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.

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44 thoughts on “Tuition culture in Singapore: abundance and anxiety

  1. Reblogged this on postcards from far away and commented:
    the most depressing thing I’ve read in a while that all the more reinforces my desire to get out of Singapore asap. call me a quitter but I’m not going to sit around and wait until I’m close-to-sucked dry by the locality here.

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    • As I mentioned on your blog, I think the past decade or so has taught me that there are ways in which I can still do something about the status quo, even if I have to do it on a much smaller scale than I’d like. That makes me more likely to want to stay and fight rather than cut and run.

      But I also know exactly what you mean. Sometimes you just want some space so you can breathe, and a horizon uncluttered.

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  2. I second your opinions. They are well thought out and serve as a good, rough objective that a policy can follow. Of course, in my opinion, change will definitely take time. The mould that the government has cast the education system in will not be broken in a brief span of 5-6 years, and indeed, by the time it has changed, or has been forced to change, Singapore may no longer be enjoying the success it revels in today. The changing dynamic of the global landscape requires more than just academic grades.

    Another thing I would like to point out is the potential lessons that Singapore’s education ministers can draw from the Finnish education system. They seem to have it easy while maintaining competitiveness (see http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/why-are-finlands-schools-successful-49859555/?no-ist), whereas Singaporean students have it super-tough while maintaining competitiveness. What can we take away from it? Maybe you could write up another post about that.

    However, I disagree with the notion that Singaporeans are raised in fear. Although the result of not willing to take on new things can follow from fear, I feel that it is derived more so from a lack of broad-mindedness than fear in the context of Singaporean students. Singaporean students are, first and foremost, fixated, and because of this fixation with grades, CCA achievements and other academic pursuits (which is legitimate so long as it is not excessive), they are unable to see the broad context of life and the long-run. It makes a big difference to have a vision, and not a direction.

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    • Hey, Robin! Thanks for writing in.

      Another thing I would like to point out is the potential lessons that Singapore’s education ministers can draw from the Finnish education system.

      Finland was huge in the education scene a few years ago, and they’ve managed to do some great things everyone should definitely aspire to. They do have certain advantages (for example, re: national identity, integration and diversity issues) that we can’t discount, and which prevent the wholesale adoption of the Finnish model.

      The main difference is I think Finland’s high degree of social welfare and security, and its correspondingly high rate of taxation. As a society they’ve embraced the idea of vigorously redistributing wealth.
      – education spending norms: private spending on education in Finland is generally very low. Public education, from primary to university level, does without collection of tuition fees at all. The chances of a Finnish family spending money on additional or extra education is therefore correspondingly low: education is seen as a public good that everyone is entitled to, and ‘buying’ better education might seem as alien as the thought of ‘buying’ better private roads might be to us. I think — and this is my unqualified opinion — that the Finnish therefore have a lower propensity to buy advantages in education. In Singapore, people readily spend huge sums on purchasing educational advantages, tuition being only one dimension of this (private schooling and extra-curricular participation are some others). Put a Singaporean in the Finnish system, and you might very well have a prisoner’s dilemma situation, in which one party, acting in bad faith, can ruin an entire market. Arguably, we’ve already started to see some of this in Singapore’s immediate dominance of the International Baccalaureate ranking once we adopted the system.

      – further education opportunities: further education is generally very accessible for them. They not only attend university for free, but also qualify for allowances and living grants while they’re studying. This means that students aren’t as pushed to scrabble for scholarships and other forms of merit-based funding. They also qualify for free/subsidised education available to all EU citizens if they seek further education abroad. Low cost and the wide range of options available to them (throughout the whole EU) means that higher education is in general more accessible to them, and they don’t have to obsess so hard over competing to enter university. Singaporeans, however, either compete for a small number of subsidised places at local universities, undertake expensive private study in Singapore, undertake even more expensive study overseas, or compete for an even smaller number of largely merit-based awards to study overseas (the coveted government scholarships etc).

      – student expectations after schooling: As previously mentioned, there’s a high level of social security in Finland. Unemployed jobseekers qualify for an indefinite basic daily allowance, and on top of that many can claim about 45% of the difference between their last-drawn salary and their basic daily allowance (so, if former daily=100/diem and current=25/diem, that’s about 60/diem, or 22k/year). This means that they are more free to take jobs based on interest and work/life balance; the urgency to cram themselves into a relatively small number of high-paying jobs is relatively less than in Singapore.

      So yeah. This just points back to my original argument, that education policy has to address socioeconomic realities instead of attempt to operate in its own vacuum.

      Although the result of not willing to take on new things can follow from fear, I feel that it is derived more so from a lack of broad-mindedness than fear in the context of Singaporean students.

      I think we’re still talking about the same thing here, just labelling things differently. I see the close-mindedness as due to a sense of anxiety and existential dread: the fixation you’ve identified, I see as stemming from a sort of survival impulse.

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  3. I like how you claim that there are many “amateur laymen shooting off solutions [in parliament]” but all you did was offer half-baked ideas. Claiming that “…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…” isn’t a viable idea because at the end of the day, everything you’ve stated can be put through tuition.

    Another strange comment you made: (we spend three times more on a peacetime army, for crying out loud). You don’t seem to understand how our peacetime army works. The fact that we spend a lot on it allows us to boast about our large defence budget, and in turn, that large amount itself serves as a deterrent to any force wishing to invade us.

    To be fair, you sound gravely bitter about how you’ve been treated by the government, and maybe perhaps you have been, and your emotions have significantly clouded your judgement of the situation. But hey, cheer up. You ought to find comfort in the fact that not everyone in Singapore lives such a miserable life. And really, while you’ve been noticing all the unhappiness and cherry-picking various bits of displeasure within the whole “system”, you do realise that there is in fact a large population of Singaporean youths who are satisfied, carefree and genuinely happy with their lives. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it does in fact work for most of us. I feel really sorry that you feel that you’ve fallen by the wayside in such a harsh, unforgiving and downright unfair system. Let me know if you need a hug. Cheers!

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    • Thanks for writing in, Albert!

      I like how you claim that there are many “amateur laymen shooting off solutions [in parliament]” but all you did was offer half-baked ideas.

      True. I’m not about to defend to the death my policy suggestions. On the other hand, I’m not paid six figures a year to actually formulate policy suggestions, so if there’s no difference between a well-paid amateur and an unpaid one, perhaps we should focus our scrutiny on those supported by taxpayers.

      everything you’ve stated can be put through tuition

      To a small extent, yes. Every skill can be trained — that’s one of the definitions of what differentiates ‘skill’ from everything else. I think it is important to avoid equivocation, though: if a student learns authentic skills from additional learning taken on outside the school, I think that’s very different from paying someone to drill your kid through a slew of ten-year series. Sure, maybe instead of taking tuition, people will seek advantages by taking on internships and apprenticeships. That’s good! If a kid learns how to write a newspaper article in Mandarin by interning or shadowing with a Mandarin-language publication, I’m all for it; if he writes a science paper as the result of spending out-of-school hours volunteering at a lab, I’m all for it.

      Can a tutor be hired to help students fake that kind of experience? Sure, I guess; you can also hire people to help you fake your way through college applications, job interviews, and political campaigns. Is it unfair that some rich dude always looks good because he can afford to hire an image consultant etc etc? Sure. I will heartily agree with you that my ideas are far from foolproof.

      I still think they’re more sound than Inderjit Singh’s quota on high-scorers, though. That shit’s just crazy.

      You don’t seem to understand how our peacetime army works.

      I think I’ve served in it long enough to have an inkling, thanks.

      The fact that we spend a lot on it allows us to boast about our large defence budget, and in turn, that large amount itself serves as a deterrent to any force wishing to invade us.

      When the sheer excess of extravagant spending becomes a goal in and of itself, I think someone needs to rethink their priority opportunities.

      Also, my point on stepping-up health spending in light of how much we’re spending on defence only makes sense when you consider my first premise: we can clearly afford to spend more on health. I never said that we should spend as much on health as we do on defence, or that defence spending has to go down commensurate to increased healthcare spending.

      Re: your last paragraph,

      Thank you for your sympathy. I don’t think I’ve been personally ‘done wrong’ particularly badly (although I will concede that I feel somewhat disillusioned). I think it’s just idealism meeting reality. Doesn’t mean that things can’t improve, though, and while I don’t specifically mention anything positive in my writing here, it doesn’t mean I deny such things exist: merely that I consider drawing attention to them a much lower priority, much in the same way that someone who’s drowning could wax philosophical about the beauty of the ocean and the sublime vastness of nature, but he’s probably going to try to grab a life-preserver first.

      there is in fact a large population of Singaporean youths who are satisfied, carefree and genuinely happy with their lives

      “Satisfied”, I’ll concede. I work with the youth, though, and I don’t think many of them are either carefree or genuinely happy, to the extent that anyone suffering the angst of adolescence can be happy.

      I feel really sorry that you feel that you’ve fallen by the wayside in such a harsh, unforgiving and downright unfair system.

      Actually, I think I’ve reaped more than my share of benefit from the system. That doesn’t mean I can’t recognise that it is harsh, unforgiving, or unfair, though.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed! On the plus side, I think we’re much more likely to be approaching a critical-mass tipping-point than we have been for decades. Interesting times.

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  4. When you say the government should provide this and that, such as universal healthcare and pension, you are aware that, ultimately, it means higher taxes right, since the government only has money by taking away money from the people.

    Also, when you claim that “we pay more and more tax on our mayfly wealth”, what is your definition of wealth and how do you get the idea that you are paying more and more all these years?

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    • you are aware that, ultimately, it means higher taxes right, since the government only has money by taking away money from the people

      My answer to that is a resounding “kinda”. Yes, I know it means higher government spending: whether that comes at the cost of higher taxation depends on how we balance budgets and how much we prioritise stocking the national reserves. We could always cut spending on extravagances and increase taxation especially on vice.

      Singapore is one of the few countries in the world that runs a regular annual surplus. Our spending never comes from borrowing, which is extraordinary. So far, our government spends sparingly and stocks the reserves, using the power of compound interest and investment to buoy revenue in later years. Increasing government spending doesn’t necessarily mean taking money away from people: it just means that the money goes to the people sooner rather than later (spend the money now rather than spend the interest on that money in future).

      When and how much to spend that money is surely a question for economists, not armchair critics like me. Donald Low makes a good argument here that we can and should be spending on healthcare instead of socking the money away.

      I think in the long run, especially given our greying population and whatnot, that building a more robust healthcare system and improving access to healthcare is much better done preventatively than reactively. And more accessible healthcare and more secure retirement provisions also pay off in increasing the population’s threshold for risk, which in turn helps us make some headway in entrepreneurship and innovation.

      Not to mention that it is generally cheaper for the government to build infrastructure and provide certain goods and services than for the private market to do so. While we may lose out in the short term when it comes to higher taxation (even if it does come to that), I’d like to think we gain much more in the long run by enjoying better healthcare infrastructure and a more robust welfare system.

      what is your definition of wealth

      I’m not sure I have a technically-sound definition of wealth. So my technically-unsound definition includes stuff like property, assets, investments, savings, blah blah.

      and how do you get the idea that you are paying more and more all these years?

      When was the last time you noticed GST falling? Until very recently, property was also shooting up. So is the price of travel, both in terms of car ownership and also the cost (in cash and also time wasted, public confidence squandered) of a privatised transport system charging more to boost profits while service standards fall through the floor.

      I know we pay very little in the way of income tax, and that’s one of the areas I’m relatively happy about. Everything else, though…

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      • Fair enough comment. So far, I noticed many Singaporeans who comment on social media are more inclined to be Democrats. They have this great faith that, if the government were to run things, such as healthcare, public transport, preschool education and so on, they will do a very a good job. Implicit in this belief is that government officials will put society’s interest above their self interest.

        Its rare to find social commentators who lean more towards the Republican view, that the government should be kept as small as possible, the best way to spend money is to spend your own money on yourself, rather than the govt spending somebody else’s money on somebody else.

        All these are basic assumptions so its not easy to convince people to change until they want to change. I respect your opinion on the role of govt.

        As for wealth tax, do note that we have zero capital gains as well as dividend tax, so I just find it weird to read about higher and higher taxes on wealth. GST is a tax on consumption, when you spend your income or wealth but to call it a wealth tax seems a bit far fetched, likewise COE and ERP are all indirect taxes on consumption.

        Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of hidden taxes on Singaporeans, I always view conscription as a tax on all Singaporean males, the difference between their true opportunity cost of time and the allowance they are actually given, but that is for another topic.

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      • I’m not sure the American liberal Democrat/conservative Republican labels are helpful here. I do agree that it seems that the online vocal minority tend to align more closely with American Democrat-style politics, including more civil liberties, social progress, and government funding of healthcare/education/retirement etc. I think this has something to do with education: research seems to show that the more well-educated you are, the more likely you are to vote Democrat and support Democratic politics. It makes sense that this more highly-educated group would be more active and more articulate on social media, and thus appear more vocal/more noticeable. I’m pretty sure you’d find some alignment between education level, political inclination, and participation level in media and social commentary.

        I stand corrected re: my terminology. I wasn’t thinking of capital gains tax at all! That sort of thing doesn’t even factor in the conversations I usually have. I guess it’s a bit of a non-issue when you have no actual wealth to invest and reap dividends for. Would you consider zero capital gains/dividends tax, but an increasing consumption tax, indications of a regressive tax policy?

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    • Regarding healthcare and taxes; from the people that I have spoken to in my experience, most have said they would not mind paying higher taxes (to what extent, no one knows till someone comes up with a number) for the peace of mind one can get from not worrying if one has enough for their old age medical bills, and not having to bother their children or relatives for such money. To them, they see higher taxes for free universal healthcare as a sort of “insurance plan” for themselves. And while one can argue that we can all save up the savings we now have from taxes for our old age medical bills, reality never works out that well.

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      • That’s more or less the impression I’ve gotten from the people I’ve spoken to so far, Kingston.

        I think it’s just that in our time we’ve seen those costs really shoot through the roof, as well as the development of new forms of treatment that start out astronomical, and we project ourselves needing not only currently-known forms of treatment, which might get cheaper over time, but entirely new treatments that will become available in our lifetimes.

        If in future it becomes possible to grow new organs to replace failing ones or replace limbs with superior prosthetics, I’d really rather not have to forego that because I can’t afford them, because I would never consider saving up for them given current standards.

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      • Like I have mentioned above in my reply to Nigel. There are quite a number of people who enjoy “spending other people’s money on themselves”, and they correspondingly have no problem with “other people spending theirs”. For these people, they would support high taxes.

        I am always amused when I hear views like that because I would rather spend my own money on myself, because it rewards personal responsibility. Isn’t liberty always better than coercion?

        To exemplify why I am amused, suppose I adopt your view, its like saying, “I don’t mind being forced by law to take good care of other people’s kids, so long as other people are forced by law to take good care of mine.”

        Why not just make things simpler by saying, “Everyone take care of their own kid well”?

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      • Because not everyone has the same resources to take good care of their kids/seniors, but the kids/parents all equally deserve good care. If someone has the resources to take care of a deserving kid, and someone else doesn’t, but his kid is no less deserving, is that fair? If we accept the premise that all children deserve good care equally, and equal opportunities to excel, then surely we should not be asking which kids or which families deserve to be well looked-after, but rather find solutions to provide good care to all by sharing resources.

        Saying that the freedom to spend your own money on yourself rewards personal responsibility suggests that you consider yourself solely and personally responsibility for the money you have. I’m not sure if that’s a very accurate view, given how intricately-entertwined the market is.

        I don’t mind supporting high taxes and paying for the welfare of someone else’s kids, because it is in my interest that even the children of total strangers grow up well cared-for and fairly-treated in society. A state of persistent inequality tends to increase the rate of crime: if my tax money helps fund a kid through school, or pays for that kid’s parents’ medical bills, then that kid is less likely to resort to crime, and my chance of becoming a victim goes down. This stranger’s child, whom I have supported through my taxes, grows up more well-educated, more socially-responsible, and more happy and secure. He will become a better worker, a better employer, a better citizen. He might even be my boss or my MP or my President one day, and he’ll be the better for it because myself and the rest of my community supported him even though he wasn’t ours.

        Even if I never have kids, I still gain if the kids around me are more well-educated, their parents healthier and happier, their grandparents more secure in their retirements.

        You’ve heard the proverb that it takes a village to bring up a child. That seems to be more true than ever these days.

        Like

      • Fairness is a very subjective term.

        But even if I grant you the fact that, yes something was unfair, to resort to relying on the government to force a few people to give them money, so that some other people can get that money is a very strange way to correct the initial unfair situation to me.

        When people ask for more taxation and government spending as a way to correct all these perceived “unfairness”, I always wonder whether they actually thought about the consequences of that and how it can often make things worse, in terms of changing people’s behavior.

        As I have said in Donald Low’s discussion thread a few days ago, I am certainly glad that our present government recognizes the potential government failure, and is trying to encourage charity donations, thru tax incentives. This relies on liberty, rather than coercing people to do so through taxes.

        Like

      • Fairness is a very subjective term.

        I think you mean that fairness is a relative thing, to which I kind of agree, given that nobody is created ‘equal’. ‘Fairness is subjective’ is unhelpful, given that anything that disadvantages a particular individual is going to be seen by them as unfair.

        Meritocracy assumes certain pre-existing conditions before it operates as promised, and I think if you drill down to a granular level, you’ll find that very often, those conditions don’t exist in Singapore in places where you would want them to. Such as in education.

        But even if I grant you the fact that, yes something was unfair, to resort to relying on the government to force a few people to give them money, so that some other people can get that money is a very strange way to correct the initial unfair situation to me.

        But that’s the entire basis of taxation: it’s part of a basic social contract that recognises that some things are unfeasible for individuals to provide for themselves (like infrastructure, defence, goods and services of public utility) and therefore require the contribution of every member of society to furnish for the common good.

        If you disagree with this basic premise, then how do you justify any kind of taxation/government spending?

        Also, how is government redistribution of wealth “a very strange” thing to you? It’s one of the basic roles of government.

        When people ask for more taxation and government spending as a way to correct all these perceived “unfairness”, I always wonder whether they actually thought about the consequences of that and how it can often make things worse, in terms of changing people’s behavior.

        I do definitely think that there are limits to government intervention. I’m not advocating that we go full Nordic-state here with 50+% tax and free everything. So in a sense I agree with you: there are potential drawbacks to having the government be the sole arbiter of wealth-redistribution, and I do also agree that government policies should often be the last resort rather than the first response. Government policies are an incredibly blunt instrument.

        But given the initial discussion was about education, the public perception seems to be that the free market plays too great a role in our education sector today. Which means, like it or not, it’s time to rev up that blunt instrument and start swinging at the problem.

        I am in fact arguing that in considering labour policy and social welfare as part of the big problem that education is aimed at, the government can come up with more nuanced, targeted, and subtle policies, rather than trying to solve education problems with education-policy alone.

        As I have said in Donald Low’s discussion thread a few days ago, I am certainly glad that our present government recognizes the potential government failure, and is trying to encourage charity donations, thru tax incentives. This relies on liberty, rather than coercing people to do so through taxes.

        I certainly do hope that Singaporeans start giving more to charity, and I suppose tax incentives are one way of helping them do so. As a society, though, we’re not very generous when it comes to giving: this study ranks us pretty much near the bottom, among countries with very different socioeconomic conditions. Which begs the question why Singaporeans are so tight-fisted to begin with, even though our charity incentives are already pretty good.

        And I think it has to do with cognitive dissonance. It’s very difficult for any authority or government to run the parallel argument that (1) self-sufficiency is a virtue, and not pampering people encourages them to level up and stop being a burden, and that (2) you ought to give to charity to help people who can’t help themselves. Embracing both prongs takes a pretty hefty dose of doublethink that may not be healthy even if you could swing it.

        ——–

        When I look to the future, I do think we need to rely a lot less on the government to decide on our social priorities for us. What we need to do is get new generations to think of the market in a more humane and humanistic way, moving away from maximising profit and towards meeting needs. We’re already seeing the seeds of this with the current uptick of interest in social entrepreneurship.

        At the same time, if we want to accomplish this, we need to be sending the right message to people, that investing in society and in people’s welfare is important. And that requires the government, the nation’s biggest spender and employer, to start putting its money where its mouth is. At the moment it’s trying to have its cake and eat it too, promoting a weird mishmash of liberal economics and conservative politics, that I think is starting to show signs of tearing itself apart at the seams.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I have to say this has been a very fruitful discussion! I am a libertarian at heart and you seem to lean more towards a socialist. Even though we clearly start with different basic assumptions about human motivation, I enjoy learning from you how someone with those assumptions would think about various issues, and compare and contrast the difference,

        I will elaborate first on your question why I find wealth redistribution strange. Here is your point.
        =====
        If you disagree with this basic premise, then how do you justify any kind of taxation/government spending?
        Also, how is government redistribution of wealth “a very strange” thing to you? It’s one of the basic roles of government.
        =====
        From the libertarian point of view, the government is to be kept as small as possible. Some goods are indeed better provided by the govt instead of the market. Public goods such as national defense, law enforcement, police etc would be the classic examples of those goods. Even then, we should always be careful not to have too much government intervention. Singapore’s policy of conscripting the young males, thru coercion, will be frowned upon by many libertarians but, as I said, that is for another topic of discussion.

        Redistribution of wealth is very strange to a libertarian because, accumulation of wealth is very much a free choice made by individuals. Most people accumulate wealth by making a conscious decision to do so, spend less than they earn, and invest the difference. By doing so, they expose their savings to risks and sometimes they win, other times they lose. Some people who accumulate wealth this way may then decide to pass most of it to their children. Why do they do that? I would say its because they value their children’s satisfaction more highly than they regard their own. That is fine, its not the child’s fault that their parents think so, remember its a free choice.

        Others may prefer not to save because they value present consumption, or they are risk averse so they prefer to just save in banks. At the end of the day, there will be people who accumulate wealth and people who don’t, but that is the result of the free choice they made years before. If people look at this and cry out “Unfair! The govt should levy a capital gains or dividend tax to redistribute the wealth!” I would find it very strange.

        Let me exemplify what I mean: Imagine two prosperous but not outrageously so working people living somewhere—two doctors, say, living in nearby small towns. They’re both pulling in incomes in the low six figures. One doctor chooses to spend basically 100 percent of his income on expensive non-durables. He goes on annual vacations to expensive cities and eats in a lot of fancy restaurants.

        The other doctor is much more frugal, not traveling much and eating modestly. Instead, he spends a lot of his money on hiring people to build buildings around town. Those buildings become houses, offices, retail stores, factories, etc. In other words, they’re capital. And capital earns a return, so over time the second doctor comes to have a much higher income than the first doctor.

        So then there are too different scenarios:

        — In the world where investment income isn’t taxed, the second doctor says to the first doctor “all those fancy vacations may be fun, but I’m being much more prudent. By saving for the future, I’ll be comfortable when it comes time to retire and will have plenty left over to give to my kids.”

        — In the world where investment income is taxed like labor income, the first doctor says to the second “man you’re a sucker—not only are you deferring enjoyment of the fruits of your labor (boring) but when the money you’ve saved comes back to you, it gets taxed all over again. Live in the now.”

        And the thinking is that world number one where people with valuable skills take a large share of their labor income and transform it into capital goods is ultimately a richer world than the world in which such people just go out to a lot of fancy dinners. Workers need capital, and they are more productive using capital, allowing them to earn higher wages than a world with less capital.

        That is Adam Smith’s invisible hand at work. Thus, any attempt by the government to redistribute the wealth, would almost always, destroy the incentive to get wealth.

        Like

      • I am a libertarian at heart and you seem to lean more towards a socialist.

        I guess I’d call myself a social-ish. I’ve worked for the government for so long, that I can’t help but long for a small government. Like I said, I don’t like the blunt-instrument government approach. That being said, on certain issues, yeah, socialish.

        Most people accumulate wealth by making a conscious decision to do so, spend less than they earn, and invest the difference.

        I guess this is one of those baseline assumptions I would disagree with. People who get wealthy (instead of who inherit wealth, say) do indeed work hard. But lots of people work hard who don’t get wealthy. Is it because they make a conscious decision to work hard but not to earn more? Does someone who works two or three jobs to make ends meet somehow choose to be in that position?

        I say that isn’t true. Hard work and financial prudence aren’t the only determinants of wealth: you’re also affected by how much the market values your work, which leads to the “celebrities earn more than paramedics” situation. If a teacher and an investment banker work equally hard, but earn hugely disproportionate amounts, is your stand that the teacher has deliberately chosen to be poor?

        But at the same time, said banker didn’t just choose to work hard and get rich on his own. Yes, he made tough choices, but in a vacuum, those choices wouldn’t have been his to make. If not for his own teachers (when he was in school) choosing the financially-imprudent decision of not being investment bankers themselves, he wouldn’t have been able to learn the skills and earn the qualifications that got him where he was.

        Since even the best investment banker isn’t worth anything in a total social vacuum, we must therefore say that he owes some of his success to the people around him.

        At the end of the day, there will be people who accumulate wealth and people who don’t, but that is the result of the free choice they made years before.

        Your implication being that everyone has disposable wealth to invest (or not). I’ve worked with plenty of people living from hand-to-mouth; I can’t imagine even the cosmic power of compound interest coming to their rescue anytime soon.

        Imagine two prosperous but not outrageously so working people living somewhere—two doctors, say, living in nearby small towns.

        Do your assumptions still hold up if one is a doctor and the other, one of his patients, is a day labourer?

        And the thinking is that world number one where people with valuable skills take a large share of their labor income and transform it into capital goods is ultimately a richer world

        That is Adam Smith’s invisible hand at work. Thus, any attempt by the government to redistribute the wealth, would almost always, destroy the incentive to get wealth.

        I’m well-aware of how free-market theory works, and it’s an attractive and very appealing dream, especially to people who have valuable skills and access to capital. But not everyone has, and not everyone does. And the world isn’t necessarily richer for them. Trickle-down economics can work but doesn’t always; market failure is a real thing; the role of a government is to recognise where market failure is likely or underway, and act to correct it in a manner that is socially-desirable, even if it leads to a net loss in total wealth generated, because sometimes you can have greater overall wealth generated but a majority of people who are worse off, simply because that wealth isn’t distributed equitably.

        The idea that wealth redistribution destroys the incentive for wealth-generation also isn’t ironclad: Warren Buffet himself called for more of the ultra-rich, himself included, to pay more taxes.

        His words: “Let’s forget about the rich and ultrarich going on strike and stuffing their ample funds under their mattresses if – gasp – capital gains rates and ordinary income rates are increased,” according to Buffet. “The ultrarich, including me, will forever pursue investment opportunities.”

        While some investors (maybe the only marginally wealthy ones) might be put off by the comparatively lower rate of return on their investment if taxes go up, with some investment avenues closed entirely due to becoming nonprofitable, you might see more people try their hand at enterprise, because they have less to lose. I’d be a lot more willing to put some money into a wider range of investment options and to risk an enterprise if I didn’t feel the pathological need to save like crazy for my retirement.

        Right now, you’ve got lots of people in Singapore who could probably afford to invest more but don’t, because they think that they have only themselves to count on if things go rocky in future. Remove that fear of failure, and you might be surprised at how many people will try their hand at something they’ve always wanted to, but never thought they could afford to.

        Like

  5. Thanks for the post. I have always thought of the culture of education being very dependent on the culture of a society and this post basically elaborates on this aspect and puts into words thoughts I have had for a while. It is one of the primary reasons why we can immediately mimic the Finnish education if no other changes take place because education simply cannot take place within a vacuum.

    I like your suggestions regarding alternatives to paper examinations. Indeed in its current form, it is insufficient but they do seem like valid suggestions that are definitely worth considering. As an educator, I intend to take on your suggestions and seek possible venues to implement them. Once again, thanks for your post!

    Like

  6. Apologies as i did not read the entire article, just want to point out a major error :

    “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…”

    Sorry, an Investment Banker works MUCH harder than a teacher, nurse or social worker. Investment Bankers work from 9am to 2am every day, including Saturday or maybe Sunday. An entry-level IB analyst earns $8k/month but the working hours must also be taken into account.

    Like

    • Investment Bankers work from 9am to 2am every day, including Saturday or maybe Sunday.

      As a teacher I worked from 7am to midnight (I’m assuming that investment bankers also eat, drink, and go the toilet like normal human beings, instead of subsisting entirely on intravenous injections of powdered banknotes and a serum mixed of orphans’ tears) and earned significantly less than $8k/month. In addition, it used to be part of my routine to forego sleep entirely one or two nights a week to catch up on work. I don’t think I was unique in that either, judging by how many of the email conversations in my Inbox have crazy timestamps. I’m also not aware that investment bankers frequently face the joy of having their clients’ parents turn up in their office to verbally abuse them.

      I don’t know too much about nursing, so I can’t say if an investment banker’s hours are longer than theirs, but investment bankers don’t regularly get their hands covered in blood and shit either, so one might argue that working hours are not the only metric for ‘hard work’.

      Like

      • Heng Swee Kiat says u should have work life balance.

        http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/speeches/2012/09/12/keynote-address-by-mr-heng-swee-keat-at-wps-2012.php
        I had a chat with most of my former teachers quite some time ago & none of them work these sort of hours. Have u talked to your HOD or Principal to discuss this issue ? Could it be that u r not working smart enough like choosing not to do the unimportant stuff ?

        Do students’ parents really turn up at office to scold teachers ? I am quite surprised because I have never heard or seen anything like that.

        Like

      • Heng Swee Kiat says u should have work life balance.

        He’s right. Teachers should. Many of them don’t.

        I had a chat with most of my former teachers quite some time ago

        Emphasis mine. Things are quite different now.

        Have u talked to your HOD or Principal to discuss this issue ?

        At the time, we told our principal we were exhausted because our hours were too long. Her response was to use staff welfare funds to purchase camp-beds for the office, so we didn’t have to go home.

        Could it be that u r not working smart enough like choosing not to do the unimportant stuff ?

        I love this kind of well-meaning advice. Would you care to indicate what sort of things you think teachers do, that might be considered ‘unimportant’?

        Do students’ parents really turn up at office to scold teachers ? I am quite surprised because I have never heard or seen anything like that.

        You’re not a teacher, apparently.

        Like

  7. You mentioned the following:

    Universal Healthcare coverage : With Medishield life kicking in next year, there will be universal healthcare coverage. Yes, it’s not the most generous system and u still have to pay out of pocket, but it’s fiscally sustainable and substantially reduces out-of-pocket expenses if u r warded in hospital.

    Pensions: We have CPF life coming up. Those who do not have enough money for the life annuity can qualify for some scheme call silver…(cannot remember name) which gives a quarterly payment for life.

    Like

    • I was very happy when Medishield Life and CPF Life were announced! I don’t deny that they represent a great improvement in terms of our social coverage.

      I do think that those omissions (out-of-pocket payments, people who don’t meet the minimum sum) are telling, though, and it remains to be seen how many people in my generation who think themselves financially-buoyant might eventually end up in those brackets in 2-3 decades’ time, if no further improvements are made.

      Like

  8. Is tuition necessary at all ? I dont think so. In fact, Tuition does more harm than good to a student. I will never send my child to any tuition. Why ? It destroys a child’s critical thinking, independent learning and creative thinking abilities. Also, excessive tuition means no time for social skills development.These skills are necessary for one to succeed in the world.

    Why can’t a student spend more thinking & understanding about the concepts which he/she couldn’t understand ? Why can’t a student search the internet for answers ? Why can’t the student arrange a 1 hour consultation with the school teacher ? Why can’t a student ask questions during class if he/she is struggling to grasp the lesson ?

    Just because your friends are all getting tuition doesnt mean u should get one too. It’s time to step out of the herd mentality & take your future into your hands.

    Like

    • Is tuition necessary at all ?

      That depends entirely on the student in question, and what sort of outcomes are expected of the student’s education. There are also many different forms that tuition takes: some tutors/centres focus entirely on drill and practice of exam papers, some teach metacognitive and habits-of-mind-type tools. It’s hard to tar all tuition as being intrinsically bad for kids. The problem is that tuition often comes in addition to already-long hours spent in school, and that it’s expensive, yielding a disproportionate advantage for those who can afford it.

      Also, excessive tuition means no time for social skills development.

      In my experience, the degree of socialisation a student demonstrates is generally proportionate to the emphasis that the family places on such things. They do most of their socialising during school hours anyway.

      Why can’t a student spend more thinking & understanding about the concepts which he/she couldn’t understand ? Why can’t a student search the internet for answers ?

      In some cases, the student isn’t interested, driven, or disciplined, and the parent hires tutors to basically supervise the kid doing things he ought to have been doing anyway. Given that many more households these days are dual-income and parents work longer hours, this could be seen as a form of extending the in loco parentis role that school teachers have already been saddled with.

      I’m not saying this is a good thing: merely that some people are off earning money, and using some of that money to pay others to supervise their kids, rather than stay at home and do the supervision themselves. In some cases this is a regrettable necessity driven by financial exigency. In others, it isn’t.

      Why can’t the student arrange a 1 hour consultation with the school teacher ? Why can’t a student ask questions during class if he/she is struggling to grasp the lesson ?

      Teacher might be too busy. Class sizes are still pretty huge, especially in secondary school, and this gets more and more onerous on teachers as they are driven by pedagogical reforms to use tools that require a great deal more fine-tuning. Yes, the new emphasis on critical thinking and whatnot can lead to better outcomes, but it also requires more time and energy on the part of teachers — time and energy that sometimes they just can’t spare.

      Just because your friends are all getting tuition doesnt mean u should get one too.

      Are you familiar with the term ‘arms race’?

      Like

      • Thank you for your reply. It gave me a better insight to how students/parents in Singapore thinks 🙂

        “In some cases, the student isn’t interested, driven, or disciplined, and the parent hires tutors to basically supervise the kid doing things he ought to have been doing anyway.”

        Is this the right solution to the problem ? I think the right solution is for the students to figure out what career path(s) he/she wants. When a student knows what he/she wants in his career, then the student will be motivated to study & work hard. Parents & Teachers should assist if possible.

        How can a student be motivated if he/she is just told to study hard without ‘seeing light at the end of the tunnel’ ?
        Students are not robots.

        As a teacher, what do u think of my idea ?

        Like

      • I love them. I preach them myself. Figuring out what’s best for the kid in question, instead of what the education bandwagon insists is good for them, is vital.

        I think part of the problem is just a shortage of time. Kids need a lot more contact-time with their parents, not their teachers, to figure out things like life and careers and stuff. Parents don’t have time for kids; kids don’t have time for parents.

        Like

      • When I was in Secondary School & JC 10 years ago, I arrange a half an hour consultation session every semester to ask questions for each subject. I have never encountered a teacher who said ‘no’. Of course, I do not ask simple questions which I can find on the textbook/internet but more complex questions.

        Like

      • Sadly, many parents in Singapore think they can outsource Parenting. No, you cant. If you dont spend quality time with your children, how do you have a good relationship with them.

        I don’t buy the idea that “Parents don’t have time for kids; kids don’t have time for parents.” It’s what u choose when u have the spare time. Do u spend time on facebook or do u spend time talking to one another. Is facebook/youtube more important than your relationship ?

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      • If you dont spend quality time with your children, how do you have a good relationship with them.

        I fully agree!

        It’s what u choose when u have the spare time. Do u spend time on facebook or do u spend time talking to one another.

        Hard to say, though. It’s not just about free time, but time in which you’re concurrently free. A student wakes up at 5.30 to go to school. Their parent wakes up at 7 or 8am. The student returns home at 5pm, maybe 6; the parent at 7+pm, as is the norm these days. They have maybe 2 hours together, after which the kid has to do homework from 9pm to 10pm (if they want to get 7 hours of sleep; many of them don’t).

        And that’s the routine for comfortably middle-class families. It gets worse when parents have to work odd shifts, or multiple jobs, or longer hours, or overseas.

        I’m not saying that engagement is impossible; far from it. Many people make it work, and they deserve credit for it!

        But let’s not pretend that it’s easy. Sure, choice makes a big difference, but some choices are hard to make, and we can’t expect people to make hard choices all the time.

        If we want better outcomes re: the child, we need to improve the options that a family has available to it.

        Like

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