I was discussing my future with my mother one day, when she blurted out this sentence that struck me as revealing of some deeper truth:

“Mummy knows that you can study.”

And something about that sentence disturbed me profoundly, for the reason I will explain below:

I come from a humble background, with my father a bus driver, and my mother a hawker. And somehow riding the wave of social mobility, I arrived at one of the “elite” schools. From then on, success begotten success, and I have come to regard myself as being sufficiently equipped for a shot at achieving some form of success in life. 

From the perspective of my parents, my academic success at one of the make-it or break-it national examinations, the PSLE, was one that can only be attributed to some talent residing within their child to acquire an alphabet soup of As sprinkled with stars.

And to them, this peculiar talent for studying is innate and cannot be acquired, and this talent is what that distinguishes between the two kinds of people in society and serving as the most important binary in our society: that between those who “can study” and those who “cannot study”.

Regrettably enough, my parents are not the only one with this view, for it was a view of our political party, and founding father, MM Lee, who had once claimed that the existence of the un-educated (“lumpen masses”) is a “function of nature”, and that a full eighty percent of our abilities are determined from birth. This is despite a large body of scientific literature that makes the nature vs nurture debate a contentious one.

These claims have now vanished thanks to the uproar the remarks caused amongst the slighted electorate, yet, the very people who resented such remarks as elitist might very well harbour the same prejudice. After all, year on year, examinations have proved to many that people seem to have different levels of abilities, and no one can refuse the quantified evidence that people differ from another on the scale of 1s, 10s, even 100s.

I beg to differ. I have little but anecdotal evidence to offer in this essay, but readers who demand more concrete evidence can easily obtain it elsewhere. Now let me indulge in a personal story of mine which I hope will illustrate the importance of circumstance and happenstance:

I was blessed with a  stable loving family which supervised my studies from young, and in which education was of a primal importance – my dad told me of his regrets at abandoning education to work at an early age, while my mother told me of the pain of working her fingers to the bones, and told me to enter the “Office”, that unreachable place belonging to the world of those who could study. Fed with the aspirations of the lower-middle class, I appreciated the importance of education from young.

Yet, by primary 6, I was just a slightly above average student. But fortune dealt me a lucky hand and my play station broke down. It is strange for me to attribute my life’s turning point to that trivial incident, but after the console broke down, I was left with no diversions in my life other than homework and studying, and I wholly devoted my entire soul to an examination, allowing me unexpectedly rise from the near bottom of my class to the top few of my school.

What my parents thought was innate intelligence turned out to be  a fortuitous joke. But what happened next was not a matter of fortune but of design.

The cousin of the vicious cycle is little known, but it exists and is named the upward spiral of success.

After being accepted by an elite school, I benefited heavily from the spiralling effects of success. Since teachers are continually reminded that who they are teaching is the top 3% of the PSLE intake, as well as the future leaders of society, the globe even, they came to possess a strong sense of conviction in their cause. And what was most important of that was that teachers never gave up on their students, believing that if the students made any mistakes, the teachers were the ones that failed the students, rather than the other way round. After all, if the student is the cream of the crop, surely it is the system that has failed, not him.

Such was their devotion that I benefited heavily from the continual guidance and attention of my teachers despite me failing numerous examinations. If I were in a neighbourhood school, I think I might have been considered as the one that failed the system, and not its victim.

Was it so clear cut that I was destined to be one who “can study”? I think not.

Now that the tide of aspirations, disappointments and destiny-altering results that is the PSLE has receded, lets examine its wake through new lenses.

The PSLE is but one of a series of exams which main purpose is to stream students according to their abilities. Assuming that some are more capable than others, the natural solution will then be to stream people according to their abilities, and at as early an age as possible: so that the fast will not be hindered by the slow, and the slow will not be disadvantaged by a pace too fast for them, as the esteemed Goh Keng Swee envisioned.

Yet is it really fair to stream at such an early age? That question now comes with more gravity, following the introduction of two schools, Assumption Pathway and Northlight, we now have students that are being trained for vocations at the age of 12, 13, 14.

At this point of time, I need to clarify that both are admirable efforts taken by very motivated people, and I do feel that sincerely. The fact is too that without such schools, most of the students that are taken in will not undergo any form of education at all. In fact, such schools are providing the early intervention on a scale that has been crucially missing all this while.
Yet, there is a caveat to this. By no means should we regard the establishment of these vocational schools as the panacea to our problems with education, or the ideal end-state which we aspire to. Instead, how we should view these two schools should be as vital game-changers that break the cycle of poverty and provide a stable familial environment from which the next generation can come forth with their ineffable aspirations. By no means should the further streaming and segregation within our society be regarded as the answer to our societal ills, but rather a lesser evil that will eventually bring about the greater good.

At the same time, we ought to examine whether the premise of the binary of those able to study or not truly exists. Perhaps, the prejudice that some are simply unable to study is the root problem of poor student grades in the first place, and vocational schools will not be the final answer.

And one day, a mother will no longer tell her child, “Mummy knows you can study”, for such a statement will no longer be of a darker significance of any kind.