Edit: this was written in response to http://youdonthavetoagree.wordpress.com/2012/09/02/letter-to-singapore/
I want you to know that you’re greatly underappreciated. I want you to know that prosperity being taken for granted is not simply a trope of national education, but a fact of life. I want you to know that despite all the mostly-true criticism that is flung as you, I still love you for who you are.
They say that your education system is the best – that it’s one of the reasons why we rank in single digits in various international surveys. Of course, they also say that these surveys are arbitrary, and all of them are flawed (it’s true). But I think if you repeatedly rank high in all these surveys then there must be something to it.
There are those who claim that the education system only rewards the best and the brightest, and that it forsakes the lower end of the educational spectrum. But I want you know that our ultra-high literacy rate and basic educational requirements are things to be proud of. Detractors may comment on the large number of forgotten neighbourhood school kids who roam the void decks and heartland malls – but you and I both know that these kids, despite the classic bo chup attitude that they wear like Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak, have internalized and understood the fact that hard work can take you places. Even the 14-year-old P6 kid who lives in a home for orphans (so often dissed as the fringes of Singaporean society) knows this, and that’s why he is willing to sit down for three straight hours working on a PSLE English paper without any break. I know, because I was the one helping him, and in the end he’s the one who showed me what studying stamina really means.
Sometimes I hear people say that we are all government-driven automatons. Well, I guess I fall into that category too. I’m the product of an elite education: I’m a 6-year straight RI boy, and proud to be a member of that most venerable of institutions, and i’m a GEP kid, the 1% singled out for advanced and accelerated curricula. And this education and training has taught me to recognize that not everyone has the advantages of education that I have had the privilege to enjoy – but my point is that the system works, because both my parents are not graduates. They have the equivalent of our present time ITE and O level certs. My point is that the system allows for people to not get stuck in the vicious cycle so common in other systems – that the standard analysis to any education-based question in the GCE A levels that ‘education is essential to increasing the overall standard of living in any given country’ (which is an analysis also applicable to the Economics paper) is actually true, and not just a keyword-based answer.
Singapore, I want you to know that our apparent lack of culture and a glorious national heritage has not stopped us from creating a Singaporean identity, a set of norms that we identify each other by. The fact that zhi char stalls have a booming business, that the mama shops in the neighbourhood sell unknown-brand-name icecreams and chips, that we complain when the aircon is not working and we flame our ridiculously-efficient public transport system, and every single male citizen has something to say about National Service. The fact that we either love or abhor durian, that chilli crab is undeniably good (I’ve never met someone who doesn’t like it), that chicken rice chilli isn’t complete without ginger, and how everywhere else on earth that you go for more than a month, you need to bring a large jar of sambal with you. The fact that of all my friends who are now studying overseas, in vaunted Ivy League schools in the US and other acknowledged elite colleges around the world, that they all love their summer holiday break in Singapore and always want to come back – that this ‘rootedness’ which is bandied about so much does actually exist.
I’m 22 years old and I’m definitely not jaded, because I know I’m where I am because my friends, family, and overall national framework and system have put me where I am. I’m going to be more than salary – why else would I sign on to be a teacher when I already know that my potential earnings far outstrip whatever a civil servant toiling away in a classroom would earn? One day I hope to go on a nice long holiday all over the world, but as much as I hope that this will actually happen (I’m not sure that it will), I know that when I finally come back to Singapore (even if I’m not touching down at good old Changi Airport and instead walking across the Tuas Second Link), I’ll soak in the unmistakably Singaporean setting of orderly road signs and unnaturally straight rows of trees, replete with dustbins and street lamps, and I’ll be glad that I came home.
One day when my son is old enough to appreciate the nuances and subtleties of having to enlist in a conscript army I’ll make sure I explain to him exactly what and why he’s going through it. I’ll make sure that he understands that even if he doesn’t enjoy it, he can appreciate what it does for him, and more importantly, what he’s doing it for. And he won’t be alone, because I know so many other boys (now growing into men) my age who have gone through the same 2 years as me and have come out better for it.
One day, perhaps, when I’m an old and grizzled teacher, I’ll meet a student who cries out against the apparent oppression and rigidity of our little island nation. Maybe he will challenge the schoolbook authority, he will challenge the ostensibly correct, authorized version of history that the curriculum planning department has laid down. I hope that when this happens, his classmates will recognize that he is right in doing so – that all of them are fully entitled to such. But then I’ll gently remind them that ‘people are the only resource’ is not just a way of packaging each of us into economic units, but instead a validation of each and every single individual. I’ll challenge them to find out for themselves what it actually means to be Singaporean, and to encourage them to examine more perspectives (just like any other history class) before laying down a judgment that we’re a closed up society with no hope of humanity because all of us are mindless automatons, and only a few free birds have had the sense to wake up to the Matrix-like panoptic prison that has been constructed around them.
I’ll tell them that instead of mercilessly criticizing everything and running away (a very typical Singaporean response in itself), that maybe they can be the ones to make a difference.
I want people to know that Singapore is not yet done – that we’re a diamond in the rough and that though we’re beginning to glitter, that the rough edges are still there, and there are still growing pains to be had. Long-term isn’t just for 5 years, its for 50. We’re not even 50 yet. I want us to give ourselves some slack, to look in the mirror and then look to the future, instead of looking at our own flaws.
I’m 22 and the world’s an open book to me, and I would like to go out and read it, but my bookmark will always be red and white, with a crescent moon and five stars.