Editor’s Letter: Education

The theme of education, to my surprise, elicited the most responses so far. Submissions range from women who have studied in Madrasahs, to mainstream schools, to those who have been through the Gifted Education Programme. The theme of education was also interpreted outside the parameters of school to include meditations on the informal education we may receive while living as a Muslim woman in Singapore. Cultural conditioning, after all, can be considered as an “informal syllabus” that gives us lessons on how we are to acceptably exist within our communities and even the world at large.

I suppose the abundance in submissions is not so surprising when we consider how challenging and soul-breaking the education system can be in Singapore. Built on the hard pragmatism and ultra-competitiveness of the post-independence period and cemented with the eugenicist policies privileging graduates who marry each other (graduate mothers scheme), we have received and sometimes painfully internalized the message that our value in this system depends on how well we perform according to its standards. When the news came out that schools will start to phase out streaming, I was happy for future students who would not have to feel as intensely the shame and stigmatization that comes from being streamed to a “lower” class.

This shame, sharpened when stratification intensifies existing social inequalities, is such a key experience of schooling in Singapore that we have had landmark creative productions detailing the experience. If this were not true, there would not have been such an explosive popular reception to the I Not Stupid movie or the critical appreciation for the theatre play “Normal” by Faith Ng.

Of course, doing away with streaming will not end the way inequality seeps into schools and how it affects a child’s educational path, be it social or racial. In fact, these two things often interact with each other since a disproportionate percentage of the poor are also Malay. Malay students often suffer from the prevailing stereotype of being lazy and performing poorly in academics. These are then attributed to their culture instead of any consideration or sensitivity to more complex structural issues. Lily Zubaidah Rahim has documented this brilliantly in ‘The Singapore Dilemma’. I would like to share some passages I have never forgotten:

“Encumbered by the double burden of class and ethnicity, socially disadvantaged minority youth often become alienated and disillusioned with the education system when their self esteem has been dented by their placement in the slower streams. . . Stigmatised as a ‘failure’, many ethnic minority students have responded by acting out their label and like a self-fulfilling prophecy ensured their ‘failure’. Frustrated with school, many Malay youths . . . wage cultural forms of resistance by resorting to various forms of disruptive behaviour as a means of striking back against the school system.”

This tendency for Malay youth who ensured their own failure as if through a “self-fulfilling prophecy” due to the alienation they feel was something I noticed when I was in school, noticing how Malay students who did not do well and would have predictably felt insecure about their grades would try to redeem their self-esteem through rebelliousness.

Lily Zubaidah Rahim would go on to say:

“The common problems and impediments shared by the poorly educated and socially marginal across all ethnic communities suggest that the socio-economic and educational marginality of Malays cannot be simplistically explained away as a ‘Malay problem’ requiring Malay solutions. Such an explanation has engendered a truncated and fragmented understanding of a complex phenomenon that is strongly rooted in the historical, ideological, and institutional processes of Singaporean society.”


Growing up in a working-class family, intense importance was placed on my education. My family believed firmly in the state narrative of meritocracy and education as a social leveller; that it was a way out of our social strata into a more comfortable life (of course the past five years have seen intense critique on the myth of meritocracy and suggests that the education system only deepens existing social inequalities).

My childhood was filled with memories of my mum saying what I know so many children from working-class and underprivileged backgrounds hear: when you’re older, buy mama a big house. Sometimes the house is a car. Holidays overseas. An oven, or any expensive kitchen appliance in general. Whatever it was, it signalled the fact that the future was a site of idealised possibility and wealth and the path to that future was through the educational ladder. I have sometimes often felt intense pressure to live up to their expectations. Like many Singaporean children, I have often felt like their approval rested on my ability to excel. Till today, I have internalised this demand and slip into intense self-criticism where I consistently feel like I have not succeeded enough in the education system, even if intellectually I know that I would never impose such vicious standards onto anyone else. I have to say though that the pressures I feel do not compare to the intensity of pressure faced by other students who are even more stigmatized and whose intelligence or abilities are not captured by the education system.

Fueled by the image of an abundant future, I had my mother’s involved commitment in my education when I was younger. However, as my sister grew up and my youngest brother came into the picture, my mother no longer had space or time to be as involved as she would like. Even when she later quit her job, she could not be as directly involved since the school assignments were pass a stage where she could understand them enough to help us. This is a common problem and I learned that there was even a program started some time back where parents are taught according to the syllabus so that they are better equipped to help with their children’s homework (if they even had the time)!

For many Singaporean children with parents who do not have the privilege of offloading caregiving and home duties to a domestic worker, or the financial ability to purchase supplementary and tuition lessons, so much of their educational journey depends on available public resources and communities: the school, its environment, our teachers, our friends, available (or lack of) support systems, public spaces for studying. It is for this very reason that paying attention to these public resources and the welfare of teachers is important. It matters that in an already unequal society, we try our best to make sure the available resources to students is decent and dignified.

My time in secondary school has taught me so much about the ways in which class can distort a person’s educational journey. I went to a “neighbourhood school” which had a population of students whose class background generally matched mine. Though I don’t wish to romanticise the working-class or the poor as more “authentic,” I can safely say that I look back at that period fondly. I was in an environment where I did not feel the pressure or awkwardness of my class background so strongly as alien or undesirable–feelings that cropped up when I went into junior college and felt even more keenly in university, where racist jokes and elitism punctuated my time in school.

Secondary school was also a time when I saw how school was not just about studying and getting good grades, but about navigating what can feel like a complex, precarious minefield of social life that can intensely affect your mental well-being and shape your sense of self. These things which may seem trivial and unimportant as adults were undeniably felt so much intensely in youth: wanting to feel included, to make and keep friends, to be able to pursue the interests you were developing, to feel loved and appreciated by your parents, to feel affirmed for who you are.

In an environment where everyone is subjected to obey established rules and punished if they don’t; a space that is touched by the biases of the world–imagine how additional pressures can compete to take up your mental and emotional space. How these things can eventually interfere with someone’s deserving future since the path is ruthless is discarding those that don’t meet its standards.

So much happens in a school aside from an education, and it was intensely clear to me back then that not everyone was on an equal starting point. I remember a friend streamed into a better class than I graduate with mediocre grades for O levels because even during the exam period she had been working part-time at Mcdonalds. I even heard of a boy who was working at KFC earning $4 per hour just to be able to pay the already heavily subsidised school fees. I had a classmate who disappeared for months due to family problems and only returned to school later in the year, his education disrupted.

When people sometimes speak of youths from underprivileged backgrounds as being unmotivated to study, as difficult to control or teach, as aimless, I know that they are either willingly ignorant, or have chosen to ignore the fact of how the totally absorbing emotional toll of present difficulty can make one lose the luxury of considering the long-term implications of their decisions. When you’re going through intense moments in your life, or when the daily stress of finances place a weight on your ability to function, when home is not a safe place, and when there is little proof around you that society cares for your existence, how much mental space do you have left to allocate to studying or to think about the future? When the present is always an emergency, how can you look away and spend the time needed on other things? Willpower alone is often not enough to get you where you need to be.

Being able to have an education, and to focus on it, is an immense privilege. I know I have had immense privilege to be able to pursue it without debilitating distractions, even if my class background does not present me with ideal options or an easy journey (my university journey was sometimes tiring as I juggled multiple part-time jobs along with school), but I know I was very lucky to have had the chance to pursue a higher education.

I mention this because as someone who was lucky enough to have a family who supports my education and wants me to pursue it as far as I am able, I was rudely shocked to realise that even in the year 2018, there are still women and girls who have to struggle painfully with their family when they want to further their education or to simply take it seriously. There are still women and girls who are pressured with the message that their priority lies not with their education, but with gendered expectations like getting married (and how often have I heard female friends/relatives telling me they are re-considering further studies because it threatens the egos of their husbands!), having children, or being the primary caregiver for the family. It’s not that these things are not important, and certainly, some women do prioritise these things. The problem is not what is prioritised, but the element of choice. A person should always have the freedom to make their own informed choice about what they wish to prioritise for their version of a fulfilling life.

I’m really pleased to see that many of our submissions came from women who recounted their experiences in the education system, and were able to articulate the structural issues they saw or faced. In fact, I would say that a good education is one that results in a person being able to critically engage with the knowledge or experience presented to them and question whether the dominant or received interpretation is one that they can accept.

We learn so much when we hold up things to the light, turning it this way and that, and trying to figure whether it holds up to honest, critical scrutiny. In Singapore, even this perfectly normal and healthy desire to critically analyse, to scrutinise, to critique, can be seen as disruptive, negative, and undesirable. It is, therefore, all the more precious when we insist on our right to question, which is something I think our submissions all have done. They refuse to settle for prevailing narratives that may tell them how they should feel about their education or certain myths and stereotypes that are abundant when it comes to education and the school system in Singapore. They have articulated their stories so poignantly, so strongly, and so honestly. I can only hope that people will listen.


Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu