One way Singapore’s schools make you stupid: the fixed mindset

Which do you believe to be more true? Consider the two statements while you read the post below.

Statement 1: Intelligence is set in stone at birth. (If a person is really stupid, he can work hard to learn new things, but he will never be very good at anything.)

Statement 2: Intelligence is dynamic, changeable, and is able to be improved. (If a person puts in the proper effort, he can learn anything he wants to, within reason.)

I remember wanting to do well for some kind of IQ test when I was in Primary 3, so that I could get into the Gifted Education Programme (GEP). My parents were obviously and understandably proud of me for passing the first round of testing, which was given to all the students in my school, but they told me that passing the test was unimportant — all that mattered was that I tried my best. The second round of testing was held on a Saturday, and was purely voluntary.

The school corridors were comfortingly quiet when I took the test. I was used to the corridors being a deafening maelstrom of prepubescent boys (ACJS, noisy kids in the 90s), and the silence only helped me to focus more on the questions in front of me. There were several questions I had trouble with, but I wasn’t worried about them. I figured that the other boys would be having problems as well. My confidence came from the happy fact of a machine telling me that I was a genius — the machine being one of those fortune telling machines that doubled as a weighing machine, at 20 cents a go. After being told by that machine that I was a genius, I spent way too much time dancing around my sister singing I’m a genius, I’m a genius! And if memory serves me well, I truly believed it — my parents’ friends calling me “The Little Professor” (I wore really thick spectacles) probably didn’t help my sister’s case that I was being an obnoxious brat.

It was thus an earth-shattering blow to my views of myself and the world when the test results came back. Something like: Sorry, Kevin has not been accepted into the Gifted Education Programme. Still, he is a very bright boy. Keep up the good work!

I had to relinquish my former status as a genius. As the months and years rolled forward, I would watch the GEP boys as they paraded around the school like the precocious geniuses everyone thought they were (and some of them did strut) with a mixture of envy and something close to disgust. It was a disgust at how proud they were of themselves, and a disgust with myself that I couldn’t be one of them. Mine was an injured pride.

It was in Primary 3 that I stopped consistently getting 99s and 100s for almost all of my tests — I started getting 95s and 96s, and in the case of Chinese, 85s (all over 100). My parents kept on reinforcing this message: just try your best, that will be enough. A 100/100 test score would have been meaningless to them if I didn’t put in my full effort, but a 60/100 score would have been wonderful if I had struggled with all my might to get there.

I persuaded myself that I was still trying my best, even though my scores were dropping. I comforted myself with the fact that, besides Chinese and Art, I was still close to the top of the class almost all the time.

These days I wonder: how much damage did that test do to me?

It gave me the unconscious belief that there were people who were simply more intelligent than me, that they had something special in their skulls that allowed them to solve more difficult problems. Then there were those GEP students who were school athletes — those superboys gave me the unconscious belief that there were people who were just downright better than me.

I was developing what is now called a fixed mindset of intelligence. I believed that people were inherently and naturally clever or stupid. I still believed in hard work, of course, but I came to view it as a half-and-half combination — hard work could only get you half the way, and you would need innate intelligence to go the rest of the way.

Psychologists now know that the fixed mindset causes drops in levels of motivation, confidence, and performance. I developed the fear of doing badly in tests, because that would only confirm that I wasn’t a genius. I was focused on scoring well, because that would help to strengthen the belief that I was still more intelligent than average, even if I wasn’t a genius.

On hindsight, the test probably had these effects on me:
– I probably gave up faster upon encountering hardship (like a difficult math problem)
– I probably was focused more on test results than on learning from corrections
– I probably felt less motivated to do well in school

What I needed was a growth mindset. I needed these beliefs: that intelligence is something that can be changed, and that performance is inextricably linked to effort. People with growth mindsets are focused on learning goals, even if they also care about their performance. Given a test result with feedback on potential areas for learning, for example, they focus on how they can improve, rather than looking only at the test score.Curiously, by trying to teach me the value of hard work (100/100 would have been meaningless if I didn’t put in

Curiously, by trying to teach me the value of hard work (100/100 would have been meaningless if I didn’t put in much effort), my parents were unconsciously working to promote a growth mindset.

The science is very clear on this: people with growth mindsets consistently outperform people with fixed mindsets. When it comes to academic skills, it is likewise clear that beliefs (fixed vs growth mindsets) can affect performance (via things like motivation, confidence, and eagerness to learn).

Which do you believe to be more true now?

Statement 1: Intelligence is set in stone at birth. (If a person is really stupid, he can work hard to learn new things, but he will never be very good at anything.)

Statement 2: Intelligence is dynamic, changeable, and is able to be improved. (If a person puts in the proper effort, he can learn anything he wants to, within reason.)

The second statement describes the growth mindset, which will see you expect more out of your students, children, co-workers, and every human being that crosses your path. We can only push the limits of our achievement if we put in the effort.

And if we’re going to stream students by their test scores, let’s be aware of streaming’s negative effects. It certainly made me stupid, at least for awhile.

As for the child who failed the GEP test? I rebelled* by pushing my curfew later and later, spending my time at a second-hand bookstore near my school. I ended up reading Frankenstein (by Mary Shelley, a book firmly in the English literary canon) when I was Primary 6, sowing the seeds for my future.

* 6pm curfew? I would arrive home at 6.10pm. What a rebel.

Further reading:
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck (2007)
Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman (2013)
Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives, (2014)

Oh shit, oh SHIT: “about two in five of the teens surveyed had paid for sex” — Straits Times, 10 April 2016

In the first-ever study of Singapore youth who have had sex with prostitutes, it was found that about two in five of the teens surveyed had paid for sex. The interviews were conducted with some 300 heterosexual boys aged between 16 and 19 who went to a government specialist clinic that treats sexually transmitted infections (STIs), between 2009 and 2014.

More teenage boys paying for sex: Study


Thankfully, the 40% of teens who paid for sex do not come from a random sample of teens — this sample was selected from boys who had already sought treatment for sexually transmitted infections. Still, the numbers are staggering — and these are only the boys who have sense enough to be worried about their health. What about the more oblivious ones?

These boys may be in the minority (given that there are over a million youth in Singapore), but the interviews published in the Straits Times suggest a male youth culture that has been poisoned by pornography and misguided peer expectations about sex:

“These boys want to feel accepted and want to boost their ego. They may not have a girlfriend to boast of, but they can pay to ‘conquer’ a prostitute. . . . The boys say their friends dare or urge them to go to a sex worker to initiate them into manhood.” – Associate Professor Wong Mee Lian

“My army mates talk openly about their sexual experiences and visiting prostitutes. And if you have nothing to share, they tease you. . . . I was a bit embarrassed (about being a virgin) and I wanted to fit in.” – 19 year old boy, who had his first sexual encounter with a prostitute last year when he was 18.

— Allure of paid sex for teenage boys

Over in Australia, researchers have found that girls as young as 15 are having to deal with porn addicted boys — pornography is shaping the behaviour and expectations of young teenage boys, and girls who are unfortunate enough to have to deal with them are crying out for help (source). I would be thoroughly surprised if this isn’t happening in Singapore as well, since pornography is also cited as one of the key reasons why our teenage boys are patronizing sex workers. (“Never having had a girlfriend, or one who is sexually active, and watching pornography frequently are the two strongest reasons why teenage boys turn to prostitutes, according to the first study here on teens who pay for sex.” — Allure of paid sex for teenage boys)

All of us — parents, teachers, children — cannot hide our heads in the sand any longer. We ignore these issues at our own peril. This isn’t just an issue about STIs, this affects children’s mental health too: teenagers who indulge in casual sex are more likely to suffer from depression than their peers who avoid casual sex (source).

This isn’t solely about sex education as we commonly conceive of it, either. We need to give our young ones a comprehensive education about love, even if we adults haven’t figured that out yet. At the very least, we need to tell them (and show them with our lives) that the most rewarding forms of sex often take place within loving relationships. We need to talk about pre-marital sex. We need to explore with our children why some married people stray from the boundaries of their marriage to commit adultery. We need to talk about pornography. We need to speak openly of these issues so that our children are as prepared as we can get them to negotiate the minefields of human sexuality. And yes, we do need to teach abstinence, but together with all of the above.

The more conservative segment of Singapore cannot scream and shout about abstinence-only sex education. Too many studies have shown that this kind of approach is “scientifically and ethically problematic” (source), to put it mildly. Our society will survive this crisis, of course. But what kind of romantic world will we be leaving our children to inherit, if we take no action?

Singapore Children’s Society chief executive Alfred Tan states the obvious (in the ST article), but his statement is no less important for it: “We have to start talking about sexuality issues with our children, to let them know what’s right and what’s wrong, when they are as young as possible.”

PS. I have to apologize for the clickbait title, but I feel that this is an issue more crucial than any change to the PSLE t-score or whatnot. The habit of looking for instant gratification is exactly what’s wrong with our society, and not just in terms of sexuality.


General Paper tips for private candidates without GP teachers or tutors

So you’re staring at your A-level certificate, wondering how on earth two years of JC grinding got you such shitty grades. Then you realize: oh, it was all that playing around with so-and-so and such-and-such. You decide to retake the A-levels, with all the enthusiasm and determination that you can muster (THIS TIME I WILL STUDY HARD), and then it occurs to you: oh crap, I have no teachers!!

Don’t worry, Mr Seah is here to save the day (he’s gonna try anyway). Here’s what you can do for GP if you’re retaking the A-levels, and if you don’t have a tutor.

1. Gather all your old work (and comfort yourself for awhile)

You have gone through at least two years of classes, and you know something about GP. No need to panic, ya? Look through your marked essays in particular, and carefully review your teachers’ comments. These comments should show you some of your weaknesses, especially if you had committed teachers who wrote detailed comments on how to improve.

2. Read “difficult” material

While you were in school, you had excuses (bad ones, really) for not reading: busy la, CCA la, H2 subjects so heavy la.. But you don’t have a school to go to now, and you have to be your own teacher. Pick up books on logic, argumentation, philosophy, political philosophy, moral philosophy, sociology, psychology — whatever you can get your hands on. Get on Coursera and take courses that get you engaged with the world around you.

You already know what kinds of questions to expect, so review the essay questions from the past years to get a sense of what you should be reading. I’ve personally found introductory textbooks in the fields of sociology and politics to be particularly interesting and useful for thinking (in a “GP way”*) about the world around me.

*Thinking about the world in chunks of 800 words at a time (i.e. the GP essay format) forces your brain into a particular kind of atrophy, so be careful with that.

You no longer have a teacher to mark your essays, so you will have to be your own editor and teacher. How to decide if an essay you’ve done is good? Compare your writing to the writing you find in books.

3. Analyze comprehension answer schemes

You no longer can spend only an hour and a half on a comprehension paper — there are no more teachers to spill red ink over your labour. Once you’re done attempting a comprehension paper, compare your answers to the answer scheme not to determine whether or not your answers are correct, but whether the answer scheme itself makes sense. Check the dictionary as much as you can, even for words you think you understand. You will find flaws in answer schemes, particularly those from assessment book companies.

4. Write “perfect” essays

Do your question analysis, research the issues to death, craft your outline, and create the most amazing slab of 800 words that you can manage. You need to prove to yourself that you can get that A. Give yourself around two to three weeks for a single essay, which should be filled with gathering research and data. Find out what other writers and thinkers have said about the issue at hand, and consider if you agree with them.

5. Accidentally change your life

Reading and thinking about the world to the level that I advise should change your life. If you read enough about environmental issues, you’re going to hesitate over buying a new phone/tablet/computer when your old one still works. If you read enough about education, you’re going to look back on your school life and be so frustrated with how imperfect adults can be, and how flawed our education system is. If you read enough about politics, you’re going to read the Straits Times and come close to apoplexy.

If you find yourself caught in old thinking patterns, you might not be activating your mind enough.

6. Don’t miss the SEAB registration deadline

Right? Because you can only facepalm so many times….

The musical I co-wrote will be performed this weekend, 1-3 April 2016!

This is just a shout-out to people who would like to see the other side of my work. I wrote the lyrics to My Love is Blind, a musical about a man who goes blind in his twenties, and had my sticky fingers involved in the music and bits of the script as well.

See what The Online Citizen had to say about the showcase last year:

“Let The Blind Lead The Blind”: Local musical confronts stereotypes of the visually impaired

Tan Guan Heng wrote his first novel My Love Is Blind in the early 1990s. It was a painstaking process: he had to first type his manuscript out in Braille, then record himself reading it aloud, before sending the tape to a typist for transcription. The book was published in 1995.

“It’s semi-autobiographical,” he said about the novel, which revolves around a young man learning to carry on with life after losing both his sight and the love of his life. “About 70 per cent of it comes from my own life.”

Twenty years later, his story is close to coming to life on the stage. Stella Kon – a Singaporean playwright who wrote the well-loved Emily of Emerald Hill – had helped him edit his novel all those years ago, and thought of it as a good story for a musical. Through Musical Theatre Live! (MTL) – a non-profit organisation of which Kon is chair – a team was put together to life the story off the page and on to the stage.

Get your tickets here —

Of course, if you want special ticketing arrangements (limited number of guest tickets lah, nod nod wink wink), feel free to contact me.

PS. If you get free tickets, please consider donating to the production company — writers, actors, set designers, sound crew, etc. need to pay their bills.

PPS: Dear friends and family. DON’T SAY BO JIO OK? 😀

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 (

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 (

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”.


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?

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,



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!