No. We don’t need to create “real space” for our students.

Image by Richard Li

So I opened up the papers for the first time in a long time, and I saw something on the front page that reminded me of a lot of frustration I experienced when I was growing up as a student in Singapore’s education system. (Naturally, I just had to write about it.)

A less exam-centric approach to build character, creativity – DPM Tharman

DPM says we need to create “real spaces” so that our kids can build character and develop original thinking. He’s right about the context in which such qualities develop, but he’s wrong to insinuate that we have to “create” them, as if they don’t already exist.

Let me share a few stories that have stayed with me forever, which I believe will illustrate the point I’m making.

1: Two students was photographed supposedly making out on a bus. (They say they weren’t. I don’t know. Personally, I think it’s none of my business.) The STOMP article is here. The school took disciplinary action against them. I believe that they were suspended and stripped of their positions in the student council. The entire school was brought into the school hall for the public hanging that followed.

I still remember how uncomfortable the atmosphere was, like something out of a dystopian novel. Everyone was quiet. The body language of the teachers and the administration was troubling. The Principal gave a foreboding and sickeningly moralistic lecture. One-way. I can’t remember the details, but I remember being very, very angry, and a little bit scared. I felt stifled. Moral authority is something you earn, not something you impose on others by abusing your position. I felt somewhat violated.

One of my friends raised his hand to ask a question- the only guy in the hall who did- and the Vice-Principal brought him aside to talk to him about it in private. (I asked him about it later. I believed he questioned the rationale behind shaming the couple in public. I think he was told that it was all “public information” anyway- which is a cop-out answer, because that changes nothing. The institution did it to assert power. That’s what institutions do.)

There you had it- a “real space”, right in front of us. A real opportunity for engagement. It didn’t have to be “created”, it was RIGHT THERE. An issue that was on everybody’s minds, that everybody was talking about. But what happened? The school put everything on lockdown. Our Principal claimed to have all the answers. She knew what needed to be done in such a situation. She had sole moral authority, she knew what was right, we didn’t, and so we had to be “educated” about it. Real space was abolished from school that day. Nobody was allowed to have any original thoughts. Nobody was allowed to develop character.


2: I was in JC1 in 2007, and I was a student council member at the time. The student council typically plays the lead role in organizing the Orientation for the new batch of students. Back in 2007, JC still had 2 intakes- PAE, or “First Three Months”, and then “JAE”. In 2008, the PAE was going to be shortened- and I believe it was done away with altogether in 2009. PAE Orientation was typically a much crazier affair- it’s still the beginning of the year, and the seniors haven’t started studying heavily yet, and there’s just a fun atmosphere.

The Student Council was informed that the Orientation was going to have to be simple, minimalist, spartan and essentially, boring as hell. We were not consulted, our opinion didn’t count for anything. The administration presented arguments which I considered weak- typical utilitarian stuff, meeting KPIs. Saving money. Saving time. Don’t think so much. Don’t put in so much effort. We don’t care how much this means to you or how much effort you want to put in to create a meaningful experience. 

I am so angry just thinking about this! A school should support student initiatives  okay?! A school is not a business, you can’t justify cauterizing people’s brains and hearts to save a few dollars. (Actually, it’s stupid to do that, even in business.) The one time you get a large proportion of people excited about something, you shut them down? Please, please tell me how you’re going to break down passion into KPI. We crush the caterpillars then wonder why there are no butterflies. We weren’t given the opportunity to dissent, to voice our views. No. Real space was abolished from school that day. Nobody was allowed to have any original thoughts. Nobody was allowed to develop character.

(My counter-argument? People perform better for their O levels than for their prelims. As a result, academically weaker JCs get stronger students during JAE, who then go on to better schools with their improved grades.

Orientation is an opportunity for the school to make a pitch to these students that they ought to stay. The atmosphere is amazing, it’s something you’ll want to be a part of! Don’t take the risk of a school you don’t know, bring your better skills and talents and grades to a school that loves you.

If we do that, and we retain a larger group of strong students, we’ll see better aggregate grades, too! But fuck me, right, for talking about love in the context of an institution? Can’t measure that, no KPIs for love.)


3. We had an awesome valedictorian who wrote a “real space” speech. It was censored. She was successful despite of the system, not because of it- yet it wanted to hold her up as an example of its success, while silencing her from speaking the truth.


The answer is not “less focus on exams”. The answer is “more focus on real life.” It’s not so simple a matter of spend less time here, spend more time there. No. We need an complete shift of priorities. When a real world situation arises, teachers should have the choice to suspend the syllabus and teach kids about life.

Look, you want real space- real space is ALL AROUND YOU. We live in real space, damn it! Think about what is implied- if real space needs to be CREATED for students, it means that SCHOOL IS NOT REAL.

As I am writing this, I am shaking, and I am seething, and I am reminded of all the emotions I experienced when I was a frustrated Junior College student. I remember feeling trapped in what I perceived to be massive institutionalized hypocrisy. Ask around and you’ll hear the stories. RGS once brought in a “former lesbian who was cured” to give a talk. I remember reading on Kirsten Han’s blog about girls (I think in St. Margaret’s) who were labelled sinners and forced to read the bible.

The real world is all around us. We have to have the bloody guts to allow our students to participate in it, or otherwise apathy is a rational coping mechanism. Why should you care about anything, why should you get excited about anything, if it’s never going to amount to anything? Singaporeans have been conditioned to be apathetic; we weren’t born this way.

The world is bloody real, okay? Heartbreak is real. Pain is real. Hypocrisy is real. Lying is real. Bullshit is real. It’s institutions that create and sustain artificiality. You want original thinking from students, ask them some real bloody questions that actually matter, and actually give a damn about their input. You want to build character, get kids involved in decision-making- you can’t build character if you don’t make decisions.

Wanna hear more stories? My girlfriend is a primary school teacher. She’s told me some stories. Let me tell you more stories.

4: A student was selling stationery and stickers to other students in the school bus. An unhappy parent confronts a teacher and suggests that the school ought to “stop it”, because children are spending their recess money!

Why is that the school’s problem? Why should we quash the girl’s enterprising spirit? That girl could be Singapore’s future Steve Jobs, you know! If your child has blossomed into a mindless consumer drone at the age of 10, then you have to worry about your child, not the mini-entrepreneur on the bus! NEWSFLASH: The whole world is out to get you to spend your recess money on stupid shit you don’t need. 

School should be a part of the solution- not by getting rid of the girl selling stickers, but by teaching kids to think for themselves, to manage themselves and their finances properly.

5: A girl’s hairclip went missing. She said she left it in class. Another girl appeared to have one that was seemingly identical, and there was a conflict. My girlfriend sent them out and helped them to figure it out amongst themselves. She explained to them how it would be unfair for her to give it to one of them or the other, because neither had any evidence. They eventually reached a solution of some sort.

She recounted the story in the staffroom, where every other teacher she asked told her they would have just confiscated the hairclip. Everyone! 

Why? It’s the simpler solution to the ‘problem’! Use your authority as a teacher to banish the problem from existence! Why bother teaching children how to manage real-world conflict? That’s not on the syllabus. Don’t waste valuable lesson time. Grades are important. That’s only for “real space” period, which is after Maths period, I think. But oh wait, we’re going to end up borrowing “real space” period for exam preparation…

I know I have been snarky, angry and upset in writing this, and it shows. I’ve decided to leave it in for authenticity’s sake, and because I like to swear from time to time, and you might as well get used to it.

But please, think about it. That’s all I ask. Just think about it. If you’re a parent, think about it. If you’re a student, think about it. If you’re a teacher, HOD or Principal, please, PLEASE think about it.


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7 Responses to No. We don’t need to create “real space” for our students.

  1. nobody is preparing them for the real deal in the future ….. sigh

  2. guanyinmiao says:

    I’m afraid I don’t really understand; what is the problem(s) you are pointing to, and what do you think needs to change?

    Jin Yao

    • visa says:

      Thanks for this.

      The problem, in my opinion, is the idea that we need to create “real space”, as if it’s something that can be cordoned off, separate and distinct.

      The opportunities to “develop original thinking” and “build character” are already everywhere around us, but they’re typically ignored, suppressed or swept under the carpet.

      Right now, if a teacher has a choice between stopping class to get a discussion going about how to resolve a real problem, or sending the kids to the discipline master and going on with class, he or she is more likely to pick the latter, because it’s her job to do the latter, but it’s not her job to do the former.

      I think that needs to change- the concept of the role of an educator, as perceived by everyone from parent and student to teacher and administrator.

  3. Gracia says:

    I pity the students who got shamed in public.

    When I was in poly I did an illustrated book that touched on the subject of Singaporeans being raised like sheep etc for my FYP. Granted it was not very well made as the political discourse was my priority over the execution, but my concept was dismissed as a self-serving project (ie. no tangible design and monetary value).

    If you’re not a cog that fits in the wheel there’s no space for you.

  4. laced ivory says:

    This is why if I ever have a kid, I’d never let him/her study in a local institution.