Sunday, December 06, 2015
On PSLE, self-worth and net worth.
One of the interesting things I've notice is that for quite a number of years since the 2011 elections, the reports on PSLE result have changed dramatically. There is no longer an emphasis on raw PSLE t-scores in mainstream media. Instead, newspapers prefer to celebrate students who overcome many obstacles in life to do well in the exams. This is good social engineering.
However, starting this year, there is a new kind of phenomenon.
Singaporeans are coming out in social media to talk about their so-called poor PSLE results and, in an attempt to make the kids feels good, remind them that it has not prevented them from succeeding in their lives. In some cases, theses stories are, indeed, a welcome change to the PSLE narrative in Singapore - Josephus Tan, a great criminal lawyer and an idol truly worthy of worship by law students in NUS and SMU (myself included and he's younger than me), put up a very inspirational update and shared with everyone his 183 PSLE score telling kids in Singapore not to lose hope.
While these updates are great, I think that there is a darker side to these messages of inspiration.
In other quarters of the Internet, perhaps among friends, I am detecting a whole new level of humble-bragging. That's right, there are folks who have no intention of using their PSLE grades to inspire kids who did not do so well, they want to use their poor PSLE grades to bludgeon the so-called winners in the PSLE game in the past. These messages are horrifying simplistic social media fare, done often with allusions to the scholar caste lacking EQ.
Today I will use statistics to show you guys how to defuse these demotivating messages which are clearly aimed at cutting down adults and not really done with the intention to inspire kids who did badly in an exam. Readers need to armed with the cognitive tools when they see an Emporer with no clothes.
The first approach is to look at the PSLE bell-curve. In this link to the Kiasu parent's website, we can find in a typical year, how does an average PSLE student perform. And the answer is simple :
The mean score is about 200. The standard deviation is about 25 points.
So if you score 250 for PSLE that's about 2 standard deviations from the mean so you are about top 2.5%. Josephus Tan with his 183 PSLE score stand in the lower quartile, so his claim of being below average is genuine. In a very exam oriented society like Singapore, I can believe that society probably wrote Josephus off when he was 12 and if he has a chip on his shoulder, it's fair.
But let's move on...
Now let's turn to the more sensitive topic on national income and wages. In report on salaries in the MOM website, the median salary before taxes and CPF is $3,770. I made very rough calculations on standard deviation and found it to be around $2,115.
So suppose Josephus Tan's social standing remained the same since PSLE and he has an income in the 25th percentile. Based on my back of the envelope calculation, his salary would be $3770 - 0.68 * 2115 = $2,331. Now as you can imagine, I really don't wish to guess his real income, it would definitely be many times what it would have been if he was not socially mobile. That's not even counting the amount of pro-bono contribution he has made to the nation at large.
As such, stories that shared by Josephus Tan have real aspirational value to all Singaporeans. They not only demonstrate that PSLE does not matter, they are a testament of how socially mobile Singaporeans are.
Now let us turn to kind of de-motivational messages created by adults to bludgeon each other in the rat race.Typically the kind of low scores people claim to have are not really low scores at all.Imagine a person who humblebrags about his low score of 220 which is one standard deviation above average. His score might be low in the office full of Class S superheroes, but it's actually quite good at the national level.
The next issue is that his salary would really need to spectacular if he wants to humblebrag. If he is not socially mobile, his expected earnings should be about $6,000 a month. I do expect bragging rights to be barely earned if a person can earn one standard deviation or $2115 more than his PSLE percentile score. So for this guy who scored 220, he would need to show a salary of $8,115 to be able to get into pissing competition with any of his peers.
So, as a self-defence mechanism for adults who have going through mid-life and finding that your life outcomes are not as successful as your old glory PSLE days, maybe you can try this self-defence technique:
Maybe the problem is not that Mr. Humblebrag is not doing well enough in life to rub you in the face, but his PSLE score is simply not fucked-up enough to claim that's he's such a dramatic turnaround.
What is the moral of the story ?
Socially engineering an outcome to dethrone and muffle the acheivements of a few PSLE 270+ Class A Rafflesians superheroes will just create a caste of turnaround warriors eager to sit on the Singapore Iron Throne of one-upmanship.
Question is, are you prepared for your new overlords ? Kiasu parents obviously don't, they are collecting data which has been censored in the press.
With my own score of 255, I was constantly reminded when I was a kid that I was not in the big leagues even though it was a decent score. It's funny on hindsight but it took me several years to recover from my failure of not being able to get into RI. Like may readers who also are fans of One Punch Man, I feel like a Mumen Rider kind of hero, Class C at the edge of Class B but certainly not at the level of Genos, Amai Mask or Puri-puri Prisoner.
Now as law student, I now have a income of zero ! Singapore has great social mobility for my 97% percentile PSLE to become an unemployed 0th percentile peon !
So the irony of writing this article is not lost on me.
Thankfully, no one came up to me to to say that I'm not even fit to intern for Josephus Tan yet.