An Interview with Joanne Leow about Singapore’s Educational System
Originally from Singapore, Joanne Leow is an Assistant Professor of literature in the University of Saskatchewan. She specializes in Transnational, Diasporic, and Decolonizing/Postcolonial Literatures. Her educational journey from Singapore to Canada was both typical and non-typical of a high-achieving student. She went to a top girls’ school in Singapore but almost did not make it to a special program for the study of the Humanities. She went to an Ivy League university but did not join Singapore’s Civil Service, after graduation, as many of her peers did. She wanted to pursue graduate studies but had to put her dream on hold while she fulfilled the terms of her private-sector scholarship and saved up money for her studies. She worked as a broadcast journalist by day, but by night she attended graduate school at a local university. When she was finally able to go overseas, she did not go to the United Kingdom or the United States, but went to Canada, where she now lives and works. As a member of the Singaporean diaspora in North America, she reflects on her experience of the Singapore educational system in this interview for Singapore Poetry.
SP. Thanks for agreeing to the interview. You wrote on Facebook about your own educational journey, after “reading the extreme joy and anguish of my friends from Singapore as they anticipate, fear, and celebrate their children’s results” in Singapore’s educational system. Your words made me think that one’s education actually begins at home, not at school. Our earliest teachers are our parents and grandparents, perhaps uncles and aunts, older brothers and sisters. Could you describe how home has influenced, or not, your love for literature and the humanities?
JL. Thank you for taking the time to have this conversation with me. I really appreciate having this opportunity to share my memories and thoughts with Singapore Poetry.
I came from a household that was distinctively Anglophile and somewhat Westernized mainly due to our Roman Catholicism. Both my paternal and maternal extended families had been involved in church life for quite a few generations and I think, in the first instance, there was a sense of language and literature that sprang from that constant interaction with the Catholic Mass rituals, hymns, and readings from the bible. I say this now as a lapsed Catholic (that is another story!), but I really do think that my first ideas about rhyme, rhythm, meter, metaphor, simile, diction, plot, and so forth came from those formative years. How else, as my mother used to say, would a seven-year old learn about “epistles”? My mother, having been educated in the convent in Penang, was a General Paper teacher in a junior college. I had the privilege of being read to from birth, and there were frequent trips to the Ang Mo Kio public library where we would carry home as many as 8 to 12 books every time.
SP. How did your parents decide on the choice of your primary school? Did their socioeconomic and linguistic background play a part in their decision? Did your gender play a part? Would you judge them typical of Singaporean parents in the way they went about making their choice?
JL. Being the devout Catholics that they are, and believing in mission schools (they were both educated in them), my parents decided that CHIJ (Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus) Toa Payoh was the best choice for me. The school is one of the oldest and most reputable convent schools in Singapore. I remember it being quite important for them that I went to school there. I definitely think that there were socioeconomic and linguistic issues behind that… they certainly perceived, for better or for worse, that a secular, “neighbourhood” school would be a lesser choice; and that a place like Nanyang Girls’ School (with its emphasis on Chinese culture and bilingualism) would not have been ideal for our Anglophone household. And I am also sure they wanted me to be in an all-girls school. Looking back, I think that the extreme pressures for academic success in the country play a role in many Singaporean parents’ anxiety over where their children go to school. My parents were probably not immune to the pressures. The system certainly amplifies and intensifies those feelings though.
SP. When did you take the Primary School Leaving Examination (a high-stakes national examination taken by 12-year-olds, which decides your secondary school and so, many Singaporeans believe, your future)? How did your school prepare you and your classmates for the examination? On hindsight, was any aspect of the preparation anti-educational?
JL. I took my Primary School Leaving Examination in 1992 and beginning in Primary 5 there were weekly “remedial” classes given both after school hours and on Saturdays. There, we reviewed all the material likely to be on the exam and did exercise after exercise drilling to prepare for various questions.
I remember a few incidents from that time that really marked my childhood and changed the ways in which I thought about teaching and learning. I remember my Mandarin language teachers repeatedly telling me that I was a “fake” Chinese person since I was really doing badly in Mandarin classes. The fact that the language was not phonetic and was not something I spoke at home as a “mother tongue” really hampered my ability to grasp many of the rudiments. I think what was unspoken as well was the moral and cultural messages that were conveyed by the educational materials used to teach Mandarin. I remember being able to intuit what the responses were to multiple-choice questions simply by choosing the one that best represented traditional values like filial piety and so forth. I also recall being terrified of these teachers: they threw my exercise books at me and poked my arm with red ballpoint pens. It sounds draconian now to think about it!
There was also an incident with an English teacher who discovered a stash of pleasure reading (novels, maybe even Virginia Andrews?) in a classmate’s desk and made her kneel in front of the blackboard for what seemed like an eternity to the rest of us until she admitted that she was doing something wrong in reading things that were not on the exam. That marked us for sure. Were these anti-educational measures? I think that depends on what you think an education is for. When you’re running a system where education is being used to mould productive citizens, then these incidents don’t seem out of place. Discipline and punishment in such a system is inevitable, layered with Singapore’s complex relationships with power, race, religion, language, and so on, of course.
SP. Were you given academic help outside of school? Were your classmates? Could you speak about the question of equity of the examination?
JL. Given my abysmal results in Mandarin, my parents hired a retired Chinese language teacher as my tutor. However, back in the 90s, I think there wasn’t the same, all-pervasive, multi-million-dollar tuition industry. Some of my classmates had extra help and I think the Primary School Leaving Examination was at that point already a barometer of class and linguistic privilege. Who your parents were, what they did, whether or not they had financial worries, I think, were all predictors of how you were going to do in the exam. There were exceptions of course (always lauded in the national media every year), but I think that even in the 1990s, the system was not quite as meritocratic as everyone wanted to believe that it was. The recent intensification of the “tuition mentality”, I think, has only made this question of equity even more pronounced and fraught. Who can afford enrichment? Who can afford tuition? Who cannot?
SP. Can you describe your feelings on finding out that you were accepted into Raffles Girls’ School (RGS), the top girls’ school in the country? What was topmost in your mind? How did your feelings change, or not, on your first day of school?
JL. There was so much prestige wrapped up in RGS that I’m pretty sure I was caught up in all that as a 12-year-old. My convent classmates and teachers saw it as a betrayal of sorts. Being in RGS though, was a strange hothousing experiment. Looking back, I think what strikes me the most was the strange artificiality of grouping us all together like that just by our results. I think, I would have benefited from having been in school with people of mixed abilities.
SP. The Humanities Program, an exclusive college preparatory program, prepares students with a special affinity for the humanities for the study of those subjects in overseas universities. Like you, I was in the program at Raffles Junior College (now part of Raffles Institution) and never questioned its exclusivity, for instance, why our teachers were mainly British and American expatriates, who taught us only, and not the other students. Beyond any educational purpose, what do you think is the function of such exclusivity? Is there any good justification for it?
JL. I actually didn’t make the grade cut-off for the program at my school. I was only accepted into the class after an appeal process of sorts where some of my teachers vouched for my abilities in spite of the fact that I had not received the requisite grades for literature during my GCE ‘O’ level exams. When I was in the program in National Junior College, and perhaps this is a function of a kind of colonial mentality that we all had, I didn’t question our segregation, the elitism that was fostered, or the fact that the majority of our teachers were expatriates. And while I thoroughly enjoyed the program, greatly benefited from it and so forth, it’s clear to me now as well, that we were being groomed for a particular kind of role in the civil service and society. Was there a good justification for it? Probably not. I think that some form of literary study should probably be made compulsory in high school, to enable the empathy and humanity that literature engenders. Further, I think there should be more of an attempt to teach literature beyond the narrow confines of the British or American canons. I’m sure it’s changed since I was in school!
SP. You interviewed for the Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarship, a prestigious government scholarship for undergraduate studies. Could you describe what the experience was like for you? What surprised you? And what did not surprise you, and so, on hindsight, is significant? Why did you decline the PSC scholarship and opt for a Mediacorp (local broadcasting company) scholarship instead?
JL. One of the things that struck me about the process was how it felt like the group had made up its mind about me before I had even stepped into the room. In that sense, the interview felt like a simple formality, an occasion to inform me that I was being offered an Overseas Merit Scholarship but only for teaching. The powers that be had already decided that I was to read English Literature at Brown University and come back and teach in a junior college. My young, ambitious self, however, had set its mind on the Foreign Service and had dreams of working as an officer in the Ministry. The committee informed me that my grades were inadequate for that role, and even to pursue a double major of Literature and International Relations at Brown. They also hinted that they were reluctant to offer scholarships for the Foreign Ministry to women, since we tended to get married, get pregnant, and have children—something that complicated foreign postings. On hindsight, this was shockingly misogynist and I’m not sure how they got away with telling a 19-year-old that. Perhaps it was just another excuse they were making to me? Certainly, I had other female counterparts who did receive that scholarship.
What I remember though is a sense that my future had been decided before I walked into that room, that it was pretty much set in stone. Even at that young age, I was instinctively horrified. Perhaps, it was an impulsive thing to do, but the condescension they showed me in that room strengthened my resolve never to work for them. Why did I opt for Mediacorp? Well, it seemed like an alternative that would allow me to pursue that double major, to follow my interests in both the humanities and social sciences. Practically, it also meant that my parents wouldn’t bankrupt themselves sending me to a university overseas. I think if I hadn’t taken up a scholarship, I would have chosen to go to a local university instead, to spare them any financial worries.
SP. You went to Brown University, where you won the Rosalie Colie Prize in Comparative Literature for best Honors Thesis and the Casey Shearer Memorial Award for Excellence in Creative Non-Fiction. How well did the Singaporean educational system prepare you for your undergraduate studies? What were the chief differences you observed between you and your American peers?
JL. I think that the Singaporean system, with its pressures and extreme focus, meant that I was able to adjust to some of the rigours of an American undergraduate program. Yet, while coping with a large workload was not alien to me, other things were. It’s hard to articulate exactly what, but I think it was a certain freedom of thought, of risk-taking and experimentation that I found myself lacking. The starkest realization I had of this was when I attempted to take jazz piano lessons in university: after a musical education in childhood that was focused on passing exams, I found myself struggling at improvisation. It was as if something in me had been broken or stunted, possibly irreparably. I changed, undoubtedly, over the course of my four years at Brown. But the first two years were interesting and difficult. I recognize now, of course, that Brown was a bubble like any other Ivy League institution and that my American peers were, for the most part, either part of the East Coast elite or first/second-generation immigrant children who had been working hard all their lives for this opportunity.
Studying at Brown was the first time that I understood what being a minority was. Having grown up in an environment where I enjoyed all the privileges of being part of the racial majority, I came to understand during this time what being an “other” was. Being supervised by Rey Chow (a Hong Kong-born theorist of race and capitalism) and Réda Bensmaïa (an Algerian professor who specialized in post-structuralist thought), I was made aware of the yawning gaps in my knowledge of postcolonial theory. I had come from a postcolony myself and yet had had such a deeply colonial education. Working in Comparative Literature (I chose this field in conscious opposition to English Literature) was a truly rich experience for me: I studied Asian cinema, Japanese court poetry, critical theory, North African writers and thinkers, Francophone Vietnamese writers … and I encountered the work of Malaysian American writer Shirley Lim and Singaporean American writer Wong May (who now lives in Ireland). Both of them helped me articulate my experience as a young Southeast Asian woman in North America.
SP. In your Facebook post, you expressed your disappointment at having to return to Singapore to work for Mediacorp as the terms of your scholarship dictated, instead of starting your graduate studies. You worked for Mediacorp for 7 years, first as a reporter and then as a producer-presenter. Those years of work are, no doubt, invaluable in many ways, but could you give a sense of what is the loss of those 7 years for a young academic?
JL. You’re right that my time in Mediacorp is invaluable and I don’t want to discount the many things I learned during my time there and the friends I made as well. In spite of what I think of Singapore’s media regime, there is no doubt that being a journalist teaches you about deadlines, about writing plainly, about working in teams, and about approaching complete strangers and asking them questions. Yet, in the 7 years that I was working to complete my scholarship bond, I could have finished a doctoral degree and have been on the job market. I could have, by now, received tenure and perhaps published a monograph. These are all hypotheticals, of course. Now, I tell my students that taking a break to work outside academia after their undergraduate years is probably the best for their mental and financial health. I am a firm believer in the idea that you need to understand how life works practically before you study it theoretically, if that makes sense! I have no doubt that those 7 years of my bond made me a better graduate student—if only that it made me realize that time was precious and that I truly, truly wanted my degree.
SP. My next question has to do with the role of mentors in your educational journey. In your Facebook post, you mentioned a wonderful teacher who helped to keep you in the Humanities Program even when your examination scores did not qualify. You also studied with Professor Philip Holden at the National University of Singapore (NUS) for your Master’s, who might have had some influence over your choice of the University of Toronto for your PhD. What is the importance of mentors in an educational system such as Singapore’s? What personal qualities do these vital mentors possess?
JL. I am so grateful for the support I had of so many dedicated and inspirational teachers and mentors over the years. They believed in me despite less than ideal results and saw something in me and my classmates that couldn’t be simply measured by metrics. In spite of being crushed by overwork and bureaucracy, they always had time for us. One of my favourite literature teachers in JC, though, told me to avoid the Ministry of Education and its scholarships at all costs. He told me quite plainly that he did not want the system to kill my love for literature. I remember in particular his acerbic humour that made many of us realize some of the absurdity of the high stakes, the high pressure, that came with preparing for the GCE “A” Levels.
Working with Philip at NUS was also a fantastic experience. He understood the balancing act that I was doing: working full time, raising two small children, and trying to write a Master’s thesis on Singapore literature. I think, in Singapore, the best things that mentors can do are to recognize their mentees as complex human beings, and to give them ways to think outside the system.
SP. In your Facebook post, you wondered aloud if the so-called meritocratic Singaporean system isn’t “the same hierarchical, class-based, profoundly competitive British system intensified to a kind of Brave New World scenario.” I personally believe that the educational legacy of the British Empire still has a profound effect on Singapore, that we are still living with colonial assumptions about race, class, and ability. As a scholar of postcolonial literatures, could you suggest some productive lines of inquiry into this colonial link?
JL. One of the things that surprised me after I posted this on Facebook was how other scholars who had grown up and been educated in other parts of the British empire immediately recognized my experience in Singapore. From Ghana to Zimbabwe, Trinidad to Canada, my colleagues shared their experiences of having to read a canon of dead white men and dealing with an overwhelming focus on results. Sometimes, I think that one of the inadvertent benefits of Empire is that our masters gave us a common language with which to speak to each other. With that, of course, comes loss. I often think about the loss of Chinese dialects and culture, the loss of multilingual possibilities, the bifurcation of societies (and families) along linguistic and cultural lines. I think it’s important to think through how neocolonial assumptions about race, class, and ability affect public policy but also private lives. And I think that there is a lot of good work being done now in the arts, in art history, in urban studies, in literary and cultural studies that attempts to decolonize our thinking, our years of colonial education.
SP. Thanks so much for this conversation. I find my own experience strangely reflected and refracted in yours, and I’m sure many of our readers, American ones also, will find this to be true as well.