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Ex-Raffles student: Streaming gave him a false sense of self-worth that’s built on other people’s failures

Despite doing well in the system, he supports the end of streaming.

Zhangxin Zheng | March 6, 09:14 pm

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The Ministry of Education (MOE) will be replacing the streaming system with a subject-based banding system by 2024.

Old secondary school streaming system to be replaced by 2024, N- & O-Level exams to go as well

With that, the ministry hopes that the new system will customise education for students and also minimise the effect of labelling and stigmatisation from the old streaming system.

Streaming system creates ‘comparative worth’

An ex-Raffles alumnus, Paul Jerusalem, reflected on the old streaming system which he had gone through.

Jerusalem is supportive of abolishing the streaming system.

However, he candidly shared that he did not have problems with the streaming system and appreciated that he could learn at a comfortable pace in his years of education.

Fast forward to the present, his university studies have made him realise that the streaming system has perpetuated a toxic mindset of ‘comparative worth’ as he wrote,

‘The myth of meritocracy makes us rewire our motivations such that what we’re pursuing isn’t necessarily knowledge, but something crucial to the toxicity of the system: comparative worth.’

The sense of pride from doing well academically was actually ‘misplaced’.

Instead of feeling proud of the hard work he put in and the knowledge he gained, the sense of pride came from being academically-superior than the majority of the population as he wrote,

‘All these years, what I had been taking pride in wasn’t merely that I had obtained a certain amount of knowledge, but that I was more successful than most of the population in obtaining knowledge that the powers-that-be deemed useful enough. In other words, my self-worth was built on other people’s failures, whether I knew it or not.’

Successes come in many forms

His few months stint as a waiter at a bar also taught him that knowledge comes in different forms and is not just measured by academic grades.

‘The most important lesson I’m learning during my stint as a waiter is the fact that knowledge and skill exist in many forms.’

As opposed to being the cream of the crop, he shared that he was not able to excel at work quickly as he did academically.

Fortunately, he was given time to learn comfortably, albeit taking more time to do so as he wrote,

‘I’m extremely grateful that I haven’t been fired despite my poor memory and my inability to act fast and on my feet — all my life I had been appraised for my ability to think and act fast during timed conditions in written examinations that I had done countless practice tests for.’

Those who might not be viewed as academically successful enjoy their fruit of labour too.

In the post, he shared his admiration towards the bartender that he worked under who has superb management skills that he developed, outside of the education system.

‘I have nothing but respect for the bartender I work under. In his own words, he had not made it in the eyes of the government since he pursued a degree at an art school, but I deeply admire his ability to manage a whole bar seven nights a week, fifty two weeks a year.’

He shared that scrapping the streaming system can help to rejig how one values oneself and appreciates the varying abilities among their peers.

‘I think scrapping away streaming can ameliorate the way we have been programmed by society to define our self-worth according to academic success. By virtue of its inherently comparative nature since everything is curved, one person’s academic success is built on another person’s failure.’

Here’s the full post:

Here’s the full text in the post, if you cannot see it:

When I was in primary school and secondary school, streaming wasn’t something I ever had to worry about, much less in the elite junior college I went to. As a matter of fact, I was grateful for it; not only did it mean that I would be sorted into classes where my learning did not have to be slowed down by weaker students (the common argument for streaming), it also gave me a sense of self-worth and helped me to take pride in my work. Now that it’s been years since I left the mainstream Singapore education system and had the privilege of basically just studying society and all the structures within which I grew up, I see that this sense of pride and self-worth was entirely misplaced. The myth of meritocracy makes us rewire our motivations such that what we’re pursuing isn’t necessarily knowledge, but something crucial to the toxicity of the system: comparative worth. All these years, what I had been taking pride in wasn’t merely that I had obtained a certain amount of knowledge, but that I was more successful than most of the population in obtaining knowledge that the powers-that-be deemed useful enough. In other words, my self-worth was built on other people’s failures, whether I knew it or not.

The past few months I have been working part-time for a bar. I have learnt a lot, and the work isn’t something that I’m cut out for by any means, and I’m extremely grateful that I haven’t been fired despite my poor memory and my inability to act fast and on my feet — all my life I had been appraised for my ability to think and act fast during timed conditions in written examinations that I had done countless practice tests for. The most important lesson I’m learning during my stint as a waiter is the fact that knowledge and skill exist in many forms. I have nothing but respect for the bartender I work under. In his own words, he had not made it in the eyes of the government since he pursued a degree at an art school, but I deeply admire his ability to manage a whole bar seven nights a week, fifty-two weeks a year. It’s a different system of knowledge from what I had been raised to value, and it’s been crucial in my endeavor of wresting myself away from a deeply unjust, unequal, and elitist structure that I have based so much of my self-worth on.

Yes, hard work and success are something valid to be proud of, but that’s a different thing from being proud of yourself for doing relatively well compared to everyone else, especially when both of your parents are university degree holders, one of whom holds a master’s, and were able to pay attention to your education instead of having you help out at the family-operated chicken rice stall. As a matter of fact, as the son of immigrants who came to Singapore precisely because they were deemed worthy enough to bring over from the Philippines, I really have no business being proud of the mere fact that the number of distinctions I obtained in school (read: letter grades assigned based on your percentile on the bell curve) was commensurate with the amount of resources that my parents were able to invest into giving me a distraction-free environment to chase those distinctions.

(On a related note: these thoughts are relevant to why I think the ACS/HC/RI founders day thing is a massive yearly cringefest that we can all do without.)

Top photo edited on image by Angela Lim 

About Zhangxin Zheng

Zhangxin’s favourite pastime is singing Mulan’s soundtrack in the mangrove forests. She hopes to perfect the art of napping in a hammock in the mangroves without being drowned by rising sea levels.

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