I was 18 and mugging my life away. Life as a Singaporean student was like being in a massive pressure cooker. I must say, it was not for everyone. Since it was the path I was born to, I was going to see it through.
My counterparts in America were pulling their hair out over which outfits that were going to wear to school the next day, while at the other hemisphere of earth my friends and I were contemplating suicide over an impossible, ridiculously phrased mathematics question. The mathematics papers of Singapore schools, or rather Asia in general, have an immediate dampening effect of the self-esteem of sensitive kids like me.
I know they say that grades are a part of education, not a part of self-esteem. But try being a local student, and you'll find that in my country at least, judging a student's ability by his academic performance is entrenched in our culture. Evaluating kids based on the Torrance score (many do not even know what this is) would make whichever school who chooses to do that a laughing stock.
I refused to admit defeat. I could do this. The A-levels here are not at all similar to the standard of the UK's, but that was not the point. I was trying my very best to be good enough for a prestigious school in the UK, so I knew I had to meet their stringent international student criteria or it was nothing.
Occasionally I saw it through, and I satisfied the conditions of the offer theyaveave me. Needless to say I was elated. I paid a price for it, in terms of significant family time (all the outside meals I missed as I was busy poring over a textbook) and even my own joy. I can not explain the mixed feelings of gratitude and indifference I felt when my name turned up on the honor roll. I had a feeling all that indoctrination I voluntarily subjected myself to had made my brain's sensory areas so numb that I was unable to express the slightest hint of how I felt about that achievement.
Those days had a familiar repetitive ring to them. I got up early and started the day with classes, took a quick nap at home and went at it again, stopping for a jog and dinner before spending what was left of my cerebral capacity. Occidentally I would just get sick of my dull life and it got to a point where I had a sudden moment of "Life is meaningless" thoughts, and it scared me so I would take another nap or choose not to be so hard on myself for That day. I am a believer of luring oneself to sleep to magically erase problems that are too daunting to handle.
I may have exaggerated things a little up there and made it sound a little too morbid. But you get the picture. Being a student in this little red dot is like being in a rice cooker where you are pressurized (subtly, of course) to do well in exams. Those who happen to be smart in other areas but not book-smart (through no fault of their own, of course) tend to fall through the cracks, which is a glaring loophole in this grade-oriented system, efficient as it is.
The fountain of youth was donated to the pursuit of academic success and a ticket to the course of my dreams in a well-known university. I would say it was well worth it, and I can not be more glad. But I admit that I can not stop my mind from wandering about what might have happened before I was raised in a system that encaged learning at one's pace rather than strict conformity.
People realize the country I come from and they tell me that "you guys are absolutely brilliant in math". The little red dot has a reputation of topping the world's charts for math, science and recently, even the more artistic area of reading and comprehension. We have earned ourselves the stereotype of being math and science geeks to international students.
Math and science says conformity. They spell out concrete evidence and infallible logic that humans can be assured to rely on. Practicality is a value passed on from our forefathers and runs deep in Singaporean blood. Our education system, if you realize, is built on an intenet favoritism towards the math and sciences.
I am an arts person. I abhor mathematics, even though I did well at it. I am part of the millennial generation finding our own areas of interests other than the traditional non-arts related fields. You could say I am a fish out of water. I had one of the most erratic subject combinations in my school, and one of the best in my opinion. I wish to debunk the baseless stereotype that Asians will do geeky subjects in their tertiary life.
My aptitude for Math has absolutely nothing to do with my attitude towards it, which is nonchalant. I appreciate Math for the security it gives, the concrete right and wrongs that make it black and white, which is the beauty to some out there. I find it impossible to hate Math when I score full marks, because I do not think we are capable of channeling so much bad emotion towards something that we can do so well.
But as someone who no longer needs to practice Math for exams, I know I do not like it.
I can never foresee myself studying anything math or science related now that junior college is over. Mathematics to me is like manufacturing and machination, a soulless process that one without any real passion for it (exactly me) can master to the art of perfection. That is all there is to math to me, and I wish that as someone who is passionate about the arts and humanities, I will be able to improve the arts scene in our country. More and more young people think like me, and while things are definitely improving, I am woeful to say it is not good enough to entice me to get a career here yet. (The plan, for now, is to find a job in the UK with my arts degree). I have a feeling that according to my research so far, the future career prospects for Geography, the love of my life, are more vibrant and enticing offshore.
If my passion lies in medicine or math or biology, I would gladly stay. The lop-lopsidedness of our focus irritates yet enthralls me. We have amassed this much wealth in so short a period of time and rose to international fame by none other than sheer practicality. But times are changing, and I no longer want to reply with the sarcastic "Because I'm Asian" response when international peers ask me why my (our) math is so good.
Being Singaporean and Asian should be more than owning the bragging rights of having the world's best math and science kids. I long for the day where outsiders know Singapore for our well-balanced and entrepreneurial environment, not as the grade goal machine of Southeast Asia.