All Else Is Secondary

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic

Study hard, and get to a good JC.
All Else Is Secondary.
An unblinking satire that presents the Machiavellian ideologies that drive Singapore's education system today, from the perspective of a Secondary 4 student. Written for the participants, the skeptics, and the inquisitive reader.
This short story has been submitted for the Notion Press Short Story Contest 2017. If you have enjoyed or would like to support my story, do share it with as many people as possible, and vote for it on the site itself! (By 25 July 2017 XD
To all my beloved friends and family, this story is for you. To everyone else, I hope that my story can generate some discussion on our education today, and open up different insights and perspectives for all, including myself. Feel free to do so in the comments below.
With that, shall we take attendance?

Growing up in Singapore, I learned there was much Singaporeans had to take pride in. Our little red dot has nonetheless succeeded in establishing an indisputable presence in Southeast Asia despite her tumultuous beginnings. Asserting our influence, we strive to continue the work our forefathers began with steadfast resolve. Moreover, we enjoy many rights from birth, all our needs provided for within 719 square kilometers. Our national symbols-the Orchid and the Lion-reflect our tenacity in the face of adversity; the former alluring and svelte, the latter majestic and imposing. Such depictions continue to enthrall me; the charm Singapore exudes remains captivating and unrelenting.


For most of my life, she was the backdrop to my childhood, like a guardian dutifully observing the children in her charge. She was always there, everywhere, almost omnipresent, smiling down on me as I savored the joy of a carefree and overall blissful childhood. Towering HDB blocks beckoned me to venture through their void decks, inviting me to explore her gardens.To interact, to play, to be at peace with the world. I heeded their call, oblivious to the orderly chaos that coursed through our country’s veins, pulsating masses that worked tirelessly to keep her alive. Never aware that even now, the peace and prosperity that we recount in our pledge is an uncertain one.


Those were the days.


In my naivety, I failed to recognize that I myself participated unquestioningly in a system that was itself an emblem of our psyche. Only as one emerges from hardship does he then look back and view his experiences with newfound enlightenment. As another chapter in my life begins to close, so too do I feel the urge to share my view, to obtain that sense of finality, and as an account for those who will come after me.


This is my experience, participating in our pedagogical powerhouse.


Think of our education system as a social organism. An entity much like us, with a distinct Head and Body. Taken as a whole, one can use this allegory to unpack her many layers, study her constituent elements, and in so doing uncover a reflection of our human nature. I will be analysing Singapore’s secondary education in particular.


From a subjective viewpoint, naturally.


The Head is the cornerstone of our system. It represents the nation’s mentality, gauges our country’s morality, and reveals what drives our people, the values and beliefs we uphold. From these ideals spring forth the objectives we pursue that allow us to achieve them. Without them, the whole organism is mindless, stumbling aimlessly, a purposeless, meaningless and often short-lived existence. Thus, it is imperative that those at The Head are qualified to lead, having the vision to see beyond one’s horizons, the willingness to heed the voices of those around her, and the confidence to make her voice heard, all of which spur them to bring about change.


Singapore fulfills this role with the Ministry of Education, locally referred to as MOE. Her goals are clear and straightforward, and are reflected in the nature of our education system; being rigorous, holistic and responsive. Recall the symbols mentioned. What do an orchid, a lion, and a nation have in common?


The need for survival.


Our world is built upon this principle, and naturally this means to thrive and optimize one’s chances, one must overcome all competition - by any means. Without competition, the world as we know it would not exist, progress would stagnate, and mankind will degrade to sedentary lifestyles (more so than the ones some of us may have) with no impetus to invoke change in their lives. Our education system was born out of necessity, and it emphasised being “survival driven”. Decades later, this has not changed.


Our education system has been described as “a mountain range of excellence, with many peaks.” Unfortunately, much like Mount Everest, the only mountain most meritable in this system is that of academic excellence. This mountain takes the form of the bell-curve system, where many will end up reaching the summit, only to find that they are unable to complete their descent, and perish in the blizzard of eclectic subjects. Only those who out-perform their peers will truly have overcome the mountain, and live to receive the glory and satisfaction of having accomplished such a feat.


The strategy then becomes clear- it is not enough that I succeed, others must fail. Those that are strong become your allies, comrades that can facilitate an exchange of information and fill up gaps in knowledge, down a concentration gradient, independent of other particles. Those that are weak become your resources, be it to consolidate your own understanding by tutoring them, or to derive sadistic satisfaction from by watching them collapse in front of your eyes, overwhelmed, ostracized, and obliterated in spirit.


With regards to school selection, the sheer variety and quantities available, each with their own nuances and niches, would be too staggering to be succinctly expressed, and hence exceed the scope of this short story. It must be acknowledged, however, that a school can only be “good” if something bad exists to serve as a comparison. This duality thus renders the statement “Every school is a good school” invalid. To rectify this discrepancy, I, therefore, propose the ambitious alternative - Every school is a school. Redundant, yes, but this superfluous statement is a reminder to count our blessings: Singapore boasts many institutions, all under a world-class system. The majority of us receive more than a decade of education. How many others can say the same?


Retaining our competitive edge, upgrading our people, this will always be our top priority. For our people are our most valuable resource, and should we lose that advantage, should we become complacent, then it will be at our peril, for we will be devoured by those stronger than us, at the mercy of natural selection. Children shed their tears now, so they won’t do so helplessly when facing future odds. For the sake of our nation, our education will not be compromised. Our education WILL NOT be compromised. This zeitgeist has propelled us to the present day- it will propel us for many, many more.



The Body (quite literally) represents the school body. The recipients or enforcers of our system, we comply and are subservient to the orders given by the Head, not because we are weak and submissive, but because we recognize and respect the authority and intentions of those at the upper echelons of society. Much like them, we are all too aware that a nation is always stronger-and happier- united rather than divided. Furthermore, a Head without a body is powerless, unable to carry out any task, dismembered and crippled. They would have our best interests at heart, for they have much more to lose.


Consisting of students and educators, the two groups exist in symbiotic harmony with each other, and a clear differentiation of labour is observed within the inner machinations of the system. In short, there are clear distinctions between the intellectual, the average student, the musically inclined and the sportsman. Those who display remarkable traits are elevated to a Leadership Board of some sort, while those with potential may be delegated to simply being a representative or ambassador. Educators are segregated into Administration (Principals and Vice Principals), Head-Of Departments (Or HODs), and regular teachers. Altogether, these groups span across multiple disciplines and domains, each individual with their own unique part to play in the effective running of this complex, interlocking system, each with their own unique quirks, peculiarities, and eccentricities.


Of course, there are ways to “game” the system, though do not expect them to be explicitly made known to you. If you have been in the system as long as I have, you would be well-versed in the various undercurrents and loopholes present. For instance, a charismatic student that takes the initiative to develop a good rapport with key supporters is more likely to rise the social ladder than a student who delivers exemplary results but is soft-spoken and insecure. Effort put into studying need not be directly proportional to the quality of results achieved; the presence of an optimal environment may prove to be either an advantage or a hindrance depending on the individual.


A teacher that is disliked for various reasons may not necessarily need to worry about the security of one’s job if students do not follow through on their discontent, though he may find it significantly harder to carry out said job. However, failing to deliver what his job requires, or underperforming with respect to other teachers, can cause him to be promptly ejected from the system inexplicably, for no apparent reason. His existence is nearly erased from the school, mentioned perhaps in passing, name fading into myth and obscurity. “Who?”, students may innocuously ask, dumbfounded by this development, or beside themselves with grief, when really they are all too happy to have established equilibrium once more.


Thus one witnesses a classic example of Le Chatelier’s Principle, a topic taught to gifted students participating in a Chemistry Olympiad, one of many enrichment programmes provided to further students’ understanding.


The application of concepts learned in solving real-world problems is always encouraged by the education system, and one who aligns his objectives with those of the system will stand to gain immensely. Whether it is at the expense of others of infinitesimal importance is inconsequential.


Often though, teachers need only worry about dealing with a small minority of rebellious delinquents or managing the rising trepidation and insanity manifested both in himself and his pupils as the dreaded Ordinary Level Examinations approaches. If any consolation, one who recognizes and relates to the people who he works with can count on their compliance and support, possessing students who see him as a brother-in-arms in a merciless system that they will someday inevitably conform to. Subsequently, this fosters camaraderie and mutual admiration for one another, small acts of kindness that demand no reward, a perfect balance of fear and endearing respect. Teachers can rest assured that, if his duty is executed well, he will be fondly remembered by those he imparts knowledge to. The best teachers may even develop a legacy and reputation among students and teachers alike that precede them. Much like students, teachers who excel are duly rewarded.


In Physics, one learns that in an ideal system, no energy or resources are wasted, and everything operates at 100% efficiency. However, as we live in the real world, we must confront the sad truth that while we seek perfection, we will never achieve it. Our education system is most certainly flawed; a perfect system does not exist. Even the best students whose every waking moment is dedicated to “mugging” will not be able to score 100 on every test. Asians are not infallible.


At the other end of the spectrum, students who are unable to adapt to demanding circumstances live their lives either in adamant denial or resigned dejection and inferiority. Statistics show that Singaporean students in this region total approximately 1%, though students in the lower quartile may be considerably greater than one might expect. But, as my Physics teacher has sagely mentioned, such students are like “defects” in a factory, of negligible importance. Regarding students as “just a number to me,” he enlightened me to the dark underbelly of education. It is a common truth that those who fail to meet their quota are liabilities. Is it really such a surprise then, that teachers must resort to such cynical views to drive themselves forward? Such incidents can only be found delving deep into the murky depths. On the surface, pristine smiles and calm reassurances embrace you with open arms.


Do not be alarmed! By the time our youths complete their secondary education, they too will have learned the art of deceit, surpassing both you and perhaps even their teachers to achieve mastery in manipulating their means to achieve their ends. Do not be dismayed that your children cannot be as ruthless and emotionless in their studies as you may once have been, completing a multitude of exam papers and attending all forms of tuition to ensure one’s success without complaint or concern for their well being. Rest assured that our new generation will be more than capable of tackling the challenges of the future and independently fending for themselves in an uncaring workforce. The “Strawberry Generation” will be but a thing of the past!


To parents who fret over whether their children will ever dominate in their every endeavour, your children are in good hands. Rest easy. They will someday fulfill your expectations, becoming the epitome of filial piety. You’ll soon boast to your peers of how you played the integral step in securing your child’s success in a display of full-blown kiasu-ism. Take my word for it!


Based on utilitarianism, our education system remains unparalleled, the beacon of meritocracy, of reward based on effort. Even students who drop out of this cut-throat system can still find their purpose in Singapore’s society. For at the heart of the education system lies the desire to achieve life-long learning, the zest for life, and an undying loyalty to the nation that provides for its children. So long as you abide by these principles, and persevere with a constancy of purpose, you can most certainly excel in Singapore.


Singapore’s education system is multifaceted; there is so much more that goes into our education system that I have yet to discuss: the desire for a well-rounded individual that inspires the various Co-Curricular Activities (CCAs) across schools and the implementation of “LEAPS 2.0”, the need to be an active contributor to society that spawned VIA(Values In Action), and the various school events undertaken to reinforce a student’s educational experience. Alas, with so many concepts to be covered, I’m unable to go through each in excruciating detail (feel free to contact me though, I’d be happy to share more).


Nevertheless, rather than learn about it vicariously, why not commit yourself to immersing fully in the Singaporean Education? It doesn’t matter how old you are, everyone has a chance to relive those nostalgic school days through rose-tinted lenses. Our systems are continually evolving to suit the increasingly demanding needs of our times, vigilantly on the lookout for new blood. The various visionaries and scholars that Singapore has yielded is a testament to the superiority of our education system, consistently producing results, moulding individuals that will usher in the new frontier, pursuing with unwavering diligence. It is by no means flawless, but it will always be a reflection of the strength of the Singaporean spirit.


Hesitate no longer. Listen not to the criticisms- leave it to the MOE to address and redress these outliers. Pack your bags. Wear your attires with pride! Don’t forget to get a haircut!



Any questions?

Submitted: July 08, 2017

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