I remember an old Caucasian teacher once told me: Are you sure you will succeed if you study in another country?
That was way back in the 1990s. I had failed terribly in the first year of junior college. I was depressed, disillusioned and I wanted out, out of Singapore, out and far far away from a system that had failed me. I needed to be as far as possible, to start a new chapter, to regain my confidence.
The first country that came to find was Canada, as mum had cousins staying there. That was how we met this Caucasian teacher, at the Canadian embassy. I was too distressed for her words to have any effect on me then. I just registered it and pushed it way back to the back of my brains, as I sough an escape route. The final destination was Perth, part of an ultimatum that dad gave me – either Perth or nowhere. My decision was obvious. I knew he gave that ultimatum as he did not want me too far away from home. I was, afterall, the first born and it was natural that he was protective.
Preparations were made for me to head there. My parents insisted that I go to a Catholic all-girls boarding school, and what position did I have to challenge that? I still remember the very nice principal Mr Frank Owen, who patiently spoke to me on the phone to guide me through the admission process. I still remember he had a deep, baritone voice. He was equally patient when I arrived. I was not prepared for the homesickness I would feel. I cried buckets on the flight there. The guy next to me must be thinking ‘what did I get myself into?’. But yes, so starts my life as an international student.
In Perth, I told myself that I had to make it. No more second chances any more. After five years of boarding school and university, I did and did my parents proud. Of course, lots of money spent too. Proud not only because I finally graduated, but also because I was entering another stage of my life – as a working adult.
So, I am a classic example of someone who performed poorly in the Singapore system and shined in another country’s educational system. Or so it seems. Was my performance due only to the particular educational system I was in?
Sure, some may think that other educational systems are more relaxing compared to Singapore’s. To a certain extent, it is. The life style is more relaxing, and I have often seen my host family’s children play cricket after school rather than be stuck with homework. But have you done 180 questions in 180 minutes in a Maths exam? I had to. Was that in Singapore? Surprise surprise. It was not. It was the Year 12 Tertiary Entrance Examinations that I did in Perth, where my whole year’s cohort was sitted in rows in a huge hall, on a chilly spring morning. And it was no play in the park. The stress level was up there! To prepare, I actually had to practise and time myself to make sure I could do one maths question in one minute. Relaxing? No way!
And for someone who excelled in English during the O Levels, I failed English under the Australian educational system. Another shocking surprise! The reason? The English subject in Australia was equivalent to English Literature in Singapore. I was reading ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ and analysing the film ‘Dead Poets Society’ and writing analytical pieces about the two. No grammar, no comprehension, no summary, no oral. More interesting? You bet! But definitely not easier.
What I am saying is this. It is not the educational system that determines whether one will succeed or not. It may help by creating an environment that is suitable to one’s learning abilities. And as a parent, as much as I would like my kids to excel in the best educational system that suits their learning abilities, be it the Singapore, Australian or even the Finnish system, how am I to know whether that system is indeed the best for them? As much as I dislike stressing my children, and potentially becoming a kiasu parent in the Singapore system, how do I know that my kids will not excel in it?
The best thing I can do is to teach them values that will help them in their learning journey. Teach them to ‘never say die’, to keep trying their best and never run away from a challenge and adopt a ‘I can learn’ attitude always. And most importantly, teach them to pick themselves up after a failure and learn from it. These are lessons that will equip them not only for school but also for life. Lessons that parents have a responsibility to impart, and not just decide which educational system to subject the kids to, just because we ourselves felt we were failed by it. Or so we thought. Really, we succeeded not because we were in a better system, but because we never called it quits.
And in the words of others:
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work – Thomas Edison
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. – Winston Churchill
Don’t be afraid to fail. Be afraid not to try. – Michael Jordan
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