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What Michael Gove should know about going to school in Singapore

I hated the rote-learning and savage competition at my schools. But I benefited from them, too

18 May 2013

9:00 AM

18 May 2013

9:00 AM

I like to tease my friend Wei about being a tiger mother. She once told me of an incident where her daughter Shu was making an artwork for a friend as a birthday present. Shu doodled for a few minutes, then showed her mother a sketch of a funny face. ‘I told her to knuckle down, spend more time, and come back with a far better drawing,’ said Wei. ‘It just wasn’t good enough.’

I said that was a bit harsh on her eight-year-old, especially since it was not schoolwork but part of Shu’s leisure time. Wei snorted. ‘It was a gift for her best mate, yet she hadn’t put any thought into it,’ she said. ‘She needs to know that you must make an effort for the things you really care about.’

Of course, Wei isn’t a real tiger mother. Truly tigerish mums are terrifying and probably don’t want their children to muck about with doodling in the first place. But I’ve been reflecting on my friend’s words ever since Michael Gove expressed the wish for British schools to emulate eastern ones.

My first reaction was to shudder — does the Education Secretary know what he’s talking about? I completed my secondary and tertiary schooling in Singapore, one of the countries he admires. Does Gove know how boring and soul-sapping rote-learning can be? Does he know how the emphasis on science, maths and IT can turn students into little robots, affecting particularly those of a more creative bent? Does he know the savagery to which competition in Asian schools can descend? Recently, there was news that the head of a kindergarten in China had put poison in the yogurt delivered to a rival school, in order to destroy its reputation. Two children died.

That’s an extreme example, I admit. Usually the downside of Asian schooling manifests itself in more subtle ways. The intense pressure to excel means students often study not for the joy of succeeding, but from the fear of failing. In Singapore they have a term for it — kiasu, which means ‘scared to lose’. It’s a self-deprecating, catch-all phrase used for all sorts of hyper-competitive behaviour, from hogging a buffet spread or the karaoke microphone to, yes, slaving for exams in order not to lose face. It’s one of the least attractive traits of an eastern education.


And yet, and yet. As I get older I have grudgingly come to recognise that the Asian way of learning, both at home and at school, isn’t all bad. The drive for excellence is crippling at its worst, powerfully enabling at its best. The human propensity for lazing about and procrastinating means we need something, or someone, to egg us on. The emphasis on doing well is a lesson that extends beyond the classroom: whenever I face challenges in life, I recall that my parents, my teachers, even my schoolmates have always expected more of me than I have of myself. In my mind I hear the refrain, You can be better, stronger. And many a time, I find that I can.

I have even, somewhat to my own disgust, come to appreciate the emphasis on the rigour of science and maths, and even on the importance of rote-learning and putting certain things to memory. At the risk of sounding like a headmistress — discipline and structure must be inculcated, whereas creativity is often innate or inborn. Here’s the thing: once you have the structure, you can pile all the artistic sensitivity you like on top, free as you please. But without any proper foundation, all creativity is for naught.

Of course, I am stereotyping and simplifying. There must be quite a few British parents who are tiger mums and dads, instilling a ferocious will to succeed in their progeny that would make a pushy Shanghai mother look positively benevolent in comparison. I’m also (obviously) not saying that British parents don’t want their children to succeed, or have high hopes for them.

Furthermore, there’s a certain irony in Gove’s ‘Look East’ policy — it comes at a time when many Asian countries are hoping to copy western education and its success in fostering inventiveness, originality and lateral thinking. Singapore has made this a priority, for instance, setting up huge arts and drama schools and introducing more project- and team-based work as well as teaching formats such as show-and-tell.

Easterners have always had a very high regard for western education, especially British education, appreciating in particular the sense of heritage, of carrying on a long tradition. To be accepted at Oxford or Cambridge is still considered the highest echelon of success. The Chinese students who flock to British universities, no matter how jingoistic they may be about Chinese civilisation, are tacitly expressing an admiration for Britain’s history and high culture.

Even as British children start taking Mandarin lessons and practising Chinese calligraphy, Asian kids are busy picking up everything from basic English and French to Shakespearean sonnets. Middle-class Asian parents would overwhelmingly prefer to give their children piano lessons, so that they can be exposed to Mozart and Beethoven, rather than classes in Chinese opera (thankfully) or the sitar. My cousin’s little son has been trying to master the dulcimer.

The cross-cultural threads can be fascinating: Asian youngsters, far more bespectacled than their western counterparts, feel they can relate to Harry Potter because he wears glasses.

So yes, there are perhaps some aspects of Asian education that Gove can borrow, happy in the knowledge that Asian schools are doing quite a lot of borrowing back. Perhaps it can be considered a kind of East-West study exchange of sorts.

My friend Wei’s birthday is coming round soon, and I must think hard about what present to give her. After all, you must make an effort for the things that really matter.


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