JCs: Talk cock, sing song

Sense And Nonsense - by Tan Bah Bah

3973

Are we a talk cock, sing song society? I think we are.

Peter Ho is fast becoming one of my favourite suppliers of brain-burning nuggets of wisdom. The ex-civil service head, who is well-known for his black swans and elephants analogies, has struck again.

In his third lecture as the Institute of Policy Studies’ S.R. Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore, Ho said the government can design policies better by looking at issues from the citizens’ perspective, compared to the usual top-down approach. He added: “What they (citizens) want is to be involved in the process, and it means the government must engage early, not late in the day.” Well said.

Next, we hear from Prof Pericles Lewis. The outgoing president of Yale-NUS College said in a report on Today Online that it was important “now more than ever” for students to receive a broad education that allows them to think critically not only on social and political issues but “the future of the world”.  Agree.

How do we then reconcile these two points about engaging early on policies and doing right for broader education with the latest developments and pronouncements in local education?

Decisions are being taken which are at odds with public statements and popular sentiments (which are themselves a result of what the political leaders have been selling to the public but seems to be perfunctorily paying lip service to). It is kind of like the dog chasing its own tail.

The closure of four junior colleges caught many people by surprise. I do not believe the alumni of Serangoon JC, Jurong JC, Tampines JC and Innova JC have the same deep emotional reaction as that shown by the graduates of Nanyang University when it was merged in 1980 with the University of Singapore to become the National University of Singapore.  Different era, different sorts of students. Nevertheless, the alumni of the disappearing JCs must have been seriously disappointed that not many people up there cared too much for what they felt or had to say.

It was not until after seven days of total silence that Ng Chee Meng, the Minister of Education in charge of schools, bothered to say something about the decision. And he was not exactly the model of a highly paid national leader genuinely engaging members of the public on a complex decision. He was practically mouthing inane neither here nor there remarks: “We do not take school mergers lightly. We only proceeded with these mergers as we are sure it is for the better for our students to come….. It is not an easy transition, but let us – students, alumni, parents and teachers – all work at it together, to honour the identities of our schools even as we make the necessary adjustments for the future. We will go through this journey together.” Journey? Together? Really?

Maybe the dodging minister is waiting to answer all the questions about the JCs merger and other school matters in Parliament this coming week. The Workers Party has already filed a barrage of them.  Still, the whole episode is yet another top-down decision, done without consulting the ground.  So much for Peter Ho’s nugget of wisdom.

And, oh yes, what about Prof Lewis who is going back to the America of illiberal Donald Trump after helming Yale’s liberal arts college in (still not liberal enough) Singapore?

Yale-NUS College has been a good thing for Singapore education.

Today reported Prof Lewis as saying that the college has hosted a wide range of Opposition speakers in addition to government ones: “We’re not on one side. We represent the whole range of opinion.” Fresh thinking and mind-opening education at a credible brand-name institution – it’s everyone’s dream.

The catch here is that premium-class education is ironically both the luxury of the crème de la crème AND the ambition of even deprived Singaporeans.  That’s why every kiasu Singapore parents, rich or poor or simply hard-pressed middle-incomers, will do anything to make sure their children get the best academic results and real-time university degrees.

The other Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, who is in charge of higher education ands, may talk till the cows come home about matching skills with education or capping the proportion of graduates at 30 to 40 percent of each cohort.  Young Singaporeans and their parents – totally conditioned about the linkage of self-worth and academic success and a degree – will seek that degree, whether locally or abroad. There is just no glamour with a poly education.

Nothing will change, if we continue to publicise the best PSLE, O or A levels achievers year in, year out. Nothing will change so long as our best brains, including the political and administrative elites, send their own children to top universities in the West.

Say what you mean, mean what you say.

Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.