Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Is English Literature a conspiracy to keep non-elites poor in Singapore ?

While it seems that this blog is veering off topic again, I want to emphasize that a good investor is a fox rather than a hedgehog. Good investors employs multiple modes of thinking to extract extraordinary profit from the financial markets.

Keeping off the employment grid and being focused on the markets has somewhat changed me to date. I'm less inclined to adopt exclusively formal models and mathematics to manage my portfolio. A few very good bets of late have been largely driven by my view on political elections, which also led me to care a lot more about culture -  My bet on Germany for this year's World Cup as evidence by a few article ago ( although I'm nowhere as sharp as Andy's dad ), is a result of finding out that Germany is the most linear-active of cultures around the world and conclude that the combination of Gesundlichkeit (thoroughness), statistics and software will allow them to trump any multi-active team like Argentina or Brazil. 

Impending law school also made me interested in local history the first time in my life. I think that you cannot divorce the analysis and interpretation of laws from historical context.

This sea-change in my personality and approach to making money has also made me more bothered about things which may not have anything to do with finance. 

Right now, I'm bothered by English Literature and the Literati in Singapore. Of course, being a writer myself, these guys are folks I really respect privately and count all of them as good friends. My grouse is the general of a class of people - not individuals. 

It started  with an appeal from a newspaper reader  to introduce Higher English into the syllabus which mirrors the Higher Chinese syllabus taught in SAP schools. On my Facebook, the prominent Literati never really gave this idea much thought. Intellectual arrogance was rife and the Literati, in an orgy of mutual back-patting and intellectual masturbation, declared that Higher English is not necessary because English Literature plays that role within our education today. For the first time in my life, I realized that English Literature was not just a subject taught in schools, but a religion and one with plenty of fundamentalist adherents. 

This intellectual arrogance and dismissive attitude can be forgiven if it was merely  confined to an ivory tower, but recent events involving NLB has shown that writers and Literati have cultural and political clout. In a rare public scuffle, NLB was beaten to a pulp and forced to back-peddle from pulping a few children's books. In the end, the outcome was not any better - the loudest guys won. 

The moral of the story is that advantage went to those who are better with words.

Coming back to English Literature, I always thought that we were deliberately taught badly in a Government school so that we will develop a hatred for the humanities and take up technocratic careers. In Secondary 1, Swiss Cottage had Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Was Great Expectations strategically chosen to keep us Government kids from living out our potential ?

Poor Pip, the protagonist was about our age, when we read the story. When he develops a crush on Estella, he gets friend-zoned because she is actually some emotional weapon wielded by Miss Havisham who has a grouse against men because she was dumped on the altar. When Pip finally gets financial support (Yes ! A scholarship ! ), it had to come from a criminal element in society like Magwitch. 

Because of English Literature, we kids of Swiss Cottage can never realize our ambitions, the poverty mindset on non-elite kids must be ingrained so that we will not rise to take on the status quo. All MacBeth wanted was to be king, but it was prophesied that he will suffer a horrible fate, telling us that ambition leads to tragedy (and don't even listen to that horrible wife of yours). Even reaching the pinnacle of one's career could mean being assassinated, just like Julius Caesar. Don't even think of rebellion - you do not wish to suffer the fate of Brutus !

If English Literature was right, we of Swiss Cottage - government schools with no distinction in the late 1980s, should just accept our lot as ordinary citizens !

Anyway, rant aside, I belong firmly in the school of Higher English as a replacement for English Literature. Engineering and Computer Science colleges completely reinvent themselves every few years to stay relevant, it is unjust and not mention a waste of tax-payer's money to maintain English Literature in its current state for 9% of the exam-taking student population.

A Higher English subject should ideally, be a full H2 A level subject. It should be more technical and cover the latest use of media like blogging and employ modern word processing tools. Project-wise, we should creation more content like write works of flash fiction, op-eds. There should be more emphasis on the ancient art of Rhetoric and assessment should have a public speaking component. Instead of reading a few great books, Higher English should read snippets of good examples of classic and modern fiction. Why read a select number of works from Shakespeare when you can read smaller snippets from Austen, Balzac or George R R Martin ?

[ A friend mentioned a return to grammar - I think this needs to be resurrected in Basic Vanilla  English. ]

In conclusion, Words are Power. 

In my next life journey, I will be trying to unlock the full potential of words. Condemning our kids to outmoded forms of instruction without teaching them how to unleash the full power of the written word is not sustainable for our culture and economy. 

Policy makers and government, in building a technocracy, have made the power of words out of reach from the general population. If we relinquish the power of words to just a handful of Religious Zealots, Writers or Literati, we have only ourselves to blame they start proselytizing for an extremist cause in the cultural wars of Singapore.

We the silent majority would become impotent against their persuasive talents.

Then, the Tail will truly Wag the Dog, in Singapore.

Tackling the root cause of the Cultural Wars in Singapore does not lie in categorizing books or yet more protests in Hong Lim Park.

It is equipping everyone with the power of words and denying exclusive access to the powers of persuasion, rhetoric and demagoguery to a select few liberal elites.

Start with English Literature.

End with Higher English.



  1. Hello fellow ex student of Swiss Cottage, interesting piece you've got here.

    I have to disagree with you that having better command of English would bring one to do better in life.

    It takes more than talk to be successful. Not to say that being able to articulate one's ideas is not important.

    The hunger to succeed is paramount. People can tell whether one knows what one is talking about. How to speak with passion and as if it is one's conviction if one did not conceive the subject matter?

    Instead of having more english lessons, i think students would do better to learn to sell, communicate, negotiate, etc.

    In the business world, one doesn't win by debate.

  2. The business world is one of many world.

    There is a place for good English in school. We can train people who choose the business world later.

  3. 'Coming back to English Literature, I always thought that we were deliberately taught badly in a Government school so that we will develop a hatred for the humanities and take up technocratic careers. In Secondary 1, Swiss Cottage had Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Was Great Expectations strategically chosen to keep us Government kids from living out our potential ?'

    sorry but this feels too conspiracy theory to me! i also did great expectations, though for university literature, and understand that it is considered one of the major classics of victorian literature.

  4. It may well be a great classic work of Victorian Literature. But in 200 years, students will also be reading classics like "20 Shades of Grey" in the Literature course of the future.

    It does not change the fact that Great Expectations was a weapon designed to temper the expectations of Gen-X when we were in Secondary school.

    During my days, RI students read Secret Diary of Adrian Mole and The Wizard of Earthsea for English Literature. Certainly the best and the brightest do not need to have their ambitions curbed.

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