It was an evening for parents to get updated on the school curriculum by teachers and the school principal. A few topics were touched on. First, the honourable principal mentioned ICT – information and communication technology. For the students, it means that they’re going to get even more online learning activities. Go with the global trend. Don’t lose out. Don’t get left behind. So what’s new? It’s still about pushing boundaries and going to extremes.
For us parents and grannies, it simply means an extra app on our smartphones and tablets. They’re going to stop giving parents consent forms and other acknowledgements to sign. The honourable school principal proudly announced that they’re going paperless. All consent forms and other notification will be sent via mobile application. Yes, you’ve just heard me sigh, but before you say dinosaur, I think you should be aware how active I am on social media. I’m perfectly comfortable in cyberspace and with new gadgets. The only dinosaur thing about me is that I still use HTML and read printed books.
The ones most affected by new technology (without knowing it to boot) are not parents but the students. There will be more and more e-learning and online assignments. Of course, it’s good to be interactive, but as a Buddhist, I’m always mindful about extremes, excesses and going overboard. Do we have to digitise Singapore to such an extent? The electronic medium is virtually indispensable when searching for information in huge databases, but it is not always necessary. There is a common misconception that using electronic readers and documents will save the environment. Not true at all. Information in a paper document can be retrieved without any energy cost. Imagine that every time you retrieve your e-documents, you need to keep your phone, tablet, computer or some other device powered or charged. Hardly environmentally friendly if you ask me. A printed dictionary saves you a lot of power.
Next, the digital platform can breed some bad habits. The appalling demise of the reading habit in Singapore, the lack of patience, empathy and even memory can all be attributed to an overdose of electronic media. Ironically, proof for all that can be readily found online. I bet the policymakers may have either completely overlooked them or viewed them as unimportant. I can’t disagree more.
We’ve all been constantly warned about how the spread of ill feelings vis-a-vis race and religion can destroy a small country like Singapore. No one warns us how the radical push for the latest technology, allowing it to govern every administrative procedure and aspect of our lives, may alter our very human nature. I enjoy interacting with friends and strangers on social media, but I also like the wilderness and the great outdoors. I like to hang out with friends for a beer or coffee. I enjoy the company of friends in the real world. You won’t find me fiddling with my phone for more than 2 minutes on a long train ride. Instead, you’re far more likely to find me reading or listening to an audio book. Like a weirdo in a crazy world, I don’t play computer games at all. I love to read – preferably printed books, if not, then on my Kindle. At times, I feel so lucky to have grown up without computers. That has, to a very large extent, enabled me to strike a balance between the digital world and the analog world. If only our youngsters can strike the balance when bits and bytes are woven into every fabric of their being.
Next, the honourable school principal talked about something which has always been a bone of contention with me. The Purple Parade. What is the Purple Parade? From their website:
The Purple Parade is a movement that supports the inclusion & celebrates the abilities of persons with special needs.
We are making a movement towards a more inclusive society, opening our eyes to the special needs people around us.
With all due respect to these volunteers, it’s very easy to “support inclusion” and “celebrate abilities” over a weekend. But for the unfortunate individuals, life is not a parade. And for these volunteers, genuine care and inclusiveness means you are willing to accept people with disabilities as your colleagues and help them out at the workplace even though you often complain about your able-bodied colleagues taking more MCs and toilet breaks than you do. For the employers, it means paying these “included” individuals the same wages as your able-bodied workers and not retrenching them at 45 (or earlier) to be replaced with able-bodied foreigners.
As a parent of autistic children, it is very clear to me that our highly competitive society does not even accommodate “normal” individuals who are academically weak – let alone autistic people. A restaurant owner told a friend of mine that he may be keen on employing his autistic son as a waiter. The salary? $600 a month. I also know a wealthy dentist who used to employ deaf technicians, paying them pittance for their crown and bridge work. How many autistic people does the civil service employ? We can talk and parade about inclusiveness till the cows come home, but are there laws on minimum wages to protect these vulnerable individuals from exploitation?
Organisations involved in the parade may have their own definitions and KPIs for successful programmes and events, but as a parent, it doesn’t matter if more people turn up for the Purple Parade than for Pink Dot. It doesn’t matter if the guest-of-honour holds the highest office in the land and showers everyone with champagne. It doesn’t matter how loud the audience cheers when they see the special needs kids struggle to perform on stage. Talk is cheap. Applause is free. There is not a shadow of doubt in my mind that a perfunctory movement like this will not change the realities on the ground; discriminatory business practices and the lack of genuine market value for the “abilities” being celebrated.
There is a reason why prominent politicians are invited as guest-of-honour during such events. Activities like this were conceptualised by politicians. Interestingly, while our leaders pledge their support with nothing but kind words and sensitive language when addressing the crowd, such enthusiasm is totally lost when new requirements in our examination system are passed, making life even more difficult for people with learning and physical disabilities. It makes us wonder what this movement is really all about.
The honourable English teachers then went on stage and presented the contents of the English teaching programme, Stellar and the latest changes to requirements in PSLE English. Our autistic children who would probably have far fewer problems managing the 1976 PSLE paper which I took, are already struggling without the latest changes. Does my 1976 PSLE English sound bad to you? Why fix something that is not broken? These changes purported to test “21st century competencies” (apparently only in the English-speaking world), are likely to further increase the demand for high-end (expensive) tutors and tuition centres. They’re asking our kids to discuss the SEA Games (for which even I can’t tell you much) during the oral exam. They’re talking about “argumentative” composition similar to our General Paper at A Level! Yao mo gao chor ah? If these are “21st century competencies” at age 12, I wish they they could apply the same standards to some of the foreign students on scholarships to do post-graduate degrees in our tertiary institutions. The results may shock you.
Really, where do our problems start and how can they ever end? Purple Parade? A total farce. I wonder if the parents who had submitted their “purple” forms pledging support for the parade felt like taking the forms back after hearing the latest “21st century competencies”. I didn’t even submit mine. Luckily they didn’t force me. Otherwise, I would have put my name as Tan Ah Kow and given them my mother-in-law’s phone number.
© Chan Joon Yee