Response to “The Paper Lantern of Elite Education in Singapore”

By Oscuro

I refer to the article, “The Paper Lantern of Elite Education in Singapore“, published by TOC on the 26th of April.

I am a recent graduate of the same school as the author of the article. (I hope you weren’t trying too hard to keep the identity of our school anonymous- a larger than life Confucius statue is surely a bit of a dead giveaway.) I am writing in response to a number of points raised in the original submission, to both provide an alternative viewpoint of the referenced school events, and defend the school, its culture, and its systems from what in my opinion is unjustified criticism in some instances.

One of the author’s main points of contention is the supposed hypocrisy demonstrated by the school leaders, exemplified by the contrast between their displeasure over large air-conditioning bills and willingness to spend on decorative features. First of all- the utility bill in question ran up to $800,000 for a single calendar year. With the relatively modest size of our campus, surely such a figure would warrant some talk on reducing wastage and consumption.

And for the record- I would categorically state that we were not “reprimanded” for being “ungrateful, inconsiderate, and selfish” in anywhere as strong a sense as the author implies with their tone. Nor were we “ordered to the hall” for the sole purpose of being guilt-tripped over our careless usage of air-conditioning; rather it was one of multiple segments in that day’s assembly programme. Now consider the landscaping done at the school entrance: there is no way to explain why more beautification is neccessary, other than to say that given a choice, would one rather study in a less beautiful environment? Is it not obvious that a sensibly sized koi pond and water feature that half the school population walks past and sees twice a day, is a significantly better use of money than having air-conditioning and lights left turned on in an empty classroom, or malfunctioning taps go unreported and left to run for hours on end?

Elsewhere, the author points out a number of perceived inadequacies in both the academic curriculum and extra-curricular activities of the school. As far as arts enrichment programmes are concerned, I personally never observed a definitive change in the types of programmes offered. Yet even supposing there was one, on what grounds can the “before” activities be objectively or quantitatively considered superior to their “after” replacements? What is meaningful, engaging, or useful varies wildly according to individual preferences and interest. Neither can the former be called more meaningful in the context of the school in particular: “batik fabrics, dye, and wax”, to quote, have little to do with the Chinese history and culture that the author claims were a key factor in their choice of school. How, then, is moving to watercolours and crayons a forsaking of the culture of the institution? The author also makes a number of claims about the manner in which his classes were conducted.

Naturally I am unable to ascertain or refute the experiences that he or she went through, but from my own experiences as well as hearsay from conversations with schoomates, such negative occurences are clearly in the minority. Especially in the later years of the six year programme, “silent work” was almost always timed practices simulating actual examinations, and it is undeniable that all but the most conscientious and disciplined of students would have benefitted from having mock exams worked into their timetables, as opposed to having to set aside their own free time to do similar practices. What their teachers spend these periods doing is, frankly, none of the students’ concern.

Meanwhile, letting students conduct lessons offers the entire class new perspectives on the subject matter, and was almost exclusively done in language-based subjects where this would be of greater use. To suggest that this was only done because the teacher was unable or unwilling to come up with a lesson plan themselves is cynical in the extreme, for there comes a point where the teacher has presented all of his or her own ideas and viewpoints, whereupon hearing new and different ideas from students can further advance the learning of the class.

The author then writes the following: “… I was not attending a prestigious institution, but merely a glorified tourist attraction”. It may be true that the campus is well-maintained and suitably equipped for visitors, but the cited evidence that this comes at the cost of its primary function as an education institution is highly trivial: the souvenir shop is located far from the main student movement flows and its presence is largely forgettable, and with sales to foreign visitors is not a financial drain; being told to offer assistance to visitors when they require it is a basic mark of a civilised and educated person; and it is patently ridiculous to imply that planting and maintaining small clusters of trees drains resources enough to compromise the programmes and activities provided for students.

Of course, the actions by the school cited in these examples largely do not directly benefit the academic or holistic development of students, but neither do they significantly impede it- in that case, what exactly is the problem with the school wanting to bolster its image? It is important to note that the impression given to the public is hardly a mask or a deception: students bow in greeting to teachers both with and without the presence of outsiders; students who are courteous, polite, and friendly to visitors behave similarly towards cleaning staff and canteen vendors. This isn’t to say that a certain degree of “wayang” (for lack of a better term) doesn’t exist, but disliking it is one thing- claiming that it impedes the learning of students is quite another.

And finally, a word on the phototaking incident on the day of the A Level results release. It is an annual tradition, as presumably it is in most junior colleges, for the school to take a group photo of its top scorers assembled on stage. As much as stellar results are chiefly due to the hard work of students, the school undeniably also has a huge role to play in helping its students achieve such success. Posing for a quick photo to be displayed on the walls of the school is not a huge ask of students- indeed the photo is for the organisation, but is it so reprehensible for said organisation to ask one small favour of the students it has so painstakingly groomed?

No school is perfect, and the one that the author and I both come from is far from it. Calling it superficial and directionless, however, is quite unrepresentative of the truth. Perhaps a successful educational experience has as much to do the mentality of students as with the school itself.