Saturday, November 25, 2006

SDU: steering the dynamics of love

SDU has come to an end, and many critics feel that the main lesson delivered to the government is that it's not omnipotent and cannot control the dynamics of love and related activities (e.g. getting married, etc)... :)

I'm actually a supporter of the SDU :) I think that the idea of matchmaking Singaporeans is cool, and there's no better institutional actor to do this than the State itself. Why, then, did the SDU fail? In this very short post I'll offer my views as an ikan bilis of mighty Singapore, mighty in all ways including the management of male-female relations....

1) First, the name given to the agency was so lousy that I think whoever thought of that name 'Social Development Unit' should bear at least 40% of the responsibility. 'Social development' sounds terrible and it makes the members of SDU seem like problems of society to be solved. It's as if the successful matchmaking of these people will somehow alleviate one of the major 'social problems' in Singapore society, and society will 'develop'... In addition, 'Unit' sounds bad too: it simply doesn't accord a sense of importance and grandeur to the whole mission. This type of name is incapable of generating any sort of pride and excitement in members and non-members alike....

2) The institutional separation of SDU and SDS was also unnecessary and unwise. They should be combined so as to pool resources together, and to expand the membership base. This will then increase the chances of members finding someone they like or love, who may or may not be from the 'same social class' (whatever that phrase means). Is it not common wisdom that 'opposites attract'? A male, highly educated professional may well be more attracted to a woman who is not a graduate, and this lady may also be impressed because the man seems so different from others whom she hangs around with. A man and a woman with different class experiences may in fact have more to talk about because they find each other more intriguing and interesting. So the assumption that people from the same social class can 'click better' does not always hold. Finally, I suspect that women who are not university graduates are more inclined to get married....

3) SDU should be reincarnated, but with a different name and with a 'consolidated membership'. Men and women of all nationalities and citizenship statuses (citizen, PR, non-citizens), educational levels and 'social classes' should have platforms to mingle around with one another. They should be able to view each other's profiles and photos online, and send each other messages.

The State should realize that social engineering has its limits (although it is sometimes necessary). Many things need to be done correctly and when a project fails, it may not be because the idea itself is bad but because the execution was not properly thought through. It must show some sensitivity to the feelings of the members, at least, for example by getting rid of the 'class' dimension of this matchmaking mission, and having a more romantic-sounding name for the organization. I wonder if the people sitting on the steering committee (is there one?) are trained in the humanities and the social sciences. The dynamics of love can be steered, in my opinion, and getting large numbers of people to interact in actual physical social space or cyberspace can indeed allow magical unpredictable sparks and combinations to emerge. So I feel that there is indeed magic in the system, but it's not an omnipotent kind of magic. Anyway, SDU is gone, and I can only hope that its reincarnation won't reflect the rather elitist assumptions of the earlier project.

Related posts
Yaw Shin Leong's essay

Friday, November 10, 2006

On the wrong approaches to learning at HE level

A thoroughly worn-out Heavenly Sword rose from his disturbed sleep, and decided to spend the rest of the sleepless dawn pondering about some 'real issues' surrounding university education in Singapore.

What is 'university education'? I believe there is a reason why university education is called higher education: it's because it is pitched - and definitely meant to be pitched - at a much higher level of difficulty compared to the A-levels. If it wasn't more difficult than the A-levels, then there is no reason why graduates should be paid more than non-graduates, and no reason why people should invest 3-4 years of their short lives attending classes at the university campus, if the things that they are going to learn do not advance their intellectual abilities (e.g. coping with analytical complexity, distilling the essence of complex literatures, etc) in some ways. Let's face it: life is short, and 3-4 years is a significant length of time.

The problem I see in some of my younger friends (who are studying in various local universities) is that they are struggling to make the adjustment from JC to Uni. This adjustment has various components, and I'll briefly talk about the 'expectational' component, and the tactical component.

'Expectational adjustment' (my term) concerns expectations. Recently I communicated briefly with a friend who is an assistant professor at a university in Singapore, and he highlighted a very good point. Many students in Singapore find the first 1 or 2 semesters of university life extremely traumatic, because they have been so used to getting A's at the earlier stages of education that getting B's and C's end up amounting to a personal disaster (when it is in fact really common at university-level), and some of these students cannot deal emotionally with the perceived 'setback'. I feel that the real disaster is not in the receipt of B's and C's grades itself, but instead the loss of many Singaporeans' ability to cope with grades indicating academic imperfection. This problem, which is the problem of a 'straight-A's culture' in Singapore, is a real problem in Singapore which has hardly ever been problematized; in fact the problem has been packaged as something 'good' through frequent glamourization of 'perfect scores' by various institutional actors and the media. Singapore has a culture of perfection which needs to be replaced by a culture of imperfection that will be more in line with the atmosphere of creativity that the country badly needs.

To these institutional actors and individual actors who have always been singing praises of the straight A's culture, I'd like to say this. Let's not be overly proud of this straight A's culture and forget to look at the dysfunctions of it. What are some of these dysfunctions?

1) The pursuit of a blemish-free record becomes the sole purpose of learning. (Some) students are not interested in learning the subject, but simply want the A's. Because of this, the whole spirit of learning is wrong. The obsession is always with things which are so-called 'inside the 'syllabus"; some students treat the 'model answers' as literally 'models' (when these should be treated as 'indications of a general approach that lecturers hope they can display'), and they want lectures and tutorials to package the information in 'exam-usable' format. Anything falling short of the above-stated 'ideals' is then criticized as unfocused teaching, which will lead to condemnation of the university teacher. In some subjects, there is a trend of increasing 'interdisciplinarity', but some students think in narrow ways, along the lines of 'i am majoring in this subject, why do I have to read materials from another subject?' This is very sad. If Singapore really wants to train students as future 'knowledge producers' for a creative economy, then university-level socialization must get them to think more like creative knowledge producers rather than passive knowledge consumers.

2) The overly pragmatic and grade-driven approach to learning a subject will guarantee that the student can never achieve the highest level of understanding of that subject (the 'jui4 gao1 jing4 jie4'), due to the overly powerful socialization at undergraduate level that results in the wrong spirit of learning that is hard to change later on. Too much attention and effort will be spent on the readings that have been officially assigned, and there is usually no motivation to venture into the library to hunt for more interesting and more advanced books on particular concepts, theories, and topics. This in turn creates the problem of unskilful library users. The use of the library is itself an art and a science: it requires some practice and training.

There are two situations that might then result. First, the 'trained incapacity' of students, who will end up lacking the self-confidence to explore unbeaten paths or select their own sources of information due to excessive fear that they will be 'wrong'; and second, top students are satisfied to stop when they have mastered the 'official' readings, thinking that because they have satisfied the lecturer's demands, they know the subject 'oredi'. This results in a kind of complacency that hinders further intellectual advancement as far as that subject is concerned, due to premature extinguishment of the inquisitive spirit.

So, the above two paragraphs dealt with the tactical adjustment aspect of university-level academic life. This is the paradox: tactical adjustment itself will have certain dysfunctional outcomes, precisely because the learning has become too tactical. Then two further problems will result: first, the students who are tactical enough to do well end up acquiring some problematic mindsets; and second, the students who don't do so well 'officially' in this kind of system ends up (a) losing their self-confidence (for they then think that they're 'lousy' simply because they did not get an A from a particular lecturer), or (b) being actually pushed down the hierarchical educational stratification system and have no chance of redeeming themselves (think of students who don't do well in the first years, they may not be able to 'recover' from the damage if the system is too 'unforgiving'). Point (b), it seems to me, is closely related to Singapore's unforgiving culture.

Since I cannot change the system (as I'm only an ikan-bilis, a non-elite in Singapore), I can only offer some words of advice.

1) Don't be too obsessed with grades. If you truly love the subject (or at least try to love it) and see the spirit underpinning a particular subject, you will master it, sooner or later, at your own pace. If you tell yourself, 'I'm going to try my best; if the lecturer gives me a 'C', so be it'. See it as a signal that you may need to read more books, rather than an indicator of your self-worth. Never ever think that you're BAD at a subject simply because of a single C. Singaporeans, it seems to me, are too easily defeated or intercepted by tiny little alphabets. Isn't that very sad, if you think about it? I mean, so what if you get a C in that subject? Do you then say, 'Eeee, I don't want to major in this subject 'oredi' (even though I thought I wanted to earlier)'. Or 'I don't want to be an accountant 'oredi', the lecturer gave me C for accounting, I'm not cut out to be an accountant'. That is not the hallmark of a mature person. View your lecturers/tutors as people of equal standing as far as humanity and intellect are concerned (of course!): they are not that much smarter than you are; they have only read more books than you have, maybe because they visit the library more often :)

2) Make use of the library and its resources (including online resources such as journal databases, etc). At the university level, it is not right to be a passive learner. Be an active learner, and take responsibility for your learning. If the readings and assigned books are hard to understand, there are many other books out there that will explain the same concept, theory, or topic in different ways, and some of these will definitely phrase the points in a way that you prefer and can understand better. You are not held hostage to the assigned readings (if you don't like them, feel confident enough to create your own reading packet). And most of all, university lecturers and tutors are there to help you, so make use of their services such as consultation hours, etc (they are not ferocious animals who will bite you, I firmly believe).

That's all I have to say....In short, Singapore's culture of perfection is not as good as the elites think. I am not a member of the elite, so this is my subjective view as an ikan-bilis in the system. I, too, have been severely punished by an unforgiving system before. But I am still alive....