The Big PSLE Freakout

This is beginning to be as sensitive as talking about religion. And it’s getting worse and worse every year.

Then there are all these positive initiatives getting people to share stories and PSLE T-scores in the name of telling Nintendo DS-denying parents grades don’t matter (she’s since learned an important lesson: be careful what you say in front of a journalist).

First: I love that this is happening, I think it’s important that it’s happening, but I’m sorry this is happening.

Second: please, please stop for a minute. We’re making things worse. All these hundred stories from a hundred voices about defining and achieving success a hundred ways, all these I-did-well-despite-my-studies-so-can-your-child-now-let’s-group-hug hullabaloo, all this is as useful to our PSLE-worshipping parents as telling a person with depression to try some exercise (and in case you think that’s okay, it’s not).

This is how the Democrats lost the US Presidential Election. It’s how parents unwittingly lose their connections with our children. It’s how we lose people to suicide.

We don’t help anyone by talking about what you’ve done, how I can do what you do, how it’s the right way; I’m not you, so stop making yourself look so obnoxious, because you’re starting to sound like the person whose mindset you’re trying to change. As parents who have gone through our children’s first years deciphering their cries and behaviour in a bid to lock in their mealtime/potty-time/bedtime routines, one would think we’d understand that it doesn’t really help when we tell our kids, “Look at the boy at the next table, so well-behaved”, or even, “Look at me, why can’t you be like me?” (To be honest, the Wife and I haven’t gotten that right either.) But what does help is when we listen and observe our own child, then learn how best to do life together.

So listen.

The KiasuParents gang—the parents that really need the help, us, me—have the impression, probably from going through it ourselves some 25-30 years ago, that the PSLE T-score is the first major measure of academic efficiency across the education eco-system—students, parents, educators right up to the Ministry itself—and to us, it’s been so deeply entrenched in the system that up until 2014 an Education Minister has said it won’t be abolished (even though MOE will be replacing the T-score with a new banding scheme in 2021, a potential whole new can of worms on its own).

We hear murmurs about how teachers are still ranked against each other using the class T-score aggregate as a key performance indicator, or how schools still have to depend on T-score aggregates to report faculty performance (every school a good school but how good still has to be measured by the overseeing authority). After primary school, secondary schools, even DSA schools, use T-score cut-off points to filter their student applications. T-scores still play a part in assessment of bursary and study grant disbursements. And T-scores are used to sort incoming secondary school students into Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams—the streams aren’t just a matter of academic division to allow tailored teaching, learning and resource allocation based on academic ability, but inadvertently a division of social classes as well… and that’s how teens lose their childhood so quickly.

For as long as the PSLE has been implemented into our system, this T-score has remained in our minds as the most tangible of performance indicators that the system can use, and can’t easily be let go as much as everyone wants it eliminated.

It’s far from the full story with our education system, though, as the teachers, principals, administrators nd policymakers working in the system will read this and start tearing their hair out saying “You’ve got it all wrong, you ninnies!” In fact, the MOE has been trying to de-emphasise PSLE with specialised schoolsApplied Learning and Learning for Life programmes, elective modules, how secondary school allocations are also based on portfolio presentations and interviews, how bursaries are also evaluated based on student conduct (which presents its own problems). Educator/school performance evaluations conducted by the ministry vary from school to school, but at its fairest, they’re based on sophisticated formulas of Bell curve positioning, teaching efficacy, CCA performance, student background mix, student well-being, leadership quality, financial planning ability, overall health of the student body… T-score aggregation, if it’s even used, is just one fish in a much larger school. These solutions are far from perfect, of course (for example, the DSA programme can be gamed to get academically sound kids through to their parents’ preferred schools, and denying places to kids who actually deserve it), but the much bigger problem the ministry has is finding a way to communicate this to the parental masses without us glazing over and falling asleep in class.

Then last Thursday, a thread started by a rather good-looking dude who reminds me of John Molina if he got a PhD is making it look like PSLE T-scores do determine career tracks for a lot of us.

Now, if you’re from the #gradesdontmatter side, you’ll see that all that T-score-and-occupation talk doesn’t matter because people are content enough with their own lives to not bother about the correlation (or lack thereof). But the people who do scrutinise grades, the same people that the contentment message should really be hitting, will be looking at all your grades, and judging all of you, because there is a pattern that can be drawn from the comments—and you probably can see it as well—that the higher the commenter’s T-score, the higher the commenter’s career is flying. You can even see the “streaming”: the under-200 level, between 200 and 250, and the over 250s.

Call it generalising, but consider those who aren’t sharing their T-scores and occupations because of Dr. Khairudin’s thread. On the one hand, the ones who’ve actually scored high and are doing phenomenally at their careers will feel they’d just be seen as humblebragging. There’s also the inadequate ones; all this sharing is also creating pockets of insecurity among the people who are just looking on and not sharing: “I scored the same/higher, why haven’t I done as well?” I felt the same way looking at the comments section, and as encouraging as I see the number of comments and shares on Dr. Khairudin’s post, I got the feeling quite a bit more are reacting the same way I did. And I don’t even remember my own PSLE T-score (and I can’t find my primary school report book).

Look. I know you guys mean well. But like I told another advocate group before (and I do hope the group took that to heart at that inaugural dialogue session last Saturday), we should take some time to refine what message we want to send out to those we want to engage with before embarking on storytelling campaigns such as these, because the stories that are being told right now, while commendable, aren’t necessarily the kinds of stories that are all that useful for your intended audience. And please don’t use the traction gained in your efforts, the amount of likes, comments and shares as a gauge on how successful you believe your endeavours to be. It’s confirmation bias, and that’s dangerous in our climate of skeptics.

If you want to change mindsets, understand all this first before you try and bulldoze your opinion into us, because none of this is actually assuring anyone that grades don’t matter,  other than those that already know that grades don’t matter. You’re just making those that don’t subscribe to this belief not want to listen, much less talk to you.

Listen first to those you seek to help, then help them. And if you listen well enough, it might actually dawn on you that this discussion shouldn’t even be about education. #plottwist #jengjengjeeennng


Ten Years of Us: A Love Letter

Dear Mother of Xander,

10 years ago today, two individuals signed a contract that would bind two sole proprietorships into a partnership that both parties vowed would last the lifetime of either party, whichever sooner (although that last clause was verbally agreed upon).

You would always say that this was a “no refund, no return, no exchange” transaction. That remains the strongest verbal commitment to our union that you have ever given me, and I have never taken your words for granted.

Things moved rather quickly thereafter. We managed to procure a nice place to set ourselves up in (we got a HDB flat), hosted a few networking sessions to establish ourselves in the market (house parties), and a year later, we even organised a company Dinner & Dance (traditional wedding dinner). One of our angel investors (my mum) said it was quite fashionable to be some months into one’s pregnancy whilst hosting one’s wedding dinner. To date, I remain unsure if she was stating an observation or trying to reassure herself.

Five months after the dinner, I managed to pass my driving test… just in time to fulfill a promise I made to be the one to drive you to the hospital when you went into labour. You looked nervous in the car; I didn’t blame you. It was our first baby, and my second time behind the wheel after I got my licence.

Our firstborn’s first year threatened to be our marriage’s last, as we struggled to juggle parenthood—ours and our parents’—our work, and ourselves. We fought a lot, sometimes quietly because Xan was sleeping, sometimes failing to be quiet because we’re just not that kind of a couple.

Then came a point when we realised the books we read, the shows we watched, the advice we were given, the things we bought from Mothercare, won’t be nearly as adequate in teaching us to parent as what we would learn from just doing it to our kid, for our kid, with our kid. Things started getting better. We started getting better.

2¾ years ago, we kind of sealed our fate as a couple of parents that will hardly ever have any time alone to ourselves for at least the next 16-21 years. My biggest relief with our second child is that she came with a rather useful foundational instruction manual: our experience with our first child has provided us with the wisdom and patience to not scream at each other… as often.

Today, our boy is going through the rigours of the Singapore education system, and we’re learning to adapt with him. Meanwhile, our daughter is going through her terrible twos, and we’re learning to take photos of her quickly and deftly enough that the pictures don’t look too blurry. We may never be alone from these two whippersnappers in the foreseeable future, but we’re together, and that’s everything to me.

I’ve never thought of myself as a good dad. Everything I do as a father—right down to writing about parenting here in this blog—I feel is simply my responsibility as a father to do. But since you and I got together all those years ago (13 years ago, as it were), I’ve always wanted to be a good husband for you, to be a good person for you, because whether we were going to have kids or not, I’ve always just wanted to be with you, and I wanted you to want to be with me.

I still do.

Love, Winston

Coping, with Success

I think we all live through this phase in our lives believing that we are invincible, that we can do anything we set our minds to, that we can get anywhere we want. And up until I was 35, I wanted to be successful, too. Or at least, I was taught to want it.

I’ve talked about how my mother wanted me to become a doctor to complete the set of children with noble professions that she always wished for, and how my dad, when he had lost hope in me doing well for my O-Levels, sat me down to plan my future career cooking Indonesian cuisine.

Somewhere in the middle of that, though, I wanted to be a musician. I picked up the electric guitar at 13, managed to work myself up to a level where I could impress girls, and then when I turned 20, I took night classes for a music technology diploma at some obscure, now-defunct private school. Then

I wanted to become a lawyer. I never graduated from that diploma course. When I was younger I was told by my mum that I could bloody argue my way out of anything, so since I can’t become a doctor, why not do law? I took up a position in the Supreme Court as a transcriber, then nine months into the job, I got hired by a dotcom run by lawyers (one of whom was my eldest sister), writing and editing content for their legal portal for two years, then

I wanted to become a marketer. At the peak of the company’s most intense internal conflicts, I quit to enrol into Polytechnic and did a full-time mass communications course as a mature candidate using the CPF money I amassed from work. I managed to graduate almost respectably (in my second year I managed to cause some administrative trouble by petitioning for the removal of a lecturer). I joined my second sister’s furniture company as a marketing executive, and as I got comfortable,

I wanted to try everything. For the next five years, I jumped from department to department doing just that… and I burned out. At 32, I quit, partly because spending 3 weeks out of every month in India while my son pass all his developmental milestones at home really really sucked, and our try because I was quite at a loss as to what I wanted.

I wanted to go back to school, to try and earn a psychology degree. But I needed money for that, so I went back to work with my eldest sister at her boutique law firm (litigation and divorce specialists), and lasted all of two years, gobsmacked at how people can still call their lawsuits “civil” after seeing how they conduct themselves in court, and drained by watching seemingly successful people completely and utterly fail to love their spouses and children. Then

I wanted to be a writer—any kind of writer. I tried to pursue writing and failed catastrophically, then went into copywriting and just couldn’t fit in, and then tried PR and became even more miserable.

These days, I’m not sure if the job I’m in now (I’ve still got my writer hang-ups; I’m working for a publishing house) is the job. For that matter, I’m not even sure my boss at my current workplace even likes me.

Then there’s this website, this persona, these stories you’ve been reading that I wrote. Now don’t get me wrong; as far as I know, everything I write here is genuine experience, genuine opinion, genuine me. That said, people think I’m this stand-up family man that takes no bullshit, that no one dares cross because I’m a parent blogger that talks back. They don’t see the breakdowns I have when an argument with the Wife goes too far, the unbridled outbursts when I found two-week-old untouched worksheets my Primary Two boy “forgot” to do, the chair I broke one time during a particularly bad fight at home that nearly injured my 2-year-old daughter. People don’t talk about their failures here. And people don’t hear these stories enough when we really need to.

I’m not a success story. Nor do I want to be deemed one.

Success is such a subjective, short-term notion. People will define success in their own terms: whether it be successfully establishing their own businesses, successfully acquiring their dream jobs, successfully living a sedentary beach bum lifestyle, successfully getting out of bed in the morning to live another day, or successfully learning that success doesn’t matter. Heck, I can fail everything and say I successfully learned from my experience.

So instead of the 1% trying to tell the 99% that “I was just like you, and you can be like us!”, can we have the average Johan teach us how he manages instead? Because these days, we seem to have a serious problem knowing how to manage our own live and our children’s. And then when we think we’ve got more than the hang of it (success!), we try and help others, we somehow manage to miss the point entirely.

I’ve said before that when my son was born, I decided my life was no longer mine to live; my driving force as a father, and what I believe is the driving force behind every parent who cares, is for our children to cope, and hopefully to cope well, too. Successful parenting is coping well, day by day.

We get to an age where we realise life isn’t all about us, and then we worry about the generation that we’re bringing up to take over us, where they are heading, whether they’ll get there because of us, or in spite of us, and whether they’ll be doing the same with their kids when it’s their turn to realise life isn’t about them either.

When shit happens, we cope. We have to cope, or we die. I’d much rather people successfully live to see another day without buckling under all this damn self-inflicted pressure than cry in a corner of a swanky office they can’t afford because Adam Khoo once told their mother they could be somebody.

Please Stop Teaching Us How to Raise Successful Children

This is an appeal to any person, group or organisation that plans parenting talks, seminars, workshops, forums and conferences.

Since I’ve started blogging as a parent, I’ve received invitations to attend (and a couple of times, sit in the panel of) quite a few of these parenting events. It wasn’t until recently that the messages some of these events organisers are using to market their events started to concern me.

Back in 2012, I attended a half-day seminar called “Raising a Successful Child”. The content served isn’t nearly as overbearing as their promotional copy makes them out to be. In fact, one talk I attended actually used case studies of so-called “successful children”—medal-winning athletes and academic geniuses suffering from anxiety and depression—as a warning to parents not to push their children too hard.

I was glad when I came out of that talk, because I was expecting a lecture on how to over-parent. That same talk I attended, I saw parents walking out in disappointment that the seminar didn’t actually provide a concrete method for raising a successful child—well, not one that they thought would work, anyway.

I’m a  copywriter, too, so I understand the core function of such promotional copy is to generate sales. But seeing copy like this makes me wonder if such organisers are misrepresenting the content that their speakers are aiming to serve, or are they really trying to sell us something we really could do with a lot less of right now.

Case in point:


I write this in the hope that people who write these things can exercise some responsibility and think through their messaging not just for your paying customers, but for the benefit of our society-at-large that incidentally take in your messages without the intention or means to obtain tickets to your show.

As important as we think ensuring our children are able to strive for themselves is, we already live in a climate of fear, thinking that our children have to excel in our pressure-cooker academic environment in order to survive in life. I want to ask these parenting/education coaches and family-targeted MICE organisers, particularly the ones who tout such phrases as “raising a successful child”, “bring up a champion”, “your child can be better than everyone else”, to please not perpetuate that fear in us any more, because we really don’t know any better.

What we really need you to tell us are these:


Don’t teach us how to change our kids, teach us how to change ourselves. Don’t try and tell us what our kids need to excel. Tell us how to be present for our children, how to love them properly, how to raise our expectations of ourselves as parents instead managing our expectations of our children.

Don’t teach us how to parent; teach us how to be parents.