Mum’s the word on smarter children

Straits Times Forum
Published on Sep 21, 2011

THE announcement of my engagement to a Caucasian surprised many who had accepted my status of being ‘on the shelf’ (‘A PhD’s fine, but what about love and babies?’; Sept 6).

It is my PhD that is currently on the shelf as after more than 10 years as a full-time mother, it is almost impossible to return to academia.

Many intelligent Singapore women will recognise this problem: most Singapore men are not inclined to marry women they consider to be cleverer.

I remember the look of one man who chatted me up after I had made a witty remark at a lecture. When I told him I was (then) a master’s degree student he – literally – turned away.

Spot the difference: My husband (who holds a Bachelor of Science degree), tells people he is clever enough to have married me.

Studies have shown consistently that a child’s educational attainment correlates with that of his mother’s. My son’s IQ is significantly higher than that of either of his parents. (I am convinced that 11 months of breast-feeding also helped.)

I might have opted out of a career where I could inspire many young people on to their own doctorates, but my son has also benefited much from our discussions on the scientific method, statistics in research, Descartes, splitting an infinitive (and atom), and so on.

He is so far ahead of his cohort that he has skipped one year in Maths and is being ‘extended’ in other subjects within his normal classes.

My points are:

First, Singapore men who wish to have clever children should consider marrying women who are better educated or cleverer (remember, one does not always imply the other), just as short men should marry taller wives if they want taller sons because sons are rarely shorter than their mothers.

Second, it is all right for well-educated mothers to stay at home to care for their children. Their education will not be wasted in the instruction of their own children.

Third, Mr Lee Kuan Yew first alerted us to our limited gene pool in 1984.

Fourth, what has been done since to preserve and enhance this gene pool? Has the foreign talent initiative superseded this urgency?
Finally, a lack of support for well-educated mothers who wish to take career breaks – which can only benefit their offspring, with or without breast-feeding – is myopic.

Dr Lee Siew Peng

September 21, 2011 at 10:08 pm Leave a comment

Fukushima 50 – lessons in worker loyalty

Mar 19, 2011, Straits Times Forum

THE extraordinary courage of the Fukushima 50 – the Japanese engineers and technicians battling to contain the nuclear fallout from reactors damaged in the earthquake and tsunami – offers lessons to Singaporeans.

One important factor behind the dedication of these workers is Japan’s collectivistic corporate culture that values loyalty and ensures long-term employment security. This is in contrast to the American model, which is characterised by individualism and short-term profitability.

These values are reflected in the salaries of senior executives: CEOs in Japan are rewarded far less than their counterparts in the United States and Europe.

While the Japanese corporate culture has often been criticised for breeding conservatism and inertia, and for rewarding riskaverse senior management, it has also fostered an exceptional sense of team spirit and commitment that transcends short-term gains. This sense of esprit de corps is evident among the Fukushima 50 workers, and it is through them that the best of Japan Inc is being shown in these harrowing times.

Singapore Inc has been moving towards the US model with its emphasis on rewarding ‘top talent’ generously. Over the years, we have been seeing increasingly disproportionate levels of remuneration for senior executives in contrast to workers down the line who have to face the prospects of redundancy and wage reduction in tough times.

Also, given the ease of replacing local staff with foreign labour, Singapore Inc risks being turned into a mercenary, alien and transient space peopled by workers with little sense of belonging, loyalty and commitment that is found in the Japanese worker.

Liew Kai Khiun

March 19, 2011 at 5:44 pm 1 comment

Employment enclaves

Mar 1, 2011
The Straits Times

‘While there is a quota for foreigners in public housing, there is none to prevent foreign bosses from preferring fellow citizens over Singaporeans.’

MS LAURELLE HO: ‘Mr Cheong Tuck Kuan raised an important point about hiring Singaporeans first (‘Target white-collar foreigners instead’; Feb 23). While this may not facilitate the movement of talent best, it is a point to consider in preventing foreigners of the same nationality from congregating in a multinational corporation (MNC). While there is a quota for foreigners to deter ethnic enclaves in public housing, there is none to prevent high-ranking foreign bosses from preferring their fellow citizens over Singaporeans, which results in foreign colonies forming within organisations. When an Indian Singaporean friend of mine answered a job interview for a vacancy in an MNC recently, she was the only Singaporean. The other interviewees were Indian nationals. When she went into the interview room, she understood the reason. Two of the three directors were Indian nationals who dominated the interview process. She had a sinking feeling that she would not clinch the job and she was right. Ironically, when she finally landed a job, the employer was an Indian national. Her team was dominated by Indian nationals, which made her feel out of place despite working in Singapore.’

February 28, 2011 at 6:53 pm Leave a comment

Tuition and Socioeconomic status

Feb 12, 2011

Skewing a level field

MS PHYLLIS Christe’s letter (‘A matter of means, not just genes’; Jan 31) raises a pertinent point about an increasingly uneven playing field in the paper chase, which appears to favour the more affluent.

As a student of a decent neighbourhood school who made it to an elite junior college, I have experienced first-hand how students have such vastly different access to resources, especially in terms of academic aid.

In my neighbourhood secondary school, most students were from lower-income families and there were those who strove hard to pursue academic excellence, knowing that it was the most realistic way to climb up the social ladder in the future.
Nearing the exams, many would unfailingly seek extra lessons from teachers, settling for every scrap of free time the teachers could spare after schooling hours.

Tuition was the next viable option for those who really wanted the extra push. However, many had parents who simply could not afford it. Many turned to community tuition programmes offered by the Singapore Indian Development Association, Chinese Development Assistance Council and Mendaki.

While helpful, such programmes were compromised by an inflexible schedule that often clashed with the students’ co-curricular activities (CCAs). Many students could not afford to ignore CCAs because an excellent record allowed them to hive off two points from the raw or gross scores of their O-level exam results.

Class sizes of the community tuition programmes also averaged around 15 to 20, so personal attention was diluted.
The environment in the elite junior college I attended was the opposite. Many of my peers were from more affluent families and could readily afford private tuition. They did not have to contend with inflexible tuition hours and enjoyed personal coaching by quality tutors such as professors and former teachers. So, in my experience, excelling academically appears to be becoming as much a matter of means as it may be of genes. Being able to afford and have access to private tuition seem to tilt the balance in favour of the more affluent, skewing what may once have been a more level playing field for all students.

Lee Min Shing

February 12, 2011 at 1:43 pm Leave a comment

Non-grad parents, but they made it to top schools

Non-grad parents, but they made it to top schools
By Rachel Chang

THE first glimpse 12-year-olds get of their secondary schools, their homes for the next four years, is on Reporting Day every December.

What Isdiyanah Dulkifli, now 15, saw then were big, shiny cars parked on every spare inch in the Raffles Girls’ School (RGS) campus on Anderson Road – which her future classmates had arrived in. ‘I was taken aback,’ the Secondary 4 student recalled.

‘These people are so rich,’ she thought to herself, and wondered if she had made the right choice of school.

Students like Isdiyanah who hail from humble backgrounds are now the minority in several of Singapore’s top secondary schools, statistics released by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew two weeks ago showed.

In RGS, 72.3 per cent of students have fathers who are university graduates, putting them in the uppermost socio-economic bracket.

The figures for other top schools like Hwa Chong Institution and Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) are similar – all above 50 per cent.

In contrast, in neighbourhood schools like Jurong West Secondary and Bukit Merah Secondary, the share of students with graduate parents hovers at around 10 per cent.

The Straits Times interviewed ten students who have bucked the trend, to find out how they did it.

Of the ten from five brand-name schools, four are minorities and two have a parent who died.

Some are the exception in their families, with siblings in polytechnics or the Institute of Technical Education.

But when they are the oldest child, they seem to have pulled along their younger siblings, who also do well academically.

While it is not easy being different, these teenagers believe that as long as they work hard and shut out impulses to be envious, the sky is still the limit.

The culture shock many of these students felt upon entering the hallowed halls of their brand-name schools was not limited to the iPods and iPads on display.

Hwa Chong student Wong Kang Ming, 16, was surprised that his classmates would buy all the recommended assessment books, but not do the exercises in them.

‘They spend money without thinking,’ he said. When he buys an assessment book, he uses it from cover to cover.

Kang Ming’s father passed away when he was six years old. His China-born mother is a cleaner.

He said that he copes with his relative lack of spare cash by planning ahead.

If there was a last-minute need for a book, he could not just pop down to the bookstore to get it like his classmates do. He must first ask for extra money at home and buy it the next day.

‘But all this is minor stuff,’ he insisted. ‘As long as I have enough money for the basics, it’s enough.’

Like many of the other students interviewed whose parents are not university-educated, he was an academic self-starter from young.

These kids cornered teachers after lessons for extra help, went to libraries on their own, and gathered their siblings for joint study sessions every night.

Their parents believed that education would better their lot and encouraged them to work hard – even if they did not always have the financial resources or expertise to help directly.

Although Kang Ming’s mother helps him with his Chinese classes, he is used to relying on himself, even researching the type of financial assistance Hwa Chong could give him before settling on the school.

‘I just feel motivated, as I’m already from this type of situation,’ he said, referring to the hardships of a single-parent family. ‘I feel that the least I can do is cope by myself.’

Time and again, this self-motivating fervour emerged from the students interviewed.

Never having enjoyed luxuries such as tuition, they simply managed without.

Ms Dina Ee, 20, a former Nanyang Girls’ High student now studying medicine at the National University of Singapore, said: ‘There comes a point when you realise that you can’t rely too much on others. That probably came earlier for me.’

For a student like Raffles Institution’s Ahmad Musthofa, whose father passed away when he was 12, what drives him is his desire to provide for his family.

‘I want to work hard, support my family and lift the burden off my mother,’ he said.

RGS student Isdiyanah still feels out of place at times.

When she goes out with her friends, she takes along a packed lunch rather than spend more money. Her friends accommodate her by eating at an open-air area in town, instead of in a restaurant.

‘My classmates’ parents are all doctors and professors,’ she mused. ‘I do feel embarrassed sometimes. Here I am, always at the Accounts department asking for money.’

Isdiyanah’s parents are divorced – and for a while in primary school, she lived in a rental flat in Redhill with her mother and siblings.

‘But I know this embarrassment cannot last for very long,’ she said.

‘Even those professors and doctors, they may not have come from a very educated family. They had to work very hard to get to where they are now.’

February 7, 2011 at 5:51 pm Leave a comment

Diary of a reformed elitist

Apr 8, 2010

I AM as Rafflesian/Raffles Girls’ School (RGS)/’elite’ as they come. My father was a Raffles Institution boy; I went through Raffles Girls’ Primary School (RGPS), RGS, then Raffles Junior College, then on to the National University of Singapore, boarding at Raffles Hall. My sisters went through much the same route. My little girls are in RGPS.

I recognise the syndrome Ms Sandra Leong talks about (‘Scoring high in grades but not in values’, last Saturday). I live it, breathe it. Most of my friends are like me, graduates. Most of us live in landed property, condominiums or minimally, executive condos or five-room flats. None of us talks about making ends meet, or how we must turn down medical treatment for our aged parents because we cannot find the money.

But I will add to her essay: that those traits, that aura is not unique to RGS girls. It resonates within a social group, and its aspirants, the well educated or well endowed. I hang out with so many, I have stories by the barrel.

– My doctor friend, non-RGS and one would even say anti-RGS, was shocked when she found out how many As I got in my A levels, since I opted to do an arts degree. In her words, ‘I thought all arts people were dumb, that is why they go to arts’. Her own family boasts only doctors and lawyers – she said they would never contemplate any other profession – and by implication, all other professions are below those two.

– A church-mate who lived in a landed property in District 10 – definitely not an RGS girl, and I venture to guess, not even a graduate – once, in all sincerity and innocence, prayed for all those who had to take public transport and live in HDB flats, for God to give them strength to bear these trials.

– Another friend, also non-RGS and a non-graduate, shudders when she recounts the few months she lived in an HDB flat. And that was a five-room flat. Imagine the culture shock if she had lived in a three-room flat.

I continue to meet people who never visit hawker centres, who wonder why the poor people do not work harder to help themselves, who fret if their children do not get into the Gifted Education Programme (reserved for the top 1 per cent of nine-year-olds).

The pattern repeats itself in the next generation. When my 11-year-old had to go on a ‘race’ around Singapore, using only public transport, the teacher asked for a show of hands on how many had never taken public transport (bus and MRT) before. In a class of 30, five raised their hands. I think if the teacher had asked for those who had taken public transport fewer than 10 times in their young lives, the number would have more than doubled or tripled.

Many of us live in ivory towers. I know I did. I used to think Singapore was pretty much ‘it’ all – a fantastic meritocracy that allowed an ‘HDB child’ from a non-graduate family to make it. I boasted about our efficiency – ‘you can emerge from your plane and be out in 10 minutes’ – and so on.

It was not that I thought little of the rest of the world or other people; it was that I was so ensconced in my cocoon, I just thought little of anything outside my own zone. ‘Snow? Yes, nice.’ ‘Starvation in Ethiopia? Donate $50.’ The wonders of the world we lived in, the sufferings and joys of those who shared this earth were just academic knowledge to me, voraciously devoured for my essays or to hold intelligent conversations at dinner parties.

Then I lived in China for seven years. I looked on in amazement as the skinny tree trunk in front of my yard blossomed and bore pomegranates when spring thawed the ground. And marvelled at the lands that spread east, west, north and south of me as we drove and drove and drove, and never ended. I became friends and fans of colleagues and other Chinese nationals, whom so many Singapore friends had warned me to be wary of.

I realised it was not the world and other people who were limited in their intellect, in their determination, in their resourcefulness; it was me and my world views which were limited. I also know full well that if I had stayed in Singapore, in my cushy job, comfortable in my Bukit Timah home, I would have remained the same – self-sufficient. I had always believed that if I put my mind to it, I could achieve anything. For example, I used to look at sick people and root: ‘Fight with all your willpower, and you will recover.’ And when they did not, I’d think they had failed themselves. I, like Ms Leong, believed ‘mental dexterity equated strength of character and virtue’.

But those years in China taught me terrible lessons on loneliness. I learnt that money (an expatriate pay package) and brains (suitcases of books) did not make me happier than my maid who cycled home to her family every night in minus 20 deg C on icy roads to a dinner of rice and vegetables. The past few years, I have known devastating loss and grief so deep I woke up in the morning and wondered how the sun could still shine and people could go on with their lives.

And so perhaps I have learnt the humility I lacked. Humility about how small I am in the whole schema of things. About how helpless I truly stand, with my intellect in my hands, with my million-dollar roof over my head. To remember, in the darkest valleys of my journey, it was not Ayn Rand or other Booker list authors who lifted me, but the phone calls, the kindness of strangers, that made each day a little less bleak.

And perhaps finally, to really see other people, and understand – not deflect, nor reflect their anger and viewpoints, but see their shyness, pain, struggles, joys. Just because I was ‘fortunate enough’ to have trawled the bottom levels. And perhaps that is the antidote to the oft unwitting elitism so many of us carry with us.

Sim Soek Tien (Ms)

April 8, 2010 at 3:43 pm 1 comment

Scoring high in grades but not in values

Elite school students who never mix with others lose perspective

Apr 3, 2010

By Sandra Leong

OVER the past two weeks, the words ‘meritocracy’ and ‘elitism’ have stirred feelings of loyalty, indignation and dismay all at once.

Just ask the old boys of St Joseph’s Institution (SJI), who have been making a very public case for and against the lowering of the school’s entry requirements to enable more students from its feeder schools to make the cut.

Meritocracy must prevail, argues one camp. Easing entry requirements will only cause academic standards to slip. But SJI must not become elitist, counters the rival camp. Boys from the Christian Brothers’ schools, based on that affiliation alone, should qualify.

The imbroglio once again puts the focus on the uneasy relationship between meritocracy and elitism. A cynical take is that the race to the top will always leave behind stragglers, and those who cross the line first are bound to look down on their weaker counterparts. Given this attitude, it does not surprise me that some SJI alumni are campaigning fiercely against the ‘E’ word.

I attended Raffles Girls’ School (RGS) and Raffles Junior College (RJC), both elite institutions. I confess that as a young adult, I was conceited and felt unsympathetic to the world around me. These days, when people ask me what is my alma mater, I often say I’m a Rafflesian – but a ‘recovering’ one.

Before I incur the wrath of Rafflesians past and present, let me say I am grateful for the all-rounded education I received. Way before the term ‘holistic learning’ became a Ministry of Education catchphrase, my $300-a-month secondary school fees in RGS paid for classes in speech and drama, etiquette and philosophy.

My teachers did not teach us to be snobs. But neither did they teach us not to be snobs. As a Rafflesian, one never spoke in terms of examination pass rates. It was the number of As one got that signified one’s mettle.

We felt entitled to big things in a merit-driven society where mental dexterity equated strength of character and virtue. We felt so because we had trumped the system, even if it was the ‘system’ that had allowed us to get this far in the first place.

Intellectual snobbery can be a scary thing. A running joke when I was sitting for the A-level examinations in RJC was that the National University of Singapore law faculty half consisted of Rafflesians. The other half came from ‘students from OJ’ – other junior colleges.

I did not have a single friend from a neighbourhood school. In our world, we did not see a need to venture beyond what we knew.

Many of my friends came from rich families and lived in the Orchard or Bukit Timah areas. I remember a then 15-year-old friend asking me where I lived.

‘Siglap,’ I said. She asked quizzically: ‘That’s where all the Malays live right?’

I never learnt that failure was sometimes an unavoidable option. Two years ago, I sank into a funk when I did not get a scholarship. A non-Rafflesian friend jolted me to my senses when he asked: ‘How many people even get to think about doing a master’s?’

Growing up this way, you lose perspective. You forget that you belong to a privileged minority, that in the real world there are those for whom a C grade (and not an S-paper distinction) represents the pinnacle of academic achievement – but who may be wiser in many ways than the academically gifted.

It was only when I left the comforts of my flock that I realised how close-minded I was. Unlike some of my peers, I did not win a scholarship or study overseas. I studied at Nanyang Technological University, where classmates told me they were initially wary of me because I was a ‘Raffles girl’.

I learnt that brandishing my elite school background, from the way I spoke ‘proper English’ to wearing my RJC physical education T-shirt around my hostel, rubbed people the wrong way. I learnt there were other ways to win respect without riding on the coat-tails of a brand-name education.

My work as a journalist also quickly brought me crashing down to earth. Loftiness goes out of the window when you have to talk to everyone from politicians to cancer patients to victims of natural disaster.

I hasten to add that for every misguided smart-aleck I encountered among Rafflesians, there were others who were humble and well-adjusted. Still, an Old Rafflesians’ Association president once quoted in this paper defined the Rafflesian character as ‘predominantly achievement-oriented and goal-driven’ – traits I dare say which tend to create a type of ultra-competitiveness that leaves little room for empathy and humility in the absence of a countervailing value-system.

Many of my schoolmates went on to become civil servants, lawyers, bankers and doctors. They keep to the same small social circle they grew up in, married within it and will probably wish the same life for their offspring as well.

I’m not saying they grew up into mean-spirited, Ayn-Rand spouting adults just because they excelled in what they did. The pursuit of intellectual excellence is a virtue that our educational system quite correctly promotes. But the pursuit of intellectual excellence to the exclusion of character or value excellence breeds an exclusionary attitude to the rest of society. Many of the products of our top schools forget they have to give back to the society that allowed them so many opportunities.

It is especially worrying when the exclusionary attitudes bred in school become accepted life values. You judge success using markers that only you and your like-minded friends agree upon. For example, my unmarried girl friends tell me they will never date a man without a degree, a car or a ‘respectable’ job – and they are entirely unapologetic about it.

These are people who live for years without having to step outside their comfort zone, leading a bubble-wrapped existence.

The sooner that wrap is removed, the better.

April 3, 2010 at 11:59 pm 2 comments

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