I would have liked to score more than 185, out of a maximum of 300, for my Primary School Leaving Examination aggregate score. That was my reply to ‘what would you change about your life if you had carte blanche to relive it?’ or whatever variation of this question permanently stuck in the roll of questions to ask while grabbing drinks or post-dinner. I would have also surely liked to score less than 24 points for my GCE ‘O’ Levels. I was sure that the two were correlative. A higher PSLE aggregate naturally (oh naturally…) meant a lower ‘O’ level score. How much more I would add for PSLE, or how much I would like cut for ‘O’s, though, I was not exactly sure. What I did know was that I had a small idea of who I wanted to be, and what I wanted to do.
You know… paper dictates whom you think you are most likely to be and what you are most likely to do.
Every young child grows up wanting to be a great many things. In Singapore, most dreams are not impossible to reach. Doctors, lawyers, pilots, scientists, engineers, teachers, bankers, entrepreneurs, designers, artists, chefs, patissiers and more. In Singapore, you can be one, or all of them at some time in life. The only things that one needs to have are the enthusiasm, diligence, dedication and industry to chase dreams no? But what of the pain, fear, frustration and disappointment on the faces of 12-year olds as they discover, like yours truly in 2006, that they have a PSLE aggregate score of 185 or less? The pain is in believing that dreams are slipping away. The fear is of the now dark tunnel of unknown ahead that represents the future. Frustration stems from withering self-worth and self-confidence. Disappointment lives in the way that the community, even those closest, now sees them as lesser people.
My 12-year old cousin recently received his own PSLE results that places him outside the Express programme in secondary schools. This young heart, and countless others like him, immediately understands that he is unlikely to become a professional adult thought of highly in Singapore such as doctors or lawyers. Even nearly a decade after receiving my own results, whom you want to be before turning 12 no longer matters after receiving this first piece of academic qualifications. A simple piece of thin cellulose pulp, or you know… paper, dictates whom you think you are most likely to be and what you are most likely to do.
We are all slaves to a modern caste system based on grades because we unwittingly allowed it to govern our society in spite of its blatant artificiality.
The result is that our youth now decide the future based not on whom they want to be or who they believe they can be. Instead, they turn away from what their heart says to them and listen to their heads… Heads that believe that some piece of paper can tell them who they cannot be. Or more distressingly, who they must be. Chasing dreams, whatever they may be, then becomes more improbable as they enter their successive lots in life because the trapdoor is set either way. Poor grades? Your calling must be sports, music, drama, hospitality or one of the less academically driven and less esteemed trades. Good grades? Then you cannot do anything else but get a law, medical or engineering degree. Even if the window to achieving dreams was not closed, the focus on academic success leads our culture to plant seeds that grow to funnel away the truth that everyone can be whoever they want to be.
Many undoubtedly fear the consequences of this myopic attitude to education and life, but what was the cause and what is the solution? The adage ‘if we can’t beat them, join them’ perhaps presents the most obvious solution. After all, this approach in Singapore has survived decades and is the envy of both the developed and developing world. If so, then there in the solution could also lay the cause since the its easier to continue the practice than to break the cycle that has caged children of all ages from discovering the world beyond their textbooks. So these days I’d say that, if I had carte blanche, I would like to stick my hands in where they didn’t belong more often, regardless of what anyone says about what I was meant or not meant to do. Otherwise, we are all slaves to a modern caste system based on grades because we unwittingly allowed it to govern our society in spite of its blatant artificiality.
I refuse to believe that we would surrender our freedom this way.
Featured Image Credit: Nick Veasey
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