To begin with, I’ve never understood why “smart-ass” is any kind of insult. I know my ass is smart. It’s smarter than some of my detractors, certainly. What about it?
I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but this article was mostly catalysed by the sudden focus and discussion on ‘giftedness’ and its place in a society that aspires to at least the appearance of egalitarianism. From what I can tell, it originally began with an article (“Gifted? More kids sent for psychology tests”) in the Straits Times. It seems like more parents are getting kids tested for high IQ or giftedness or whatever, so they can then be supported with greater discretion. There were some well-intentioned responses (“Hear the voices of the children”) expressing concern that kids these days are being put under more pressure, which is all well and good, but which then mentioned that “employers do not look at how ‘smart’ we are in the long run’. But then there were the almost knee-jerk reactions, warning of elitism (“Ensure we don’t create elitist mindset”). The latter concerns me.
Singapore is weird. It’s a city-state built by genius. From its earliest historical roots as a seat of kings to its modern success as one of the jewels of Asia, Singapore’s success has been shaped by vision and foresight, and the rigorous exercise of reason. It’s therefore ironic to note the wide streak of anti-intellectualism that runs through so much of Singaporean culture: as much as we aspire — sometimes on behalf of our children — to markers of high intelligence (good grades, positions in elite schools, professions known for being intellectually-demanding), intelligence itself seems to be something to be ashamed of in Singapore these days.
I’m writing about perceptions of intelligence-markers in general; I have some material specifically intended for addressing mechanisms like government scholarships that I’d like to develop separately.
I’m not sure why every study done on intelligence or IQ has to attract a raft of responses screaming that “IQ isn’t everything!” (“High IQ does not guarantee success”). Yes, we know. Anyone who knows anything about intelligence and identity and success will know that raw intelligence by itself is not only not useful, but is also only vaguely measured by one’s IQ. If this is common knowledge, why does it need to be so constantly — and so vehemently — reasserted in the face of any new reporting done on intelligence and IQ? It’s almost like we hate intelligence, so much so that every time it gets mentioned we need to jump up on tables and cover our ears and scream about values and character-development and resilience and creativity and courage in the face of adversity and whatnot. Why does everyone feel so threatened by intelligence, to the point that we must always equivocate statements made concerning it?
Maybe this has to do with some of the labels associated with intelligence. In Singapore, there are a huge assortment of potential intelligence-indicators that one may wear as medals or wield as weapons, and we become acquainted with these instruments at a very early age. 9? Gifted Education Programme. 10? Streaming. 12? PSLE. 16? ‘N’ or ‘O’ levels. And that’s only the formal education route! There are also now a tonne of other labels out there competing for your money and attention and energy! Did you go for piano and dance and taekwondo and creative writing lessons? Do you travel a lot to build cultural capital? Did you go to an MOE-sanctioned kindergarten, or one of the ones boasting Montessori, MindBoosters, HeadBlasters, or whatever new keyword/catchphrase in education is in vogue? These days, if you need extra help with your schoolwork, you even need to pass entrance exams for tuition centres!
What this all means is that if you’re Singaporean, you probably grew up being measured against markers of intelligence. If you had some, you had to get more. If you couldn’t get any, you were in desperate need of some alternative form of affirmation. For the longest time in Singapore, the only thing that mattered was how smart you were, and that intelligence had to be measurable in terms of the various forms of preferred national standardised tests.
So now any new discussion of intelligence provokes raised hackles. We can’t mention anything about our own achievements or interests without somehow leavening it with something ‘down to Earth’. Unique among the virtues prized among Singaporeans, intelligence requires you to pair it with some kind of a priori proof of humility, or risk being shunned immediately on the basis of your presumed elitism. If you went to a good overseas school, or a good local one, or you happen to speak proper English, or happen to wield any other markers of intelligence (like reading, or something), you must constantly declare how normal and non-elitist you are, or everyone around you will gasp in horror and dash home to lock up their wives and daughters lest you capriciously choose to exercise your right of jus primae noctis or something. It’s exhausting. You feel discriminated-against, and for what? For having gone to school? For having certain interests? For being brought up a certain way?
Thinking about it now, I wonder how long it took me after graduating from Some Place to learn that I shouldn’t tell anyone I did. I think it took me about six months — by the time I started working upon coming home, I’d learned to submerge my credentials beneath a maze of obfuscating answers. “What school you go?” is a very common conversation starter in Singapore, and if you say, “(insert gauche choice of university option here)”, you ought to be ready to field a bunch of snide remarks that start with, “Wah, you must be very smart, hor!”, which almost immediately segue into something that sounds something like, “But aiya, go this kind of school got use meh? You see this minister that minister, all go good school, all scholar, all cannot do anything!” And then you get the lecture about paying your dues. It’s like everyone carries around a whole quiver of microaggressions to unleash on you the moment you start looking like a taller-than-average poppy, uncaring as to whether you actually deserve to be cut down or not.
So I learned to provide that full answer only reluctantly, upon lengthy questioning.
“What school you go?”
“Oh, somewhere overseas.”
“Orh. Where ah?”
And then at this point you sigh, and look mournful, and say, “(wherever)”
And then they look a bit chagrined at having found out this distressing news only upon persistent inquiry. They can’t accuse you for bragging if they had to drag the information out of you with hot irons, after all. So then you get to talk about something else.
Indeed, in Singapore, if you have anything in common with any authority figure — a surname, a hobby, a neighbourhood, much less an alma mater — you’re probably best off not mentioning it in newly-met company.
And thinking back, this is hardly new. While perhaps I grew most sensitive to this sort of thing after I graduated, it’s really always been a part of life. My mother knew that the only way to not get blacklisted from the ang pow list was to never let anyone know if either my sister or myself outperformed their own kids in school. I suppose modesty is a traditional Asian virtue, but you never see anyone being modest about their kid being in a sports team or whatever, but God forbid anyone at the dinner table mention school choice or an intellectual interest.
If you’re ever suffering from Singapore’s sweltering heat, clustered close with relatives around a table laden with steaming food, here’s a tip: “So, who’s your child’s favourite author?” is a question guaranteed to drop the room’s ambient temperature below freezing. Favourite football players are OK to ask about, as are celebrities, but authors are tres gauche.
So you go through life feeling inexplicably sheepish every time you get an award or something. Nobody beats on a kid for having the most extensive Street Fighter trading card or ‘country’ eraser collection (yay, I’m old!) —
— but be the kid with a new book every day and boy howdy, you feel like you decided to trick-or-treat a Black Panther dressed as a bedsheet ghost. A decade of martial arts training hasn’t broken me out of the dirty-fighting habits that a year of carrying a book to primary school every day taught me.
I suppose what I’m getting at is questioning how elitism grows in kids. The tenor of the public seems to indicate a belief that kids just sort of accrete ivory towers around them like crabs hardening their shells. We have to constantly cut kids down to size, we can’t differentiate education, parents who use new diagnostics to see if their kids are gifted are given cautionary warnings. We have to fear the elitist, we have to rout them out from their lairs!
In my experience, ivory towers are comforting not because the view is so great and unobstructed, but because how many rounds of the old torch-and-pitchfork waving can you go through before you decide to cash it in? How much discrimination, bullying, and stigmatisation do intelligence and intellectuals have to suffer before the public becomes satisfied that they’re sufficiently ‘non-elitist’?
I get that gifted kids are easy to demonise, but none of them asked for that label. I’m worried that kids in special programmes are becoming too easy to demonise, in today’s equality-conscious centric Singapore. C’mon, kids want to fit in. Kids love to fit in. Nobody likes being left out. Yes, even if he’s a book-reading, four-eyed nerd, he wants to get chosen to be on someone’s football team, he wants someone to pass the ball to him, he wants to join everyone at the end to either celebrate or recriminate. But if adults are going out of their way to complain about giftedness-identification, about special programmes, then what choice are we giving these kids but to associate with ‘like-minded’ types? Who rejects whom first?
I mean, nobody would complain if those parents sending their kids for psych-tests were sending them to be tested for learning disorders. Dyslexia, autism, Aspergers, ADHD, or something else. But giftedness, I think, should be considered as much a special educational need as having dyslexia, autism, and so on. A gifted child needs, and benefits from, a differentiated education catering to his strengths and weaknesses, as much as any other kid with a special learning need. Denying them this exposes them to the same kind of bullying and ultimately self-loathing and self-sequestration that we see from other special-needs kids whose interaction with the mainstream many aren’t carefully curated.
When I was younger, my parents didn’t have access to the same tools that parents nowadays have, but I think my mother could tell at an early stage that I was having trouble fitting in, that I had needs that weren’t being met in school, but that we weren’t able to purchase. So she taught me to be self-sufficient instead. “Books are better than friends,” she told me at an early age, “because they’ll still be there for you when your friends aren’t.” And so my fortress of solitude had its foundations built not on Arctic ice and Kryptonian technology but on wood-pulp and ink. Even on days when I came home, my vision swimming from my head being shoved into the wall too hard after one of my ‘fitting-in’ expeditions went awry, I’d try to struggle my way through a book, the letters dancing and distorting before my eyes.
How many kids do you know who have to go get stitches from having their heads slammed into tables by their peers before they go to primary school? Now you know at least one.
Sure, maybe gifted kids do need help staying grounded, but we’re not going to get them there by axeing them at the knee so they don’t outgrow their peers. Maybe we need to reconsider our vitriol and our vehement anti-intellectualism. Maybe if we want to prevent a whole new generation from growing out to write blog-posts demanding that we get out of their elite, uncaring faces, we shouldn’t get all up in their faces in the first place? Callousness demands compassion, not some kind of callousness-chicken in which the first one to blink loses.
I mean, surely, the solution to smart-asses isn’t for them to stop being smart, but to stop being asses, right? How does being an ass to them help, except by making you, in comparison, a dumb-ass? Equality and egalitarianism are important, but we need to make sure that we’re levelling people together along the right axis. The solution to making smart-asses and dumb-asses equal shouldn’t be to just make everyone an ass.
11th hour edit: Boy, was this hard to write. I thought I would breeze through it in a lighter, more personal, sort of op-ed-y style, but in the end it made me stop and think at so many junctures that writing this actually took ages. I think I come out sounding more thoughtful and less assertive than I originally wanted to, due to all that reconsideration: I’m not sure what that means. I would have liked to authoritatively and venomously blast something at some point, but as I get older it’s become harder and harder to do. Too many angles to cover, too many valid alternative perspectives… I suppose it’s a good sign, that being smart doesn’t stop you from getting wiser, too, eventually.