It’s not me who is “kan cheong”

This post has been published as a letter in Today, 10 Oct, under the headline “To educate is not to hothouse“.

In May this year, I was so outraged by the steep difficulty in a primary school exam paper that my wife showed me, I wrote my first letter to Today about the unrealistic standards in our education system. It was followed by a flurry of letters by other parents, and by National Day, this had become a national conversation of sorts.

I was glad to know that I was not the only one who thought that the system has become distorted.

Continue reading “It’s not me who is “kan cheong””

Getting to the root of kiasuism

This commentary was published in Today on 27th Aug as a parent’s reflection on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2012 National Day Rally the night before. I focused on the topics of education and the birth rate, which readers will know are my two pet topics on this blog and in real life. Contrary to popular belief, the family photo wasn’t a National Day thingy, but Chinese New Year from earlier this year 🙂

As a parent of two primary school children, I paid extra attention to the Prime Minister’s take on education and the birth rate. I was glad to see some glaring gaps finally plugged, or at least touched on.

Continue reading “Getting to the root of kiasuism”

Why would people want to have kids in Singapore?

This posting was published in Today newspaper 14 Aug 2012 under the headline “For babies, redefine happiness”.

Back in the 2000s, each time my wife gave birth, my friends would joke “Hey the Baby Bonus worked!” We had a good laugh, because it was very clear to my social circle that the Government’s fertility policies had nothing to do with our decision to have children.

Continue reading “Why would people want to have kids in Singapore?”

Is the Education Ministry really listening to parents’ feedback?

Update 7 June: The Today newspaper has published this letter under the title “MOE has role in ‘arms race'”

I have sent this letter to the Today Voices page. I wrote it despite being tired out from a long day at work and also while teaching Isaac how to improve his English composition.

I refer to the story “A call to relearn how we teach our children” (Today, 5 June 2012) where Education Minister Heng Swee Keat offered his take on the primary school education today.

He said that parents should not compare the education methods of today with those of the past, since children will be growing up in a different world from today. Yet at the same time, he asked for parents to continue giving feedback to engage the educators.

Herein lies the contradiction that frustrates parents to no end.

It is clear that many parents have been giving repeated feedback that the education system has been overloading our children with a curriculum of unrealistic standards.

This has resulted in an “arms race” between tuition centers, school principals and assessment book authors to pose the most ludicrous types of test questions for our bewildered children. Their only goal  appears to be earning bragging rights about who can set the toughest standards.

Many well-educated parents struggle with long working hours in a society stressed by rising costs, yet are asked to learn new teaching methods for PSLE questions. It begs the question why we went to university in the first place if we now struggle to teach elementary mathematics.

Nevertheless, the Education Ministry keeps insisting that it is trying to do the right thing for our children and in the process ignores the very feedback it has requested. It has also not stepped in to moderate the educational “arms race” in any way.

The obvious beneficiaries of this whole situation are elitist tuition centers who now have the impunity to pick and choose only the brightest students, thus ensuring the “effectiveness” of their expensive classes. There was a recent newspaper ad taken out by a tuition center that boasted having taught 8 out of 17 of the top PSLE scorers.

The Minister also said that teachers are trying their best to prepare students for the unknowns in the future.

Let me pose this question – how do you prepare for the unknown? Do you know what you don’t know? Is it better then, to prepare students for the known, for the things that are within our control?

From what I have observed, the education system today does a dismal job of instilling the basics of good language and mathematics in our students. It prefers to rush them into using unnecessary, stilted vocabulary and mathematical modeling methods that they will never use in their secondary school days or adult life.

In a world where technology is changing the way we live faster than ever before, it is even more critical  for students to have a strong grasp of the fundamentals so they do not get lost in the deluge of information and ideas.

I would ask that the Education Ministry learn to take feedback in its stride, and not assure us with words we parents do not agree with.

It’s a strong foundation that counts

This letter is a follow up from my original letter “Standards are unrealistic” and a response to the Ministry of Education’s quotes in Today’s news story “Primary school maths: A vicious circle”. I have sent this to Today Voices editor, hopefully it gets published  and it has been published here.

Dear Voices Editor,

I refer to the story “Primary school maths: A vicious circle” (Today, 8 May). I thank the Today team for following up from my original letter and sharing a range of views on the issues in local education.

After my letter was published, it was shared widely on social media channels and I took some time to read through the numerous responses from other parents. What was disheartening to read was a common thread that our opinions would fall on deaf ears.

The Ministry’s responses ranged from (I paraphrase) “PSLE  mathematics has not gotten more difficult” to “subject syllabi is regularly based on widespread consultation”, driving home the point that Ministry may not have grasped our grievances and is all too quick to dismiss public feedback.

Now, it would be challenging for the layman to dispute the Ministry’s stand that mathematics standards have not changed over the years, given that we are not steeped in pedagogical methods. What we do see clearly is a gradual destabilization of the education system as it shifts responsibility for learning from schools to tuition centres. This opens up a massive divide between those who can afford tuition, and those who can’t.

Such a situation can’t possibly be meritocratic in any sense.

I do not disagree with providing a small proportion of challenging problems to help determine the cream of the crop. I have aced my studies, won a scholarship and taken on numerous challenges with the relentless drive to become the best in my cohort. I know what the MOE is driving at because I am a product of its system (and my mum’s constant nagging).

However, I do remember being drilled with a strong foundation in the basics in primary school. The glaring difference today is that so much emphasis is placed on learning how to answer the “tough” questions, the students end up with shaky basics in arithmetic, grammar or second language.

If you look at the English curriculum, students are encouraged to memorize and use flowery, pretentious sentences simply for the sake of doing so. As an ex-journalist with a decade of professional writing experience, this goes against every principle of concise communication skills. There is no point writing a dozen complex sentences when you can express the same idea with one simple phrase.

A local university professor remarked to me recently that the standards of his students’ communication skills have actually dropped over the years. How did that happen?

As a parent, I can only hope that the MOE is able to accept our honest feedback and be willing to take a good, hard look at the system. I do fear for our children as they get haplessly caught in this vicious circle that has no end in sight.


Ian Tan Yong Hoe