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?

Creepy lullabies and close reading

Last night, I tried to illustrate what close reading should feel like to my student, and I used the example of our childhood lullabies. Do you remember the lullabies from your childhood? I give you my personal favourite:

Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop,

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,

When the bough breaks, the cradle will drop,

And down will come baby, cradle and all.

I vividly remember my mum carrying me as a young (and light!) child, singing this lullaby, rocking me gently with an almost-manic grin, and suddenly dipping her body and arms on the “cradle will drop” line. Giggles all round, good times for all. Thinking back now, my dad certainly enjoyed doing that too, but he also enjoyed throwing my sister and I up into the air, probably more than the “cradle will drop” thing. (Evidence currently shows that we weren’t dropped too many times on our heads.)

What does any of this have to do with close reading? This is just an innocent lullaby we sing to children to get them to sleep, right?….. riiiiight…?

Well, maybe not.

Some of us may have problems with the word “bough”, since we no longer use the word very often these days. It means “the main branch of a tree”. So far, so good. The bough breaks, the baby falls, ha ha ha. But where does the baby fall from? The treetop. The top of the tree. Look at any tree around you! That’s a fall too far for any baby to survive!

Grim, isn’t it?

And it doesn’t stop there. If we look at itsy-bitsy spider (another one of my favourites), we see arachnophobia (meaning: the fear of spiders) in grand action:

Itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the water spout.

Down came the rain and washed the spider out.

Out came the sun and dried up all the rain.

And the itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.

What’s a spout? Think of the little teapot, short and stout. Ah, that’s its spout (through which the tea is poured). Careful, there’s a spider there! Though, in this case it’s probably a spout exposed to the rain, which may mean that the spout is that of a water pump. Careful, there’s a spider in your water!!!!

I have to admit that this isn’t close reading, an activity that is much more involved than just thinking about what a spout or treetop is. But if you registered the shock of realising that some of our most treasured lullabies are actually quite grim and scary, that’s the kind of emotion you want to register when you read something closely. Some of the most powerful poems have that same power to shock and move us, and if you get a poem for the unseen poetry section of your exam, you can be sure that there is some kind of power hidden there. You just have to find it.


For more on close reading, I highly recommend Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem (And Fall in Love with Poetry). If you don’t have time for a book (time management!!), you may find the University of Victoria’s guide useful.

Malaysia’s command of the English language is stronger than Singapore’s?! What can we do about it?

Mr Seah boleh! ;)

Mr Seah boleh! He got the highest grade! 😉

Singapore has lost to Malaysia, in an academic contest! It is time for outrage and panic, remorse and shame! Why? Because Malaysia has attained a whopping rank of #12 — the highest in Asia — according to the EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI). Singapore, meanwhile, has come in at #13. I like The Rambler’s take on this: “In a land where appearing on the top of world charts is something devoutly to be wished for, it must come as a blow to us when year after year, we are trounced by a country as incompetent as Malaysia.”

Malaysia has attained a whopping rank of #12. Singapore, meanwhile, has come in at #13.

I found the ranking a tiny bit strange, though. In my experience, even though Malaysians and Singaporeans work as peers in the highest levels of academia and business, at the ‘lower’ levels — the taxi drivers, retail assistants, service staff, and so on — Singaporeans seem to hold the advantage over Malaysians in terms of proficiency with English. Most taxi drivers in Singapore can hold very interesting conversations in English (ask them about the ERP, go ahead, I dare you), but a Malaysian taxi driver who can do the same is rare indeed. (DISCLAIMER: I only have been a tourist in Malaysia, and I understand my perception may not reflect the reality in Malaysia.)

How is it that the EF EPI ranks Malaysia ahead of Singapore? Is it a failure of Singapore’s education system, and a sign of Malaysia’s emerging power in Asia? Perhaps not, because the methodology of the EF EPI (how they rank the countries) leaves plenty of room for improvement. To put it simply, this ranking is biased. The EF people know it. For those who understand methodology, I quote directly from the website’s FAQ:

“We recognize that the test-taking population represented in this index is self-selected and not guaranteed to be representative of the country as a whole. Only those people either wanting to learn English or curious about their English skills will participate in one of these tests. This could skew scores lower or higher than those of the general population. In addition, because the tests are online, people without internet access or unused to online applications are automatically excluded. In countries where internet usage is low, we expect the impact of this exclusion to be the strongest. This sampling bias would tend to pull scores upward by excluding poorer, less educated, and less privileged people.”

To put it simply, this ranking is biased. The EF people know it.

Nevertheless, it stings a little bit, knowing that Malaysia has beaten Singapore, even if the ranking isn’t representative of our general populations. It must be that kiasu element in me rearing its head. What can Singaporeans do to ensure we beat Malaysia next year, and what can Malaysians do to try to maintain their lead over Singapore in the EF EPI? You can do as I did, and take the test yourself, if your command of English is good. I cannot emphasize that enough — if your command of English is bad, and you take the test, you will pull your country’s ship down.

If you are confident of your English abilities, take an hour from your day, sit down with a cup of coffee, and click here to take the test. Come on, Singapore, we can do it! Singapura boleh! (Eh? Wrong country, wrong slogan?)

If you feel like you need English tuition before you take the test, contact me. It’s in the nation’s interest 😉

Pictures vs Words: a response to gptuitionsg’s views

Photo credit: Kevin Carter. The photographer committed suicide shortly after this photograph was taken.

See another powerful response to this question at Mr Steven Ooi’s blog here. (Confession: I could only write this essay because I was able to bounce my ideas off his essay first. This should be a clear message to all students reading this. Read more, it helps.)

‘A picture is always more powerful than mere words.’ What is your view?

It is true that words can be more powerful than pictures. I think of Hitler’s words that moved a nation to genocide, and I shudder. However, human beings are visual creatures, and we see the consequences of this in the way the Internet has taken shape. A picture can never be more powerful than words in all circumstances, but looking at the way our culture has developed, it appears that pictures — including moving pictures — still hold an almost magical power over many of us.

Words are obviously potent weapons. Adolf Hitler, the dictator responsible for the Holocaust, is often credited with saying that if you tell a big enough lie, and repeat it often enough, people will believe it. The effect of his lies and half-truths are now studied by school children all over the world — millions died in Nazi concentration camps, with only some having the dubious privilege of dying in gas chambers*. However, Hitler’s words were often accompanied by powerful images. Few of us are able to quote lines from Hitler’s speeches, but many more know what the Nazi swastika looks like and what concentration camp inmates look like in photographs of the time, which shows the power of culture-defining images to endure.

Half a century after Hitler’s heyday, photographer Kevin Carter tragically showed us the power of a picture to inspire action. Most of us recall the image — a vulture watches over a child so emaciated that it has no strength left to hold itself upright, so emaciated that his humanity seems starved out of his fragile frame. This image won Carter the Pulitzer Prize, and has inspired many of us around the world into fighting against poverty. Sadly, at the height of his fame, Kevin Carter committed suicide, claiming in his suicide note that he was “haunted” by the horrific images that he encountered in his work. On a more mundane level, this photograph probably inspired armies of Singaporean parents to nag at their children not to waste food, worrying over the idea that “African children are starving”.

It is also worrying to think of the effect the power of the image may be having on some of us. In an offline age, people who encountered Carter’s haunting photograph had fewer avenues with which to distract and numb themselves. Now, in addition to the media of the offline age, we have portable entertainment centres in the form of smartphones. In our age of perpetual connectivity with entertainment, we may indeed encounter Carter’s photograph in an Upworthy or Buzzfeed article, and we may experience the same forms of disgust, sorrow, horror, and anger that people in an offline age did. However, it is much easier these days to numb those feelings with a never ending stream of entertainment that is dominated by images. The success of Instagram and YouTube, among other visually-dominated websites, is testament to the power of images in our age. I think I can make this assertion safely: most people who encounter Kevin Carter’s prize-winning photograph in our time will be more likely to push it out of their minds with other forms of visual entertainment, than to deal with the problems of inequality and poverty by reading about the problem and what is being done to deal with it.

Inequality is a culture-shaming problem, since its consequences are so dire. It requires solutions that are, on some levels, complicated. We need to read books, or at least essays, to fully understand this problem and its potential solutions. It is perhaps a sign that people are not paying attention to these words, that the people in first-world economies have not spoken up as one voice to the powers that be to demand change. In this case, the pictures of entertainment seem to be more powerful than the words spent on the problem of inequality.

The idea that a picture is always more powerful than mere words is untrue, but it hides a deeper truth that pictures are often more powerful than words. Words are sometimes more powerful than pictures, but the pictures dominating the mind-numbing pap that passes as entertainment today still seem to hold sway over our culture. Do away with this mind-numbing pap, and perhaps we will see wise words and wise pictures hold sway over our culture again.

(721 words)

 

*For an account of this, see the brilliantly written book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.