Prof Donald Low calls out Singaporeans for ‘petitionary culture’ following mum who complained that PSLE was a nightmare

Days after the mathematics paper of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), a student’s mother wrote an open letter to the Minister of Education (MOE) Mr Ong Ye Kung, describing the math paper as a “nightmare” for students.

She asked, “What is the point of making the paper so tough? Can MOE explain the rationale behind this?”

Following this, Senior Lecturer and Professor of Practice at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Professor Donald Low called out Singaporeans for the ‘petitionary culture’ of complaining to ministers only when they are personally affected by bad policies.

But first, let’s look at the original complaint. In her letter, which was posted on the Minister’s Facebook page, Mrs Serene Eng-Yeo highlighted a Channel NewsAsia article which noted that the number of suicides in Singapore rose by 10% in 2018, with suicides among boys aged 10 to 19 are at a record high.

Mrs Eng-Yeo quoted the article which said, “Relationship issues, academic stress, peer pressure and uncertainties about their future are possible causes for suicidal thoughts in teens, said experts.”

She then asked, “Are our strawberry generation youngsters so fragile, that they have to resort to suicides because of one of the key reasons being the inability to cope with the academic pressure?”

The mother went on to explain that the 2019 Math PSLE Exam was “so harrowing” and “so devastating” that the 11 and 12-year-olds came out of it “defeated, crushed and utterly demoralised”.

She continued, “You and I can never understand the shoes of these courageous kids who have spent their entire upper pri[mary[ education practising and learning for this 1 off high stakes exam. It is unfortunate… everything they work for boils down to these” do or die” 4 days.”

She explained how her child, who is average in math came out of the exams “crushed and defeated” and told her that he was “dumbfounded” by every question in Paper 2.

This was in contrast to when he “came home smiling after Prelims” telling his mother that he felt empowered and encouraged for the first time that he could do the paper.

She demanded an explanation from the MOE and Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board, adding that the difficult papers have scarred the future generations and parents are left to undo the damage.

“Make it challenging. Make it doable, I agree. But what I don’t understand is the cruel decision to make it so unreasonably tough that children came out crying, deflated, demoralised and crushed,” she lamented.

She later added, “Sure, PSLE doesn’t define them. But the ordeal of going through this at such a tender young age of 11 and 12 is unnecessarily cruel.”

Raising a fuss only when your child is affected

As news reports started to surface about Mrs Eng-Yeo’s open letter, Prof Low shared the Mothership.sg article about this on Facebook (3 October) to add his own take on the issue.

Prof Low described the letter as “an exercise in futility”, pointing out that Mr Ong had already said several months ago that there’s nothing wrong with the system of meritocracy as it is practised in Singapore.

In June, the Education Minister said in parliament that meritocracy is still the right approach for Singapore’s education system. While acknowledging doubts on whether meritocracy still works and whether inequality is worsening, Mr Ong maintained that there there is “no contradiction between meritocracy and fairness, nor reducing inequality and raising our collective standards”

In fact, he suggested doubling up on meritocracy, saying “Instead, we should double up on meritocracy, by broadening its definition to embrace various talents and skills. We should not cap achievement at the top, but try harder, work harder to lift the bottom.”

In his post, Prof Low questioned the mother: “Did you complain then of meritocracy causing mental anguish and excessive stress? What’s the point of raising a stink only when your child (and other children) has (have) suffered a bad exam? Isn’t that crying over spilled milk?”

He then called for Singaporeans to stop the “petitionary culture” of complaining to ministers only when they are personally affected by bad policies.

He emphasised, “The only real chance we have of protecting our interests is to protest the basis or foundations or those policies, even before they inflict damage on you or your children.”.