Ramblings on the educational divide

May 26, 2005 at 8:30 pm 4 comments

This post was inspired by Oikono.

As a Singaporean, what comes to your mind if someone were to tell you, “Oh, I am/was from [fill in your blanks] school?” My guess is that you would probably form some kind of impression of him/her simply from the educational background.

You tend to be judged on the basis of your alma mater(s). In some cases, your professional success depends on whether you brushed the right shoulders while in school. This is of course not unique to Singapore. In the US there is the prestige of the Ivy League; in the UK it would be the august Oxbridge; in France the Grandes écoles (esp X); in Australia the Go8; in China 北大 清华; in Japan 東大 京大 etc etc.

In Singapore (like most Sino-centric countries), educational stratification (right phrase?) tend to start off early. At least for my time, the first GEP (Gifted Education Program) selection occurs when one is in Primary 3 (age 9). Followed by other hoops – the PSLE, Sec 2 School internal streaming, the O levels, the A levels (or poly diploma) and then your tertiary degree. Not everyone clears all the hoops obviously.

Having that degree no longer provides the job security and high pay it used to. There’s the issue (becoming readily apparent to many in recent years) about graduate unemployment. This post by stray_cat of YPAP forums:

…One very important thing about being in a good school (which many people do not realise) is that being in a good school tends to open a young person’s eyes to what’s really possible, and to strive for higher things.

For example, if you are one of the slightly above-average students in a top JC, you would think of it as a pretty normal thing that you should take one or two S-Papers. You think it’s pretty normal, because so many of your peers are doing it too. After all, the best students would take THREE S-papers.

In contrast, if you were one of the top students in a neighbourhood JC, you might not even take any S-Papers at all. Your JC probably doesn’t even offer S-Paper classes. Even if you wanted to be the only one in your school taking the S-Paper, your teachers would have no experience conducting S-Paper lessons for you. You would be entirely on your own. You wouldn’t even have classmates whom you could discuss S-Paper questions with. You would be considered quite ambitious if you even chose to take 4 A-level subjects, let alone 4 A-level subjects, 2 S-Papers and three languages.

“Oh, what’s the big deal about S-Papers anyway?” I hear some readers say. “There are lots of successful people in Singapore who never took S-Papers anyway.”

That’s true. But I offer the S-Paper story as just one example. It’s a cumulative thing, you see? Each success begets another success. Each failure makes it so much harder to succeed.

It’s all about probabilities. And the way things are in Singapore, if you did badly, say, at age 12 in your PSLE, the chances that you will, say, never make it to university will automatically shoot up.

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“Normal results for someone from a top JC”

His earlier example in the same thread:

Just to give you an idea of what the Singapore system is like.

I graduated from the NUS Law Faculty. In my batch of about 200 students, no fewer than 100 students came from RJC alone. Almost all of the other 50% of the students came from one of the other top 5 JCs (with strong representation from NJC & VJC in particular).

Just ONE student came from Jurong Junior College. I still remember her comment, when I first met her in 1st year of law school, during Orientation. I asked her which junior college she came from, and she replied, “I feel a bit lonely here. I am the ONLY person from JJC in this batch.”

If you take my batch as a sample – it tells you that the probability of finding an ex-neighbourhood JC student in NUS Law Faculty is about 1 in 200, or 0.5%. The probability of finding an ex-RJC student in NUS Law Faculty is about 50%.

In other words, an RJC student is about 100 times more likely to be a lawyer than a JJC student.

Themis followed up later with:

…Your school does have an impact on your ambition and your drive in life. I am a HDB kid, and I have a younger brother.

I did well for my PSLE, went into one of the so-called “good schools”, did well for my O Levels, went into a “top JC”. Unfortunately, didn’t do too well for my A Levels, and ended up in NUS.

My younger brother unfortunately misstepped far earlier in his academic career than I did – he did not do very well for his PSLE, and went to a neighbourhood school, and then to a neighbourhood JC. Now waiting for results of his university application.

The difference in our outlooks? – For me, going to NUS was a given. I do not, at any point in time, ever doubt that I will at least make it to NUS. The only question for me was whether I can get a scholarship to study outside Singapore. For my brother, getting into JC is only for the top students in his cohort, making it to university is a dream come true. Same family, same background, we even love and hate the same academic subjects – the only difference is our schools, and yet our outlooks are so completely different.

And why is that? It is the environment – when you are studying with people who are ambitious, intelligent and who knows the options available to them, you start to realise what you can do in your life. You become, for want of a better word, infected, with their zeal and enthuasium and ambition. You know there is life beyond NUS, NTU and SMU. You know there is a world outside Singapore, that Singapore is merely a hothouse, not the world. You learn to aim to do better than merely pass an exam, but to ace it.

Compare that to the neighbourhood JC. It is not that the teachers do not encourage their students, or that the students do not have dreams. But their dreams are what the students in the top JCs take for granted as reality – to enter a local university, to get a degree. They too have drive and ambition, but it is of a much lower level. Note that this is a generalisation! There will of course, always be exceptions to the general rule.

And it is things like this that matter – the expectations you have of yourself, the dreams you dare to dream – that ultimately determines whether you “make it” or not.

It is interesting to note that the posts above were made about 2 years ago. And will still be highly relevant for years to come.

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Online attachment; Happiness Forced Voyeurism – Differences between Men and Women

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Oikono  |  May 29, 2005 at 5:54 am

    Although I do not believe the ‘secondary school/ JC = how intelligent you are’ line of argument, I do agree that being in a more ‘elite’ school makes one more self-confident and thus higher achieving (academically). It is not because of ineherent intellectual superiority, but rather, a higher ideal to aspire to.

    As a friend from Chinese High GEP told me, the best thing he received from that shitty program (his words) was the belief that he was smarter and more capable than others.

  • 2. Mr Wang Says So  |  June 10, 2005 at 7:25 pm

    Hello, Takchek.

    What a surprise. After you left your comment at my blog Commentary Singapore, I clicked on your name and came to your blog.

    And I saw your excerpt of the comments of “Stray_Cat”, taken from YPAP Forum, two years ago.

    Well, I am Stray_Cat. 🙂

    And which YPAP forummer, may I know, are you?

  • 3. cybette  |  July 11, 2006 at 7:13 am

    Just spent a better part of today (or rather yesterday) reading through your posts… thought provoking to say the least. I don’t know whose result slip that is but it looks eerily like mine, less one S paper. Your entries conjured much memories… I was in GEP (RGS). Not sure how much good it did me, but I went to Anderson JC before going to NUS for EE. Came to U.S. for …. well it’s a long story but not the usual reasons. Suffered through 2 LDR’s, neither worked out. Now a part-time doctoral candidate in CS (although in neither Ivy nor Elite…) but that’s not agreeing too well with a full-time SW Engr job. I think I ended up at your blog while doing a search on “gifted education program”. I guess I was trying to see how the other GEPpers turned out. Mostly better than me I suppose. Anyway I’ll be going back to Taiwan (where I was born) and Singapore for a visit next month. It’s been a while … do miss SG, wonder how much things have changed. I call myself a Singaporean (proudly holding the red passport) but there’s not many of us here in the Dallas area, so I identify more with the Taiwanese here. Incidentally my manager is Taiwanese and his boss is Singaporean (who went to Poly instead of JC). Hmmm.. I’m going off on tangents here, but that’s how my thoughts tend to go, especially after reading your posts on all the different topics (yet most of which I can relate to). Lastly, my MB-type is INFP. Don’t know what I’m doing in this thinking-techy field, but here I am. Just gotta make the best of it I suppose. Best wishes to you.

  • 4. L’oiseau rebelle » Winter Blooms  |  August 17, 2006 at 12:55 am

    […] Edit (Aug 16): Elsewhere – a really old post from takchek. […]


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