That’s not the way to build confidence in youths

I was disappointed to read about the school principal (of a mission school, no less) telling her Sec 5 students that they might as well apply now for places in ITE because as they were unlikely to do well in the ‘O’ levels at the end of the year. However, I was even more disappointed to read Minister of State for Education Lui Tuck Yew’s reaction to the public uproar about the principal.

In the Straits Times report, Principal’s ‘wake-up call’ to Sec 5 students had to be ‘conveyed’, RAdm Lui was quoted as saying, “Principals need to do their job to convey this message to the students and teachers to do their part to challenge them, set high goals and to help them achieve these goals.”

The principal was clearly in the wrong and it would have been better to just admit it and move on.

What is the point of telling Sec 5 students at the beginning of the school year that basically you all cannot make it and better give up? So what if statistically 40% of them end up not making it to poly, as RAdm Lui said. That shouldn’t stop them from trying their level best in their O levels at the end of the year to overcome the odds.

If they don’t do well enough to qualify for poly, then they can go to ITE after that. No shame in having tried but “failed”. But was the principal expecting them to quit Sec 5 and go straight to ITE?

For RAdm Lui to come in and say that the principal was just challenging her students to “set high goals” is to completely overlook the fact that she had just implied that they should set lower goals for themselves.

I’m all for not mollycoddling our youths. Discipline them when they misbehave. But insulting their intellectual abilities is the wrong way to spur them on to achieve greater heights. That approach to motivation is so ‘yesterday’.


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Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

13 thoughts on “That’s not the way to build confidence in youths”

  1. Sir,

    That is a ex-soldier talking. His style of talk somehow reminded me of my Commanding Officer.

  2. Well,That the culture for a long time.Remember the EM streaming? The basis for a real meritocracy is in the the person who judge the merit of the person to be in a higher post is of great caliber. Yet it bring in itself the arrogance of those who rules.Making irreversible mistake that prove that they themselves are not that smart after all.The quality of Greatness does not depend on Academic results,hence the inability of retention/creation of scientist (A Star)who will advanced the cause of our nation.Greater is the loss of Artistic talent who have a much tougher time to create a more culturally rich environment when the emphasis is on producing Robots who only know they have to work.

  3. This is a society where only success is recognised, not the effort. Without effort to begin with, you will have NO success. I’m surprised the Admiral responded the way he did. So what if only a percentage of those students will make the next grade, at least they TRIED. Its not always about the destination. Sometimes the journey is where the lessons are learnt

  4. My son left Singapore when he was P2 with a heavy heart. He scored 85 & 88 marks in his Mathematics Semester Test and finals and I faced terrible remarks from his teacher regarding his progress. 10 years passed, America has appreciated him as a student and he learned at his pace. He took classes during summer at the State University in Southern California when he was 13. Learning becomes a joy because he chose to learn and not for the reason of earning grades. Today, he is awaiting for his next challenge – his freshman year in University Fall 2008. I believe he could never have done as well in Singapore since he is talkative and wants to participate actively. The American teachers loved him for his liveliness and he is praised for being just that.

  5. this society is all about grades, grades, grades…. Admiral Lui is a product of his generation where grades is the be-all-end-all.

    I am very disturb by the streaming in Singapore. The EM1, EM2 and EM3 streaming is terrible. what about late bloomers? since young they would have been labeled a failure.

    The attitude of the principal to tell them to quit is to tell the kids to resign themselves to life that they are useless. whatever happen to the fame never-say-die-ingenious thinking that singaporean is famed for.

  6. guys, perhaps you should go and read Stressed Teacher’s blog. She brought up a couple of interesting points:

    – Those who are highly critical of the principal – how many of you are teachers? how many of you are Sec 5 teachers?
    – Have we heard from the principal on her side of the story? For all we know, she really has the well-being of the students at heart, except that it was misrepresented? Perhaps the principal is not diplomatic enough, but perhaps she’s practicing Tough Love?
    – Who gets to do the dirty job, very dirty job, of telling a student he should be better off doing something else, the parent or the teacher?

    i am not an educator, nor have i been a Sec 5 student in my lifetime. I have no idea what stress teachers and principals go through these days, nor do i know what goes on in the minds of 16-17 year olds these days. so i have no opinion on this matter.

    What i do agree from comments I read in some blogs, is that – we need educators, former teachers, to be in charge of the Education Ministry. People who are trained, and know the challenges of teaching.

    Not a military officer without any education background.


  7. First of all, I am concerned that the minister of State for Education, Lui Tuck Yew may not have thoroughly understood of the situation. Not only did he worsen the situation, he risks losing respect from the people. Also, we feel that the principal is not setting a good example for her students as she is someone of great authority and has much influence on her students. Maybe she feels that the hard way will serve her students as a wake up call, but not every student will understand what she is trying to express. She has to understand that different students have different personalities and different ways of learning before making such comments.

  8. Firstly, I believe the principal shouldnt have said this as the message sent out to these students will be ‘ You useless people out there will fail your O levels’

    Even if ultimately the sec 5s did not pass their O levels and proceed on to ITEs, it doesnt mean that they will not excel and move on to polytechnics.

    Also, the tone in which the principal conveyed the message seem to suggest that ITEs are inferior as compared to other institutions. Is this appropriate coming out from someone who we entrust our students to?

    This principal has to take a hard look at herself and realise that not everyone is inclined in some areas and also that people excel in different aspects. Does it mean just because Singapore is a country which emphasizes so much on qualifications, these people who are not as ‘intellectually inclined’ will be outcasted?

    ITE students will form up to 25% of our future workforce, what does this mean to this Principal? That 25% of the workforce is useless? Some food for thought for her.

  9. This article only shows the one sided views or certain population of students who were demoralized by the principal’s speech. Perhaps what the principal did was out of good intention. However her approach had a different effect on all the student because they are all different. On the other hand, certain students require gentle approach to strive better and they tend to be easily affected by such “harsh” speech by the principal because they were already lacking in confidence so what the principal said further affected the confidence in them. Perhaps, the principal also took different approaches to encourage other students but outsiders might not know. RAdm Lui commented that it is the principal’s job to challenge students by setting high goals and that is not wrong because the world is practical whereby success in education makes a big difference. The principal should not be entirely blamed.

  10. Is this not the typical approach that the Chinese Society is accused of? May also apply to certain other Asian cultures like Japanese and Indian.

    The result is one could see more of the so called professionals- doctors, engineers, bankers etc.. in Chinese and Japanes cultures but less of linguists, artists, musicians, journalists and philosophers. Is the society not poorer in the absence of these people?

  11. Dear Gerald,

    If I recall correctly, streaming is still around just that the students are grouped to EM1 and EM2. The EM3 students are collapsed to EM2.

    Much as streaming is necessary at times in life yet to stream students at such young age is to neagtively label them. We would do well to know that there are late bloomers who did not excel in Primary school. NUS vice chancellor, Dr Shih Choon Foong is a good example – he was never in any top school.

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