Parent-led project says academic failure doesn't matter — but the truth is, it does in Singapore

Maybe the problem here is that we do not truly believe success can be attained without academic success.

Jeanette Tan | November 04, 2016, 04:38 PM

On Thursday, we were introduced courtesy of a TODAY news story and video to a group of parents calling themselves "100 Voices".

Screenshot from TODAY Screenshot from TODAY

Their message: Failure doesn't matter, grades don't matter, and you can succeed without stellar academic performance.

Their aim: Present 100 stories of people who have succeeded in life without academic success as proof.

In their videos and stories, I was looking for a sign, or any indication that at least one of the parents in the story acknowledged the fact that Singapore's society at present does not support the propagation of what they are advocating.

There was none.

Hence, I thought I should provide some counter-truisms about life in Singapore that most of us who have grown up, live and work here know and understand without saying:


1. If you don't do well in primary/secondary school/JC/poly, you're not going to get into a "good" university.

Yes, every school is a good school. Goodness knows all Singaporeans want to believe this.

But the fact is, not all teachers or principals are created equal. Some are more passionate, some are more experienced, some have more creativity, some have innovative teaching and management ideas that work better for students, and all these skills, experience, creativity, know-how and kickass lesson plans and resource management just cannot be spread across the board.

It's scarcity.

A school that wants to ensure its best and brightest do well, therefore, will allocate its "best" or "strongest" teachers to where they best serve the school's needs. A "good" teacher can't teach everyone, so it is inevitable some classes will be at the receiving end of what might be described as "poorer" instruction.

What follows, provided the students across the board are of equal intelligence and put in equal effort (which of course isn't the case, exceptions abound), is that the students with "better" teachers and a "better" studying environment focus more on achieving academic success, and do well, and are subsequently better-placed to scale greater heights. This is a cycle we know exists and is tough to break out of.

Despite the existence of direct school admission, admission on sporting experience, and the new PSLE scoring system, for instance, we cannot run away from getting judged for admission to universities based on our grades at some point.

You can't fail your A levels or graduate from polytechnic with a 1.5 grade point average and still expect to get into a university course. You'll need to retake your A levels until you pass — and pass well, if I may add — or go out and work for a few years before returning to a private university to do a degree perhaps. Any Polytechnic alumnus will tell you you can forget about university if you didn't get at least a 3.0.

2. University degrees are a dime a dozen now, and the university you attend, as well as the quality of the degree you obtain, *does* matter in getting a job.

According to the Ministry of Education (MOE), more than one in four students from each Primary One cohort obtains a place in one of Singapore’s publicly-funded universities. This excludes students who have studied overseas or have studied in the private universities.

If you are a Singapore employer, and you receive 100 resumes for one position you're trying to fill, all other things being equal, would you pick a candidate who graduated from a private university, or one from NUS?

The first employment survey by the Council for Private Education found that many private school graduates find it harder to land jobs and command lower starting salaries.

If you could only meet one out of the following two candidates — one who got a second-lower class honours degree, and one who got a first class honours degree, in the same discipline and in the same university — who would you pick?

You might be an unconventional recruiter who is keen to give chances to those who might not be as academically-inclined. But in the above scenarios, there must be a way to decide who gets the cut and who makes it past the first round; you can't meet all 100 applicants. The choice is clear for large companies, the majority of Singapore's businesses and *gasp* the civil and public service as well.

Academic results and the quality of a person's degree trumps all other things when it comes to just getting your foot in the door -- let's not even talk about the "pay grade" system that exists in large Singaporean corporations, and in the government, which starts unequally depending on whether you have a "good honours degree".

Still think results don't matter? Do you think it'll be easy to find gainful employment if you flunked out of university?

3. The option of "trying again" is simply not available to everyone.

The stories we heard and read from "100 Voices" are all missing one very important thing: credible explanation of how they got by after failing or not doing well in school.

Let's take the marketing entrepreneur who took a five-year sabbatical to spend more time with his son. I instantly wondered how he got by and provided for his son during that half-decade — I highly doubt many of us have those kinds of savings handy.

Or the guy who failed to kickstart his IT business and became a stay-at-home dad to his three children — how many people can afford to firstly invest capital into a business, and secondly, become a stay-at-home mom or dad, or husband or wife? How many couples with children can afford to be single-income families?

Or the guy who failed his O and A Level exams. He retook them as a private student, and failed again, and then became a salesman. I'd just like to point out that there are many children whose parents can't afford to pay for them to retake exams that they fail — in truth, these students literally cannot afford to fail.

I'd go as far as to say that advocating the idea of not being afraid of failure or concerned about grades is a dangerous thing to do for people with impoverished backgrounds or other trying circumstances. For them, there's no such thing as a second chance at university, or the opportunity to do a second degree because the first one didn't turn out to be what they enjoyed or can find a decent-paying job in.

Perhaps the problem isn't with grades

I understand where this group of parents is coming from.

Obsessing over grades isn't healthy, and is most definitely not worth taking your own life over -- and too many children and teenagers have needlessly experienced great suffering and pain, while also inflicting it on their loved ones who till today continue to grieve.

At the same time, telling kids that it's okay to fail and studies aren't everything is not a good idea either.

The group may not intend to do this, but advocating these messages propagates a false sense of security: a student may think how they perform doesn't matter, so why put in the effort? Or worse, a sense of self-entitlement -- I'll be able to succeed without good grades, so I can afford to slack through school and not do well; my parents say so.

Perhaps the problem doesn't lie in the de-emphasis of grades and academic performance, because such a simple message, without sufficient acknowledgement of the caveats and the reality of how society works, risks breeding laziness and self-entitlement.

Perhaps it's about recognising that there is more that can be done with one's life, which can still be lived out meaningfully, even if one is not academically-inclined.

Perhaps it's about coming to terms with the fact that success, especially in terms of happiness and contentment, is defined differently for different people, and it's up to the individual person to decide for themselves what it means, and work toward that definition of it.

Perhaps it's more about placing greater focus on developing tenacity, perseverance, grit, to grasp the reality that setbacks happen, and sometimes we fail, but that shouldn't stop us from trying again and doing our best in everything we do.


I don't know how to make our education system better, I'll be the first to say, nor can I claim to know the first thing about raising a child, as I am not a parent, unlike the members of 100 Voices.

But I know that it's important to first acknowledge the realities that we live and work within in our society, and perhaps make sure that it is a suitable environment that accommodates a certain way of thinking, before telling people to think that way.


Top image: file 

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