Inequality is not something to be taken lightly. The following video shows a rather uncomfortable conversation going on between a diverse group of teenagers whose educational paths, streams or programmes if you will, are readily identified from the things they said and the way they said them.
I wonder if Dr Janil was surprised to find the conversation to getting uncomfortable. For starters, it’s an extremely sensitive topic especially with teenagers who are at a stage in their lives when they are self-conscious and finding their place in society. I can imagine how painful it is for someone who has under-performed academically sit face to face with contemporaries who claim that they don’t have opportunities to interact with losers. Why was this “experiment” even necessary? The teenagers could have been interviewed privately and Dr Janil could have watched Jack Neo’s I Not Stupid first.
To be fair, this issue of class distinction was present long before streaming was introduced. We live in a capitalistic, meritocratic and competitive society. We want surgeons with steady hands. Those who can’t remember more than a 100 body parts and how they relate to one another need not apply. And it’s only human to want to feel proud of oneself when one outshines one’s peers. I don’t subscribe to the great American myth that people who are mean to others don’t love themselves, but a healthy degree of self worth and self esteem are essential.
We all want to succeed and even be outstanding. Even before the days of streaming, cliques formed in schools. But the cliques those days were more varied. We had Mandarin-speaking “gangs” which included students from both the English and Chinese streams. We had football “gangs” which included students of all abilities. We also had unofficial fan clubs idolising different movie stars and singers. Again, some of those in the Lin Qing Xia club were destined to doctors while others were destined to be waitresses. It’s the same with the Feng Fei Fei club. Every club, every gang was a mixed bag. Only the snobs were intentionally excluded.
At a time when teachers and principals were not given the sharp prod of KPIs, we had syllabi which were sensible and comfortable for the average student. There was time and space for the weaker students to catch up. The stronger students, like my class monitress, had time to read the classics, organise class activities and even indulge in a little Feng Fei Fei while dreamers like me continued to daydream, write poetry and somehow still managed to pass exams. Of course, we also had the snob cliques with students who imitated DJs and talked about places in Europe and America which not even they had been to. They often make fun of the Chinese educated, join the LDDS club and end up as lawyers, actors, artists, writers, musicians. Not being a member of their clique, I’m quite fortunate that they won’t recognise me as a fellow writer.
Cliques formed almost “naturally” within our society, but they formed mainly because of different interests and beliefs. We’ve had A students as well as C students in the same clique. Throw a mixed bag of students from the 1970s and 1980s in front of the TV camera, you’ll get those who are as eloquent as those on the IP programme today and you’ll also get those who are even more inarticulate than those in the NT stream today. The huge difference is, the atmosphere back then would have been very much more relaxed and there would have been a lot less discomfort. What has happened since then?
Streaming and the development of programmes to score well and impress the world in PISA tests changed everything. So much is expected of students nowadays that there is hardly any time catch one’s breath – let alone socialise across classes, serve the community and help weaker students. The cliques have now become official and separated along lines that define individual strength, ability and self worth in this pragmatic society. Ostensibly, the objective is to stretch the better students and teach the weaker ones at a pace that is more comfortable for them. The unintended consequences stem from the discounted fact that humans have feelings and teenagers are especially sensitive. Labelled and defined as IP, NA, NT, each clique looks inward and either compete fiercely among themselves or collectively throw in the towel.
I doubt our teens who are in the NT stream are in the position to be “affectionately detached” the energy vampires, the biggest of which is the system itself. They sap the energy out of one another. If there’s one slippery slope we should look out for, it’s this one and not homosexuality becoming the norm. Having said that, I’m not suggesting that we are not pushing our NT students hard enough. For too long, the system has been fixated on academics. At Ximending in Taipei, I’ve seen brilliant performances by busking students. I don’t mean to deride our disabled folks and I have donated $10 to a man on a wheelchair at AMK who sang Cantonese songs very well, but to be brutally honest, the vast majority of our buskers sing horribly. Why is it that every time I run into a young and able-bodied busker who could sing well, he’s gone the next week? The authorities seem to give priority to disabled buskers regardless of whether they can actually sing. Why is busking not considered a decent job for our talented teens here? Our NT stream should not be used as a dumping ground for students who are academically weak. It’s where we discover talent in music, art, cooking and even sales!
We should discover their strengths and interests or even passions and start their internship early. Forget about algebra and boring comprehension passages. Give them a stage to show off their abilities outside the classroom. And if the students in the Express stream or even IP feel that they are on the verge of a meltdown, they too can take a break and perhaps even change their path in life. It’s terribly unhealthy for Singapore to become a “top heavy” country where every family is obliged to produce a scholar. Let them go sing, dance, sell, cook, paint, massage… they are all decent jobs that no one should feel ashamed about. And they should be paid well – not Third World salaries. Our society would be a lot more balanced, vibrant, happier and friendlier without all these uncomfortable conversations.
Luo Da You, a Taiwanese doctor who gave up medicine to become one of the most respected musicians in the Chinese world. He is my greatest influencer. The only people who might disapprove and consider him a bad influence are probably Singaporeans policy makers.
© Chan Joon Yee