What are we doing to our children?

I recently attended a talk by a top secondary school about the Direct School Admission (DSA) program, as well as its Integrated Program.

I was bored to death, because the speaker was just intent on telling parents how much they intended to fill every waking second of a student’s time with endless enrichment programs, team-building exercises and more homework.

We want every child to be a leader! Said the speaker. Such enthusiasm and hope, yet I had such cynicism simmering inside of me.

Erm, where is their time to play, hang out and meet people of the opposite sex? I thought, and later whispered to my wife.

This school’s rallying cry was rather different from our ACS ethos of “every student an officer, scholar and gentleman”, which was always an emphasis of character and values, rather than absolute results or salary scale.

Or a ridiculous expenditure of effort and time on over-preparation when you have no idea what the future looks like.

As an ACS boy and Christian parent, the only line that rings in my head constantly is Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

I’m constantly nagging at my children to do the same few things I want them to tell their own children – walk the straight path, and have integrity and grit while constantly asking God for his grace and wisdom to overcome this awful earthly life.

I do not want to inculcate in them that a person should spend his life obsessing about results, money or what people think of them via status symbols.

But we parents too, are assaulted by the effects of social media, old media, peer pressure, report books, and a thousand other things that drain ourselves of happiness, contentment and common sense.

I watched this Talking Point trailer today with much sadness. I do not know if the Primary Six girl or her parent know the consequences of revealing their private lives to the public, especially one which faithfully follows the path of so many Singapore parents.

But I felt even more despair about the foolish circumstances our children and parents have become trapped in :

Many Singapore parents have criticized this video in the FB video comments and while sharing it on social media.

But there will be even more who keep quiet and believe that having exhausted children mug all day long is good for their future.

I’ve had a long day, so let me get to the points I want to make.

1. You parents have no idea what the future is like.

Nobody in the schools, especially the bureaucrats who designed this education system, has any idea what the future is really going to turn out to be. Many civil servants have never actually sold something to someone, since their pay comes from our bountiful tax dollars. Yet they are tasked to teach entrepreneurship and creativity, an unfair task for anyone who has never worked outside of their gigantic, structured system.

By the way, just six years ago, there was no Apple iPad – today, tablets are already passe and commoditized. Taxi drivers now have to rely on apps for passengers, and no kid actually buys a printed newspaper or magazine.

Yes, education is important – to provide basic skills and expand the mind. But do not second-guess what is the job of the future. I believe lawyers and doctors will never be obsolete, but every other job is up for deletion by robots and A.I.

In my opinion, the only consistent tools for survival are the ability to keep learning, not be held back by outdated assumptions, and to build upon your innate strengths and aptitudes.

But you can only keep learning when you understand how to create and maximize your free time.

Said Jack Ma, the ridiculously successful Chinese guy : “I told my son: you don’t need to be in the top three in your class, being in the middle is fine, so long as your grades aren’t too bad. Only this kind of person [a middle-of-the-road student] has enough free time to learn other skills. I think, if China’s economy wants to develop, it needs a lot of SMEs and individually-run companies, and that requires a lot of entrepreneurs with values and drive.”

Values and drive, that’s our job to inculcate, and our children’s job to demonstrate.

2. Stop living your children’s life for them, according to what people tell you is right or important.

Are you making them go for all sorts of extra lessons because you think this will prepare them for the future and get a high-paying job?

Or do you want to burn them out before they can even sit for their A-levels?

Or are you just reading some kiasu parent forum and wondering if you are missing out? For you unhip parents, the modern term is FOMO, people – Fear of Missing Out.

Why are you doing all these things to your child?

3. Recognize that our education system is good in certain areas but questionable in foundation building.

I was puzzled when I read this recent letter from the Prime Minister’s press secretary to the New York Times.

To the Editor:

Gwee Li Sui’s “Politics and the Singlish Language” (Opinion, May 13) makes light of the government’s efforts to promote the mastery of standard English by Singaporeans. But the government has a serious reason for this policy.

Standard English is vital for Singaporeans to earn a living and be understood not just by other Singaporeans but also English speakers everywhere. But English is not the mother tongue of most Singaporeans. For them, mastering the language requires extra effort. Using Singlish will make it harder for Singaporeans to learn and use standard English. Not everyone has a Ph.D. in English Literature like Mr. Gwee, who can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English, and extol the virtues of Singlish in an op-ed written in polished standard English.


Hmmm, someone extolling the need to speak good English but writing a letter with less diplomacy and persuasiveness than one would expect of a press secretary.

Anyway, the problem is not Singlish, code-switching, or whatever.

The problem is that English is currently poorly taught in schools here – teachers rush through the curriculum, tuition is expected to be a given (even if teachers insist otherwise) and students are suddenly expected to write flowery, pointless passages by Primary 5 or 6.

They never get to know of literary giants such as Asimov, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury and all my sci-fi/horror heroes, but read lesser pulp fiction like Mockingjay (This is where I have to flee from my own kids).

And yeah, schools have largely treated Literature as a bane since it does not help their school rankings (which are never truly abolished).

Oh the horror, the horror.

4. The old ways aren’t always wrong.

I get tired of people telling me “Oh Ian, things are different now. You cannot expect kids to be taught the same way as when you were a child in the 1980s.”

But why do you assume the old ways are not better?

When I was a child in the 1980s, I had plenty of time to ride my bicycle, explore my neighbourhood, walk the dog, take TIBS buses to town and back on solo adventures, buy dinner for my family, read tons of books and comics, go swimming, watch movies with my Primary 4 friends, chit chat with them for an hour on the corded telephone, doodle on scraps of paper, and watch hours of SBC drama serials to learn the horrors of nasty villains and plucky coolies.

Please tell me what was wrong with my childhood, and those of my peers (many who seem to have forgotten).

Why should I accept and promote a childhood that is spent shuttling between endless classes, never seeing sunlight except during class PE lessons or DSA sports tuition, having not enough sleep (even though schools are now single-session!), being told I’m not good enough despite all that effort and so on.

Yes, I know there are millions of kids in China and India who will outwork and out-think our kids. What if these kids also end up being burnt out and with low self-esteem? Should we throw in our lot with them?

Frankly, my job as a parent is not to boil the ocean and ask my children to go be the best office executive they can be.

My job is to teach them integrity and values, and to remind them to never stop being the best they can be at what they want to be…. not what I, or some other adult wants them to be.

Please help me spread the word – we need to stop destroying our children’s future because of our own selfish or ignorant desires, shaped by our own peer pressure or uninformed view of the world.


20 Replies to “What are we doing to our children?”

  1. Hey Ian, I am with you here (and not just coz I’m a fellow ACSian parent – haha). I’d love for you to hop over and share your thoughts at my site – I was also musing about the future, how we may well be failing our kids, and the horror of plying the old trade route of competition as the prima facie. Thanks for being one more parent to speak up!

    1. Hello, Jenni Ho-Huan,

      I’m an old boy of ACS. Been at the school since Primary One till the end of my Secondary School (after passing the then Senior Cambridge Examinations). I fully agree with the ACS of old when they emphasised All Round Development, namely, excellence in academic endeavours as well as in sports or generally extra-curricular activities.

      I am of the view that we must ease up on the accelerator and let our children learn and grow at their own pace. Straight A’s does NOT make for sterling performance and it is ultimately our actual abilities to get things done well that will make or mar us in the real world! Qualities like leadership, team spirit, good people skills and excellent communication skills are imperatives in the working world. Even so in our everyday lives as we live alongside our neighbours or make new friends. Therefore, my stance is We Need To Have Well Educated Children Who Are Also Physically Fit. And, not forgetting that they be taught Ethics as well to have empathy and consideration for their fellow man. I want for our children and students generally: Sound Minds In Healthy Bodies.

  2. Bud, I like your screed. But you’re preaching to a very limited choir here (meaning the total potential audience in Sg that would give your thoughts a second’s consideration). Critical thought is not something that was encouraged by the local education process for at least a couple of decades, so it boils down to a much smaller subset of the population that is more inclined to reflection / introspection, who would then be more likely to question the status quo. The average person is loathe to buck the trend, any trend, so whatever they think will make their kids ‘succeed’ or themselves look respectable is pretty much par for the course. Hence the crazy amount of tuition, some enrichment and the constant focus on gaming the system.

    This year is actually my second go-around for the DSA talks at the various schools, as my eldest is 3 years older. My wife and I are taking turns hitting a different set of schools this time round, as each of our kids is markedly different in terms of interests and strengths (and gender). Sometimes we would talk to the students at the schools, to guage how much of what the Principal had said was legit or just nice-sounding bullshit. But more than anything else, we try to assess the capabilities of the Principal, as he or she would be the main driving force in the school. A good value system is also important to us, but sadly, most local schools don’t pay much more than lip service to that aspect.

    I honestly don’t expect to be going through the same process for my 3rd and 4th kids as: (1) We have enough data points and more inside informational sources than most people to know what’s really going on. (2) The system is very broken, but like the fact that it took 25 years for the PAP to admit that they made a mistake by not building any new hawker centers, they also can’t admit that they’ve made huge policy mistakes in the education arena so they’ve been putting on huge bandaids time and time again to ameliorate some of the consequences. (3) The system is also unsustainable and doesn’t really meet real educational needs of what’s unfolding in the global economic system and ongoing environmental blowback. That would become much more apparent within a few years to almost everyone.

    Anyways coming back to the here and now… you will still need to stay quite involved with your kid even after he gets into the secondary school of his choice (I’m assuming that happens). Each school will have general policies and guidelines about course and CCA choices where a more ‘outspoken’ parent can help loosen some restrictions. For our eldest daughter, we actually ended up forgoing the DSA route as we wanted her to do the Music Elective Programme and also be on the school track team. There were other girls schools with more renowned track programs with decent academics but we felt that the value system was sorely lacking there, so we effectively had only 1 real choice. However when our girl wanted to try out for the running trials, the teacher-in-charge of the track team disallowed her, saying that the school policy was for MEP students to do a music-related CCA instead. We communicated with the Music and CCA ‘heads’ who explained that the intent was for MEP students to learn a 2nd musical instrument, but since our daughter was already playing both the piano and cello, they had no objections to letting her join the track team. She greatly enjoys her participation in the MEP, and one year later she was also the national cross country champion in her age-group.

    1. Thanks Chwee, I agree with you, and that most people won’t know systemic failure till they’re too deep in it. And the sad thing is that you are also right about preaching to a very small audience – the majority of SG people believe themselves to be educated but do not understand the real meaning of education. That’s why they can only follow the crowd.

      And good on your eldest daughter! Hope all your kids get the best out of lives for themselves.

  3. Hi Ian,
    Very good article and welcoming thoughts. I agree with you that there was nothing wrong with the kind of education I had in the 80s too. Beautiful moments indeed. As an ex teacher I have told many parents that we do not have to follow what other parents do and that we should let our children enjoy their lives and achieve what they can. Very few listen. Alas, we can only do so much….. My three children will grow up to be whatever they aspire to be …. And my second daughter wants to be a pastry chef. I am so glad she knows exactly what she wants!

  4. Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

    Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again. – Steve Jobs

  5. I am not trying to be mean and sincerely trying to be constructive. But everytime I read articles like this, I have always wondered; on what justifications does the writer have to make a conclusion that what other parents are doing is wrong. A cook can only make a meal that is worthy after many trials and errors. It is the writer’s absolute right to hold his own opinion but who is he to say that his opinion is correct and other people’s opinion is wrong. Has his children all grown up and turned out well among his peers already? Why are these articles often written by young people and not older folks whom already have grown up children? Anyway, just a constructive thought to those who really care about what they are saying and the image they are projecting. Same case for those who supports the writer.

    1. Before I comment further, I’ll just repeat my policy on this blog – I do not engage in discussions with no-name commentators. If you want my thoughts on your thoughts, please spell out your real name, and in this case, I’m also interested to know if you have kids in primary and secondary school.

    2. i’ll take the bait… i don’t have a problem engaging with no-names. bear in mind my intention here is also to be constructive. but also blunt- as a parent of 4 kids in the SG public school system this is a topic i am extremely passionate about. also bear in mind there is such a thing as right and wrong opinions. just because everyone is entitled to their own doesn’t make them correct.

      there is in fact a lot of justification for the points that Mr Tan is making. i’ll give you just two:
      1. i have been a leader of several creative organisations in SG for the past 4.5yrs. as a boss my single biggest headache, without question, has been the hiring of adequate talent. it has proven painstaking and time consuming (near impossible) to seek out and discover young employees that have the necessary creativity, analytical and conceptual thinking skills my work requires. i would estimate perhaps one in ten candidates are even remotely armed with the adequate skills that are required in my industry…. i also discuss this issue extensively with leaders in other industries and have discovered my experience is less the exception than the rule.
      2. there happens to be a great deal of reliable material to support the ideas in this article. see the writings of Sir Ken Robinson (his TED talk on this very subject is one of the most widely viewed youtube videos ever), Tom Kelley, Daniel Pink, and many others. The subject of education reform is a hot topic globally at the moment- the question of whether or not the old traditional systems of learning (developed initially in the industrial age) are adequately preparing our kids for the world to come is the motivation for much research and debate. Strangely, Singapore is one of the FEW countries that is taking things further in the other direction- rather than exploring more open and creative systems of learning the MOE seems to be choosing to increase the amount of rote learning, streaming, and rigorous standardised testing.

      i would like to throw your own question right back at you – what gives you the justification to believe that 10hrs a day of intense study in a mere handful of subjects is in fact arming our rising generation with the tools they need to build the most complex future the world has ever known. are these young students already pouring out of school and into the worlds work force as stellar examples of innovation, leadership, and well rounded happiness?(refer to point 1).

      Lastly, you can weigh this against common sense. if we spend 10hrs a day programming a child like a robot, does it not seem perfectly logical that after several years of this they will act, think, and work like a robot?

      (i know i come across harsh. its not intended to offend but rather make you think, and question, and discuss. i hope more of us can take the example and invitation of Mr Tan to start spreading the word on this issue. to question whether this education system is in fact doing what it needs to do (or is it just making tuition centers RICH). after all, its only our most valuable resource thats at stake.)

      1. Thanks for your views, Patrick!

        Folks like “E” are, IMO, never worth engaging with because I have yet to see anyone like him/her dare to put their name down to support their viewpoints. I delete many comments for this very reason, because many people just have no courage to enter into a public debate with their real selves. And that’s another consequence of our education system.

        1. I find it irony that movies like divergent are well liked
          It celebrates standing out
          Being different
          Yet we still try to fit the mould of the previous generation where degree
          Becoming engineers doctors is the route to happiness
          More people getting divorce
          These are hard facts
          Are we really happier?
          Do we want our next generation to be that way too?

  6. I am writing from the perspective of a teen?. I am 14 years old.

    I totally ?agree ?on his following points?:? ?”?Parents are deciding their children’s lives according to what people tell them is right or important.?”?? & ” Our education system is good in certain areas but questionable in foundation building.”

    Firstly?,? when ?I was in primary school, ?I? always ha?d trouble finishing? all my? homework. My ?t?eachers would give me? at least? 1 ?English and Chinese composition to do? during school days and weekends?. During the weekdays?, I usually would have to stay back in school to do my homework?.?

    ?M?y teachers would always rush? through the teaching when our examinations? were near. My ?disinterested ?classmates ?would mak?e? a lot of? noise? and I remembered I ?h?a?d?? difficulties listening to my teachers as they would ignore the?m? playing a fool? and continued with the teaching?. They would either give us the answers or would quickly ?explain how the questions? were to be tackled and they would be assigned as homework.? The learning process was cut short and our foundation was not built strongly.?

  7. I’m a relatively new re-entrant to the local education scene. I say this because I have 3 kids, the eldest is in P2, and the last time I was fully engaged in the system was during my own education, in the 80s like you.

    I’ve been looking at the few choices around me with much dismay, mostly for the same reasons you have pointed out – that I believe the current system is not doing a good job of getting my kids ‘world ready’ at all. Of course I don’t pretend to know what the future holds, nor am I particularly world ready myself (I’m medical, the field gives great reward to non-creative, non-questioning types). That has me worried, because like any other parent, id like for my kids to have as many choices as possible when they grow up.

    I see some of my peers around me who have matured to be fine young leaders in their fields. Many have moved to the far corners of the world, and everywhere they go, are in demand, rose to the occasion, fit in and deliver above what is expected of them. That is what I would like to give to my children – adaptability, integrity, and a good work ethic.

    I’m struggling with my research here and would appreciate a few pointers from those with experience – is there no hope? Are international schools a viable consideration?

  8. Of all the weighty and lofty ideas being pondered here, I need to pick on the most trivial.

    Since when has Stephen King been a literary giant?!

    But, if you insist he is (and why shouldn’t you?), that day will come when your kids will wave their copy of Mockingjay at your grand-kids and ask them to read this “timeless classic.” And justice will have been done.

    In any case, children reading Mockingjay instead of Pet Sematary can hardly be blamed on the school system.

    1. IMO, King is a literary giant because if you’ve been following his books that he has written from the 70s, his pulpy horror, written in his very readable style, has influenced so many other writers, as well as horror concepts in TVs and movies. Books like The Hunger Games are straight copies of movies like Battle Royale, and before that, The Running Man (by Richard Bachman aka Stephen King). Not all of King’s books are good (eg. The Dark Tower series) but he has sold far more books (350M) and impacted more people than many other famous authors with less interesting ideas. People often look down on his work because it’s “horror stuff”.

      Of course, I won’t insist, what we like to read is completely up to our individual preferences. I also do not dictate what my kids should read, as long as they read. The school system, if you know its current form, does little to encourage reading – only tuition and more tuition.

      1. Today’s pulp fiction is definitely tomorrow’s literary classic.
        And I really enjoyed The Running Man (my favorite Stephen King fiction – and a novella is more satisfying than his short stories and not as tedious as some of his longer novels).

        I agree that the school system is demanding and is fairly linear in its pursuit of “achievement.” Then again this is probably Singaporean culture or even just basic human behaviour (as manifested in our schools, civil service, and many SMEs) where we are prepared to sacrifice somewhat more intangible long-term goals (genuine creativity, better mental and physical health, superior processes) in exchange for short-term but tangible goals (better exam results, quantifiable statistics, increased production rather than increased productivity)
        Parents can choose to help their children to make different choices. But as with all choices, there is a cost, especially when the choice could involve going against the grain (everyone else has tuition!) and has an emotional impact (I perceive myself to be not doing as well as my classmates / peers!)

  9. Thank you for a reflective piece of writing.
    I have a little girl and what you wrote resonated alot with me.
    I guess every parents all want the best for the child and sometimes, we just fall into the “cramp” more and its all good. You rightly pointed out that the future is a very fuzzy place but its for sure a different one from what we are used to. How we as parents can teach/lead in initative, positiveness (I dont know, but I am willing to give it a shot) is an important one.

    Sadly, I wonder in SG environment, how long would it take to change our fascination with certs and awards and focus more in creativity, ideas. How if there are no certs, awards do agencies, company judge/ hire people?

  10. Thanks for sharing Ian. As a father of two boys I can relate to the issues of overloading our kids. My wife was under greater pressure because she had more chanes to talk to other mothers of our sons classmates. However we believe in nowadays’ high stress system, parents can still play an important role to manage the situation.
    With deliberate effort, I’m glad to say that both my sons had largely escaped from tuitions packed lifestyle. One of them is doing very well academically and is now studying in university. The other doesn’t fit the education system (or the other way around) and dropped out of Poly. I’m equally proud of both of them and encourage them to explore in their own ways. Not everyone has to go through the same path and certainly the future is unknown to both of them.

  11. It’s very simple. Respect the kid, Honour the process and enjoy the journey.

    I have three kids. Sec 3, Sec 1, Pri 1. We do not do tuition, we don’t buy assessment books. We watch TV, get gleeful when our kids are bored and try to not let the system get to us.

    Test: If you child answers “sales in June exceed that of July and May combined” and is marked WRONG and told the right answer is “sales in June exceed that of May and July combined”. And when asked, the teacher said that is the standard answer and PSLE will be marked this way, What would you do?

    (1) tell you child to be very sure to put May before July even if that is not relevant. ie succumb to the tyranny of the system against logic for the sake of points

    (2) argue with the teacher and insist your child gets the point

    (3) tell your child to go ahead and keep writing July before May if he feels like it. Because it is right and the system is transient and unimportant in the overall scheme of things

    Which did you choose? Did you respect the child, Honour the process and enjoy the journey? Did you subtly tell your child that we live our lives according to scores and points and these are paramount, rather than the truth? Did you show through actions that one should stand firm for what’s right rather than succumb to the tyranny of a wrong system?

    Am sure my kids will be different from many singaporean kids. Whether they will succeed in life? Who knows? It’s not a contest anyway. At least they won’t have a win-lose mindset, think resources are scarce, the pie is fixed, everyone is ranked and every peer is a competitor. At least if they were creative, I didn’t thwart it. If they were joyful, I didn’t destroy it. I hope they blossom into exactly who they are meant to be, happily. They are not mine, won’t have my thoughts and fears and their achievements are not due to me. I have them to love and hold just for a few years and it is my privilege. Try it, despite living in Singapore.

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