Friday, May 27, 2011

Letter to Heng Swee Keat Part II

"Your letter has gone viral. Better clear out all your Kate Spade pics."

My very funny friend texted that message to me on Wednesday, after I'd posted my letter that morning. My original intent was rather innocent. I had wanted to take the opportunity of a fresh polls, new Education Minister and the promise of transformation by the PM, to share my concerns on the local education system. Usually, I would just post it on my blog but this time, I thought if I also posted it on Facebook notes, it might attract a few more readers.

You know that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where Indy singed the soles of his feet in the mine shaft, yelled for water and to his horror, was suddenly faced with a roaring tidal wave? Well, it felt a little like that.

The outpouring of angst completely caught me off guard. I mean, I knew there had to be parents who shared my feelings but I definitely did not expect the flood of responses. My first frivolous thought was dang, I should have checked my grammar more carefully.

Apart from comments, I also received a deluge of emails, many relating personal and heart-breaking accounts of their kids and encounters with teachers and schools. Suddenly I was inundated by friend requests (sorry guys, no offence but I prefer to keep my FB friends to folks I actually know). I also received a few comments commending me for being "brave", which puzzled me. Maybe if I was a teacher, I would be brave for voicing out against the system. Why was I brave to speak up as a parent? Was there some menacing threat I didn't know about?

I started feeling a little antsy when the letter took on a life of its own. I received emails calling for me to lead the charge in education reform. Some people started scrutinising and picking apart every sentence I wrote, often reading too much between the lines. The arguments veered into obtuse directions with people hotly taking sides and as another friend put it, "they're feuding over things you never said." It was spiralling out of control.

Maybe that's what people meant by being "brave" because suddenly, I was feeling rather nervous. I wrote on my friend's wall, "Ok, I had my 5 mins of fame liao. Where's the Stop button?"

But I thought since I opened the Pandora's Box, it would only be responsible of me to try and clarify some of the issues that have been raised.

1) Many teachers wrote in to express their agreement with me but a few mistakenly thought I was blaming them for not teaching our kids well, possibly from this sentence: "If half your students fail in an exam, it doesn’t reflect badly on the student – it reflects badly on the teaching." What I meant was when students across the board get low scores, it makes the school’s teaching abilities look inadequate (ie it’s the school that looks bad, not the students). I certainly don’t blame the teachers, in fact I did say quite clearly that it’s because the exams are set at an unrealistic level.

2) Some readers accused me of pushing the responsibility of instilling values in children to teachers when they should be shouldered by parents. Where in my article did I ever make this assertion? I fully agree that cultivating values is the job of parents. However, since our children spend a large proportion of their waking hours in school, I would like an education system that is conducive to this endeavour and complements my efforts, instead of a conflicting one that emphasises competitiveness above all else.

3) Others accused parents like me of molly coddling our children, making them soft. Oh come on. This is the same kind of argument some folks like to use, usually starting with "In my time..." What would constitute tough enough? In fact, some say our maths standards are still behind those of Japan and Korea, so does that mean we should still be leveling upwards? Trying to create some balance doesn't automatically turn all our kids into weaklings. It's precisely this enslavement to standards at the expense of our children's well-being that I'm against. Of course there will always be over-protective parents. But to assume that all parents are irrational and therefore don't know any better, is just condescending.

4) Some comments said that I merely complained and didn't offer any constructive suggestions. First, all I planned to do was to write a letter. I didn't intend to present a thesis with supporting figures, supporting research and recommendations. It's just a letter!

Second, sure, I'll volunteer recommendations for change if I can come up with something brilliant but I take issue with the idea that before I can raise my concerns, I have to have a ready solution. To put it bluntly, isn't that the job of MOE? As parents, we are important stakeholders in the education of our children but we often don't have all the necessary information and research to make national level suggestions. If I'm feeling unwell, I'll go to the doctor and ask him to heal me. I shouldn't have to tell him what medicine to prescribe (and indeed, I don't have the required knowledge and resources to do so). And surely, not being able to prescribe my own medicine doesn't negate my right to say I think something's wrong.

5) Some commented that my letter was lopsided, that I only highlighted the things that are bad about our education system, not the things that are good. Well, yeah, I was trying to get Mr Heng to initiate changes. What's the point of listing all the parts that don't need changing?

6) Incidentally, I'm not advocating the US system as the one to emulate. The US system was mentioned only in relation to my remark on the interview with the Vice-Dean, Education of Duke-NUS, who is part of an American system. My point was that I liked how they don't assume the straight 'A' student is necessarily the best candidate (and this is for medical school!) If you like, you can read the article here (pages 6-9). In case you're wondering, you won't find the quote he made on Singaporeans because it wasn't included in the edits.

Perhaps what astonished me most about this whole episode was that there were so many Singaporeans who felt the way I did. I was overwhelmed by the enormity of what I'd unknowingly triggered. They expressed a torrent of frustration and what I sensed was this overpowering sense of helplessness (and increasing anger) over the education system. But if so many people felt this way, why hadn't they spoken up before?

To be honest, when I hear things like, "oh, say also no use, nothing will change," I get a little impatient. Of course nothing will change if nobody ever says anything! We need to shake ourselves out of this apathy. Here's a nugget of information: this is not my first time trying to engage MOE. In fact, many of the issues I wrote about in the letter came from old posts on my blog and I've previously emailed a couple of them to MOE but not received a reply. I have a strange feeling my name is marked at MOE under "pot-stirrer".

Why do I still continue? Maybe because I'm dogged. Or a sucker for punishment. In fact, any changes now probably won't benefit me anymore since my kids are already in sec 2 and p5. But somebody's gotta speak up. And I can't help wondering if MOE would have been more open to changes if all these parents and teachers had been more vocal about their concerns. I love one of the comments on my letter: "I think we need to break this cycle that says "Someone has to do something about it although I doubt it". We need voices brave enough to speak up... if this is affecting your children? Why wouldn't you? Would rocking the boat be that bad?"

After this long rambling post, you probably just want to know whether Mr Heng has replied to my letter. Sorry to disappoint you, folks, nope. To be fair, he's only been on this job a week and I hear he's been busy making his rounds at schools. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and update my post if he replies.

And yes, I did check my grammar more thoroughly this time.


Anonymous said...

Monica, you are not only a brilliant writer able to put across your thoughts clearly, you also have a fantastic sense of humour!

Thank you again for articulating your thots. I especially like this sentence "I would like an education system that is conducive to this endeavour and complements my efforts, instead of a conflicting one that emphasises competitiveness above all else."


lorongm said...

Dear Monica

The response that you had received (overwhelmingly positive, I am happy to hear) shows you the power of social media!

I liked how you mentioned "4) Some comments said that I merely complained and didn't offer any constructive suggestions." This is such a lame PAP put-down tool to discredit the opposition parties, and with the electorate's desire for a change in the way things are planned and done, I am surprised that PAP goons are still using this old chestnut. The PAP cabinet and the elite Admin Service are still being paid salaries many times higher than anyone else in the world. Why should we provide them with answers when they are the ones who created the problems in the first place>

Keep writing. I have found a new blog worth bookmarking!

Anonymous said...


With regards to those who said you shouldn't voice out, probably you could use this quote:

"When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out."

- Martin Niemöller (14 January 1892 – 6 March 1984)

Thanks for your brilliant effort. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Monica, ignore the noises. You are merely saying your piece in the letter and you are entitled to your own stand and opinions. You are a class above the NATOs (No Action Talk Only), above those who are quick to criticize but when asked to pen or voice their opinions suddenly become silent and fearful. You are just a concerned parent. Why should you be some champion of cause??! (Image of Wonderwoman pops up). LOL. You have said your piece and whether the MOE officers who are paid to improve educational system take into consideration your comments is up to them.

Please ignore negativity and think only of how your letter touched those who can relate to it. Please continue to write your lovely pieces.


monlim said...

Thanks everyone for all the support and a special one to you, SL - that's why I love my regular readers! You're always so sweet *hugs*

NYMacMom w 3 said...

Woah! A tidal wave indeed! Well done again! So so concur now that we've been in the system for 3 years..
Sarah Chan
(ps did u know I just had baby no3? Baby brother to the 2 girls, now 6 weeks old, exhausted!)

monlim said...

Sarah: Wow, congrats! Hopefully the education system will change for the better by the time your baby hits school-going age :)

Anonymous said...

I reproduced here the interview with John Medina featured in Straits Times article today (Sun May 29).
He heard about Singapore’s stressful education system and would like parents to hear this ‘’Éducation is not a race’’. ‘Tiger Mum Amy Chua is wrong. The more stress you produce in children, the more likely not mobilise their IQ’. Stress in particular stubs out creativity, or what Dr Medina describes as ‘fluid intelligent’. Fluid intelligence is the ability to improvise as soon as something is learnt – a skill employed by Jazz musicians. It is as important to the process of learning as ‘’çrystallised intelligence’’ which is characterised by memory work or repetition. An over emphasis on either of the two forms of intelligence will create either a robot which does not win Nobel Prizes or an air guitarist who does not have knowledge. Drills are important but just as crucial is playtime, which unlocks the creativity in children. An accelerated syllabus is bad. ‘’Makes education a race and learning is destroyed’’.
It is no wonder many had opted to homeschool thier children which is ‘’character based’’ and ‘’self paced’’.

Anonymous said...


I'd just like to applaud you for making the effort to write and trying in your own way to change things for the better.

I think Singaporean should all learn to do that and learn that policy-making *can* be a two-way street (or rather turn it into a two-way street) if we just keep on trying. I remember the proposed changes to the Chinese language exams standards got stayed because of the huge backlash from parents.

I, like you, don't have the answers or solutions, but I think going back to the fundamentals of education will help us find the answer.

Thank you again, and keep it up!


The Wobbly Guy said...

Policy making is difficult. Honestly, there are no easy answers.

I graduated from the LKY School of Public Policy with a Masters, and the one thing that has bemused me throughout the length of my studies there is the lack of any discussion on education policy, even though the grad students there all wanted to know more about Singapore's success story in education. There is no official reason, but the unofficial reason is that education is too sensitive a topic to be discussed.

I was a MOE teacher before my grad studies, teaching at the JC level, so education policy has always been a passion of mine. I'm currently doing something else, but I aim to return to MOE once I have attained sufficient experience.

If you feel my ideas are worth exploring, pls do mention them. In any case, you have certainly raised the public awareness on education, and that is often the first step to any policy change!

Anonymous said...

Is good some one like you take the step to voice out most parent concern. I do hope Mr Heng take a look at it.
I also hope the reader "lorongm" don't include politics in here as I always enjoy this educational blog.


Anonymous said...

Wow, you posted more frequently now. Surprise to see such overwhelming responses. I also worry for my 2 young kids who one day will be going to the mentally stressful Singapore education. I'm glad you stand up and speak up. You are just like the lead actrss of a Korean drama which I am following closely called 同伊. Watch it and you know what I mean.

~ my

Kk said...

Calling for a small revolutions in our education system?
that means sombody got to sacrifice!
anyway, i love your post , both infact!
efffective or not, it doesn't matter. But matter most to speak our heart. I sleep better that nite after writing your post. thanks!

Lena said...

Just got back from a 12 days vacation, the first thing that needs to follow up is your blog. Very well-written. Monica, once again THANK YOU for speaking up, my kids are like yours Sec 2 & P5, and you've truly speak the words out of my heart :) Me too especially like your sentence of "I would like an education system that is conducive to this endeavour and complements my efforts, instead of a conflicting one that emphasises competitiveness above all else."

Please continue to write-on.

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