the future leaders of Singapore were so wasteful of their resources. One year later, on the first day of school, we arrived to see the foyer decorated in a dazzling array of potted flowers, the school entrance fixed with a beautiful, flowing water feature complete with a koi pond, and absolutely no explanation from the school as to why we needed even more beautification than before.

When I first became conscious of this hypocrisy, I felt sickened and disgusted. Instead of the enriching, progressive education I had dreamed of when I first arrived, I had become part of an attraction on the “Singapore’s Top Notch Education Islandwide Tour” package. I felt upset and outraged, that we had no right to call ourselves an elite institution. I felt that nobody had a right to stigmatise neighbourhood schools and put them down, if this was what a top school was like.

I wanted this school because, at the age of twelve, I was fascinated by the Chinese language and enthralled by Chinese culture and history. I wanted to learn more, to experience the values that Chinese culture took pride in: humility, awareness, trust, and perseverance. Instead, I was served a stonecold dish of artifice and superficiality.

I was told that in ancient China, what mattered was that the noble upper classes always had beautifully kept gardens, that the most educated folk always knew how to prepare tea for reasons unknown. And worst of all, that “true Chinese values”, were embodied in the archetype of an aged man who preaches blind obedience and loyalty. My love for all things Chinese started to become poisoned. I detested and avoided anything that even reminded me remotely of what Chinese culture was about, because all I saw was an untouchable garden, and all I understood was the high-and-mighty airs of an elite institution.

Once, when I eventually returned to school after my graduation to collect my A-level results, I was harshly and painfully reminded of this fact. In truth, I had done well enough to warrant my going up on stage to take a photograph with all the other top-scorers of my cohort. The principal, annoyed by our inability to stand and pose properly for the camera, snapped and told us to “smile, because this was a happy occasion.” He told us that “The picture we take is not for us, but for the organisation,” and that ultimately it did not matter that we had friends not on stage and friends that were distraught by their results: the point was that the school wanted to show off its freshest batch of top achievers.

When I first came into this school, the most outstanding feature was an overblown statue of Confucius, elevated upon a stone pedestal. Engraved upon the pedestal was an old Chinese saying, which translates roughly as “if the leader is awry, the rest will not follow. If the leader is upright, he does not have to try and the rest will follow willingly.” Perhaps somebody, somewhere, ought to have paid more attention to the second half of that quote, more than how well-polished the stone was. I thought about all this as my time in school passed, and six years later, after I graduated in a flurry of examination papers and multi-coloured balloons, I finally realised that I had spent half a decade in a place that was nothing more than a paper lantern: beautiful, fragile and empty inside, destined to drift aimlessly and burn itself to ashes.

According to the writer, what has been written is an honest reflection of the writer’s own personal experiences being educated in an elite school in Singapore, and the writer’s realisation and opinion that elite education in Singapore has denigrated to a state where it is a brand name with little substance. It is a highly personal reflection, though the writer has tried best to avoid using excessively emotional phrasing and to make the writing as accessible as possible. The writer hopes that through this article, some conversation can be stirred among Singaporeans and question the nature of education in Singapore, and possibly invoke some form of positive change for future generations. 

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