Singaporean parents push their kids hard, but more are letting them go with what they are happiest doing
By Ignatius Low
I was sitting in a food court the other day eating my prawn noodles when I heard what I have come to recognise as "the sound of PSLE".
Sometimes it's the sound of a mother with despair in her voice, wondering why her child seems to have suddenly stopped absorbing anything into her head a couple of weeks before the exam.
Other times, it's the sound of office colleagues madly reeling off cut-off scores for top secondary schools like they were seasoned sports commentators.
That day, however, it was the sound of a father talking intensely to his 12-year-old daughter - his deep booming voice resonating within the half-empty eating area.
The girl's mother and older sister were also looking intently at her as Daddy gave a long lecture. The young girl was the only one of the four eating, looking up at everyone as she balefully slurped her noodles.
We are into the period after PSLE now. The kids have done the exams and everyone is waiting for the results, so this particular conversation seemed to be some sort of scenario planning, an analysis of "what ifs".
I wasn't sitting close enough to hear everything that was being said, but I caught bits of it.
In a slightly hectoring tone, Daddy - a seemingly high-powered grey-haired man of about 50 - laid out the options in a no-nonsense way, like he was addressing a boardroom full of company directors.
These are the best Integrated Programme (IP) schools, but some are very competitive, he said. If you go to one of the top schools, we will have to get you extra help, maybe tuition in certain subjects.
But there is also the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme, he added. That is prestigious as well but it is tough in a different sort of way. If you choose that, we will need to get you another type of help, a different type of tuition, and so on.
At one point, the girl raised her head and mumbled something about "Sota" (The School of the Arts). Daddy didn't seem very keen, but explained the pros and cons anyway, trying his best to sound neutral. At the end of it all, he announced that he really had to get back to the office (it was 2.20pm after all).
I was ready to write him off as yet another overly kiasu parent, but then he turned to his daughter, kissed her on the forehead and said quite tenderly: "Anyway, dear, you go and think about it carefully and let us know what you decide, okay?"
The girl nodded. He then kissed his wife on the lips (how rare!) and trundled off.
I don't know why but that little incident stuck in my mind, particularly during this period of intense discussion about school admissions and the role of the PSLE.
It reminded me that however awful or unreasonable some Singapore parents' behaviour might seem - the horrible stress they put on their kids and themselves, the fierce complaints they have about the system - the bottom line is that they really do love their kids and just want to do right by them.
It also reminded me of the time I did the exam in 1984.
I remember there being less stress. My parents did not take leave to help me through the exam period. There were just lots of bottles of Brands Essence of Chicken to gulp down in the morning.
There also wasn't that much discussion in the house about my preferences after the PSLE. I remember there was an admissions form on which my parents had to indicate six choices of secondary schools. Being from St Michael's Primary, first choice was naturally the affiliated St Joseph's Institution.
My parents and I filled up the other five places without much fuss. We simply picked five schools that were near to our HDB flat, which was in Holland Drive at the time.
Then, a few weeks later, the results came in. I don't remember feeling particularly nervous and my parents didn't seem nervous either.
When we opened up the slip, we saw that my score had qualified me for the Special Assistance Plan (SAP), which was a new elite scheme that emphasised the study of Chinese. The decision over where to go after that was straightforward.
Special stream is better than Express, so you should go for Special, my parents reasoned. We are Catholic - and among the SAP schools, Catholic High is better than Maris Stella - so you will go to Catholic High.
That was how a Peranakan boy who spoke only English and Malay at home ended up utterly terrified and lost in a roomful of Mandarin-speaking teachers and classmates on the first day of school.
My parents couldn't have picked a worse fit for someone like me. I don't quite know how I survived, but I did.
Comparing the two PSLE stories that are 28 years apart, I wonder whether things are better now for kids, or worse.
Back in the 1980s, there was less stress partly because there were far fewer options on the table.
And without the sort of incessant discussion over the pros and cons of these options that you now get online, there was less of a fear that one's choice might not be optimal.
But there was also an unhealthy preference for whatever was the best option on the table - whether it was a triple Science combination or a degree in medicine or law.
Today, the reverse seems true.
There seems to be much more stress around the PSLE and the school admissions process. People take special leave, read up on way too much useless information and go to great lengths to game the system and give their kids the widest possible number of options.
But having done that, a softer side of the Singapore parent emerges, just like that father in the VivoCity food court.
Instead of insisting on the best option on the table, I find more and more parents listening and going with whatever their kids are happiest doing.
Maybe it is a symptom of a maturing and more financially secure society starting to put more value on the non-material aspects of life.
Perhaps it is simply that the generation that is now in their forties doesn't want their kids to have the same regrets they have: choices gone wrong or preferences left unspoken.
I guess it would be too much to ask for the best of both worlds.