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The Ugly Truth About Our Labels And Prejudices

Throughout the Facebook thread I was engaged in (here) – in response to his original post before it was taken down – I never did proclaim that Ernest Low was guilty of elitism. Besides pointing out that his substantiation was riddled with hasty generalisations and personal anecdotes, which were not necessarily representative, I noted that his assessment of “top” and “neighbourhood” schools, deviance (or “socially undesirable” behaviour), and the dichotomy between “positive and negative” peer influences was too simplistic.

Yet, within my wall of text, there was a strange sense of irony.

It was ironic, because I had – in retrospect – indulged in the same acts of generalisations as I had accused these individuals of. Just as it is unfair to characterise schoolchildren from “neighbourhood” schools as menaces, it was self-righteous and presumptuous to judge Ernest (subconsciously or not) for his post. In our anxiety to criticise, we committed the same fallacies we lambasted.


Never mind that he is only fifteen years old, and possibly unaware of socio-political nuances or backlash. Never mind the fact that this was a blog post, through which he was trying to make sense of his personal encounters. Never mind how I was irrationally worked up, when someone on another thread asserted that “neighbourhood school students tend to exhibit more socially undesirable behaviour”.

And so to Ernest, I apologise. I might disagree with your substantive, but there is no denying that I read your piece through tinted lenses. And I thank you for this opportunity for discourse and engagement.

Of Labels and Prejudices

There are no “neighbourhood school students”, but “students from neighbourhood schools” (on that note, aren’t all schools in one neighbourhood or the other)?

These cognitive biases have no place in constructive discourse (or, at the very least, participants should be aware of them), but their presence in this context does not negate my disagreements with Ernest’s essay. While he does not deserve some of the flak he has been receiving – aside from that misleading, controversial title – many of his points should not go unquestioned.

One would be hard-pressed to disagree with the crux of his argument, that “the power of peer influence in school then dawned on me”. He had recounted how he had worked his way up from a considerably rocky start in a neighbourhood primary school, where he conscientiously sought to focus on academic competition and performance, over continued acts of misbehaviour.

The broad argument is sound, but his suggestion that peer influence per se distinguishes the “top” and “neighbourhood” schools does not quite square with reality. These instinctive and anecdotal justifications mask broader conditions, because students in different schools across the bands will not receive the same education. It is simply not true that manpower and resources are fairly or equitably distributed to the schools. This perspective also fails to take into account the observation that a student’s decisions and actions are not premised solely upon peer influence. However strong the “negative influences” might be, one cannot discount individual agency, familial circumstances, or the impact of educators in the classroom.

It was a slippery slope, when he tried to show that two boys who pick up smoking will experiment and spread this vice (or act of delinquency), which will then “perpetuate into a vicious cycle in neighbourhood schools like the one near my house”, or that “the school [will] become notoriously branded”. Instead, this could point to the multiple opportunities for intervention – which, in actual fact, are being utilised by schools, communities, and non-government associations – and how these challenges can be circumvented.

Tragically fatalistic, this point of view. And conveniently stereotypical.

Some might posit that the adoption of these labels – “neighbourhood” schools, “at-risk” youths – allow for easier intervention. That these labels and stereotypes are laden with stereotypes and unnecessarily dehumanises (or objectifies) should not go unnoticed. It might appear that we are whitewashing the differences across student groups, but we should be doing quite the opposite: to highlight that every student is unique in his or her own right, with a personal set of characteristics, complexities. There are no “neighbourhood school students”, but “students from neighbourhood schools” (on that note, aren’t all schools in one neighbourhood or the other)? Why operate within these pre-determined domians? Beyond the mere acts of “delinquency” observed by Ernest, there are narratives that are not considered, and conclusions that should not be extrapolated.

Are these labels and prejudices therefore structural? Perhaps the streaming system is to blame for the manifestation of these perceptions, but we know darned well (increasingly so, I hope) that primary-secondary students are streamed on the basis of their performance in a national, academic examination. Should we then be reminded of how we might be feeding this national psyche by internalising these labels and associated prejudices? Convinced by the education landscape we have been moulded in, for all we know, we might be creating self-fulfilling prophecies, and thus marvel when someone bucks the trend

Every school is a good school should not merely be an exercise in clichéd political correctness. As the government seeks to – slowly but surely – broaden definitions of “success”, to not just include scholastic achievements, our mindsets must evolve too. It is indeed sad that our society is obsessed with qualifications, but even more sad that we feel powerless. Evidently, with my cognitive biases on display, this is certainly a lesson for everyone, especially me.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


3 thoughts on “The Ugly Truth About Our Labels And Prejudices

  1. I am glad your response is a lot more perceptive than your initial reaction to the article that left me pretty surprise I’d say – which I seldom am by your writings you should know. 😉

    I am very surprised by the backlash on his article because he has not done anything wrong – his choice of words could have been more ‘politically-correct’ but when read in context of what he is trying to earnestly convey and make sense of for himself on his personal blog, it is of no fault. Regardless of his age, his post did not sound like an assertion or imposition of an I-know-better opinion to influence public opinion, especially in the context of a blog.

    Yes the irony of how backlashers prejudge him prejudging “the other”!

    In fact, “musings and recounts of my life” is the title of his blog, then to me surely anecdotal recounts are more than warranted. It was not a research paper nor a news piece (which both also actually allow to draw on anecdotal recounts or oral history). It is not necessary then for the public to get so riled up by a 15-year-old’s diary entry!

    Even as there were “labels” used loosely with no ill-intention in his sharing, there was no indication of prejudice. So I will be careful in the discussion of prejudice.

    I think what is most unfortunate is all the backlash to his sharing made a very simple but poignant point that he was trying to grapple himself into something so complex and riddled with ill-meanings.

    i think it’s very clear that he points to ‘dysfunctional families’ as the likely common denominator for many who fail to excel in their early years of education. That is the only thing he didn’t do well in expounding what ‘dysfunctional’ really means as most families in today’s age are dysfunctional in their own ways!

    I won’t fault him for that. When I was 15, I’m sure I’m not alone, I had no idea why my parents were fighting everyday and had to be separated, why is marriage so much hard work? More than a decade on today I can explain and be tactful about it because understanding of ‘the family’ comes with growing up and maturity in our human relationships.

    But the message he is trying to hit home or grapple with – independent of the discourse of the sociology of family – is how the education system in Singapore can cater better to children who are neglected by parents/lack parental guidance and fall through the system as a result.

    Truth is, this is not a uniquely Singapore problem. Statistics all over the world will show the positive correlation between dysfunctional families and a child’s poor performance in school. That is why we have “rags-to-riches” stories, and we know they are the exception, not the norm. So then his assumption and observation is valid even without citing any official statistics.

    There is in fact maturity in his sharing I was impressed of his ability to reason for human behavior (good or bad) – in the end psychology is all about the study of human behavior! And it’s the willingness and ability to offer understanding and reasoning that will combat prejudice.

    Because prejudice does not take into consideration circumstances in understanding human behavior. Prejudice ignores possibilities in understanding human behavior but reduces the judgment of human beings to certain “fixed” or “physical” traits i.e. their race, age, nationality, genetics (height/weight), etc.

    And his anecdote explains his intuition or perceptiveness – he’s been “in there” before, he has friends and he probably has seen or heard enough about their difficult family situations to be contemplating about whether the education system can do anything to avoid that unnecessary and unfortunate differentiation. I thought he also wrote out of just being genuinely grateful to his peers and teachers that he was “saved” and redeemed from his “past”.

    Because whether is it sweepingly saying peer pressure or there are just many social psych research that will also support his ‘loose’ arguments surrounding environmental factors or group behavior, groupthink, group conformity and the like, he is quite spot on in thinking about intervening at the level of rethinking the need for schools differentiation i.e. “top schools”.

    In essence it’s questioning in an ideal world, instead of “concentrating” academically-inclined students in that few “top schools”, could we spread out “top” students across the island into every school – every school is ‘even out’ or just be kept unaware of who are “top” students i.e. no standardisation exams – Scandinavian style!

    (Here in social welfare states in Scandinavia, kids are actively discouraged to be better than another kid otherwise the welfare state will not work if kids grow up knowing they are ‘smarter’ or ‘better’ than another person and have a greater sense of entitlement because they ‘contribute more’ to society. The welfare state will thus collapse. It’s everything that goes against the spirit of capitalism and elitism that America, UK, Singapore is largely about.)

    This whole episode also reminds me of how as an educator, I learnt that just because a student is not pulling out theories or scientific experiments like Asch conformity experiments or Zimbardo experiment does not disqualify his understanding of a discourse. Of course if it’s a graded assessment where he or she has to provide evidence. 😉

    Finally, this case may just actually reveal why many Singaporeans *think* freedom of speech is lacking in Singapore. More than any sort of real government scrutiny, I think we are living in a ‘backlash’ generation that permeates an unhealthy dose of fear in publishing heartfelt and for the most part harmless opinions like Ernest did.

    The irony is also, from Ernest piece, I actually see a lot of potential in him just as I saw in you and I hope he comes out stronger from this episode than be crippled and inhibited by it.

    Posted by fivetwosix | September 23, 2013, 12:27 pm
  2. Great piece in continuing the debate and mostly in showing humility. 🙂 We have had many diverse views over the course of one single post, which is a good start. Thought I just leave this one with a quote and a few questions to tinker over. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela.
    It’s interesting to note that Mandela referred education as a “weapon” and his wisdom for not concluding that change from education is definitely always for the better. Perhaps, we should really examine if our education has become an “arms race”, with a “Cold War” and whether we are indeed making change for the better or worse.

    Posted by sbksim | September 23, 2013, 2:48 pm

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