Outside the Norm; Overqualified/Underpaid; Amalgam in the Middle

July 16, 2005 at 1:45 pm 7 comments

So many events (online and off) had happened since my last post on ID4. The London bombings, Singapore-style ‘scholarships’ and the NKF incident. There are no comments here, if you are looking for my views on them. I think the other blogs have pretty much covered most of the angles.

Outside the Norm, a Technology Review piece, profiled several “underaged” undergrad teenagers at MIT. I wonder if this is possible at all for one going through the Singapore K-12 education system. Can one skip grades and be given the green light to enroll at the local universities at age 14 or 16 if he/she is proven to be academically able enough to do so?

I don’t think the system allowed for my time in the 90s, although I am not sure for the case now. There is the GEP if one does well enough in the Primary 3 (now 4) and Primary 6 screening tests, but for many of my cynical peers it was seen as just a way for the government to keep the brighter students occupied and be on the same footing as the rest; afterall the Special and Express streams sat for the same set of O and A level exams at the same time.

The common frustration most of my peers (and I) felt was the over-emphasis on the standardized exams’ syllabi. Teachers were focused on having us give the ‘right’ set of answers and everyone was moulded into thinking our lives’ worths were measured simply by the number of distinctions on our certs and the ‘prestigious’ scholarships that we could get to go to [insert your university here]. Any deviations would be punished, even if we possessed more in-depth knowledge about the subject matter than what was demanded of us, or even that of the tutor.

I had a classmate who was extremely good in Math (and also Physics, Chemistry), and I remember him asking our F Maths tutor during a discussion session on complex numbers if we could apply the usual method of real variables’ differentiation and integration on them. He was promptly ‘shot down’ in class and told to stay ‘within the syllabus’. He would later go on to attend MIT. Now he is working as an adminstrator in the Civil Service. Not sure if he’s the best man for public policy making (since I think he would be better off as a theoretical mathematician/physicist), but hey, at least he did not break bond and have his name published in the papers. Most of my JC tutors (the exception was GP, heh) were so impressed with him that they gave him the job of leading the tutorials for our class. He was infamously known for only doing his tutorial homework on the day itself. The rest of the time? Either playing bridge or reading up college-level physics textbooks. Unfortunately, he was ridiculed as being a chao mugger. Apparently no one (then) believed that one could study for the sake of interest rather than for grades. L’oiseau posted a similar entry here. Read also heavenly-sword’s twopart series on talent production.

During one of the informal Singaporean gatherings in our department two weeks ago, D summed up the reason why Sg guys are so old when we begin graduate school. NS, and the education system being unwilling to accomodate requests to skip grades. There is also no support system for those talented in certain areas, and the cut-throat competition in school which kills off interests to focus solely on grades. The P5 – Sec 2, and the two JC years were a complete waste of time in his opinion, and his favorite phrase for the first period is “All we learnt esp for Science, is the Angsana tree“, and the second “NUS made me repeat my JC notes in the first year of undergrad”. No offense to the botanists! 😛

Now, for the case of graduate school/upgrading one’s education, Quarter Life Crisis described nicely of being stuck between a rock and a hard place.


A poem on Silicon, the ubiquitous element which makes up almost all of the world’s computer chips but scientists don’t really know how to place it. Somewhat fitting to this entry.

Amalgam in the Middle
By Mala L. Radhakrishnan

Silicon was faithfully teased each day
In school when atoms would line up to play:
Metals in one line, nons in the next,
But which line should it join? All were perplexed.

Like a metal, it was shiny,
But its conductivity was tiny.
Its band gap was too far from little,
And unlike metals ’twas rather brittle.

It clutched electrons way too tightly,
So metals teased it daily and nightly.
Yet nons would also jeer and nettle,
“You dress and look just like a metal!”

What pain since it did not conform!
No box for it to check on forms.
Few atoms could know the lonely void
That it knew as a “metalloid.”

But sili did not yet know ’twas able
To be popular with the rest of the table.
Its half-filled shell did place it where
It had some four electrons to share.

While greedy nonmetals weren’t willing to spare
And metals were willing to give anywhere,
Sili’s electrons were things to be earned,
But they bonded with skill that couldn’t be learned.

Once other elements saw this fact,
Moles of them came ’round to react.
O2 was the first to ask it on dates,
And others joined in to make silicates.

The former outcast whose hopes had been bust
Now was key in forming Earth’s crust!
The pariah that had been given the hand
Was now in every grain of sand.

Soon, silicon was lionized;
Its band gap was of perfect size
To dope with nearby brothers and sisters
And make computers from transistors.

As if its utility has not yet impressed us,
It’s also in quartz and glass and asbestos!
And silicon’s used in chemical plants
To make lubricants and breast implants.

Sili, its fourteen electrons so strong,
Proved all of its doubtful peers to be wrong
When it managed to move all the way out to Cali
And founded its very own aptly named valley.

The ugly duckling of the table,
Silicon simply couldn’t be labeled.
So if you feel you don’t fit in,
Think of silicon and don’t give in.


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. L'oiseau rebelle  |  July 16, 2005 at 9:10 pm

    In the US, it is also not unusual for high school students to dual enroll in college classes. Many of my fellow math majors have done it, and there are a number of high schoolers in the honors introductory sequences at my college.

    I’ve a friend who completed all 4 semesters of the theoretical honors calc sequence, as well as a 500-level (adv. ugrad/grad) class, as a high schooler. In her frosh year she took the alpha sequence in analysis. Unfortunately she decided that she didn’t want a career in math, else she’s likely to be taking graduate seminars by now.

    I wonder whether ugrads can take grad classes in the Singapore universities.

  • 3. Vivienne  |  July 18, 2005 at 9:52 am

    Can one skip grades and be given the green light to enroll at the local universities at age 14 or 16 if he/she is proven to be academically able enough to do so?

    Instead of skipping grades and speeding up your course of study, why not propose something along the lines of diversity and breadth in education?

    I think the opportunity to skip grades will only increase the pressure to excel academically and instead of the current obsession with achieving 4As and 2S papers, people would be chasing for 4As and 2S in the shortest time possible. Ie. 15/16

    What I think would be a better idea would be to introduce more options and flexibility, where students would have the choice of taking up other subjects to take related subjects(as well as those with less obvious relations).

    For an example, if you are interested in chemistry, you can take up introductory material sciences or introductory product design (perhaps from an aesthetic or financial point of view). Or if you are interested in engineering, you might be interested in human antomy from an engineering viewpoint (by the way, you’ll be surprised by the number of engineering principles that are found in the human body).

    Obviously, the best example in this case is the current emphasis on life sciences in Singapore. Studies in molecular and cell biology and biochemistry are not completely representative of the life sciences. Instead, there are many other interesting things such as human physiology, comparative biology, topics on imaging techniques as well as biology on an anatomical level that can put these studies into a broader context, which I feel are absent (not strange though) within the education system.

    In any case, I feel that the person in question needs to recognize education as an asset before reaping the full benefits of a broad based curriculum.

  • 4. Vivienne  |  July 18, 2005 at 10:02 am

    I don’t think the system allowed for my time in the 90s…

    Eh? 90s meh? Not 80s huh?


  • 5. daftbitch  |  July 19, 2005 at 10:54 am

    This post has been removed by the author.

  • 6. Anonymous  |  July 19, 2005 at 2:57 pm

    I wonder whether ugrads can take grad classes in the Singapore universities.

    Yes, but only if they’re given permission to. The grad module has to be specially registered for, and module coordinator will probably reject the application unless the undergrad has a really good reason for taking it, or shows exceptional interest in the class.

    wrt botanist comment: no offense taken. 😉

    ~ the pseudo-botanist

  • 7. Unknown  |  July 24, 2005 at 1:18 am

    In my senior year in high school, grd 12, I took a few classes at the college near my high school. It definitely was worthwhile, since I got credit for my high school as well as uni.

    About acceleration, which vivienne mentions (though I am thinking she was referring more to Singapore than the US) – I’ve known people who graduated from high school at the age of 15. But that was through a home-schooling program, as one must admit, sometimes “regular schooling” can be a waste of time.

    And pertaining to the original topic, I am glad that I have been going to school in the US (and a Brit school in Malaysia). The way I see it, I would have died in the schooling system in Malaysia and/or Singapore. I am just not that kind of competitve person. In fact, I enjoy my uni education far more than high school because there’s a sense of versatility and openess to the course-works that’s required. I would have not cared about my grades (and haven’t gotten good grades til I was in a home-schooling system for my last 3 years of high school) if I was placed into a competitve environment such as in Singapore and Malaysia.


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