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Saturday, February 11, 2006

Absolute Idiocy, or The Benefits of the Singaporean Education System

A: Today I accompanied my brother to collect his O-level results. At the foyer of his alma mater, Bowen Secondary School, a crowd was gathered. We thought that something might have happened and like any normal nosey Singaporeans rushed forward to the rabble. It turns out that the crowd consisted of students who had been prevented from entering school premises, for unsalubrious reasons such as 'inappropriate dress (e.g. spaghetti straps and short skirts)', having 'dyed or punkish hair', or (get behind me Satan!) wearing slippers.

Now this would be fine, except that these students weren't allowed, at all, to enter the school hall to collect their results at the set time (1430hrs). They were told that they could only return at 1600hrs if they wanted their results. Meanwhile, they were being shooed off campus by the security guards, despite the fact that it was raining and that the closest shelter was a block of HDB flats about 5 minutes away.

The question is, of course, why? Apparently because the school did not want to associate its own image with a bunch of hooliganish thugs (of course, hooliganish thugs always dye their hair and have 'punkish' coifs). Fine and good. But why then must these students be excluded from the excitement that is supposed to be their result-collection? Imagine the prospect of, after almost three months, returning to your old school, wanting to enjoy a small chat with your teacher, celebrate the achievements of the school with your classmates, mourn your losses - only to be stopped rudely at the foyer and be denied entry. Imagine now that 60 or 70 of your peers are also denied entry: in a class of 400, that's about 15%.

This pissed me off greatly, needless to say. Brainless policies with little grounding in a sense of utility often do. First of all, what gives the school control over their ex-students? To disallow them from collecting their results in a timely fashion and to exclude them from school activities just because they have not adhered to a strict dress-code is, to my mind, just absolutely brainless. Of course, this would be more acceptable (but still unacceptable) had they informed the students earlier: according to students, however, they had only been informed the day before by SMS. The dress-code bias is plainly pointless: these are no longer students of Bowen Secondary School, but young adults and, dare I say, members of society at large. They should not be subject to the rules of the school any longer, and to punish them for not doing so by barring them from collecting their results on time and making them wait another one and a half hours serves absolutely no purpose at all. To preserve the pristine image of the school is, to my mind, not good enough a reason: this plays merely into the hands of the superstitious and unenlightened who still believe that dyeing one's hair a certain colour or keeping one's hair long or dressing down is somehow evidence of unsavoury character. Furthermore, no objective standard was employed in turning the students away: some students with short-ish hair, but who had gelled it up in a spiky fashion (which I assume was confused with 'punkish') were also prevented entry by the Operations Manager of the school.

To turn students away based on external appearance is silly, but to turn them into the rain is just gratuitously cruel. The students were told to leave because the gates were being shut (they were not, by the way), and many made their way to the HDB flats across the street or went for roti prata at the hawker centre across the street. Some even desperately went to the nearest barber to get their hair cut so that they could collect their results as soon as humanly possible.

So what's been achieved by this feat of brainlessness? This hasn't proven any point, and even if it has, it probably was a very trivial, insignificant and extremely petty point. Nor is this going to endear the students to their alma mater. Nor will it please parents, some of whom (like my own mother) was dressed inappropriately (my mother was in a spaghetti strap), and sported hair that was not typically Asian.

'...Our scholars have also risen up the ranks to take up leadership positions in schools. Some outstanding examples include Mdm Yeo Teck Yong, Principal of Tanjong Katong Girls' School, Mdm Soh Wai Lan, Principal of Anderson Secondary, Mr Paul Chua, Principal of Bowen Secondary and Mr Sin Kim Ho, Principal of Greenview Secondary. Each of them was amongst our youngest officers to be made Principals. They are worthy role models for our scholarship recipients, and indeed, for all young teachers too...' -Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Minister for Education, 4 Aug 2005

Mr Paul Chua, principal of Bowen, has obviously had the advantage of a good education, and is supposed to be young and hopefully dynamic. Yet his school policies reflect a startling and disturbing lack of sense as well as a rather reactionary bent: could we read into this a certain general malaise that infects Singapore? All things bad about Singapore - silly prejudice, petty showings of power, pointless enforcement of a draconian sense of 'discipline' as shown by one's dress sense, the treatment of the student (or even ex- student) as criminal - have been evinced by this. I can only hope that Mr Paul Chua is satisfied with himself: I know about 60 or 70 adolescents who aren't.

B: I agree with Jireh's comments on this issue. The actions of Bowen Secondary were needlessly cruel. If the school wanted its former students to come back in proper dress ( and I do not disagree with this in principle), advance warning about this should have been given long before. The school should not be able to rely on its own half hearted failure to inform its students.

C: I seem to recall that some of the RI students in my batch who had come back to collect 'O' level results with dyed hair were also warned about their inappropriate attire, but whether they were turned away or not I do not know. What I recall is that no advance notice was given to us about proper attire.

D: I understand the desire for even ex-students to be well groomed, but to prevent them from collecting their results? and turning them out into the rain?

that's just cruel.

E: That's what you get when you send ex-SAF/Police personnel to schools when they retire.

F: Just a technical question: if there were so many of them who were turned away, why didn't they just physically force their way into the school, greeting the security guards who tried to stop them with loud 'fuck yous'? This surely is what I would have done.

By the way a similar incident occured a few years ago at St Andrews Sec School. A boy who was openly gay had his O level cert withheld from him for no reason, forcing his parents to go to the school to collect them, only to be greeted by a Principal who was more interested in informing them about their son's sexual orientation (they already knew anyway but whatever) than about his academic performance. This is chronicled somewhere in Yawning Bread, but I'm too lazy now to look for the exact post.

G: The intrusiveness Singapore's schools feel the need to display in regard to clothing, whether in respect of students or ex-students, has truly baffled me for some time now. What purpose does this serve beyond the satisfaction of a fetishistic desire for compliant uniformity? (Perhaps a principle underlying any kind of 'uniform,' tellingly named, but some sense of proportion wouldn't go amiss.) F's suggested response will be strongly encouraged from any children I might ever have who attend school in Singapore. I'll be the parent from hell!

H: Maybe to maintain a sense of decorum? Wearing what befits the occasion can be a show of respect to your own school as well as to the teachers who are handing the results out to you.

There is a dress code for every occasion. Why should school events be singled out for criticism?

D: Because they're Singaporean kids and such a blatant disregard of authority figures is unthinkable. Poor kids. And anyway, so what if they physically forced their ways into the school? Could they physically demand their results?

While I don't agree with the school rules, I do understand where they're coming from. School uniforms ensure students are neat and well-dressed (ignoring students who alter their uniforms), which is arguably something we'd like our children to learn. That's why I believe that school uniforms should be clean and tidy at all times. But as a teacher, I would ignore things like dyed hair and pierced ears and even tattoos (unless it's a huge one proclaiming his membership in a gang...). Also, being forced to always be neat instills discipline, which I still consider a necessary duty of schools.