2 Jan 2005


The following piece was originally from Singapore Review and is a subject that was and continues to be very close to my heart. The article appears to be in response to a piece from the local Strait Jacket. As usual the Strait Jacket points the finger at a group , in this instant it's 'students' who are the problem, or the education sector. The lack of criticism in Singapore would be classified as an epidemic if it was a virus. It permeates all organisations, institutions, media, radio, television, government, politics, employeee-employer relationships... When was the last time you told your boss, your mother, your father, your son, your daughter, basically anyone who felt they were in power 'NO'?

To point the finger at one group or social role is classic 'victim-blaming'. The social structure is formulated and built on the premise of passive acceptance. I have had many students come to me after lectures and tell me that I should not criticise, that criticsim is negative. The mis-conception of criticism as fault finding, and argumentative or unnecessary is a myth in the land of 'lah-lah'.

If you wish to be creative the first thing to be done is to tear apart, or break into small pieces, and then put it back together. You must learn how it works and as with a car engine that means taking it apart. To the untrained layperson it appears destructive or negative. It is the necessary first step.

I have rarely talked about my job as a lecturer and this will be the first time ever. I would like to tell you a true story of an interaction I had with a student while lecturing, after which I considered resigning, and for awhile I lost all hope in humanity.

Now to set the context, I am a sociology lecturer, lecturing to young adults on a degree programme. I am not saying that all my students are or were similar, I have had many wonderful fantastic students who have been a joy to teach, but on one occasion I met someone who said something I will never forget.

To protect the guilty I will not use her real name. Lets call her 'Queenie'. Queenie and in a group of other students were engaged in preparing an esssay plan, the question is of little importance to my story. I asked the question, wrote it on the white board, and then told the students to prepare an essay plan. "But before you put pen to paper, I want you to think for 3 minutes about the question, just think."

Well Queenie, god bless her, looked up and uttered the following most philosophical thing I have ever heard a sheep say.

"I didn't come here to think. I came here for you to think, then tell me what to think."

She wanted to be a teacher...

Jan 1, 2005

Our smart students not willing to think critically

I FIND it ironic that after decades of praising the education system for producing students who are adept at memorising formulas, a skill that has enabled them to be world beaters in international mathematics and science competitions, the Government now wants youths who are able to express their opinions about what sort of Singapore they want to build.

Unfortunately, as in the case of the bilingual policy, we cannot have our cake and eat it, a fact that has taken the Government some time to figure out.

The more we reward students for their ability to memorise model answers, the less willing students will be to use their critical minds. Why should they risk getting low grades by expressing critical, unorthodox views when it is so easy for them to just be spoon-fed by their teachers?

In his article, 'Lost generation or future leaders: Our call' (ST, Dec 30), Mr Verghese Matthews questions whether figures of authority have instilled in young people the critical spirit and the moral courage to use it for the good of society.

He is optimistic that there is hope yet for Singapore's future: 'I am confident that there are many young critical thinkers in our society who are testing the waters.'

I applaud Mr Matthews' attempt to bring into public discussion the question of whether enough is being done to encourage critical thinking among Singaporean youths, but alas his article has come two decades too late for my generation.

Having gone to a top secondary school and junior college, and now doing my undergraduate studies at a local university, I can safely say that there is an appalling lack of passionate, critical thinkers, even among the intellectual elite of Singapore's youth.

It is not that my generation does not have smart people with critical-thinking skills. The problem is that too many of my peers lack the moral courage to speak out after going through an education system that rewards conformity and punishes originality.

We have become a generation of sheep, too afraid to challenge the authority of our herders. The few wolves left among us who do challenge the status quo run the risk of being labelled as anarchists and troublemakers.

It is no wonder that many have become so jaded that they no longer feel it worth their while to carry on expressing their views, choosing instead to either remain quiet or to head for greener pastures elsewhere, in which case they run the risk of being labelled as 'quitters'.

In both cases, the ultimate loser is Singapore, for conformity results in stagnation, while 'invention is always born of dissension', as the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard so rightly pointed out.

In 1784, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote his famous essay 'What is Enlightenment?' in which he appealed to his countrymen to have the courage and resolution to use their own reasoning skills instead of blindly depending on the authority of so-called experts. More than two centuries on and in a country far away from his beloved Prussia, his emotional appeal still remains relevant.

Sadly, the works of Kant seldom take pride of place on the bookshelves of many of our policy-makers, who would much rather fill their shelves with more 'practical' books, such as those by economist John Maynard Keynes.

The price Singapore is paying for their narrow reading habits is an entire generation of lost sheep: Gen S. My generation.

Jamie Han Li Chou


Hanbaobao said...

Steve, was what'Queenie' said really made you left? Sadly, I can understand that.
I totally agreed that Singapore student are too used to being spooned fed for test & exam that when lecturers from other regions (US, UK..etc) who adopts different methods of educating system comes, its like meteor hits the earth. "Naturally" we like to be fed by the mouth so when one foreign lecturer (who came to replace another) did not, all the classmates i knew complained that they couldn't 'understand' him & eventually skipped his class one after another.. gladly i survied. I have a gut feel this lecturer is about to be kick out soon... because of the lecturers review questionaire... most of them give a 1-2rating.. Lets see when the next term starts...

u_n* said...

She wants to be a what ? Teacher ?!! Oh my God! She is an insult to all! Luckily I did my uni studies in aus. I don't grow up there but I learnt alot while I was down under. I came back misunderstood by most of my peers, who went to local unis, but no big deal. Different wavelengths, diff approach, but I am glad I to know some real good ones. I guess besides having good food, being politically, socially, geographically stable, there are many aspects which Singapore fails to look into. On a brighter note, oh, we produce many students who are damn bright to take part in Olympics maths and science competition and being one of the world tops...... I hope I can remain as optimistic as before.......

Unknown said...

Great post, Steven. I'll probably link to your story in a few days, after I finish with my series of tsunami photos.

Anonymous said...

In another Singaporean university, a friend of mine was a teaching assistant for a beginning sociology course. A student asked for a *model answer* for the essay...

AcidFlask said...

The ones who stay in Singapore are not the only ones. And the so-called elite, the government scholars, do harbor sheep in wolves' clothings. I ran a story three months ago about a classmate of mine in UIUC who exhibited similar traits. The scholarship officer who interviewed him on his return exclaimed to me: "How on earth did he make it past the interview panel the first time?"

I intend to comment further on my blog (please note the new address).

Agagooga said...

Even though I am in the Premier Institution of Social Engineering, I find that the academic staff don't have this attitude, at least.

Can't say the same about all of the students, though.

Ho hum.

Merv said...

I find most of my fellow Singaporean Uni students totally devoid of any opinion of their own.

see my latest post on my blog atypicalsingaporean.blogspot.com

nonchalance said...

Hi, i would say i am immensely attracted to this topic (critical thinking). It is a very depressing situation and i wonders if it pertains only locally or to students elsewhere as well. I've got friends who tell me there are in here(NUS) for the paper qualifications and didn't feel that they had learnt any skills at all. I have seen people who waits for the question to be asked and then answer it, the kind of examination-style that is predominant among us.
I find that the liberal arts program is a very good way to develop critical thinking. But despite all the articles that were assigned to us, the skills that were meant to be taught got lost along the way, a breakdown in communication whilst the students are copying what the person has to say.
I don't blame it on passive acceptance, I blame it on laziness. A skill that has developed over the years that hinders the analytical part of our mind. The agent smith that propagates and spreads over the years such that we can never get out of it.
And so, we take what is given to us as granted. What is written as correct and what is said by smart people as right when with enough thinking and homework done, it could be proven that it is wrong.
And so laziness i blame, for making people remain in their status quo, for making them go with the flow, and for not using the best use of the brilliant gift that we have...

Zen|th said...

That is so true. I once discussed an alternative answer to a question with my classmate and he said, "Never mind la. Just follow teacher's answer surely correct one."

Anonymous said...

This is amazing... haha realise alot of us students fall into this horrible trap of not knowing what we are studying about. Honestly its all because we just want the grades and all. Failure to see its more then that. I cant agree more that that "Queenie" is that how you spell it could have said that.. haha wonder why you chose that name anyway to nice for someone like her. Indeed total failure, it embarrasses me to know that there are people like this. Furthermore she is going to be a teacher well it will be a day of deja vu when someone tells her the same when she teaches. Till then lets hope that more of such pitiful existence of a human will learn that life is not ordained by absorbing but rather by being active. haha too many of us are so passive. well thats my 5 cents worth of it.

KnightofPentacles said...

Incentives, people. Incentives.

Good grades are rewarded. Understanding the material is not rewarded. Active thinking is penalised.

In such a setup, optimizing your behaviour to maximize your grades is the only rational choice.

nonchalance said...

rationality is not only about maximising measurable incentives. If say for example, someone places more emphasis on her interest in the subject(intrinsic motivation) than to the grades she receives (extrinsic motivation) than are we to say that she is not exercising rationality?
rationality in economics is not only about numbers and figures and other measurable stuffs... the inherent fundamental is about choice and the value judgement an individual uses to reach a certain decision

Anonymous said...

rationality: should I be practical and do something which allow me to attain the grades I need OR should I be idealistic and do something I like and risk my grades?

Anonymous said...

Queenie sounded damn dumb from the point of view that she thinks the lecturer has the monopoly of good or great ideas. But she is somewhat smart in the sense that if she gets a feel of what the lecturer wants to hear and read, she might have a better chance of doing well. After all, professionalism aside, lecturers are human and some of them are egoistic and like to hear people agree with them.

What is my point? Steve's Queenie anecdote is amusing but he himself allowed a caveat in his entry that Queenie is not necessarily representative of his students and certainly not indicative of Singapore students in general.

'I am not saying that all my students are or were similar, I have had many wonderful fantastic students who have been a joy to teach, but on one occasion I met someone who said something I will never forget.'

I am tired of all this implied crap that local uni students can't think. I graduated from NUS and have studied abroad as well so I am in a appropriate position to comment to a level on the difference in education experience here and abroad. Just as there are dumb local students, there are also dumb Aussie, UK, US students etc. Just as there are crap lecturers here, there are crap lecturers overseas too. Overall, the quality of an education is hard to measure as different people have different yardsticks, some of it determined by peers, family, society or personal, but most of it a mix of all these crieteria.

Just my upset ramblings

Pangy said...

Hey, it's your blog but I sure don't appreciate 'Singabloodypore'. Singapore is definetly not bloody.

SGJoe86 said...

i have to say, it is kinda disturbing to see such student exist. not that they don't, but to talk back at the lecturer with such tone is simply too much. i myself is a tertiary student now and yes i do have my lazy moments, but this make no sense at all. my sympathy goes out to you.
btw, the address of your blog is quite offending, we do deserve some form of respect and this is definetly not 1.

True Flight said...

I will be the odd one out here, and attempt a defence for Queenie. In the process, I will hopefully demonstrate unusual creativity. For a Singaporean, that is. :)

I am not sure how familiar Steven is with the Singapore education system. Presumably he must be familiar with the tertiary system, since he has spent some time teaching in our universities. He may not, however, have a proper appreciation of Singapore education levels (for example, O-levels, A-levels, primary school), during which Singaporeans' minds are first moulded into their peculiar shapes.

Let's illustrate using the Cambridge O-levels. In Steven's homeland, Cambridge O-level students take five or six subjects. In Singapore, AFAIK, the majority of Singaporean Cambridge O-level students take seven or eight subjects. A significant percentage take nine, and in our top schools, there are Singaporeans who take 10 or 11 O-level subjects.

This places severe constraints on the time that one can afford to spend meandering in thought (even though meadering is essential to creativity). Our workload is literally double that of UK students sitting for Cambridge O-levels. Hence we must use time twice as efficiently.

If we had more time, perhaps we would sit around dawdling, looking at coconuts falling from the trees, and try to formulate our own solutions to physics questions about the law of gravity. We don't have that time. We cannot afford to spend time thinking of our own solutions to old questions, and reinventing the wheel. Therefore we look at the 10-year series, we study the model solution, we memorise it. There. We're all set to score a physics distinction. Now let's hurry and study the other five O-level subjects which the UK student doesn't have to take.

Back to Queenie. Old habits die hard. Queenie doesn't want to waste time thinking for herself. Instead Queenie just wants to know the lecturer's thoughts on the topic. Why? Because that is the most practical approach.

The lecturer sets the exam question. The lecturer marks the exam paper. And the lecturer will not mark his own views as flawed, wrong, shallow or inaccurate. Therefore in the exam, as far as possible, the intelligent student seeks to produce an answer which most closely follows the lecturer's own views on the topic. In the exam, what the student thinks is irrelevant. What Kant thinks, or Bertrand Russell thinks, or Aristotle thinks is irrelevant. What Lee Kuan Yew, or Maslow, or Carl Jung thinks, is also irrelevant. But what Steven McDermott thinks is all-important - because Steven sets the paper, marks the paper and gives the grade.

Queenie is not an idiot. She is intelligent, practical, pragmatic and she focuses on the point. Thinking, real thinking - that is not the point of Singapore's education system. Sure, it's good to be a thinker. Just do it on your time, during the holidays, outside the system, and on topics unrelated to the harsh reality of exams & grades in Singapore.

Unknown said...

thanks GK it appears to me that blaming Queenie is not the correct response. Lack of criticsim is an epidemic sweeping through all social interaction in Singapore. Lack of critical thinking is an aspect of the social structure, probably developed in the early days of education and the PAP. It is a part of Singaporean culture not Queenie's fault.

Unknown said...

The name "Singabloodypore" is not meant to cause offence it was the first time while living in the UK that I had ever heard of Singapore. Its from a movie called "Wish You Were Here".

Anonymous said...

Well, in my humble opinion, if it is a Singaporean culture's fault then it's nobody's fault. It's a favourite defense in a way, to say that just because everyone is doing it, the action is justifiable in itself.

If one refuses to voice out, and eventually be willing to confront someone on the issue, then don't complain.

Change in any mass situation depends on certain first steps.

So probably, following GK's argument, I must be very stupid -- I'd rather think through what I read than memorise. And when a certain question implies a certain conclusion, I tend to prefer writing against that conclusion.

Sure, Steven may adopt a certain viewpoint and think that he has a general answer that he would grade by, while Queenie is smart to want to get at that general answer.

But Steven, being an academic, would understandably appreciate a different point of view, a fresh argument, delivered with perhaps material that he never foresaw.

How is that not understanding the tutor's mind?

I always think, "Wouldn't my tutor be damn bored with reading the same thing 3-4 times?"

Well, even if on some occasions I didn't get that coveted A, I'd at least get a B and above -- just for originality.

daftpig (my icq nick)

Netto said...

In a rather twisted way, i actually think that Queenie's not your typical Singaporean student! The true blue, passive Singaporean learner, would never sprout those words out! Being a student myself in NUS, what i gathered from most tutorials are, prob 90% of the students are just silently waiting for the answers and 99% of their focus/ attention throughout the class is on avoiding (hokkien:siaming)eye contact with the teacher(lowers the chances of being called up to answer). A typical Singaporean student's response would be silence (act blur, take cover, never be a volunteer!), and not a outright "dumb" comment like Queenie's.

Personally, i don't get the astonishment over "smart" "university" students don't thinking critically. Typical PAP talk. It is only understandable and predictable. Nothing about the way of teaching has changed, from primary to university, only perhaps there are now fewer students in a class, but it still ain't inversely proportionate to class participation.

Also, I have taken a couple of Soci modules myself, and critical thinking appears to be something one can do without when it comes to examinations. Soci modules, very often, have titles that promises interesting facts/analysis about the workings of the human society, facts that are gonna make u go WOooo~so desu ne!. But instead, the syllabus often focuses on who said what; theories theories and more theories. For example, i have taken this module "sociology of deviance" before, and had expected to learn more about the "evils" of society, instead what i learnt(and forget) are THEORIES, the only real life example that the lecturer actually "informed" us was that druggies hung out in the east of Singapore. Thanks alot, for nothing! The average middle class university kid, sheltered Singaporean-style, wouldnt even know that druggies actually exists in Singapore. YEs we are that naive, thanks to crime watch. So how do we get the bloody theories & concepts apply? sometimes, even if one might claim to think more than memorize, the singaporean environment limits one's thinking as well. There's something really screwed about the NUS system (or the education system in general here)? It's not even about laziness, just take a look at how the libraries in school are packed each day will tell ya how "lazy" we are. If people can sit in the same spot the whole bloody day, with just one 1.25litres of Ice mountain, memorizing theories, formulas, and concepts, surely we are capable of being hardworking at da BIG word called "THINKING" right? The system doesnt allow it, and neither does our environment. We are a very sheltered and pampered bunch, and the school loves theories, so there's nothing CRITICAL to think about in the first place. Even the tsunami incident doesnt strike close to our hearts enough to make it to even tea time chat. Probably just donate to ease our minds which is jampacked with all the graphics from news, and then forget about it later. that's how sheltered we are. it's sad i know. i'm sorry for myself too, at times.

I also wanna point out that NUS DOESN'T return exam papers after the exams, for whatever reason, i don't know. i have never studied overseas, so i don't know what is it like for them. But i think such a policy is really a mind f**Cker. i believe it's the primary reason to student waiting for the "model answer", and not wanting to think. If the papers never get returned, it means that the power of correcting the papers lies entirely on the marker, and who's the marker? Ze LECTURER of course! and how do we get him to get us an A, by answering using his OWN answer of courSE! he can't possibly mark his own answer wrong, can he? or maybe he can, only god's gonna know right? so, here i'm, a typical student, a typical singaporean, blaming the system, too bad, it's an easy target. Laziness might not be the main reason that we do not think critically. even if there is, laziness sprouts from inactivity, so think deeper yo.

Anonymous said...

to SGJOE86 >> don't be so sensitive lah! picking on the "bloody" word, you only prove how swaku & pampered we are!

Agagooga said...

"Also, I have taken a couple of Soci modules myself, and critical thinking appears to be something one can do without when it comes to examinations."

Wah thanks for the tipoff. Maybe I shouldn't do any :/

Patricea Chow-Capodieci said...

Welcome to Singapore Steven. On our little island, parents usually tell their children, "You have to study hard, get a university degree so that you can get a good job and live comfortably." Besides parental pressure, there's peer pressure as well.

I knew since I was 13 that I wanted to be a writer. But my mother was dead against me taking the 'O' levels-polytechnic-work route. For her, I'll be doomed without a university degree. So as a student, it didn't matter what degree I obtained, as long as I obtained one and became a writer.

As an undergraduate at NUS a couple of years back, I chose to read certain modules for my English Language major. These modules (Critical Discourse Analysis, Feminist Theory & Discourse, Language & Society) were 'marketed' as allowing students to provide their own in-depth analysis and opinions. Unfortunately, my somewhat different-from-the-norm thinking didn't go down well with my lecturers, half of whom received their Masters or Doctorates from overseas universities. Hence while my coursemates would get A grades for answers that fit the mould, I was getting B grades for sticking to my point of view.

It might be the culture. But it might also be the factor of ego, where the lecturer has the mindset that because he/she is the lecturer, he/she knows more than the student. There's also the probelm where the lecturer may already have biases towards certain students, or expectations when they set an exam question. There are so many different factors involved and they all contribute to a person's behaviour.

Anonymous said...

The Singaporean education system is good in the sense that it ensures all kids are able to read and write and have basic Maths skills. Kids are also streamed into different classes to suit their pace of learning. The trouble is that it doesn't reward creativity or out of the box thinking. Parents then drill into their children that reading story books are a waste of time, compared to doing assessment books. I would say parents are a major reason why some kids don't feel like thinking.

Having said that, it's important to have some discipline when it comes to learning. I believe I read somewhere that the standard of spelling among British and American kids has deteriorated, and over there they are actually adapting Asian methods of learning.

If you want to have an education where no answers are provided, and the teachers are annoyingly coy, come to NTU. The Project Discovery system has been implemented, and after the first 2 semesters students get used to not receiving model answers of any sort.

Some have labelled it useless because the teachers aren't good at facilitating meaningful discussions, while others enjoy it because even if you've skipped studying a few chapters, you can do pretty well if you have a view.

Singapore's education is in the midst of transformation, I suggest we don't be too quick to down it. Here we're mostly 20somethings, but the brains of the younger ones these days are being stimulated more.

Anonymous said...

waitaminute. Perhaps before further "Queenie-inflating" theories perpetuate, we should pause to consider the basic premise of her statement again?

"I didn't come here to think. I came here for you to think, then tell me what to think."

Yes, she was brave to have actually said what she did, but let's not forget that she had practically transferred the full ownership of her critical faculties to the lecturer. She didn't say "hey, let's hear your thoughts, I'll think about it and decide if it's congruent to mine, if yes, then why and if no, why not.". While I can relate to the possibilities/explanations explored by other comments here having been 100% schooled in the local edu-system, but personally I still find it hard to digest those as valid justifications in support of her chosen mode of operation. At best it only throws light to why she responded the way she did.

Anonymous said...

just to add, to applaud her as non-conformist would be taking the back-patting business a bit too far.

Anonymous said...

"The lack of criticism in Singapore would be classified as an epidemic if it was a virus. It permeates all organisations, institutions, media, radio, television, government, politics, employeee-employer relationships... "

Do Asians think? I suppose that when you glance at a classroom full of inscrutable Asian faces, you think that nothing goes on inside our heads. We have to speak in your language, understand where you’re coming from, to sound intelligible to you. But don’t forget that we have our philosophers, our great religions, and all the wisdom and culture passed down from 5000 years. Many Singapore children are voracious readers. Enid Blyton, Lois Lowry, Beverly Cleary…. Many ten year olds have read them all. Not to mention the literary classics that they later go on to read. Perhaps you can’t comprehend that some people see no point in debating with obstinate people. Some people have a “let-it-be”, non aggressive mentality, but when you see Singaporeans like that we think they’re incapable of having an opinion. Do not simply attribute silence to a lack of critical thinking.

Just because you don’t understand something (The Singaporean mindset) does not in anyway make it wrong or superficial. How many Singaporeans have you really interacted with? Which strata of society do they come from? Some people may have a gut feeling that “Singabloodypore” sounds rude, but you do not have the same respect for a country’s name. Fine. It doesn’t mean that those who mind are uptight, it means our values differ in some ways. Just get on a cab and talk to any taxi-driver and he’ll fill your ears with his philosophies in life and how the Government has cheated him of a good living. If you haven’t tried to delve deep into Singaporean society (reading the blogs of English-educated netizens doesn’t really count as doing your research on Singaporean society), then you shouldn’t accuse it of being shallow.

icchantika said...

I must have been fortunate. I recall 2 philosophy lecturers I had. One said that in the exam, those who only give answers that he taught would get a 'C'. One would pass, but only that. To excel, one has to offer answers that he did not teach.

Another lecturer said that if one thinks that the exam question is irrelevant, one can state so in one's answer and give his reasons for thinking so, and not have to answer that question. I assume his grade will be based on how strong his reasons are for brushing away the question like that.

Unknown said...

anonymous 5.17

I have lived and worked in SIngapore for almost 6 years.

Anonymous said...

A comment above (time stamped 9.25am), said something about NUS being all about theories and therefore one cannot be critical about it.

If I may challenge: Why?

Why is it that theory => cannot be critical?


AcidFlask said...

Congratulations, Anonynmous 5.17, for making an allusion to Kishore Mahbubani's book. But lest anyone harbor illusions about "Can Asians Think?", it's less a sociological treatise than an arrogant proclamation of the rising power of Far East. To say anymore here would be going too far off-topic.

Wowbagger said...

I think what the criticism of only teaching "theories" was that:
1) the theories were not coupled to reality or backed up with examples relevant to Singaporean society.
2) there should be more active discussion instead of passive taking in of information

Anonymous said...

Please don't dismiss my comments as an irrelevant reference to a book. These are my personal thoughts after years of interacting with people, reading their blogs, etc.

For someone who has stayed here for 6 years, it's unusual that the owner of this blog thinks there is a lack of criticism. Haven't all of us grown up in environments where the favorite pastime is to criticise the gov? It's not that we don't think in Singapore, it's that we can't be bothered to say much to the ones in charge. Even in school, when an error is discovered in lecture notes, students will discuss it among themselves, but no one mentions it because we don't have the habit of speaking up in the lecture theatre. Pardon me for saying that Mcdermott is overgeneralising abit, but has it occurred to him that students have their pet subjects too, and a numbers person may not want to mull over a subject he/she doesn't really like.

People get irritated with criticisers. Perhaps it's more useful to have someone appreciate the merits of a system as well, and come up with creative solutions to a problem. No one likes to hear a whiner.

In any case what Queenie said can be classified as a "qian bian" answer, and shouldn't be taken too seriously.

"Anonymous 5.17"

Anonymous said...

Singaporeans "go on to read literary classics" ?

OK, I went through the system from P1 to J2 and I must say this one is new to me ... I won't even mention the EL teachers (in a school supposedly strong in EL) who couldn't even speak proper English. Nearly everyone I knew complained that classics were too "difficult" and "boring" and "cheem".

Which they're entitled to think, of course. But, uh, I wouldn't exactly call them well-read in the classics. Not as a rule, at any rate.

AcidFlask said...

'Anonymous 5.17': You bring up a valid point about whether Queenie meant it as a tongue-in-cheek retort.

On the other hand, 'criticism' harbors very different connotations for Singaporeans and Westerners (in the sense used by S'geans). 'Criticism' can mean either an act of complaint or an act of evaluation. It seems to me that Steve is using the word in the latter sense, and that Singaporeans do not criticise (in the latter sense) so much as bitch and whine about things.

One can argue that both definitions are equivalent at some level, the quality of discussion connoted is very different. While complaining about the government behind its back is certainly criticism at some level, it falls far short of the in-your-face activism and no-holds-barred demand to know more that characterises Western critics.

Social norms certainly can account for some of the disparity, but in a democratic society it is a civil responsibility to hold the government to task, and that means taking a critical view of everything that it says. Of course, even the issue of whether Singapore really functions as a democracy is debatable.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Singaporeans DO read literary classics. Perhaps you don't mix with bookish people, but Borders and our libraries are doing quite well. Plenty of people also read Chinese literary stuff.

I'm glad you agree that on some level, people are bitching about the Gov, not giving constructive criticism. They expect others to take the loser talk seriously, else it means we lack human rights. It's in every human to attribute his or her failures in life to some external factor. Some people also complain about life in Singapore being sterile and mundane. That, however, is a slap in the face of people who come from broken families, or who are poor, and for whom the normalcy and "mundane-ness" of school and working life is a brief respite from their other problems.

We definitely lack press freedom in terms of ST publications. But does that mean Singaporeans are sheep led by the nose? Singapore intentionally has an open door policy with regards to the flow of information. Schools also provide opportunities for students to go overseas and see how developed the other nations are, so that one day we may learn from them. I think the censors also close one eye, or how else would you explain the number of people openly admitting they have copies of SATC?

I'm tickled by people who suggest the Gov hoodwinks us, and yet are able to point out all the flaws of our system. That must mean they are brighter than the lot. The truth is that most of the stuff people say about Singapore is so accessible. No one can excuse their lack of knowledge of world events by blaming it on press freedom.

I admit I don't know much about political science. I guess decisions here are made mostly by people at the top. We will need time to build up our institution, now that the stomachs of Singaporeans are filled, and people are able to discuss politics on a higher level. But I don't think Singaporeans are unable to think out of the box. Perhaps my generation is, having been raised on rote learning, but the immediate younger generation is privileged to have a very stimulating education, with the through train project. Singapore is a classic example of how thinking out of the box has led to success. Developing S'pore as a tourist spot, taking English as a first language, developing a number one zoo and airport. Bear in mind that all ideas were derided by the skeptical, yet we have accomplished something that is "not bad for a booger sized country".

Anonymous said...

And as for those who feel that we're primitive in terms of the way we think, bear in mind we're a young nation! I'm 20-something and I'm told I spent the first year of my life living in a kampung. I recommend reading "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn", to see how early Americans lived. Personally I found it helped alot in understanding how our own society is progressing.

Agagooga said...

Kao beh kao bu is different from critical thinking. Criticism and critical thinking are not the same. Many people accept blindly what the government tells them; notice that complaints are mostly about petty municipal issues (eg Rising transport/conservancy fees)?

Besides which, at the end of the day Singaporeans just meekly accept their fates.

Literary classics? Haha. All around the literate world, the most popular books are:

1) Trashy fiction
2) How to get rich books
3) Management bullshit
4) Self-help/motivational

Reading is overrated by some, but underrated by many.

ivan said...

all expousing views on the typical middle - upper middle class pseudo english educated singaporean.

Hi Mcdemott, if you lived in Sg for 6 years, i do hope you've ventured far beyond the newton circus that expats normally frequent, i'd add Geylang to that as well. Have you seen the side of Sg that even most of your previous students have never seen before? Had breakfast in admist the one room flats in commonwealth, redhill or toa payoh? Sat down and have chinese tea with peoples who are in there fifties, chinese educated and yet reasonably fluent in english. I'm not referring to your fellow academics in NUS, nor self proclaimed thinkers. I'm refering to the forgotten generation, one that was ignored and left to fend for itself when the gov decided that english shall be the language of importance. You've not experienced Sg till you experienced this and more, you've not understood Sg till you've understood this face of Sg.

My take on this topic is simple. While perhaps Queenie's comments may reflect a lack of ability or reluctance to think. It can only be attributed to the system in which we Singaporeans are brought up in, where to think is to waste time that could be better spent on memorising, and i think this is what McDermott is trying to point out. Perhaps some of us have decided to "take the road less travelled" (a misquote in fact, but a popular one), and spend time critically analysing our modules and subjects, but who are we to fault those who prefer to stick to the tried and tested, since when was conformity a crime?

blame not the products, but the manufacturers.

Unknown said...

I would agree that it is the 'system' or the structure that is to blame for an attitude towards education that has reduced it to a commodity today. This is not simply the case in Singapore, it seems to be a global phenomenon.

Conformity may not be crime, but in Singapore the 'system' seems to argue that 'politics has been criminalised'.

Isn't the system, or structure that currently exists in Singapore the product of actions taken 45 years ago by a small group of dominant leaders, and then entrenched and reinforced every year by the same political party?

With external global influences really only taking hold in the late 1980's, with international media enfringing on Singaporean PAP controlled national media?

KnightofPentacles said...

Forgive my rant but Ivan's comment has touched on a raw nerve here.


That generation is not 'forgotten' totally. Ignored and relegated perhaps by rulers who need (by circumstance) to focus limited resources to securing the future.

But YOU remember them. I remember them. They are our fathers and mothers and uncles and aunts. The generation of dialect-speaking 'skilled' workers in manufacturing, in textiles, in food processing - whose skills have been deemed past their economic shelf life by the same government that they built.

The loyalty of this generation to this land depends partly on how this generation views the rulers' treatment and honour of the previous generation. It is hard to command loyalty from the younger generation when in their own homes, they see the people who brought them up getting shafted by (necessary) economic policies targeted for progress.

It is on the back of the sacrifices of the 'forgotten generation' that some of us heartlander kids are given a shot at breaking free. I am brought up by that same 'forgotten generation'. They are core to who I am.

We will be there for them - for those who are still alive. After they are gone... I have to ask: what else holds my loyalty to the rulers of this land who have not honoured those who built it up in the past?

Anonymous said...

Reading and Education: I'm not saying everyone has read Jane Austen, but a fair lot of people here love to read, and our libraries are well stocked. Education has always been the key to escaping the poverty cycle in every society. Now, we take it as a given that those who eschew the paper chase are people who are living for themselves and not the system. However, if not for our heavy investment in education, ( be it creative or not), S'poreans would have no say in the region today. People still think of us as a booger state mind you.
If education is overrated, why are there schools even in the most of backward regions? Education is clearly the key to satisfying one's basic needs. The importance of education is recognised in all societies. Trashy novels make for light reading, but just because I watch shows like "Friends" doesn't mean I've never watched
" To Kill A Mockingbird" right?

Politics: Yes, power is very much centralised over here, but this is so for most Asian nations anyway. Power was also centralised when we were colonised by the British, I might add... Democracy cannot be implemented in a day, even Myanmar has implemented a several step plan to democratization. USSR also broke down after it changed to a democracy. Our system of politics is evolving, we're 40 years old, while US system is about 1000 years old. Let's have a bit of perspective. Look at how things have changed over the last 40 years, and that will give us some idea of where we will be after 40 years. I expect our society to get even more open in time to come.

Critical thinking: Being a klutz at numbers, I was a passive learner for the sciences, but rather vocal in subjects like law, business, accounting. Perhaps we should take into consideration "bounded rationality", which is to say students have limited cognitive abilities. People have subjects they like or hate. If I was taking Physics lessons with a teacher who keeps on asking me what I think and who refuses to elaborate on wave theory, I might feel irked too.

AcidFlask said...

On what basis do you say that the "US system is about 1000 years old"? The US Declaration of Independence was signed only in 1776.

The 'age of society' reasoning seems fallacious to me. First, a society need not become more open with time. Just look at Greece, at how it has been credited with the birth of democracy, and how it degenerated into fascism in the early twentieth century.

Second, nobody's going to give Singapore the benefit of the doubt just because it's only 39 years old. I cannot recall a single episode in my (admittedly limited) knowledge of world history in which some political or economic benefit resulted directly from being younger or older than other states. Our leaders have eschewed ideology for pragmatism because they feel that in this time and age, all that matters is economic competitiveness, which requires stability. And just because Singapore is a young nation doesn't mean anything if it allows itself to calcify quickly, as it seems to be doing.

Anonymous said...

In our quest for creative thinkers, we have fallen trap to the assumption that we cannot learn by heart and think creatively and critically at the same time. Rote-learning is an effective and necessary tool in education. I confess that I was one who memorised thousands of model sentences in order to master the Chinese language. Rather than translating haltingly and incorrectly from English, I have, through rote-learning, gained an innate sense of the cadence of the language and mastered the somewhat erratic grammar of the Chinese language. Although this is acquired by native speakers through the reading of books and frequent use of the language, as a person from an English-speaking household, I achieved a similar, though admittedly somewhat inferior, result through rote-learning. Nonetheless, it has taught me to think in Chinese, to listen to the sounds in my mind and instinctively know if they are grammatically correct- a difficult feat for someone who has barely read 3 Chinese novels in her whole life.
The beauty of rote-learning as a teaching and learning tool does not merely lie in the content of what is learnt but rather the implications of such knowledge. The bad reputation that rote-learning has gained in the Singaporean education system is disturbing because rote-learning is one of the fundamentals of learning. Without a body of knowledge to build on, students will not be able to progress. More credit has to be given to the Singaporean education system and the teachers, who have come up with more creative questions to challenge students, and test old material in interesting ways. A quick look at the economics test papers of the various junior colleges is testimony to this. Students are asked to evaluate if the Singapore government should adopt Keynesian or Monetarist theories, or to suggest ways to curb unemployment in the present economy. They are asked questions about the implications of budget airlines in the region, to test the concepts of economies of scale and product differentiation. Students are no longer merely tested on their knowledge, but on their application of knowledge drawn from different chapters in the curriculum. It is through rote-learning, the memorisation of economic theories and examples, that students are able to think creatively to answer the questions.
Furthermore, in reading articles criticising the present system, there is this implied idea that what is "critical and unorthodox" is better than the status quo. Firstly, the student presenting "critical, unorthodox" views has to be able to back up his claim through acquired knowledge, and therein lies the necessity for a certain amount of rote-learning. There is no glory in expressing an unorthodox view that is unsubstantiated and unconvincing. Secondly, I believe that Singaporean educators, especially at the higher tertiary levels, are somewhat experts in their field, and as academics and teachers, most are excited about new perspectives. Perhaps I have been privileged, but I have had Math teachers announce happily to my class that someone solved a Math question in a clever and unorthodox way, and General Paper teachers who write comments like "I do not agree, but I see where you're coming from. Good attempt.". Perhaps the problem lies not in the syllabus and the students but rather the attitude of the educators.
I am proud to be a product of this Singaporean education system, and in spite of all its flaws, I wish to give it due credit.

Agagooga said...

"You've not experienced Sg till you experienced this and more, you've not understood Sg till you've understood this face of Sg."

In that case, most Singaporeans haven't experienced and don't understand Singapore.

Really, there are many faces of Singapore. It is impossible to experience and understand all of them.

I was looking for a quote from Confucius that has been framed up on posters in MRT stations in the past, about memory and understanding. The closest I found was this: "Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous."

I'm quite sure the version slathered on MRT station walls here was something more like: "Memorisation without understanding is a waste of time; Understanding without memorisation leads to disaster". A dubious translation to imbue a questionable Asian Value in the populace, perhaps?

There is a difference between rote learning and knowing your stuff. Rote learning is what is encouraged by the system; often when you put answers people are not looking for, you get marked down.

You know how many science students do their GP? They just mug a model answer for the Science and Technology question and write it out when the exam comes, with but minor modifications.

Agagooga said...

Reading and Education: My point was that all is not what it seems. To wit: "Borders and our libraries are doing quite well"

Politics: So what if most Asian nations centralise power? Most Asian nations are economically backward too, so I suppose it's ok if we cut ourselves down a little.

We've been independent for 40 years. 40 years is not a day. It's almost 2 generations. How long are we going to use the "young nation" excuse? There are one or two successful countries in Africa too, though their names elude me.

USSR broke down when it became a democracy? How about Indonesia? In 1998 they got rid of Suharto and now, barely 6 years later, they have quite a vibrant democracy (except for the candidates' singing and all that).

Wowbagger said...

"In our quest for creative thinkers, we have fallen trap to the assumption that we cannot learn by heart and think creatively and critically at the same time"

Of course we can do both at the same time. But most Singaporean students only memorise. Believe it or not, I have observed most of my peers at a "top" JC memorising model answers even for the "creative" economics question mentioned in your example. And from my discussions with them, I found out that they did not understand their own answers.

I will not be surprised if no one believes this. I too found it incredible at first, but repeated observations forced me to accept its reality.

Anonymous said...

Some of those who have posted comments on the original article have taken Mr. Mc Dermott's comments as a personal attack.

Some of the replies are even irrelevant and fail to show an understanding of the the aritcle.
Mr. Mc Dermott's experience with students wanting to be spoon fed is not confined to Singapore but a phenomenon that plagues educational systems around the world.

Jamie Han Li Chou's reply is well written. I don't think it's too late for change but given the nature of some of the other comments to this thread, it seems some wouldn't even understand what the 'change' is.

Anonymous said...

wow ok. here goes. i think that it is true that singaporean students end up in a sense dumber than those who've gone overseas to study. they are more able to think crtically. a comment from a guy in uni who was on exchange from a uni in europe. he said: the students here leave with good results or whatever but they can't think. they don't know how to apply what they've learnt. so true in my opinion. my friends who didn't do so well and went overseas to study are doing better than me. they are more confident, better able to express their opinions and have heaps of experience. the general opinion in singapore is that you've got it made if you've done well in the academic arena. but hey, check out the apprentice with the book smarts and the street smarts. which group's doing better: surprise...the street smarts. the book smarts everywhere, are handicapped with the belief that they're smart and have it made. they are so not prepared for any obstacles thrown in their way. bad system this. really bad. lost my childhood and my teens to studies. what's that for?

Anonymous said...

Was this the reason that you quit? It must have been a great loss to the young adults that were pursuing the university degree.
I onced had a soci lecturer who did a brillant work on a reference site ; www.introtosociology.com .
therefore I could understand how a lecturer would feel when a student said that.
On the other side, is there any possiblity that there is some misunderstanding refer as miscommunication due to the misinterpretation since some of our tools for languages were not well polish as yet .
Personally, I thought may be Queenie 's intention was to seek the lecturer 's guidance in how to develop her thoughts in aspect of this subject .
As you may not be awared that there are indeed existence of such student who arent really confident in themselves and their foremost concern "how to be on the right track , on path with the others ?"
Anyway, it is a loss and sad to know this....

. said...


Anonymous said...

On what basis do you say that the "US system is about 1000 years old"? The US Declaration of Independence was signed only in 1776.

The 'age of society' reasoning seems fallacious to me. First, a society need not become more open with time. Just look at Greece, at how it has been credited with the birth of democracy, and how it degenerated into fascism in the early twentieth century.

Second, nobody's going to give Singapore the benefit of the doubt just because it's only 39 years old. I cannot recall a single episode in my (admittedly limited) knowledge of world history in which some political or economic benefit resulted directly from being younger or older than other states. Our leaders have eschewed ideology for pragmatism because they feel that in this time and age, all that matters is economic competitiveness, which requires stability. And just because Singapore is a young nation doesn't mean anything if it allows itself to calcify quickly, as it seems to be doing.

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