Following the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) decision to discontinue the long-standing practice of naming students who have scored the best in the national examinations, we have just gone through one round of its implementation. Yet, one wonders if this cosmetic move has actually yielded significant changes or improvements in attitudes.
Even if the discontinuation is meant to be purely symbolic, I assert that it has been a very half-hearted endeavour to broaden the definitions of success, and by extension reduce the purported disproportionate emphasis upon grades and results per se. Vis-à-vis sporting and artistic achievements for instance, I find it weird that we have no issue glamorising sportsmen and artists who have excelled in respective competitions, but we are uncomfortable with naming top scorers? Is the act of naming top students detrimental? Obtaining remarkable results from a gruelling examination is no mean feat, and their learning journeys can inspire many others. We accept that they are all successful individuals, but it so happens that they are outstanding in dissimilar domains. Why has an individual’s academic-scholastic accomplishments gotten such a bad rep in Singapore?
The message has to be consistent. If the MOE is insistent that every school is a good school, and that trumpeting one’s accolades is a bad thing, then the ban has to be widened (both propositions, in any case, I do not concur with). MOE should stop schools from plastering their fences and walls with banners boasting percentages, statistics, prizes and awards. Schools should not be trumpeting the number of distinctions obtained by its graduates, the performances in each subject, or the admittance rates to colleges.
But we know how ludicrous that sounds, because some form of positive recognition spurs and empowers. Most rational parents are cognisant that while grades are important, they do not dictate who their children are, as holistic persons. Tests are but barometers of our own performance, for us to constructively identify our strengths and weaknesses as we move forward. We celebrate the top scorers and schools, because their hard work has paid off, and public affirmation can be beneficial. At the same time, they are strong reminders for us to remain humble, to stay grounded, and to recognise that there is so much more to learn and aspire towards. The knowledge that someone is better than us can drive our work ethics.
If parents – whom I believe are in the minority – do place undue pressure on their kids to top the rankings consistently, then it is pedantic mind-sets that need to change, not the system. Stigmatise and begrudge academic-scholastic successes, we should not.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.