Tuition culture in Singapore: abundance and anxiety

So, some interesting noises from the echo chamber:
hengsweekeatFrom the article Tuition Culture has to go, say MPs reported by Today Online.

Despite government efforts, Singaporeans still have the mentality that getting good grades is the ticket to securing good jobs and a bright future, MPs noted.”

I wonder what efforts the MPs are referring to here. What exactly is the problem that the government thinks needs fixing? Lots of amateur laymen proposing solutions in Parliament — why does everyone think that problems in the education system need to be fixed with education policy? How about labour policy? The article brings up a number of possibilities, but I suspect that Parliament is having too much fun playing amateur problem-solver to successfully identify what the real problem is.

(1): Tuition is the problem – shouldn’t be necessary to get good grades.

There’s some wishful thinking here, I think. As long as tuition yields measurable improvements towards a student’s educational outcomes, there’s going to be a major incentive to tutor the living daylights out of the kid. If you want to decouple the perceived link between tuition and success, you’re going to have to make grades dependent on things that tuition teachers can’t easily address.

There’s some hope in the works: across the board we can see a greater emphasis on experiential learning and new methods of assessment, including collaborative work and work assessed over a period of time. That’s encouraging.

On the other hand, we’re still besotted with the idea of a national exam. I think standardised assessment definitely has a role to play, but does this assessment have to take the form of an all-or-nothing sit-down writing exercise?

Surely there’s some room to spread out a student’s ultimate academic evaluation across both examined and constructed work. Set national examinations for baseline competencies in things like languages, mathematics, and basic scientific knowledge: I think multiple-choice questions in the vein of the LSATs/TOEFL might be good here, because when you’re looking for assessing baseline competency, you’re testing a kid on basics which have easy yes/no, right/wrong answers: grammar, arithmetic, and scientific facts and axioms aren’t negotiable. Make these tests have an extremely compressed spread of possible results, maybe only reporting a result of Pass/Fail. Make it possible for someone who has mastered basic ability in language, mathematics, and science, who takes the test diligently, to get a perfect score.

Beyond that, if you want to test mastery of advanced knowledge, move away from sit-down exams. Require them to do some independent research for science, write a paper or explore some theoretical problem for mathematics, and create a viable text for languages. Write a magazine article in Mandarin; film a series of public service announcements for English. That sort of thing. The goal should be for students to demonstrate authentic mastery, not rote-learning, which means being able to apply whatever they think they’ve learnt to solve real problems and accomplish real tasks.

Let them sit for the ‘A’-levels if they want to, if they want to go to a British university or something. But surely we can do better, especially since the ‘A’-levels are tottering even in their country of origin.

So only the very weak will need additional help in order to demonstrate baseline competency (in which case we shouldn’t begrudge them tuition, extra consultations, or professional therapy if they need it), and nobody will be able to tuition their way past a live task. If the latter forces students to seek greater exposure to live problem solving through internships, engagement with social issues, participating in civil society organisations, and so on in order to acquire problem-solving experience, surely that’s all for the good, and shouldn’t be considered ‘tuition’.

(2): Academic competitiveness is the problem – shouldn’t be necessary to get good jobs

The civil service really needs to lead the way here. When the government, the largest and most influential employer in the country, mandates a massive pay differential between polytechnic and university graduates, they don’t really have any kind of right to complain that people are taking on unnecessary stress. Even in the political arena, the academic credentials of candidates seem more important than their track record (which in any case is largely inseparable from their academic credentials), their charisma, or most importantly, their ethical intelligence.

(3): ‘Good’ jobs are the problem – shouldn’t be necessary to have a bright future

The fact is, there is a huge and real gap between jobs that Singaporeans consider ‘good’, and everything else. The problem here is inequality more than education: when a teacher, nurse, or social worker, who is in their field just as qualified as, say, an investment banker, who works just as hard (if not harder) and for as long hours (if not longer) earns so much less, who can fault parents and students for obsessing over the few disproportionately ‘good’ jobs there are?

What makes a job ‘good’ to a Singaporean? Most Singaporeans want jobs that provide both low risk and high earning power, and by my observation, involve as little inconvenience as possible: many people seem to have a phobia of doing things like working overseas for extended amounts of time, which I suspect comes from how thoroughly indoctrinated many of us are with Singaporean exceptionalism and the belief that the rest of the world is a seething hive of poor infrastructure and high crime rates.

How many people consider interest, passion, or impact when they evaluate the ‘goodness’ of a job? I dunno what my generation of working adults thinks, but as someone who’s worked with teenagers quite extensively regarding talent development and career discernment, I can tell you that it’s a vanishingly small number. And the more safely-ensconced they are in the academic environment of our local schools, and the more potential they have to score well, the less likely they are to consider such factors. It’s a sad state of affairs when our very best and brightest aspire towards the least risky and most boring jobs possible, simply because those jobs provide the most security and earning power.

Maybe if we thought differently about our careers, and were enabled to make career decisions without the everpresent fear of failure and incipient poverty, we wouldn’t put our kids through the career-wringer as early as preschool.

Which brings me to the thing that the government isn’t talking about, which I consider the main problem:

(4): The future is the problem – your confidence in your future and your freedom to pursue happiness shouldn’t be dependent on industry field or elite education

My take on things is that every Singaporean lives in fear, a fear we’ve been infected with since we were kids. Every Singaporean lives in fear of failure, of poverty, and of the social stigma of being a dependent. We’ve been taught as students that a good citizen contributes to society instead of leeches off of it, and I think this sort of thinking is very elegantly fostered to absolve the government of the responsibility to provide social security and a minimum guaranteed standard of living.

As youths we were all told that nobody owes us a living, and that Singapore as a society exists on the knife’s edge of improbability due to our lack of natural resources and an economy that is entirely dependent on our ability to sell our labour to the most attractive foreign bidders. We are predisposed to think of ourselves as potential units of labour: the oft-repeated refrain that “Singapore has no natural resources but only human resources” serves to get us used to the idea that our labour is something to be marketed and monetised and exploited to the full.

We don’t consider the impact on our psychology when that idea also includes the assumption that our labour and our effort is ultimately expendable, something to be consumed, that our energy and our effort should ultimately be used up. The Singapore government is a little bit weird in that it considers its population and their labour resources, but doesn’t consider that all resources are susceptible to depletion if overexploited. But with the increasing levels of burnout, stress, and depression among young people, and the high turnover-rates in some of the most desirable jobs in Singapore, it’s quite clear that we are overexploiting our labour-force.

The idea that our lives are just resources, fuel for the furnace that keeps this clunky locomotive chugging, is becoming increasingly unsustainable. Even well-employed Singaporeans live in fear. Hell, I do. My anxiety and angst stem from the dissatisfaction of thinking that I am expected to work my life away for no real reward and no lasting satisfaction, and certainly no security. We work ever-longer hours, for fast-eroding pay, that vanishes into nothing no matter how much we save because of the pathetic interest rate, and although we pay more and more tax on our mayfly wealth, we keep getting told that the government isn’t obliged to spend that tax money on our benefit. Instead, we are roundly scolded for being dependent on handouts and subsidies. How dare we demand that our tax money be spent on us, instead of squirrelled-away!

Maybe people are so anxious and so grasping and so acquisitive because they’re essentially heartsick of the idea of being forever trapped in a neck-and-neck race against entropy. Everyone is desperate to earn as much as they can to hoard against the day when earning is no longer possible for them. Maybe we hope that being civilised involves more than a greater variety of toys to spend our money on. Maybe Singaporeans look at senior citizens, who’ve worked hard all their lives in jobs that once upon a time might have been considered ‘good’, who now have to sell tissue paper, wash toilets, collect litter, and wait on tables in their golden years, and fear for their own future.

I can’t help but feel that a ‘bright’ future, at least as far as a safe and satisfying retirement goes, shouldn’t have anything to do with what job you held down or how well you did in school. At the very least, everyone should be able to look forward to a future in which their retirement savings are not tied to the performance of the property market, in which their medical bills aren’t an existential threat, in which they don’t have to beg the children of those who can afford them for enough money to take the increasingly-mercenary, privatised train home.

Dear The Government, if you want to stem tuition culture, you’ll have to address the bigger problem of insecurity culture, of siege-mentality culture, of hand-to-mouth culture.

You’ll need to provide universal and comprehensive healthcare, not because people deserve it or not, but because (a) we can afford it (we spend three times more on a peacetime army, for crying out loud) and (b) someone dying of preventable causes because he can’t afford treatment is barbaric and unworthy of any kind of society that holds itself civilised.

You’ll need to provide a universal and guaranteed pension for retirees to ensure that nobody has to gamble on the stock market, the property market, or the largesse of their children or the children of others when they’re old. It’s pretty obvious that you think pensions are important, because you’ve all given yourselves pensions: you just don’t think that pensions are important to other people. Raising the retirement rate and making seniors more employable doesn’t fix the problem: helping more seniors work into their twilight years isn’t helping because nobody should be forced to work to make end’s meet when they’re that old. Yes, people live longer now, but just because I’ll live till 90 instead of 70 doesn’t mean that at 60 I’ll have the energy of a 40-year-old and should therefore keep on working: it just means that when I die, I’ll be that much more tired, have suffered that much more from an ailing body, and will hopefully be that much more eager to have everything over and done with.

You’ll need to provide affordable housing options for people who don’t feel like going into thirty years of debt in exchange for a rental that you call ownership. Newsflash: I don’t care what real estate agents say, it’s not real ownership if it has an expiry date after which I have to give everything back to you.

You’ll need to come up with some kind of long-term plan for Singapore that isn’t merely based on increasing factors of production, including labour. There are natural limitations to our population. If I think about progress, I want the Singapore of the future to be able to enjoy twice as much prosperity with half the number of active workers; trends suggest the opposite is much more likely.

You’ll need to start making Singaporeans see globalisation as less of a vulnerability and more of an opportunity. If people are flocking here for work, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be flocking elsewhere: Singaporeans are modern, well-educated, and hard-working. If not for the fact that our parochial sense of exceptionalism and the entrenched racism of our constructed history make us pathologically afraid of learning new languages and living and working outside the country, we would be hugely competitive overseas. Of course, in order to bring this about you’ll have to stop using shills to blame the West for everything, and you’ll have to publicly refute Goh Chok Tong’s extremely parochial ‘stayers/quitters’ rhetoric, which I’m not confident you’re actually capable of doing.

You’ll need to understand that growth of all sorts has limits, and start recognising the shape of our maturing economy. I personally think that the steady-state economy is a rad idea.

You can’t raise generations of Singaporeans on fear, on the myth of self-sufficiency, on the axiom that our economy and way of life are based on our ability to redline ourselves for as long as possible as units of labour, and then complain that people are too stressed about their future and that they don’t appreciate “government efforts”. You can’t tell everyone that you owe them nothing, that they have to earn, save, and invest enough to defend themselves against a rising tide of consumerism, materialism, and squeezed space, and then ask why kids aren’t taking the time to grow up holistically, why parents are grinding their kids to the bone on the mill of academic excess, why everyone forces themselves to aspire to the very, very few jobs in our unequal job market that will allow them to make that much money.

Maybe when we don’t have to fear that following our passions will lead us to the poorhouse or, in modern Singaporean parlance, the old-age home in Johor Bahru that Khaw Boon Wan thinks we should send Ah Kong to, then you’ll see people willing to consider alternative pathways to success and a more diverse, forgiving education system.

But not now.

I’m anticipating that in my lifetime, my lifespan isn’t going to be limited by science or infrastructure but by my own personal finances. I’m anticipating that I’ll work harder, retire later, and enjoy less in terms of long-term financial stability than my parents.

I’m anticipating that if I could pay some hack to tutor my child such that he can study and work overseas and avoid all that shit, I will.

You see, people complain about tuition not because it’s ineffective but because it’s too effective, and unfairly so. It’s paying to win. You know what happens to people who can’t afford to compete in pay-to-win games? They don’t play.

I’ll beg people to take my money just so my kid can grow up with a different set of anticipations and expectations. And I anticipate that if I can’t afford to give my children a better life, and better expectations, than what I’ve got, I’m just not going to have them.

Hey, cheer up, Singapore government! Kids are now so unaffordable that practically nobody’s having them! By the next generation, you won’t have to worry about tuition because children will become obsolete!

EDIT: It’s come to my attention that this article has become greatly more popular than I ever anticipated. I’ve made a number of edits in the interest of tact and tonal appropriateness for a larger audience. The main substantive — claims, examples, suggestions — remains unchanged.