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Thursday, August 22, 2013

National Day Rally 2013: All for Singaporeans

Hsien Loong all for you! :D
This year's National Day Rally speech by PM Lee was all about Singaporeans.  There was nothing on why we needed foreign talent or how we should integrate with new immigrants.  Nothing on the cost of living or transport woes.  Nothing on the growing income gap or the low birthrate.  Instead, it was all about making the lives of Singaporeans better, in the immediate as well as the foreseeable future.  I think the loudest cheers of "District 19 huat ah!" were heard from the people living near the Paya Lebar Airbase on Sunday night.  The military airbase will be moved to Changi, freeing up valuable land and airspace for skyscrapers to be built.  Meanwhile, judging by the reaction from the audience, 'upgrading' has been replaced by 'shopping mall' as the favourite carrot for Singaporeans.  Project Runway was never going to be as popular as Project Jewel.

If the speech was made by a member of the opposition party, perhaps the slew of announcements would be branded as populist in nature, but I guess I should just comment on the things that would affect Singaporean parents (this is a parenting blog after all) and not politicise the issue. :D

In all, I would say that the PM Lee has done his homework and showed that he has finally managed to connect with the ground (since his infamous "mee siam mai hum" days).  His observations on the public sentiments on the Primary One admissions process and the PSLE were spot on.  The proposed changes in both these areas are also significant steps in the right direction.  Of course, the path is laden with rocks that could trip us up if we do not proceed with caution.  Here's how:

Admissions to Primary One

While it is great to have at least 40 places for children with no connections to each primary school, it might backfire if parents see the carving out of places for the "P1 Toto" as making the earlier phases more competitive.  For those who don't fancy their odds in a Phase 2C/"40 places" ballot, the Parent Volunteer route has become a bit more obligatory.  Worse still, for those who do fancy their odds in the ballot, we might see lucky parents from the west enrolling their unlucky children in the top schools in the east, for example.

One possible way to maintain a more open admissions system and for a less stressful experience is to pre-determine the maximum proportion of places for each phase (with any balance places pushed to the next phase) and to require parents to pre-select a desired school for each phase that they qualify for.  By introducing uncertainty and opacity to the process, I believe parents would find it a more pleasant experience.

Wider bands for grades - wider range of problems?

While the removal of PSLE T-scores is a welcomed change that is in line with the wider goal of nurturing the unique talents and character of each child, the introduction of wider bands might have unintended effects on parents and their children.

Unlike the 'O' Levels where students can be better differentiated (due to multiple subjects and multiple grades from A1 to F9) for admission to various Junior Colleges or Polytechnics, adopting PSLE banding (with 4 subjects and 7 grades from A* to Ungraded) would mean that large groups of students would be indistinguishable from one another.  Together with the changes to the Direct School Admissions process, it is my worry that the banding changes would spawn "Kiasuparents 2.0", where zealous parents would demand their children to take part in extra curricular activities excessively, on top of attending the neverending tuition classes, just so that their children can stand out both academically AND in character, resilience, drive, leadership, sports and art.  The 100m sprint that is the T-score has just turned into a decathlon that is the banding!

Lost opportunity?

Perhaps there wasn't enough time to talk about this during the National Day Rally, but I felt that an opportunity was lost by the PM to knock some sense into our tuition nation on Sunday and be the harbinger of change.  Singaporean parents today place too much emphasis on academic excellence and this mindset needs to change as soon as possible.  What do you think?


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