On ignorance and politics in Singapore

A fellow tutor-blogger recently wrote one of the loveliest and funniest sentences I have seen recently, a sentence that possesses such an impact because it is simple and true:

If you are a Singaporean GP student and you don’t know what GRC stands for, you are ignorant about your own country, you’re in a hole where your GP is concerned and you’d better dig yourself out before it’s too late. — Mr Steven Ooi (https://gptuitionsg.wordpress.com/2016/02/04/updating-singapores-political-system/)

While younger students could be forgiven for their ignorance, what is less forgivable is the profound level of ignorance among some Singaporeans, an ignorance that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong references in the speech Mr Ooi links us to:

By design, the President has no executive, policy-making role. And this remains the prerogative of the elected Government commanding a majority in Parliament. But in the last Presidential Election, many people didn’t understand this. I suspect even now, quite a number of people still don’t understand this. — PM Lee (http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/updating-the-political-system)

Mr Ooi has quite rightly pointed out that the speech linked above is engaging, and if one actually reads the entire thing, the speech does inform us of several important aspects of Singapore’s political system. However, one thing Mr Ooi (kindly?) neglects to observe is the way in which PM Lee’s speech plays upon the very ignorance that he has observed. PM Lee’s words, outside of Singapore’s political and historical context, sound very pleasing — but one has to remember that our PM is, after all, a politician. And you know that joke about politicians and lawyers…

I am not accusing PM Lee of being a liar, of course, but of obscuring the true state of matters by selectively ignoring several troublesome aspects of the performance of his government so far.

For example, PM Lee points out that our government has “(invested) in education at all levels” for many years. This is true: the Ministry of Education (MOE) has been funded enough such that we have seen teachers’ pay rise over the last few years. This has supposedly allowed people to “achieve their aspirations for themselves and for their children”.

Really?

Those of us in the education industry know very well the systemic inequalities that have been worked into the system, whether intentionally or not. Our school days are short enough such that a billion dollar tuition industry chugs along, rewarding richer families disproportionately; it is not an accident that students from the top schools tend to come from these families.

All over Singapore are students who aspire to enter a local university — and many of them will fail to achieve that aspiration. I do have to note that our education system is strong enough to see students who have never received private tuition go on to get degrees, but it remains true that you can pay top dollar for a tuition teacher who can give a child a level of attention that other students will never get in a typical classroom.

It is not just attention from a teacher that matters, of course; the quality of teacher also matters. I have repeatedly heard horror stories of teachers who barely do any teaching in class (ask the students around you about teachers who screen videos in class without any accompanying discussion, or about teachers who choose to complain about their personal troubles without linking it to any teaching point, etc). Then we have “English Literature teachers” who cannot tell the difference between an author and a narrator (shudder…).

PM Lee references many more issues in his speech, and beyond education, another issue that really irritates me is the way the word “multi-racial” is used here:

Fourthly, our political system must uphold a multi-racial society. Multi-racialism is fundamental to our identity as a nation because we have three major races in Singapore. We have all the world’s major religions in Singapore, and race and religion will always be fundamental tectonic fault-lines for us. If we ever split along one of these faultlines, that’s the end of us. — PM Lee

I fully agree that our society has fault lines, but even our young students are aware that we use the categories of “Singaporean” and “foreigner” much more frequently to point out difference, as compared to the Chinese/Malay/Indian/Others (CMIO) separation that was more evident here in the 1960s. PM Lee is definitely aware of this issue, but still he chooses to emphasize the CMIO classification, which has been criticized as a hindrance for Singapore. It is as if PM Lee is gearing his speech towards an audience whose political education has been dominated by “Social Studies“.

GP students have to be engaged with the world around them, and being able to engage with the issues mentioned in PM Lee’s speech is necessary. (If you are a Singaporean GP student and your knowledge of Singapore does not extend beyond what you have learnt from your Social Studies textbook, you are ignorant about your own country, you’re in a hole where your GP is concerned, and you’d better dig yourself out before it’s too late.) It is also necessary for the citizenry to be well-informed, in order that we have the “good politics” that PM Lee ostensibly desires.

Unfortunately (or fortunately,  depending on your perspective), Singapore remains the gilded cage that makes it too easy to set one’s political awareness at the level of “blissfully ignorant”. I fully agree with PM Lee when he says that “No ruling party or government must ever be afraid of open argument” — but what does this ruling party have to fear when the vast majority of Singaporeans are neither willing nor able to participate in that argument?

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What should I read to prepare for argumentative essays?

On 29 January 2016 at 17:04, XXXX wrote:

SUBJECT: Greetings from Vietnam!

Hi Kevin,

I have recently discovered your blogs and I’m truly grateful for all of your advice and tips on English essay writing. My 13 years old younger brother is revising for a scholarships offered by the Singaporean government at the moment and your blogs improved his writing tremendously. The format for this examination is quite similar to an O level english test where test takers are required to complete an essay in one hour using the topics listed. They can either be argumentative or narrative. He is doing ok with argumentative topics but I think it’s not quite enough to get him this scholarship. Having another four months until the actual examination, do you recommend reading model essays bought in Singapore? If you do, which publisher or writer should we look for?
I’m sorry for the lengthy email. I just really want my brother to get this scholarship. It would alleviate a huge financial burden on my family. I was lucky enough to succeed when I had the same opportunity many years ago but I chose to adopt trickery and work around for my O level examination. You see the one word essay question can leave room for so much pre-planned stories with multiple endings even if your English is sub par. You can guess that such tactic wouldn’t work for the A level. I flunked terribly and remained devoid of any useful advice for my bro . From my judgement, my little brother is capable of excelling and it would just take him abit more exposure to good English writing.
Yours sincerely,
XXXX

 

Hi XXXX,

Your email is quite heartwarming, you obviously care about your brother a lot!
As for reading material for a 13-year-old, it can be a bit tricky for me to recommend stuff without me knowing more about him, but here are the general principles.
  1. We need to read material that is difficult to understand, but not so difficult that we cannot understand it.
  2. We shouldn’t read only for the sake of doing well for an examination — we should care innately about what we’re reading about.
  3. Books tend to be better than shorter articles, but news articles can keep us updated on the latest going-ons.
  4. The reader needs to stay engaged, and his brain needs to stay activated.
  5. If there are other issues stopping the person from reading, these need to be dealt with. Issues I have encountered include:
    — not having a conducive environment to read
    — eyesight issues (e.g. headache when reading in excessively bright conditions)
    — addiction, particularly to video games and mobile phones

With those principles in mind, I would recommend the following

  • Adult novels from various genres
  • Opinion articles, like those from…
  • Books that support and challenge our worldview
    • If you guys are Buddhist, you might want to read a few of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books in English first. (I also enjoy the Dalai Lama’s writing.)
    • Following that, read anti-Buddhist material, like Chapter 14 (There is no ‘Eastern’ solution) in Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great.
    • The idea behind this is that we are able to see the reason behind why we have to learn how to write argumentative essays. The need for proper paragraphing and clear claims becomes clearer when the matter at hand is our religion.

Hope this helps!