COMMENTARY: "What we need to see more clearly is the immense potential in every one of our youth. To unlock this potential, our youths need to have access to myriad opportunities regardless of their socioeconomic or academic backgrounds."
After spending six years in the Ministry of Education, David Hoe is now a Business Analyst at YTL PowerSeraya. Hoe is also a District Councillor for Central Singapore Community Development Council, Council Member for the National Youth Council, and Founder of I Am Talented and Project Stables Staple.
"Ignite a Spark Within" is an essay by Hoe, first published in The Birthday Book, about his experience struggling academically, then finding satisfaction in teaching, and eventually dedicating himself to creating opportunities for youth to realise their own aspirations.
Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2020 edition of The Birthday Book.
The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 55 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the narratives of their lives, that define them as well as Singapore's collective future.
By David Hoe
I’m not too sure what you remember about that time of your life other than having to hold your partner’s hands when moving from place to place, being called out for talking in class or simply adapting to an institutionalised environment.
But for me, the most impressionable memory in Primary One was an art lesson.
When I grow up...
Perhaps you recall a time when the teacher asked you to draw out your ambition using crayons on an A3 piece of drawing paper with the prompt “When I grow up, I want to be...”
Most of my peers would end up with illustrations of lawyers, doctors, teachers, pilots, firemen and policemen. Maybe the odd astronaut or soldier.
My teacher was flabbergasted when she saw my caricature of a chicken rice stall uncle — replete with the prototypical "Good Morning" towel wrapped around his neck.
I couldn’t understand the incredulous look on her face, coupled with her beseeching me to take more effort to think about my aspirations in life (i.e. align my goals with social desirability or acceptability).
I genuinely thought being a chicken rice seller was perfectly "acceptable" in my world.
Discovered the potential fortunes of chicken rice
After my divorced mum became completely blind following a failed cataract operation, I spent much of my childhood selling tissue paper and tidbits with her. While others traversed playgrounds in the common spaces, I grew familiar with a host of hawker centres and kopitiams as my mother and I relied on the grace of diners to tide us through financially.
In the midst of my formative years, two of my observations culminated in my chicken rice uncle aspiration.
First, I realised that most chicken rice stores back then sold their gastronomic offerings for S$2 to S$2.50 a plate. And a plate comprised just a few slices of meat heaped with aromatic rice.
Second, living in a rental public housing unit meant that air-conditioning was an unattainable reality. To beat the heat, my mother and I would seek refuge at the nearest NTUC supermarket. Ever so often, I would dip my head into the freezers.
I soon realised a whole frozen chicken cost less than S$5.
And given how it seemed a whole chicken could well be apportioned into numerous plates of chicken rice, the younger me concluded chicken rice uncles would be making fortunes.
And hence younger me viewed chicken rice as the solution to break out of poverty and embrace riches.
Scored only 110 for PSLE
Fast-forward six years in which I was devoid of focus, mentorship and purpose — and so my primary school years were a mere blur. With a dismal 110 T-score for my PSLE, it wasn’t surprising that I landed up in the Normal Technical or N(T) stream in secondary school.
Like many N(T) students, we struggled academically. A significant portion of each lesson would entail the teacher telling us off.
While feeling remorseful, some of us were secretly happy because this meant less homework for us as the teacher would not be able to complete the topic or chapter of the day.
My turning point came when an Express-stream friend from my CCA "challenged" me to pay attention during class. Because of my ego, I took him on.
That was my first time paying attention during a mathematics lesson. The class was about the area of circles and I was intrigued by the formula πr2 because π looked visually foreign.
Midway through the lesson, I realised that if I replaced the variables with the right values, the correct answer would follow. After a few more tries, the rare taste of success led me to believe I wasn’t "that bad" at mathematics.
Realised the satisfaction of teaching
Success begets success. Towards the end-of -year examinations, some friends asked if I could teach them math given my remarkable academic turnaround for the subject.
I explained how I answered each question with considerable effort, and there was a sense of satisfaction when my friends understood my explanations.
It was then I thought, I would ditch my chicken rice uncle aspirations for teaching.
Armed with Yahoo! Search and a 56k dial-up modem, I searched "How to be a teacher in Singapore?"
It didn’t take me too long to be disappointed. I realised that regardless of whatever tertiary qualifications I attained, I could never be a teacher because I would not have a GCE O-Level certificate — a prerequisite for teachers back then.
But with a healthy dose of serendipity and opportunity, I managed to complete my O-Levels in six years—even as others took four.
Paying it forward to others who lack access to opportunities
These experiences made me realise that while most of us N(T) students were not stellar in our academic endeavours and struggled to pass exams regardless of how hard we tried, there were still things we excelled at — like street soccer or basketball.
Perhaps we could have excelled in other areas, but most of us lacked access to other opportunities.
And accessing opportunities is largely contingent on both academic performance (which places one in a school with more resources or even gives one a higher chance of being selected for programmes to represent the school) and socioeconomic capital of one’s family (which means access to a host of resources outside of school).
Most N(T) students are unfortunately not endowed with either.
I am only able to be where I am today because opportunities were serendipitously presented to me. I recognise that the privileges I enjoy are not necessarily accessible to all.
Hence, with the networks and platforms I have attained through my unconventional life journey, I pay it forward by creating opportunities for kids to discover their talents.
One instance is the I Am Talented (IAT) programme. IAT reaches out to secondary school students without access to opportunities, by holding workshops on skills beyond the formal curriculum such as songwriting, fashion design, photography, robotics, website design and more.
The challenges in each workshop are designed such that if the child persists, they will be achieve something. Given our participants’ profiles, this could potentially be their first time tasting success.
Unintentionally, this success might ignite a spark within each child.
Igniting a spark in every child
There is some truth to the old adage "Teach a man to fish, and you will feed him for a lifetime".
But if we can ignite a spark in every child, they will be able to discover what fish they like and be discerning in applying themselves.
What we need to see more clearly is the immense potential in every one of our youth. To unlock this potential, our youths need to have access to myriad opportunities regardless of their socioeconomic or academic backgrounds.
Not everyone has access to equal opportunities. But what is true isn’t necessarily right — it shouldn’t always be like this!
My appeal to you is to create opportunities for others with less, even as you are endowed with more.
Top photos courtesy of David Hoe.