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We must stop kidding ourselves – subject banding is the new Normal, Express and IP class

How will subject banding change society's mindset when streaming has been firmly entrenched in the system for the last 40 years?

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By: Michael Han/

We must stop kidding ourselves. Really, because G1, G2 and G3 are the new Normal, Express and IP class. Alas, the customisation may have been tweaked but the stigmatisation will still be there, lurking.

I know, we citizens are hard to please but let’s not get all hurraying about the new changes coming into effect in 2024 without giving the matter more in-depth thought.

Mind you, such changes do not standalone. It must also come with G1-, G2- and G3-kind of parenting, government and society, especially our civil service who is always scouting around for that one scholar-employee that sparks academic joy.

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Now, that kind of change would be the deep-waters-up-your-neck-kind of real hard work for our government.

Let’s return to the MOE’s latest announcement.

By now, everyone knows what is subject-banding. The subject is so popular that it just took two days for Ong Ye Kung to announce the changes and it has already spread faster and wider than a forest wildfire.

But I suppose for some parents, they have to be duly warned that their child is no longer going to be deemed or seen as “special” if they are in the Express stream or the IP track.

That hallowed status is now replaced with a softer, friendlier label called G2 or G3. (And for those parents who think their child is gifted, they can secretly have a pact with the government to upgrade their child to G4 or even G5 level).

Royston Tan, who was in the Normal stream, scoring 168 in 1989, said: “Express was the real “Normal” actually. Those of us in the Normal Stream were the inferior product. The Express students would not talk to the Normal students, who were always regarded as troublemakers.”

So, I return to the question, how then does subject banding change the society’s mindset especially when we parents have been so seeped into the streaming mindset for the last 40 years?

It sure took the government long enough to wake up to the idea since the time in the early 80s when Tan Cheng Bock argued that streaming would cause class snobbery and divide.

But I would like to think that the spirit of TCB’s argument has never been only about streaming. It is however and essentially about a nationwide attitude change regarding class, dignity, equality, community and charity.

And that I am afraid will take more than subject-banding to overturn. The mindset is unfortunately deeply rooted and entrenched.

Lecturer Kelvin Seah wrote this anecdotal evidence in today’s Straits Times: “As Ong (Ye Kung) noted, some parents had told the principal of Edgefield Secondary School that they would not have sent their children to the school had they known that their children would be mixed with children of other streams in subjects like physical education, art and music.”

I guess this is what Royston meant by “we were already regarded as troublemakers…the inferior product.”

Here is another anecdote from journalist Karamjit Kaur. She wrote: “I have a Facebook friend who started posting regularly about how well her daughter is doing after she aced the Primary School Leaving Examination and made it to an independent school, but not a word about her son who sat the same exam two years later.”

Karamjit made this statement that about sums up my thoughts: “A child who knows that his parents or teachers have no faith in him is unlikely to have faith in himself. This is the real problem, and unless it is addressed and attitude change, nothing will; even if labels do. Instead of Normal or Express, students will be labelled G1, G2 or G3.”

This equally, if not more, applies to our society, our government too. Same theme here: “A citizen who knows that his government has no faith in him is unlikely to have faith in himself.”

Personally, class snobbery, as TCB referred to, doesn’t need to be in-your-face to be toxic in the society. It just needs to be an attitude embedded in this mindset: “Anything is possible lah, just let it not be my child.”

Alas, G1,2,3 will not change that because the reflex reaction has already been set for the last 40 years. It took our meritocratic oil tanker that long to change course (unlike a rowboat, which needed only 5 to 6 metres).

I recall when my son got his PSLE results and he qualified for the Normal stream. My wife’s friend eagerly called and asked about it. When my wife told her about him going into the Normal stream, her first reaction was, “Oh dear!”

I can imagine another parent (whose child is in the IP track) asking, and when she hears that another parent’s child is in the Express stream, her reaction may just be: “Oh never mind, cheer up.”

To be fair, there will always be someone better, smarter. That’s never the problem. But thinking that you are better is the issue. As my wife once told me, “It is not about being better, it is about character.”

Let me end with what Royston (who went to Temasek Polytechnic and became a successful filmmaker) said: “I would tell myself when I was 12 years old that it would get better. The bullying will stop. And you just have to be who you are. You never know who is the winner at the end of the day.”

So true.

For those being bullied, you never know who is the winner at the end of the day. And it is not even about winning at the end of the day. Royston’s point (I believe) is to never let your circumstances judge and condemn you. They are not even reliable and worthy of your attention in the first place.

What matters is to believe in yourself. The best change, the most reliable one, and enduring, is the change from within. And that is still within your control. That is what Royston meant by ”you just have to be who you are” because only the you in you can change you.

This article was first published on the author’s Facebook page. It has been republished with permission.

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