Teenage Tragedy in Ang Mo Kio (Voices on Facebook, part II)

II. We Don’t Need No Education?

An 18-year-old half-Japanese girl fell to her death in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6 on Saturday 14 May. While the Shin Min Daily News report suggested that the suicide was due to relationship problems, her personal blog reveals other possible causes of psychological stress:

“I hope this is the end of my journey to a local university. No exhorbitantly-priced private institutions for me please. Fucking lao kui for me only.” – from an earlier entry in her blog. (lao kui: embarassing, shameful)

“PSLE, I fucked up. Couldn’t get into dream secondary school. ‘O’ Levels, I fucked up. Couldn’t get a place in dream polytechnic course… I got my dreams crushed again, after seeing my ‘A’ Levels grades yesterday. Bye bye to NUS FASS and NTU Humanities.” – from the last posting in her blog.

Below are two threads of Facebook discussion on this tragic case, as to what is to blame – the streaming system? Globalisation of the universities? Family environment? Societal pressure? Lack of counselling? – Or perhaps more importantly, what can possibly be done on ‘our’ part:

(See end credits for contributors to the discussion)

Thread 1 (Z’s wall):

Teenage girl falls to her death at Ang Mo Kio

(Link: http://sg.news.yahoo.com/blogs/singaporescene/teenage-girl-falls-her-death-ang-mo-kio-140049870.html)

D: oh dear

S: God damned tragedy.

Z: sad. i think the pressure comes from a ‘meritocratic’ society that knows more snobbery than compassion.

SP: That’s why I stand behind my stance of scrapping the way we stream now and say that we follow what I read the Japanese system to be

Z: how do u see the japanese system?

SP: What I read (I’ve been trying to find it again, but cannot for some reason.) is that children are streamed quite early on into different fields based on capability, languages, arts, and maths/science. They still do the basics of the other fields, so as to be multifaceted, but start specialising in certain things rather young. Granted, it’s based on results as well, but it’s certainly much better to classify via different abilities as opposed to academically good, academically normal, academically behind. Which is how our current system is viewed, and said views translate into how their capabilities, work ethic and intelligence must be,

Z: sounds like something worth exploring. but ultimately, if a student wants to study a particular course, one hopes the chances of gaining entry is not too slim due to increasing student population and limited places in two top universities. is the gap in standard between these two universities and the others really so big and does the gap need to be maintained?

SP: Ah, this touches on something that I wonder with regards to art’s schools, and how as they become more recognised they become more expensive and snobby because the standard is supposedly high, till talented people with no money cannot get in and mediocre people with money do.

But back to topic. I guess it all boils down to what standard are they aspiring for. As for the is it really so big, does it need to be so big, those are determined against certain global markers, yea? Not that the entire global system of universities does not need to re-look how they do things. Although I guess if we stopped looking at tertiary/degree level education as a cash-producing industry, things could probably be loosened up a bit.

Thread 2 (A’s wall):

E: 😦

Z: sad…

SA: Do u think there’s a flaw in our education system? Hence this girl’s dissapointment and thus suicide? Or is it just her own doing?

Z: relationship problem is common, but could it be that our society stresses so much on academic achievements that some teenagers feel inferior and worthless when they can’t make it to above average?

B: sad…

Z: it’s disturbing to read her blog: “I hope this is the end of my journey to a local university. No exhorbitantly-priced private institutions for me please. Fucking lao kui for me only.”

Z: “Sometimes I feel people are undeserving of what they have. I’m not only talking about spoilt, rich brats who have everything even though they have never worked a single day in their entire lives. In general I despise people who don’t cherish what they already have.”

A: We will never know where the blame lies. Multi-factorial I supposed.

Z: sure, there are many factors. but i also wonder if we do not have enough room in the universities to allow students a chance to develop.

A: For me, I feel that if that is the case in Singapore, then parents should think twice if they want to have children. Either do not have any or if you do, make sure you have the money to send them abroad if they fail in the local system. If you can’t have that safety net, you shouldn’t have children in Singapore.

Z: population growth is a worldwide problem. i’m lucky to be in Germany where public universities charge little or no tuition fees. in Australia, apparently local students are complaining that the universities are wooing foreign students so much so that it make places less available and it drives the fees up. i hope Singapore will not go a similar way of making education so commercial.

A: Sorry Z. I’m going to cut and paste something I wrote in response to D on a thread discussion. Too tired to tweak it to an apt response to our discussion. Please bear with me.

For me, when I do “protest” and not have a maid or… when I opt not to bring life into this world but still choose to live in Singapore, I see that as not giving up. I see that as hope. If we have (hopefully ‘had’) a ruling party that has been blind to our pleas, then what can we do? Either leave or stay and protest. Some protest and are detained, sued till bankrupt. And some of us protest is other ways which see us surviving and not suffering the persecution other activists have. That is hope, isn’t it? And now, there is a breakthrough (well sort of, remains to be seen in the near future) at the ballot box cos enough Singaporeans want heart and soul and not just $ and GDP.

Sad as it is, the ruling party (supposed to be cream of the crop) is not perceptive enough to work out the root cause of our social ailments. They all (fertility rate going down, suicide rate going up, brain-drain etc…) are symptoms of their option to pursue economic excellence at the expense of all else. Perhaps it’s their blind spot as they can’t see that there is any other way the country should progress. Can’t see, never mind. Don’t want to listen to the ground some more. Also because they feel they own the monopoly of wisdom.

Ok. We all know the above.

What do we, the citizens do in the meantime? We keep only engaging the government to make improvements or to change their mindsets. Ok. That’s fine. But in the meantime, concurrently, were we doing anything else? We were trying to see if the people sector, on our own could work together to build alternative communities? We can’t even do that amongst ourselves (civil society, artists etc…). We can’t process alternative environments…we are not creative enough? Not imaginative enough? Not resourceful enough? Do not know how to work amongst ourselves? Which eventually make us go back to the ruling party. Which make us rely on them more than ever. And now, we are relying on the opposition party to save us.

I don’t believe that the ruling party nor the opposition are the only source of our redemption. I strongly believe it also depends on how we, the citizens, work out the way we want to collaborate to create alternative environments. And we can only do that if we take accountability and responsibility. When we become the true stakeholders who take our very own destinies in our very own hands and deal with our immediate reality with more urgency, sharing resources and capital to develop our capacity to be fully human. If the ruling party transforms and / or the opposition party succeeds in parliament, then it is a bonus. Where is the “we” taking responsibility? We have lost the sense of community. But instead of whining and complaining, what are we doing about it? Every suicide becomes a societal problem? Or we point the finger at the ruling party and their economic-obsessed policies? Sigh! It’s passe. We all know the tiger doesn’t change its spots. We vote opposition, but tons of SIngaporeans will vote the ruling party back in eventually. Sure, WP has a GRC now and ruling party’s shared votes are down. But for me, the most effective way is to, concurrent to the relative progress made in parliamentary politics, have the people sector wake up and work to develop our capacity to transcend differences and work towards our common goal of an alternative Singapore. I don’t even dream that it can be achieved in my lifetime. But are we even starting to look at each other and not at father all the time?

Z: thanks A. we can’t reduce a tragic case like this to any simple root cause, and we can’t point our finger at any one single sector. if we attempt to, we can only summarise it as a meritocracy gone wrong. there are things that need to be changed at the policy level, but there are also ways of showing care for a teenager, not just from a teacher or counsellor but also from family and friends, and from the social environment as a whole, from a world that can choose to send a message across that money or academic achievement isn’t everything, and that there are other ways of developing education. Even if we feel the message each of us sends out to the world is too negligible to be heard, we should not shy away from sending it.

A: so for this tragic case, you’re saying all the channels she had accessed to failed her?

SL: after reading this news, i felt really fucked up and pissed off on an extreme level. only a week ago i proposed for a class that i’m teaching about educating and embracing failure as something that oppose to the whole ideology of excelling …that i noticed in almost all education system has come to reached to an extreme twisted level. I believe that we should be properly educating our younger generations that failure doesn’t mean a full stop. if all of you have noticed, all the schools motto do have something along the line of excel, being the best and all that bullshit. Not everyone can excel, not everyone is cut out to be the best. the idea is not to outcast but to understand that failure needs to be acknowledged and to help realize a journey to take on. what our educators and institutions has been promoting is not fear, but phobia of failure or fear of taking risks that is supported by the whole streaming bullshit system that doesn’t help younger generations realize what they can really do and who they are and can be.

SL: just to add a bit more.. education shouldn’t be about how well you can do your math, or what qualification you have or possess as a stepping stone to the next level. Education should encompass everything, from success to failure, learning to win and more importantly, learning to fail.

Z: A, do u think i can have your permission to copy the discussion in this thread into a note and just post it out in facebook to my friends? (names will be abbreviated to protect identities)

A: I’m fine cos I’m always looking for opinions.

Z: thanks…

SL: sorry if i came off too angsty. this poor girl stays across the street from my old neighborhood that i grew up in. so i could actually visualize the whole space and the environment she grew up in in my head.

A: Not at all .. I appreciate your expressing your thoughts so honestly. It’s not angsty to me.

SL: Well, I lived in AMK blk … for a good 19 years before i moved to punggol about 10 years ago. AMK has a very warmth and real heartland feel to it, the area I lived in are rather old now a little too stuck in the 80s if you know what i mean…. I studied in the neighborhood schools there … and was the first batch of victims to go through EM3 and normal technical stream. i can still recall that all the schools overly emphasize on the concept of excelling and being the best or the top. i grew up in an average home, nothing fancy, but the whole pursue of excellence among my friends and community was just driving me crazy. I’m out of the school system for almost 15 years now, i still can recognize that pressure that goes on when i go back to visit AMK.

Thread 1 (further comments):

EO: i don’t know. instinctively i reach for the parents. mass education wasn’t and still isn’t designed for individual talent development; that’s too labour intensive to do justice to in classes. mass education is for training a labour force, for political orientation. i say leave the system alone. it’s the plague of the developing country: life trapped in a vortex of employment-centrism. industrial britain and america went through the same phases. more important is for civil society to raise awareness that life > just work in parents, but that takes a certain level of material comfort sustained over a few generations.

SY: hi i just checked internet after a few relaxing days.

in my personal experience dealing with children and youth, the system doesn’t stress them up as much as their parents do. does any report speak about the relationships in her family?

SH: i don’t really have much to say about Krystal’s death, because I do not know her personally, and I think her death (and life) should be her own, at least for now. (I’m probably just old-fashioned that way.)

I also don’t know enough about the… family dynamics, so I will leave that out for now.

However, what I can comment on is the education system, I suppose. I think we all need our spaces and structures; i don’t really think we can ‘improve’ the system by tacking more stuff onto it. A big problem is that there’s too much stuff (and not enough space) in the systems we shape and are shaped by, until ‘system’ is no longer a subset of ‘reality’, but ‘reality’ is a subset of ‘system’.

(I’m adding to the problem now, perhaps, by talking about the system. The more you ascribe power to the system, the more it actually has. So bear with me for a while, as I try to exorcise these demons.)

Perhaps our main watchwords for our society are ‘industry’ and ‘efficiency’, from which many other things are derived. Our system tries to enforce that, to produce that. Mass education, as E has pointed out above, is meant to train a labour force and politically orient the young into stable (non-disruptive) individuals. That is what the system will encourage and enforce, because it is what it was designed (by us and for us) to do.

SH: ‎(More wall of text follows)

But what if the system isn’t everything? It’s not about whether it’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – or even ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It’s sheer category error. I cannot reasonably expect a housecat to be able to meaningfully choose the colour of my shirt, so why should I meow at the cat and seek its sartorial wisdom?

Similarly, the education system – the political system – the social system – cannot be the end-all and be-all of our needs and wants. More than anything else, society is a community and collection of resources – we can draw from the systems, but we should not let them have more power than they already have, because these machines we build are greedy things, thirsting for blood, oil, and meaning.

I’ll borrow a point from Thomas Malaby, an anthropologist who studies games. He draws reference from Weber’s thesis about modernity – the whole Iron Cage thing – and compares games and bureaucracies, which both have rules, but use them in very different ways.

Bureaucracies create and use rules in an attempt to reduce possibilities to a predictable, easily-regulated order, whereas games create and use rules in an attempt to generate possibilities among several meaningful alternatives.

One aspires to achieve necessity as its ultimate goal, the other seeks to create contingency as its operating principle.

With that in mind, when we create huge systems that try to be too efficient, and we shovel people into various processing points based on various parameters, it is very easy for overpowering sense of helplessness and irrelevance to whack us when we’re down, because we believe in the ‘necessity’ of it all.

Z: Thanks for the precious thoughts. Right now I just wonder if the system is giving us enough information. MOE director of higher education said in 2006, in response to complaints about local students being sidelined, that “about 70% of students from each A-level cohort enter NUS, NTU and SMU”. Now imagine a student who wants to study arts in NUS and wants to know the odds. Or the parents want to know the odds. That figure isn’t helpful enough.


SH: ‎(Lagi more wall!)

So, how? I don’t advocate tearing down the system, because it works for a lot of people, who will not be able to deal with the sudden change. I also don’t advocate improving (i.e. adding on to) the system, because the system should only have power where it has relevance, and it should not seek to dominate the discussion in the places where it should be silent.

Thus, I think we should focus. We should hold the bureaucrats responsible not just for *what* or *how* they teach; that just muddies the waters. Everyone can learn stuff on their own; internet-fueled autodidacticism, discussion with friends, etc. For most people, knowledge can be obtained from other places, not just schools; learning does not just take place in the academy.

So I think the real importance of education in this society lies in its value as capital, not just in the cultural sense of knowledge, but also as social capital (for networking and talking to others, making friends who can challenge and encourage you, etc) and as symbolic capital (oh, you’re educated, so smart ah).

Thus, we should focus on whether the educational specialists we appoint for our society are providing the services they are *supposed* to be offering. We pretend we are making kids smarter, but actually, we’re conducting a ritual that allows kids to transmute themselves into functional adults.

If the schools we build are not big enough or willing to accept the students from our society who truly need these services – not just those who wish to learn and excel – but also those who wish to seek direction, those who need to talk to others to find themselves, and thus draw inspiration from their peers, who perhaps can show them different horizons and frames of reference for reality…

then we have a problem there. And that problem feeds other problems – stigmas of lao kui, old boys’ networks, etc.

Uh, so I guess that’s my main point (if I had one). I probably rambled off focus there. I want to be a teacher, not because I want to teach, but because I want to help my students learn. Yeah.

JH: Speaking as a mother, I agree that the parental/familial relationship can be the most important influence. However, very often, I find myself unpacking/deconstructing stuff that goes on in school. It becomes a very delicate balance to help your child maintain self-esteem while not destroying his confidence in the system.

While the system may have worked well for a lot of people, I doubt it is perceived to be working as well now, starting from Primary One. Parent who are not kiasu find it hard to insulate and explain to our children why things are the way they are. Parents who do not question the system end up spending tons of money on tuition because the students cannot learn as fast as the syllabus dictate. Parents who cannot afford tuition have to just watch their children get left further and further behind…

It takes a lot of parental thought, reflection and guts to be able to guide your child through the whole system in a way that is appropriate for her, her ability and personality. How many parents can devote that amount of time, with the relentless pressures of tests and homework?

The system itself is not solely to blame. But I think it’s high time to stop blaming and really see how each piece in the picture is in some way contributing to the issue not being solved. I don’t see any political will in managing this issue beyond lip service and beautiful MOE write-ups that are not being translated into practice.

Z: Thanks for sharing that Joo Hymn. I wish there are more people who are alarmed by cases like this and try to convey more positivity and care to students who are under such tremendous pressure. After seeing some defence of the ruling party by the civil servant or regional manager type during the election debate, I do realise that a lot of people in society may be taking that “there will always be people falling thru the cracks, but so what” kind of attitude, and i won’t want to place hope on any change initiated by the system.

Facebook Personae Identified:

A – Alvin Tan, theatre practitioner, jaded activist

EO – Eugene Oh, student

JH – Joo Hymn Tan, mother/former pre-school teacher/sometime activist

SH – Shao Han, would-be teacher and sometime berserker

SP – Sean Padman McMenamin, educator/insatiable reader/headbanging gamer-punk

SY – Lin Shiyun, NUS philosophy department drop-out

Z – Z’ming Cik, suspected blogger of this post


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