Wednesday, November 30, 2016


Ok, my exams are finally over and I am moving into my final semester beginning next year.
Starting tomorrow, I begin a short unpaid internship stint with a startup. I hope I would be able to learn something significant this year end holidays with some programming high on my list of priorities. It has been a largely relaxed semester so there's no need for any break this time round so off I go...

Of late, there has been much talk on the PSLE exams and how demotivating it is for the majority of the primary six students who had to take it. I have been ranting for the past year about the anti-PSLE movement where people share their low scores to console the students who did badly, but they are just taking this opportunity to get some old fashioned humble-bragging into Facebook.  Instead I just want to spend some time sharing with readers two things about the PSLE.

a) PSLE's biggest problem is that it summarises a 12 year old's entire worth as a human being into one T-score metric. But therein lies its genius.

I think the most onerous part of PSLE lies in its ability to summarise the value of a 12-year-old into one simple t-score number. It sucks to do badly but making matters worse, parents invest so much money and time into this game doing badly is also a reflection of how bad the parents are.

But the PSLE's genius is the T-score itself. With one metric, the education system can be bound  to one national agenda and future changes to adapt to the new economy can occur with a simple adjustment to the subject syllabus. This is how Singapore's education system can achieve such ratings with PISA and yet incur so little overheads and explains why we spend so little of our tax payer's money on educating our children.

Imagine administering hundreds of primary schools and  you are not just required to educated these students, you also need to use the system as a sorting machine to ensure that the best secondary school places go to the most deserving kids (and every parent thinks that their kids are the most deserving.) As even the most highly paid management consultants will be hawking a Balanced Scorecard to MNCs, implementing one metric is genius.

Adults, of course, are extremely unhappy with such an arrangement, but society itself is more like the PSLE than we would care to admit. Closer to home in SMU, if a law student scores a GPA less than 3.0, we cannot practice. Another example are dating apps like Tinder and OkCupid. The way men look at female profiles employ one simple metric as well : Men only go for women with good looks. Some of my friends complain that they only get matched with "Pork chops" when the "Pork Chops" at least would be more willing to look at other traits beyond a guy's appearance.

b) The folks who do badly talk about how demotivating the PSLE is but it's become politically incorrect to talk about how much it boosts the self-esteem of students who do well. 

We have a different problem with western liberals in Singapore. Singapore is caught up with it's own form of political correctness which is bordering on Fascism this year. Instead of Black Lives Matter, in Singapore, it is (PSLE T-Score < 220) Lives matter.

I don't disagree with the idea that poor grades should be played down to preserve a kid's mental health, but not a single posting on FB talks about positive effects of doing well in the PSLE.

I am going to provide two alternative perspectives.

One of my ex-colleague's son scored 266 for his PSLE and I sensed a lot of pride in his kid's result. He was quite mischievous, first baiting us into asking by pretending that his kid did badly. I think he earned it because unlike the other parents in his batch of engineers, my friend and his wife focused on coaching his son instead of blazing ahead in his own career. His son's results goes beyond that guaranteed seat in Hwa Chong Institution, it is also an important source of self-esteem for the my colleague who made the career trade-off. It gives a source of self-esteem whenever he encounters his peers who are directors in their respective companies.

My niece has also done remarkably well at 258. My wife's side is Malaysian and my niece is on the way to getting into a IP program. If you think about it, at least the PSLE makes the T-Score a criteria for entering into the best schools. Malaysian Chinese who stay in Malaysia have to do an extra year in secondary school purely for racial/linguistic reasons (This is known as the one year removed penalty mostly imposed on ethnic Chinese). My niece is quiet and shy, and now at least, she has done something significant to give her an anchor to say that she can make it if she puts enough effort to get something done.

Ok, that's all for ranting about PSLE for now as my own exams were over just this morning.


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