Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Platypus ideology

This post is not about how to identify a platypus, and neither is it about how to catch an octopus. It's about how certain aspects of the country exert pressures to shape Singaporeans in the image of the platypus, resulting in us having to become quasi-octopuses.....

Most of the shaping occurs during the teenage years. Look around you and you'll notice how many people actually overload themselves with extra-curricular activities (ECAs). (Or are they called CCAs now?). The idea of having these ECAs is to make students more 'well-rounded'. But everything soon turns into a competition: within specific student societies/clubs/sports teams, people strive for positions of power, because these will enhance their resume. Being good at one thing is not considered to be a big deal in Singapore. This is a country where people will only be impressed if you are excellent in everything. Like a platypus, you should be able to lay eggs, walk on land, swim in water, and look like a duck, an otter and a fish - all at once. It's good if you are the sports captain, students' council leader, and graduate with a good honours degree, but it's still not good enough, for you can still be defeated by the person who have a slightly more impressive 'ECA record'.

I have a feeling that this 'ECA record' mentality is doing more harm than good in our country. How many fine young men and women have been exhausted to their limits because of ECAs? How many student societies and clubs have turned 'political' due to people vying for key positions within the 'committee'? How many potential budding scholars (as opposed to scholarship holders) have missed their first class honours because of excessive commitments to other non-academic activities? How many people truly like the activities they've chosen to join, and how many ended up hating those very activities that they had loved before everything became overly formalized?

Why do capable young people spread themselves so thin? The answer is that their capabilities have given them the feeling that they can take on the world. At the same time, 'society' at large and their immediate social environment send all kinds of signals to tell them that it's good to BE a platypus. If you want a good job after you graduate, you'd better be a platypus and have all kinds of activities listed on your resume - and make sure you hold at least one or two leadership positions. Nobody cares if you had been the worst 'President of Students Council' or 'President of Singapore Society', or the worst Rugby captain throughout the history of your school or university. Nobody will know anyway, and so the game transforms into a power struggle. ECAs are no longer for cultivating a deeper interest in the activity. They are instead platforms for the acquisition of titles which may impress your potential employers....

I'm not sure about the current situation but in my time, we're not allowed to change ECAs 'halfway through' or we'll lose all our 'ECA points'. So it doesn't matter that I've been an excellent player and contributor in the sports team and won several medals in the initial years of my secondary education. If I quit the team in my final year, I shall lose all my merit points. This is an unfair and silly practice, don't you think so? Why can't people have a change of interest? Why can I try out different things during my teenage years? Wouldn't it be nice if I could learn abit of Astronomy from the Astronomers' Club, a bit of horticulture from the Horticultural Society, and a bit of chicken-slaying skills from the Chicken-Slayers' Council? Why must I stick with a single uniformed group and a single sports team for 4 years of my life? I'm quite sure that I'll be very much more well-rounded if I had the chance to try out 5 to 15 different ECAs without any regard for the ECA points!

One might argue that I'm just going to exhaust myself if I try out so many things. But why should merely trying out things exhaust a person? The system is stupid, to begin with. For example, if I'm interested in Air-Rifle, why should I go for Air-Rifle sessions twice a week? And there shouldn't be a system that constrains peoples' movement across societies by imposing penalties or having disincentives. There shouldn't even be an expectation (on the part of employers) that people should have a string of titles associated with their 'official' positions in their ECA groups.

I would rather see people trying out different things in their youth. I would rather see a great young pianist who only has ONE ECA and no official position of responsibility, but could play the piano really well and lets his love for the piano show in his general excitement for life. And I would rather see a young scholar who had been yearning to become a famous professor one day and studied wholeheartedly and as a result had ZERO ECAs. All of these scenarios, in my opinion, are much better than the scenario of many exhausted, half-hearted, and over-stretched platypuses approaching their lives with an overly pragmatic attitude to everything. The process of transforming into a pragmatic platypus will slowly but surely limit one's achievement to mere technical perfection, and extinguish all chances of attaining a much higher, much more magical form of spiritual ecstasy and passionate performance through a hedonistic indulgence in things which he loves.


Blogger Mr Wang Says So said...

I think that the difficulty is there are too many different kinds of individuals. It is rather difficult (not impossible) to design a system that can cater to so many different kinds of individuals. There are too many competing considerations.

On one hand, CCA all-roundedness sounds like a good idea (eg someone who can play sports, participate in the arts AND do social work); on the other hand, some individuals may really prefer specialisation (eg someone who is very musically talented may prefer, for good reasons, to spend on his time pursuing this interest).

On one hand, there are merits in permitting individuals to change their choice of CCA freely; on the other hand, there is also merit in the view that you get the most benefits from an activity only if you really commit to it (as opposed to say, someone who quits tennis after learning it for two months who then moves on to the chess club and quits after two months who then moves on to the Art Club and quits after three months who then moves on to the Astronomy Club and quits after two months who then moves on to ...)

Thu Jan 12, 07:31:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous Zyl said...

"the scenario of many exhausted, half-hearted, and over-stretched platypuses approaching their lives with an overly pragmatic attitude to everything"

Sounds like the education system is doing a marvellous job of preparing our youth for the world of work, pay home mortgage and produce chewrens to repeat the cycle. Hurrah!

Thu Jan 12, 09:39:00 AM 2006  
Blogger The Void Deck said...

Heavenly Sword,

I think that ECA or CCA is a good thing as long as it is not forced on the kids. It allows them to actually do something positive and enriching in most ways if done voluntarily and without pressure from school or parents. If the kid wants to be a pugilist-fencer-flute player, sounds like a samurai to me, cool. CCA are great if there is no real score attached to it although there are points to be earned. Something like Whose Line Is It where it is all fun and the points don't matter.

Mr Wang,

right on. There are too many kinds of individuals. One guy with us at the Void Deck actually loved his CCA and represented his school in sports. Good for him, although I could never understand. I for one always hated CCA as it meant I had to spend my private out of school time doing something I rather not do. I rather go home and play PC games or hang out with 'bad boy' pals or with my girlfriend when nobody's at home (the preferred option all the time!)


yeah, that dismal juggling-pressure issue just can't go away in the Spore education system. Parents and kids just got to learn to chill and know that somethings gotta give.

Fri Jan 13, 11:51:00 AM 2006  
Blogger trisha said...

When I was a student, I spent 4 yrs in a Uniformed Grp I hated. For those reasons you mentioned. In the JC, I didn't join a single CCA, but participated in almost ALL the inter-class sports events. I had so much fun.

So people like me would like CCAs to be run like a Hobby Club. No obligations, no point system, come & go as you please, and stay and specialise if you want to.

The current CCA system is run like an exam system. Points are given, which can be used for JC entry, hence the need for 4 yr commitment, even if you hated it halfway through.

My suggestion is to take it easy. If students don't want to join CCA, so be it. Interest cannot be compelled from someone. If we have a good variety of hobby clubs in school, everyone shd end up joining something just for fun.

Oh, CCAs are also a means in which schools achieve glory for themselves. Think of the rugby rumble amongst ACS, St Andrews, RI etc. Is it healthy? I really don't know. Will these schools allow students to just join rugby for fun? I doubt so.

Fri Jan 13, 03:57:00 PM 2006  
Blogger jllt said...

I realise that as you advance in your education, you find that politics in CCA gaining visibility. And it gets more hierarchical too. Really sad because you do not work as a group to organize an event; you are a member of XX group doing XX only. No sense of the bigger picture, no team spirit. Do the task you are handed and that's it.

Sat Jan 14, 01:48:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Mr Wang: that's true....all the dilemmas...Sigh, life is indeed not easy. I am personally more inclined to support the 'fickle CCA-switcher' model because I view one's teenage years as a phase for exposure and exploration. Maybe they could say, "Ok, you can only switch 3 times and you must be with the club/society for at least 1-2 years". What do you think?

Hi Zyl: Welcome to HS Manor! Good preparation indeed! Actually, I find that nothing can fully prepare one for the challenges of the adult life in Singapore. It's simply too tough! :]

Hi The Void Deck: I do agree...The score-keeping somehow changes the nature of the activity....

Hi Trisha: When I was in this particular secondary school, I wanted to join the Computer Club, but failed the 'entrance exam' (which tested me on Computer Programming). That was quite stupid because I wanted to join the club precisely because I wanted to learn more about computing!

Hi Jllt: Good insight...It does seem to get more 'political'....E.g. in my Uni, the Singapore Society was SO political as to make me sick.

Sat Jan 14, 09:25:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

[Amendment: the Singapore Society of the uni where I did my undergrad]

Sat Jan 14, 09:26:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Cat said...

May I surmise: Students have an illusion of choice in their CCA.

The idea of CCA is an ideal youths should strive to, but the resultant implemented system defeats the purpose of having CCA.

Co-Curricular Activities are meant to enrich the knowledge of students via specific activities. I believe these activities are varied and numerous.

My take on this is that students do take part in CCAs, school approved or not. The problem is that schools only endorse prescribed activities.

There are always new trends and new ideas to pursue and try, and there are also established activities. The prescription or approval of activities hinder this creative process, of actually finding the niche in which you belong in during the formative years.

However, we should not disregard the need to formalize the participation of students in these CCAs.

I suggest that perhaps students should be given the freedom to list whatever activities that he/she has participated in (prescribed or out-of-school), and have them evaluated on a case to case basis.

Tue Apr 04, 08:07:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Dennis said...

Maybe the point is that the CCA system is mainly directed towards sieving out scholars and non-scholars. It is Singapore's way of creating a system where the ambitious serve the community for private gain. This is the crux of our communitarian idealogy is it not? We become mini machiavellian princes in exchange for becoming the chief players in the political system. Its either make or break, fight and die at that level. If you can't take the heat, then you don't belong in the game.

And of course real social good in this context does not really matter. It does not matter if you help cultivate the next best tennis player of the whole world in your tennis club. All that matters is that you maybe manage to sideline everyone else in your club so that you end up on top of the distribution of ECA points.

As usual individualism at the core with communitarian pretensions.

Sat May 27, 12:59:00 AM 2006  
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