Open letter to NMP Kuik Shiao-Yin

Below is an open letter by a member of the public, Ms Cindy Ng addressed to Nominated Member of Parliament, Kuik Shiao-Yin in response to an interview that Ms Kuik gave to local radio channel, 938Live.

In the interview, Ms Kuik spoke in depth about the topic of kiasu-ism which she brought up in the parliament during the seating in April this year. (read more)

The open letter was first published on Ms Ng’s Facebook page and reproduced here with permission

Dear Shiao-Yin,

When I read the interview which you give to 938Live, I notice a few things which struck a deep chord within my soul.

I was also raised in the 1980s. I value hard work, I value integrity, and I value passion and compassion for the vulnerable. My values are reflected in many of the life choices I have made that had gone against the traditional route which my peers have taken as well. So I get you, when you talk about the culture of “there is one route to take”.

I am a mother to many. I have children both in the formal education and in the preschool. I have children of differing academic abilities, some looking to require more support to learn, and some rather independent. All these years, I’ve pride myself in being a fairly chill person and I started out being determined to go against the tide when my children enter formal education. I was told many times before my kids enter formal education, “Hold your horses, lady. Wait till your kids start P1”. I was unfazed, surely I could fight off the tide of peer pressure, school pressure and focus my kids on the important things in life.

I’ll say for a start that since my kids enter formal education, my journey had been nothing short of humbling. As such, your discussion on kiasu-ism, kiasi-ism, is an emotional one for me.

Firstly, you spoke about your life changing experience which influenced your outlook on life. I get that. I had mine. What I have learnt in my years in working with vulnerable groups is also this: you and I, we’re blessed to be able to make choices that deviate from the usual path from our peers. The income mobility for our cohort has also been found to be relatively high, and we have many people to thank. Many of our peers who do not enjoy the same resources by and large still had a shot at life, so we see many of our peers from poor socio-economic status being very successful individuals in life as well.

Also, the sheer fact that you have a father to “engineer a prestigious internship for you in the States”, suggests that you have greater social capital that the average Singaporean of those times. So in some sense, you and I were able to deviate from the usual route because of the resources and connections we enjoyed in our formative years.

But we can’t be so sure these days. I admire your team’s innovative ways to build intellectual learning through the School of Thought. I applause the many initiatives your team have embarked on. However, intergenerational poverty and poor intergenerational mobility are what frightens me these days.

I’ve seen many teens and young adults in the last 10 to 15 years being trapped in the same cycle as their parents. I’ve checked the school bags of young children I work with and found scores of about 8/100 on their tests. I’ve seen these barely trying to survive our system. Their prognosis, in my humble assessment, is poor.

Then you shared passionately about choices. You talked about how “each of us can choose to write our own story about the kind of life we want to live”. You described how people respond to your decision about life with “it’s okay for you to talk about being anti-kiasu now, but wait till you go to Primary One, then you will know.”

You know what? I used to be you. I think I finally “know” a little what these parents mean. Remember I said I was also anti-kiasu. My kids went to a neighbourhood childcare centre and have friends from different socio-economic classes and races. They attend the primary school that is nearest to my home. They did not attend any academic enrichment, only swimming and piano (and piano is only because they inherited my husband’s musical inclination).

Unfortunately once we hit formal education, boom! The pressure from teachers, school kicks in. And it’s not always something you can fend off. The teacher writes to you asking you to do parent-child activities at home, the child starts to do poorly in some subjects (usually math or Chinese, thankfully my child is competent in the English language I dread to think the impact of the system on those who are late readers) and kids start feeling demoralized and overwhelmed. I wonder if you looked through some of the questions the kids have to answer and some of the homework they have to complete these days. I apologize if you have and I had assumed you haven’t. Some of the things they are learning these days are ridiculous. Syllables are also packed back to back and there is no time for the children to take their time to explore and learn. I do not blame some teachers who wind up reverting back to traditional methods of teaching (pen, paper, didactic teaching) in order to cope.

You know what’s worst? I see my eldest slowly losing her love to learn and becoming increasingly competitive. Frankly I am disheartened. It sometimes feel like a losing battle. And guess what? I do not just have one kid, I have a few. And my husband and I hold demanding jobs as well.

This is why I do wish you acknowledge a little more how macro systems influence the culture of kiasu-ism. I totally get you about personal choices. Sure there is this element of personal choice. It is extended to most of us who have social capital, are educated and are fairly middle class. But the fear is great. With the pressure described above, I no longer judge parents for being kiasu. I no longer cringe when I hear of friends who send their kids to multiple enrichment classes in the weekends. I now see why they do so. It is because they love their kids. It is because they feel the pressure from macrosystems (the education system, the workforce etc). Perhaps it is because they cower from decisions that will make their kids different. But I get their fear, they think “what if I am wrong?”

From what I see day in and out in the social services, social mobility is becoming increasingly poor in Singapore. This is what parents fear for their children, and in order to change the culture, we have to first validate and understand the fears and anxiety.

Those from lower socio-economic status do not even have that choice. I do not even have to go into that for you to understand what I mean. Less access to additional resources, more complex lives, and a culture of blame (the poor are often, but not always of course, blamed for being poor).

As you shared passionately, it is also our personal choice to decide what we want for our family in this climate of fear and anxiety. These days, I focus on the values of being a good worker (I ask my kids to focus on being conscientious, having a good learning attitude even when you hate your work and being kind to people around you). What I wound up doing is spending at least 2 hours a day from Mondays to Fridays going through their school work and ensuring that they keep up with the syllabus (not excelling, just keeping up with them). I spend time reminding them to keep going at the work they find difficult to overcome, to do their best, and leave the outcome to God.

I can’t help but wonder though. Perhaps, my “failure” was not getting myself acquainted with the syllables in formal education before they began formal education. My “failure” was not making greater effort speaking to them in Mandarin, which resulted in their poor performance in the Chinese Language (I was more focused on building close relationships with them, and of course naturally focused on using the language we all felt most comfortable with).

I’m not sure if my children will wind up feeling demoralized seeing how they may fall behind when they realize that they may not get the scores the others are getting, but I pray that they keep their eyes fixed on more important things in life, even in the midst of this climate.

A little suggestion for you, if you haven’t already done so (and I apologize if you already have), spend time looking through what the formal education is requiring from our children these days. Look at the routine of a child in formal education across different types of schools. Spend time with an average family with two working parents and two children (or more), and observe how they manage the multiple stressors in their lives. A good politician, a good representative in parliament, goes beyond sharing from personal experiences, but base their positions on formal and informal research (of which I am sure, you are already doing in your own capacity).

I wish you all the best as you represent the voice of the average Singaporean in parliament.

On the same day that the open letter was published, Ms Kuik posted her reply to Cindy on her Facebook page.