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Streaming in Singaporean Society

April 10, 2010

Remember back in the good old days when Primary 3 was the worst period to be a student because you had to stop playing Neopets and endeavor to be good in both English and Chinese to qualify for the best stream – EM1? Not that it matters to us now (What does EM even stand for?), but for some children who were streamed into EM3 at the tender age of 9, it closed off all schools that did not offer the Normal route to them. What kind of heartless and myopic system cuts off a child’s window for education when a child is 9 by declaring him/her unfit?

I suppose that is what made the Ministry of Education decide to abolish the streaming system (but replace it with another name, at least they tried…I guess?)

But for those of us who made it into EM1/2, and progressed to where we are today, streaming never really stopped, did it?

What constitutes an ACSian?

In the Singaporean context, there are the good schools, and then there are the good schools. Education is an extremely controversial topic in Singapore because of the strong emotions that every citizen has in their individual opinions toward the policies. Because Singapore is so small, education is a common thread that binds everyone, creating stereotypical opinions of certain schools – mainly the “top few”, the “so-called elite”, because they are the most in the spotlight. Stereotypes are somewhat dangerous and to me, a bit tiresome, because some people never grow out of them, even when they have been out of the Singaporean education system for a few years. You take a group of people and characterize them according to a broad brush. Sure, to a certain extent, there is no smoke without fire, and yes, a majority of them do exhibit the characteristics that are mentioned, but it is also an overly simplistic argument that you hear coming from people who are well into their middle ages who think that “he’s a Rafflesian”, “she’s from SCGS” still manage to wholly encapsulate a person.

I’m a Rafflesian who went to ACS. This simplistic equation, personally, is problematic to me. What school am I supposed to identify with? To be honest, I did let myself be bought into this whole “school-categorizing” phenomenon. When my ACSian friends told me I was “different. You’re a normal Rafflesian so you’re rare to find. You’re okay!”, I breathed a sigh of relief, even though in my RGS days, I met many whom I reckon were as normal as I.

Because Raffles and ACS have such distinct embodiments in the Singaporean mindset, I was like some weird hybrid caught in the middle of these two major rivals. To the Rafflesians I met after my ACS stint, I am an ACS kid, some atas girl who was sociable, but not terribly well-to-do in the IQ department, playfully irresponsible and possibly arrogant because I am not “pureblood”. Funnily enough, to my secondary RGS friends, I am still a Rafflesian and as one friend wrote on my farewell card back in 2005, “You’ll always be a Rafflesian”. To the ACS bunch, I always thought I assimilated well enough in junior college, but recently an AC friend commented on a Skype conversation about the “weirdness of Rafflesians in my university, but I hope you’re not offended, cos I mean, you’re Rafflesian too. But you know, after a while, they’re pretty alright”.  What my AC friend did not know was that I was in the room with a Rafflesian friend from university and my friend was rather annoyed. My other AC friend whom I worked with for 2 years in the AC Student Council told me he dreamt that I showed him around the RJC campus during Investiture Week (??) and profusely apologized, saying that it was because I was a Rafflesian. What that meant for me was that I am continually perceived as a hybrid, an colloid of two elites schools with distinctive and contradictory characteristics, unlike others from elite schools whose characteristics can be meshed together more easily (think SCGS + ACS, MGS + ACS etc).

Because of recent articles in the Straits Times from Rafflesians expressing how they are “reformed elitists” and “recovering Rafflesians” (which my darling non-Rafflesian friends sent to me, and to which one non-Rafflesian, non-government scholar friend said, “I hope you as a government scholar can do something about this and spread the message” – I’m not a government scholar in the PSC sense but my concern shouldn’t be valued less right?), I feel as though this should be addressed. Sure, I met some people in Raffles who fit right into the stereotype of ambitious, grades-driven hardcore mugger (I had a friend who cried because she got 36/40 on a math quiz while I was extremely content with my score of 33/40) but I have also met the typical ACSian who drives a Mercedes his dad bought him, and spends enough money on a suit for a single occasion that can pay 6 months’ of my rent. Is this not elitism in another form, albeit not an academic sense? I have an AC friend who earnestly told me that she and her friends love going to hawker centres and HDBs because it provides a good environment to ‘observe the common heartlander’. What is this, the zoo?

I’m not saying that every Rafflesian or ACSian I met are like that – but aren’t stereotypes like these easy and dangerous and oh-so-consumable? People would rather buy into a simple stereotype because it saves them the trouble of having to analyse everyone. All the aforementioned examples are people whom I know, who are delightful to be around and whom I love as friends despite their gaffes (which I may have most definitely committed too, unknowingly or otherwise) but they as human beings are more similar than different, except stereotypes are constructed that way to highlight the marked differences and to draw a line between us/them (i.e. the Japanese “uchi-soto” debate, which my Professor told me is currently considered in the academic realm as a dangerous and archaic construct. But heck, for simple purposes such as in blog posts, I feel should just be adopted for convenience).

What I am trying to say is, there are different levels of ambition, arrogance, playfulness etc that compose a person. What I am is both ACSian and Rafflesian, but intrinsically, we should stop apologizing for what our schools have cultured us to become because it is an overly simplified excuse. The reason for ‘elitism’ lies in a greater problem, the education streaming dictated by the government. This gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is there not because we are Rafflesian/ACSian/Hwachs/Victorians etc. but because we are conditioned from young to view the other, in order to successfully define ourselves as a group.

A nursery for elitism? Really?

Image from:

Even in primary school, apart from the EM 1/2/3 streaming, there was yet another GEP/express streaming system which persisted to secondary school. When we get into the elite schools, there is streaming based on ‘who are the smartest of the smart?’, such as when people were pulled out of math classes in RGS to attend advanced math stream classes and if you are in the Science stream or the lesser Arts stream. After you graduate among the top of your cohort from junior college, you vye with the other 5,000 people for scholarships, further streamed into overseas and local, and unfairly skewed toward engineers & economics majors.

Even among scholarship holders, there are differences between the Public Service Commission and ‘the rest of the stat boards’ prevalent in how PSC scholars had a separate registration booth and were given a private notice to dress in formal attire while us stat board scholars turned up at the same event casually dressed in jeans and had the sudden dawning that reeked of a slap in the face as we were shown that, despite our hard work to get to where we were, we were again being assessed by a body to be second-class scholars – as Miley Cyrus aptly sang in ‘Party in the USA’, “I guess I never got the memo”. I remember that day fondly, because us “second-rate” (in quotation marks because I do not think so) stat board scholars felt indignant, and were jointly angered by the unnecessary snub and therefore expressed our indignation by collectively rushing out of the door to the snack booth during a break while PSC scholars were detained for a “private talk for public service scholars” to gobble down the best snacks and nestle our butts on the limited number of comfy cushions. Cheap thrill I know, but hey after 18 years of hard work, and the government tells us yet again ‘You’re not good enough’ and that was the straw on the camel’s back – the food had to go…to our stomachs.

Even for ASTAR scholarships, where applicants must receive a minimum of 4As in the GCE A Levels, they have a further streaming throughout their term of scholarship. Scholars who maintain a >3.95 GPA for a number of semesters running have the privilege of being even better than the rest of this already immensely brilliant group and are on the “Chairman’s Honors Roll”.

Seriously, what is the point in this? Sure, it can be argued that this is simply an exhibition of Singapore’s “meritocracy” in play, but I think it’s obsessive, unhealthy and is the root cause of all this elitism debate. I personally believe nobody, no GPA, and no scholarship is going to tell me how much I am worth – nor is it going to be my identity. I am Cheryl, and I’ll pursue what I believe in, above everything else, and these petty arguments about school stereotypes must stop as we turn our focus to the bigger issue. It’s something Singaporean, sure, it’s part of who we are – our Singaporean identity. But it should not be.  It’s unhealthy.

Everyone should just stop this unnecessary, roundabout inner debate about Rafflesian elitism and focus on this cavity of Singaporean culture.  Anyone who disagrees can just tell that to my “elite, uncaring face” – perhaps the Wee Shu Min debacle should have heralded the concerned analysis of this dangerous disparity indoctrinated in our mindsets years ago.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2010 5:35 pm

    Nice post. Well-written and balanced (:

    Sometimes I feel that streaming is a horrible process and unfairly pigeon holes people. Yet, at the same time, I do see the benefits of ensuring that students are placed in classes that suit their aptitude. The issue at the heart of streaming is not so much the act of streaming (I’m inclined to think that all schools do it to varying extents) but the values and labels attached to each stream.

    To be fair though, Singapore is changing. I remember when we used to see Polys and ITEs as the ‘end’. Yet, I was just reading an article in the ST which extolled people who had gone to Poly and performed exceptionally well.

    In my mind, until Singapore stops seeing value in mere tangible and material grades or achievements (whether CCA or otherwise) and starts seeing intrinsic value in people, will we move from labelling, pigeon holing and telling people that they aren’t good enough to encouraging people to be the best that they can be (I’m starting to sound like a National Day song. lol.).

  2. April 10, 2010 9:06 pm

    “If we are to avoid the unacceptable attrition rates of the past, it will be necessary to introduce the principle of teaching children at the pace at which they can absorb instruction. In the ideal world, this means that each child will learn at his or her own pace. But we do not live in an ideal world and it is necessary, because of constraints of money and manpower, to reduce the process of teaching into systems. However regrettable this may be be to the purist, practical considerations offer no better alternative…

    “The subject of streaming children according to ability evokes strong emotional responses, especially among professionals in the Ministry of Education and the Institute of Education. However, we find that… one system cannot do justice to all children.

    “Much of the prejudice against the streaming of school children derives from an egalitarian philosophy fashionable in the Western World after World War II. This philosophy partially rests on a prejudice against the pursuit of excellence. We do not want to enter into a controversy against those egalitarian ideas. Perhaps this is just what Western societies need. But in Singapore… problems in the present school system would not have arisen if those concerned had earlier accepted the logical consequences of the fact that different children have different capacities to acquire knowledge.”

    from Dr Goh Keng Swee, ‘Report on the Ministry of Education 1978’, pp 1—3 to 1—5.

    Just saying. But the other side of the story, as Dr Goh often pointed out, is that the worst offenders were the Chinese parents who all seemed to believe that “…one’s child will become a dragon.” (Goh, ‘Wealth of East Asian Nations’, p 195). I suspect that the main problem lies in parental attitudes of one-upmanship, manifested through displays of wealth and status. Schools, as in most countries, become partial proxies as well.

  3. Yourschoolmate permalink
    April 11, 2010 8:51 am

    My buddy has to resort to stealing SAF items to pay for his parents’ medical,
    My aunt has gambling problems,
    My 20-year old cousin is already a father,
    and my younger brother went in and out of jail three times.
    There are more like them who have too much to worry about.

    Really, the only people who care about the difference between ACSians and Rafflesians,
    are well the ACSians and Rafflesians…

    between first and second rate scholars,
    the first and second rate scholars…

    Everything you said is true, it’s just stating the facts,
    you really think if more reformed elitist wrote articles, it’ll help
    “Singapore stops seeing value in mere tangible and material grades or achievements (whether CCA or otherwise) and starts seeing intrinsic value in people”?

  4. April 11, 2010 9:41 am

    oh my, good points everyone. i really don’t know whether i can respond in a holistic way because i’m really just one person and i blog because it’s a channel for my experience. so my two cents’ worth –
    yourschoolmate, i completely understand where you are coming from. i’m not oblivious to the hardships of the other 80% who do not come from ‘top schools’ or ‘good backgrounds’, i’ve taught in one of those schools and encountered people firsthand and it’s only made me appreciate what i have more. i’m not from a well-to-do family but i have alot of friends who are very privileged. some people may not have had that experience of being around people whose parents don’t want them to go to school because that means a less hand at the hawker stall.
    what i would like to rebut is, yes, ac-raffles/first-rate-second-rate is a small percentage of the population. maybe people like you don’t care. but why it matters is because it stems from a greater issue of societal disparity, which requires immediate redress. because if it is not addressed, then the “elites” will continue debating about issues like this, and “the majority” will continue to stew in resentment of this gap. i don’t like the term “reformed elitist” – it makes me cringe. i don’t know if articles from them will help, it appears sensationalist but at least it’s making people think. but i hope people think beyond school stereotypes, as i mentioned, to the larger root cause.

  5. April 11, 2010 10:31 am

    Coming from AC is actually an annoying barrier sometimes. I have to deal with unfair and unwarranted AC backlash when working with certain people.

  6. justimite permalink
    April 11, 2010 10:06 pm

    agrees with Mr Chew, nothing is wrong with streaming, EM1,2,3, GEP, AC, Raffles. All these are labels which just make it much easier, and more obvious, for the manifestation of two attitudes that can be seen, Singapores are worried about how they look to other people, Singaporeans like comparing.

    Note that I said “attitudes that can be seen”, and not “attitudes that are taken up by the majority”, since these assumptions could very well have just been a result of what we read (which is written and influenced by elitist anyway), and not actual representation of the community. It’ll be fun to find out that no one actually cares about this AC Raffles thing (I quite believe this), and that we only just PRETEND to care, because we think that everyone else seems to care.

  7. April 11, 2010 10:39 pm

    I find it to be just unhelpful and unhealthy for a child’s growing up process to have this constant practice of measuring up one against the other. It creates a person who is almost unable to see his/her own worth, but is always peeking out of the corner of his/her eye to compare himself/herself with the next person. And then we wonder why many Singaporeans seem to lack self-confidence? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out.

    No matter where you come from, there seems to be constant judging and constant comparisons being made. And this needs to stop because I believe that it is hindering the system of meritocracy instead of helping it. If you stream a child to EM3, tell them that they are not good enough and act like they will never get anywhere, then it is a self-fulfilling prophecy when they don’t do very well.

    I blogged about this issue recently as well, and am glad to see that there’s more discussion about it these days, and a push for change! After all, at the end of the day, I believe that there is so much more in Life that makes you who you are than your schools.

  8. April 12, 2010 12:01 am

    @becktan, auto, justimite, kirsten: thanks for your opinions, they do shed light on different parts of the issue. well, yes, streaming is prevalent – not just in the singaporean context, and some may say it is a necessary evil so that kids are put in a group with similar academic abilities. that i don’t refute might serve the kids well. what is the issue with streaming in singapore, however, is that it used to be (becktan says it might be changing) the end of the road, or in some ‘fortunate’ cases, a long detour. my cousin went to acs (barker), then to ite, then to poly and is now in his final year of smu accountancy. he is 28.
    my yale interviewer, who is japanese and now works in temasek, mentioned to me that she would never want her child to be put through the singaporean system. she would rather he go through the japanese system because even though it is competitive, there is streaming, but it does not seal off a child’s future as readily or as early, as does our system. hopefully things are changing, and for eg poly can be seen as an alternative jc rather than the stigmatized ‘lower’ end one and have equal opportunities for getting higher education scholarships.

  9. April 12, 2010 10:00 am <- an interesting article examining the education system of a country that has consistently come out top in the world. I believe there are lessons to be learned here. However, this model would require a complete change in the predominant mindset of Singaporeans.

    I am glad that the stigma against poly and ITE are fading away. I went to poly myself after my O Levels despite all the people saying that it would be a waste of my decent grades. But what I learnt at poly suited me much more than what I would have got out of doing A Levels. Poly and ITE are not at all "the end", in fact valuable skills and experiences are to be had from them.

  10. averageguy permalink
    April 12, 2010 1:20 pm

    generally, one way through which people learn and grow is interaction. when you group kids with similar academic abilities together, they can feed off each other’s abilities and improve academically (other ways too) as a result. so the thing is, there is probably so much more one can learn if he/she is placed among a more academically-abled group of students (than if he/she in a less academically-abled class). if that’s the case, could this be one reason why the apparent disparity in academic abilities among these different groups of students is actually greater than it would have been if there were no such grouping/streaming? is this a good or not-so-good thing?

    aside that, i remember my friends telling me, “all the best teachers go to the best classes. i thought they’re already so smart? and how are we to improve and catch up then? sheesh.” seems that the ‘best’ students are given, in school, most if not all the ‘best’ resources and opportunities. is the gap poised to get wider?

  11. April 12, 2010 1:47 pm

    I think that the flaws in the country do arise not just because of state policies but because of human responses to state policies; neither party has created the situation, but their combined interaction has.

    The problem with streaming and elitism in Singapore is that the first is a necessary process for attaining certain objectives (such has using limited resources to provide optimal education for a certain level of student) and that the second is a cultural trait of most Chinese populations, given the chance. The first is somewhat ameliorated by the deliberate implementation of a system in which people are given ways to move between streams, and the second is unavoidable given that since the 19th century, Singapore has been about 75% Chinese.

    The problem when you combine the two is that the Chinese as a population do not like wasting time in achieving educational objectives or material objectives. Hence they apply pressure on children (not always as individuals, but as a society) to do better, get into faster streams, and achieve higher targets. This is not always bad, but it certainly has bad possible outcomes.

    It is a matter of record that many government ministers and civil servants have bemoaned the outcomes in terms of lack of creativity and excessive stress and so on. But just because a process is subverted by humans doesn’t mean you should change the process; perhaps you could improve it, but the most important thing is to educate the humans. Which brings us to the nub of the problem. It’s the education system that we’re looking at, and whose intent is being subverted.

    By analogy, it’s as if the plumbing works OK but the people keep doing their business in chamber pots for cultural reasons. So we have to create night-soil carriers to move the stuff around. Then people complain either a) it’s not convenient, or b) the system doesn’t work, or c) the plumbing needs to be improved. And everyone hates the smell. But whose fault is it?

    • averageguy permalink
      April 13, 2010 1:18 pm

      well said, ~autolycus. i also agree with what you mentioned in your latest blog post 🙂 anw, i may have been too fixated on the disparity. i guess the rest of us at the ‘bottom’ just thought we needed more opportunity in school.


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