Scared of Being Wrong – My education in Singapore

“Hey,” she said softly, “you’re not used to answering questions. Why?”
“Scared!” someone offered, but she was not quick enough to see who it was.
“Scared of what?”
“Of being wrong!”

While reading the book Rice Bowl by Suchen Christine Lim, I came to realize that I haven’t written anything about my upbringing in Singapore which took the most significant part of my life. In fact, I lived in Singapore longer than in the Philippines or in Australia where I currently reside. I bought this book in an op shop whilst trying my luck in finding popular books such as The Alchemist at a ridiculously low price (no luck!). The book’s cover and the statement that includes both the words ‘Singapore’ and ‘Philippine’ caught my attention. But a quick read of the blurb sold it!

Although I only finished Secondary One (or First Year high school) in Singapore and continued my studies here in Australia, I could relate to the Pre-University (I’m assuming that’s Fourth Year high school?) students in the novel. I remember the feelings of fear and respect for the teachers. I felt like an empty vessel, only there to be filled up by the teachers. I expected the teachers to provide both the questions and the answers, and unless the question have never been asked before, we’re expected to answer it correctly. I was one of the three senior prefect leaders in our school and vice-class leader in some of my classes, so there were big expectations of being a role model to my peers. You may see that as significant accomplishments but I feel like those came about due to my passive obedience to authority and their system. Like, you know, just drifting along.

Our curriculum was structured in a way where there were no real discussions, answers were either black or white and how well you did were solely determined by the letters you receive in your end-of-term report card. The questions the teachers ask had predetermined answers – I don’t remember a teacher ever asking for our opinions on a matter. Mistakes and wrong answers were to be avoided. Students were sorted into classes according to how many correct answers they’ve made and those who did really well were over-glorified. I remember the feeling of disappointment and discouragement when I found out the following year that I’ve dropped from class A to class B. I wasn’t terrified of making wrong answers. But I was scared, scared that if I make too much, the consequences could become severe. I didn’t want my mistakes to be the reason of being held back, especially in Singapore where education and order is top priority.

I don’t know – I was very young and naive back then, and maybe the only way to survive in Singapore and get an education is obedience to the system. It may also be because since it was just a primary school, everyone is taught to focus on a standard set of lessons to gain knowledge that will help us develop into better inquirers. It probably was too early to start rebelling or thinking bigger. Maybe the questioning and the exploring starts in high school where I only spent a year in. Also, the story is set in the 1960s, the time when Singapore gained its independence from British rule and much would have changed in the system. But one thing for sure, we weren’t given opportunities to think about bigger, more universal questions like ‘What is the meaning of life?’ and answer it elegantly and confidently, without any hint of fear of being wrong, and with a profound analogy, like the kid below.

PS: I’m not posting as much as I would have liked to! Also, I haven’t posted that many about my holidays in the Philippines. It’s taking longer than I expected! I hope, eventually, I get better in managing and organizing my time so that I can blog more often.

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