Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Understand Life, Reject Dogma, Embrace Common Sense

"SINGAPORE needs people with a sense of the aesthetics and not just people who get straight As in school, said Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. "

Wei Man's response, "Say that again?! My life will be different if you thought so ten years ago."

Wei Man is one of the most outstanding students I had this past Semester and the CS3216 Blog Queen. When I read her response, it bothered me. It also reminded me of this Facebook comment conversation I had with some former CS3216 students a couple of weeks ago about scholarships for foreign students.

My question to Wei Man: why should your life be different if the Minister Mentor thought differently ten years ago? He's not your grandfather what.

First, I am surprised that people seem to think that this news reports is saying anything new. Do people think that the Minister Mentor just woke up recently and decided that we needed more than students with straight As?

If people will read carefully, the example of the two Japanese landscape architects happened during the "Singapore's early years". Translation: the MM figured this out 40 years ago. :-)

Frankly, the fact that Singapore (or any country for that matter) needs more than just students with straight-A's pretty common sense isn't it? Really doesn't take a genius to figure it out. Why then is Wei Man surprised at this latest press report?

For some strange reason, people seem to have this impression that the Government (whatever that means) "demands all its citizens to be a jack of all trades and good in everything" (to quote Wei Man). I was like "Huh? Since when?" :-P

I'm a systems scientist. A system is a entity consisting of a collection of smaller components. Systems are interesting because they often exhibit behaviour that is different from its components. Futher more, one way of understanding systems is to understand how the individual components work and interact. Society is one such system.

One criticism I have of our people is that they don't try to understand and appreciate the "laws of nature" but instead blame all their failings on "the system" or "Government". What the heck does that mean?

Let's take two examples illustrating the sense in the madness we call the "system".

First, why do we use grades for university admission. Answer is very simple: because there is a limited amount of resources (university places) and we need to allocate them in some "fair" way. Lottery wouldn't do.

Second, why the apparent "fixation" on grades in the civil service? Since I'm an ex-civil servant, I can say that there's no "fixation" on grades. It's all quite practical practical.

Again, there's limited resources, either scholarship places or jobs and there's a need to shortlist the candidates efficiently. Interviewing EVERYONE is NOT an option by a long shot.

Why are Second Uppers paid more? Because the private sector also pays them more. If the civil service doesn't pay more, it can forget about hiring the better graduates. I wish that people can understand a little more about labour markets, about Economics and realize that grades are what's known as a signal.

Line managers in the civil service are no different from those in the private sector. They hire people to do their work and minimize their own grief. If better grades do not translate to better workers, they hire for what? In case people don't know, civil servants don't get more bonuses if they hire people with better grades.

Frankly, Singapore is a really "logical" society (maybe every society is equally logical?). Everything happens for a reason and there are good reasons for everything. The system might not be perfect, but people should first look within themselves and learn to take responsibility for their own actions and/failings.

Finally, Wei Man thinks that "more options" means "more freedom to choose". She is sort of right - but my stand is somewhat more philosophical: more often than not, it not so much the lack of options but the lack of guts that limits one's freedom of choice. :-P

I agree with Wei Man that Singaporean's education system is going the right direction, but after speaking with some parents last week, I have also come to realize that all the changes mean squat unless there is a change in the mindset of the parents.

I wrote the following letter a couple of years ago at a whim while I was still a graduate student at MIT:
The Straits Times, March 27, 2006
All-rounder student mould is pointless

I, TOO, am heartened by the breadth and depth of the Ministry of Education's recent policies and I believe that our policies are indeed progressive.

People are different and few are truly 'all rounded'.

To expect our students to conform to the mould of an 'all rounder' model student is like expecting Singapore women to diet till they all look like Ally McBeal: It is self-defeating and pointless, unless what we want is a whole generation of mediocre students.

We have to let a thousand flowers bloom. Then perhaps a garden might grow on our doorstep.

Young Singaporeans have to understand that the world has changed since their parents' generation: Singapore is now a global city and they will have to compete with foreigners for jobs at home.

Protectionism is not an option. We have no oil. We have no natural resources. If we drive up our already high labour costs, we are toast.

Let us not forget also that there are 1.3 billion hungry people, in the emergent China, who are willing to do the same jobs for less; they are even willing to do jobs that Singaporeans are not willing to do.

In some ways, our situation may seem bleak but I believe in our future; among all the people in our region, I believe that Singaporeans have access to the most opportunities.

The question is: Will our people fully exploit the available opportunities to excel in a profession that they truly care about, or will they cave in to peer pressure and continue the blind pursuit of good academic grades and co-curricular activity records, believing that paper qualifications are the key to a secure future?

To me, the truly worrying part is the expectations that the parents impose upon their children.

MOE has done its part by reducing the syllabus, and it has improved the testing system by introducing questions that cannot be answered by simply regurgitating from a 10-year series.

These are steps in the right direction.

This move has, however, unnerved many parents, who seem to prefer the good old days, where their children can safely spend their entire lives buried in their books, but thereby 'guarantee' good grades at the national examinations.

Like Ally McBeal, Singaporeans may need to take a look in the mirror.

Ben Leong
Cambridge, Massachusetts

I think I was spot on. One of the key concerns I got when I spoke with the parents was "is there a career if my son/daughter chooses Computer Science? Will the starting pay be less than the other professions?"

I looked at them in the eye and told them, "if your son/daughter does well in WHATEVER course he/she chooses to study whether at NUS or NTU, he/she will probably find a decent job; if he/she does poorly, probably NO course will guarantee a job. So have your son/daughter pick a course, he/she thinks he likes. This maximizes the probability that he/she will do well. Simple as that."

MOE needs to educate not only our children, but the parents. :-)

This is my charge to my students: school is overrated. Life is *real* (and often very harsh). Take some effort to understand how the world around you works and think. Apply common sense. It takes some effort, but it's not that hard.


  1. "It is education that is meant to take us to a future that we can't grasp. If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue despite all the expertise that's been on parade for the past four days (reference to TED Talk) what the world will be like in 5 years time, and yet we are meant to be education them for it."
    - Sir Ken Robinson, TED Talk 2006

    That is why it is more important to impart skills, discover their passion and what they are good at, rather than content.

    I've lost count the number of times I have to blast the myth of "this course got future" when my kids asked if the polytechnic course they are choosing has a future.

    Here's what a Dean of a Medicine Faculty told his students on the first day

    "Half of what we teach you here is wrong. The problem is, we don't know which half of it is wrong today."

  2. Very often we tend to forget the truths present in this post. Thank you for the reminder.