Thursday, January 8, 2009

PSLE results: One of the few times we can talk about race in Singapore

Seelan: Personally I don't understand at all why we have to highlight the ethnicity of the top PSLE students. I mean, they're all still students no matter what their race, right? What are we teaching our kids?

"The Bell curve is a fact of life. The blacks on average score 85 per cent on IQ and it is accurate, nothing to do with culture. The whites score on average 100. Asians score more ... the Bell curve authors put it at least 10 points higher. These are realities that, if you do not accept, will lead to frustration because you will be spending money on wrong assumptions and the results cannot follow."
- Lee Kuan Yew, The Man & His Ideas, 1997

Here is a blogpost made by a local blogger, Sam Ho.

PSLE results: One of the few times we can talk about race in Singapore
Source: Sam's thoughts

Every time the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examinations) results are out, there is the customary celebration of ethnic achievements.

The top ethnic Chinese (according to your identity card, birth certificate and the prescribed ‘race’ of your father) pupil will generally be “the top student”. Of course, the overly racially-sensitive and sensitised establishment will also want to feature the “top Malay/Indian/Other students” too.

I might be wrong, but last year’s top student is ethnic Malay. Interestingly, I have seen and heard little mention about “the top Chinese student”.

Have we become slaves of our national history and politics?

The education system, as in most countries, is a creation of the culturally and politically dominant ‘race’, a promotion and glorification of (in this case) English-speaking ethnic Chinese middle-class values. This is further entrenched by the fact that ethnic Chinese form the numerical majority in Singapore. So it should be no surprise that a Chinese student (who more importantly identifies with the values of the system) excels in such a system.

A side point, I think we are not “ethnic” Chinese/Malay/Indian/Others, but “categorical” Chinese/Malay/Indian/Others.

The stellar performance of a categorical Chinese student in a Singaporean school would win her (mainly female any way) the accolade (and media tribute) of “best/top student”.

The excellent results of categorical Malay or Indian or Eurasian students would win them not only “best/top [insert categorical race] student” but the typical otherising that most minorities receive.

We have “top student”, “top Malay student”, “top Indian student” and “top Eurasian student” in every year when we have a categorical Chinese as a top PSLE performer. The insertion of racial adjectives is an example of who the minority status of the student is played up; how the student is made an “other” because of how his/her “race” is being prescribed to him/her.

It is definitely well-meaning, given our historical condition. But if we were to make such segregations and distinctions along the lines of categorical race, why not class or religion (or if you’re cynical enough, sexual identity, but religion for a 12 year old would be a stretch)?

Can we not have a top student from a combined household income of more than $10,000? Why not have a chart of PSLE distinctions and socio-economic status?

I think that the categorical Chinese Singaporeans idea of Chinese-ness or Chinese Singaporean-ness is growingly diluted and dispersed. So where is the value or what is the point in talking about Chinese achievements when we all have different ideas of what constitute Chinese-ness?

The notion of race precedes that of nationhood and nationalist identity. Here we are today waving our racial/ethnic banners at one another. Of course, we are not waving them ourselves, but we have the culturally-sensitive press to do it for us.

A racial riot will always follow the aggressive playing-up of racial differences. Here, in the Straits Times for example, we also see the same kinds of distinctions being made, albeit more subtle and politically correct. The newspaper is not to blame as it is still answerable to the establishment, the very same authority that gave us our categorical identities.

The well-intended mentions of minority achievements still condemn minorities to a status of an “other”. We talk about having a Singapore that is together and integrated, but here we are, unknowingly or not, sowing the seeds of polarisation and fragmentation along the lines of institutionalised difference-ing.

That’s right, there are some kinds of differences that are recognised by the institutions/establishment, while others are ignored. Our differences are calibrated by those who seek to gain the most from this categorising. If the process of categorising was made by the people themselves, we will have a different style of governance and perhaps a different government (not many Singaporeans can imagine that, myself included).

Race, or categorical race, will always be an issue because the people that matter, the people who can influence policy, still consider it to be what it is. From young, we are fed the “essence” of our categorical race, so that upon institutionalisation, we continue this cycle of cultural hegemony.

I have one burning question, where do we go from here? So what if all of us knew about this “problem”? Will it serve us better to have a non-racialised Singapore? After all, we welcome foreigners/‘farangs’ (and gladly defend them using our local boys). Also, the category of CMIO and in this case, academic achievements along the lines of categorical race, will appear to be less relevant in years to come, given we are becoming more culturally diverse (or mixed/diluted/withered).

Sam continues to blog at


Anonymous said...

Yes, your eyes are not playing tricks on you and neither is there a typo mistake.

Mr Tan Yong Soon, a senior civil servant with the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources had actually spent S$15,500 per head, or S$46,500 in all to attend a French cooking course in Paris.

Not that it was immoral for him to do so, but to boast about it openly in the papers to ordinary Singaporeans fretting about their livelihoods amidst an economic recession is downright insensitive, callous and arrogant.

BG(NS) Tan Yong Soon-Former CEO of URA, iron clad rice bowl.

The income disparity is too big.

I would prefer that this top civil servant had spent his money for cooking lessons in Singapore.

Afterall as a top civil servant he should have set an example of supporting the local economy ...... if he was truly


Anonymous said...



KEEP IT UP??????

Secret Political Blogger said...

Color-blindness is an ideal that can solve such problems.

There is always focus on the race of PSLE candidates and their results because it is usually used to determine if race-oriented affirmative action is needed.

However, affirmative action here need not operate on the basis of race, but it can operate on the basis of income too.

Low income students tend to score less in PSLE

Minority races tend to have lower income, and hence tend to score less in PSLE, hence race oriented affirmative action works in a sense.

So why not re-orientate the action to an income based one so we can avoid segregating PSLE scores?

Singapore Indian Voice said...

Agreed, Secret.

And even IF it was to show that "minority races" are achieving well/better, won't a photograph and the students' names be sufficient enough information for people to figure out what their ethnic background is?

Anonymous said...

Speech made by EDB CEO Mr Teo Ming Kian at launching of Satyam’s innovation hub in Singapore, 2006:

“I am delighted to be part of Satyam’s event today to launch the business intelligence, analytics and mobile applications global innovation hubs in Singapore. Today’s inauguration ceremony marks a milestone as Satyam is the first major Indian IT enterprise to invest in R&D centers in Singapore.

I became even more convinced after I visited his Hyderabad campus at his invitation, and saw the impressive operations there. Operations which Singapore could contribute to as a major platform for Satyam to expand internationally.

Mr Teo Ming Kian must be kicking himself in the butt for his rather lavish if not slavish praise of Ramalinga Raju who had been falsifying Satyam’s accounts all along.

It is understandable if one or two persons were unfortunate enough to be misled and conned by Ramalinga, but to have an entire team of senior government leaders including the Prime Minister of the nation being caught with their pants down in dealings with a con man is rather embarrassing

not surprising at all, those clowns in white are easiest to con -You know why they never learn ?

Will you ever learnt from 'honest mistakes' ?


Anonymous said...

"Personally I don't understand at all why we have to highlight the ethnicity of the top PSLE students. I mean, they're all still students no matter what their race, right? What are we teaching our kids?"

True. But your observation is equally ironic, coming from the pages of Singapore Indian Voice. We are all Singaporeans, regardless of race.

Singapore Indian Voice said...

This blog has been named what it is for many reasons. I have explained to some people in person, and perhaps I should post those reasons on my blog soon.

Thank you for the prompt.