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It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Category: opinion

Tuition culture | is an extra edge double-edged? [not finished]

I’ve noticed how dinner party conversations can veer south very quickly upon the first utterance of an education-related topic. Someone could ask, “Did you see that article on [insert controversial educational reform]?” and polite company become very, well, impolite. What I find fascinating is the increasingly polarised debate surrounding the consequences of tuition. In Singapore, the word tuition is not just in reference to university fees but also extra classes for academic subjects. The “tuition industry”, as its been termed, is worth $1.1 billion dollars and can cater to children as young as 6-years-old. Once you get past the astronomical figure and shake off the image of a toddler taking on Advanced Calculus, we can begin to unfold what powers this lucrative industry.

As a former British colony, our history as an independent country spans a mere 51 years, during which we’ve graduated to a cosmopolitan first world country. Meritocracy was instrumental in improving our productivity and global standing, and people finally stopped mistaking us for a part of China. Fortunately, we’ve entered an age where our geographical location is no longer an issue, but something else is off-center and it’s not because we’re one degree north of the equator; the bedrock of society that’s served us for half a century is slowly crumbling.

Today, Singaporean society is characterized by extreme competitiveness and the relentless pursuit of excellence. The rat race is especially inescapable in the education system where desperation to give children an academic edge has translated into the creation of a “tuition culture”, where an average of 2.2% of household expenditure is committed to monthly tuition fees. And it’s not just because a couple of millionaires have extra cash to blow. A study in 2015 found that 7 in 10 parents send their children for supplementary lessons. This begs the question – what about the other 30%? If society is founded on rewarding merit with opportunity, what happens when one’s opportunity to attain merit is compromised? While the tuition industry has produced brilliant minds and bright scholars, it has created a society that unintentionally discriminates against the poor and renders the importance of merit impotent.

Maybe 18-year-olds have no business poking at a problem as multi-faceted and complex as this, but at the risk of sounding grandiose, we are in the best positions to do so. I’ve always been more inclined to Literature and English language, finding more safety in words than numbers. Thankfully, I was able to enlist the help of a mathematics tutor and she soon helped me make sense of . You see, I’m a part of the privileged 70% and I couldn’t be more cognizant of the elitism and gross disparity born out of this pernicious reality. I’ve seen friends brighter than me experience an unjust disadvantage simply because they lack the capital to achieve their full potential

The entire industry is powered by a result-oriented mentality, usually perpetuated by parents who want the best prospects for their child. This doesn’t just disadvantage the poor, but every child who experiences undue stress and anxiety from the perpetual endeavor for academic prowess. We desperately need a paradigm shift towards a lifestyle premised on holistic living etc etc. Furthermore Enticed by shorter hours and higher pay many capable, passionate school teachers are moving into private tuition and so its no surprise that teacher attrition is 3 per cent annually. This, I believe, has contributed to a self-perpetuating problem where students do not receive the most favorable education in schools and seek it externally (at exorbitant prices) from great teachers who have left schools to become tutors. The increased demand for tuition and higher pay compel more school teachers to make the switch and the cycle repeats.

Perhaps meritocracy isn’t the best ideal and a country as small and profit-driven as Singapore needs a little competition to maintain her edge in the world, but when the proliferation of private tuition is at the expense of our central tenets of “justice and equality”, I don’t think it’s our children that need supplementary lessons.

interview with Franchesca Ramsey

Part of the Language & Literature syllabus in the IB involves writing an original piece to demonstrate language in cultural context. I came up with two pieces, of which one was sent for marking. However, I’m still incredibly proud of the other one. You can read it here!

The Elusive Fiend

Start any conversation about human trafficking with a Singaporean, and you’re likely to get a response that reflects a shocking ignorance of its prevalence on and through our shores. It is a subject that has been pointedly ignored in recent parliamentary discussions until last November when Parliament passed the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act. Six months later, Singapore still falls short in the local Trafficking of Persons (TIP) report, which begs the question—What more can be done?

Admittedly, Singapore has implemented several laws to criminalize human trafficking as seen in the Women’s Charter, the Children and Young Person’s Act and the Penal Code. In addition, the Ministry of Manpower is focused on ensuring workers are aware of their rights and police hotline numbers should the latter be compromised. However, one need only witness the nightly police raids at red light districts such as Geylang and Orchard Towers to see that these measures have not fully eradicated the problem.

Any country in the fight against trafficking understands that the fundamental issue lies in the covert, secretive nature of the transaction. Human trafficking is an activity that thrives in the shadows and it seems that Singapore has been shining the spotlight in all the wrong places. Trafficking cases brought to court often leave victims without government protection, as the law does not define trafficking in accordance with international standards. In 2013, the government substantiated a mere 21 cases out of 400 leads.

The lack of legal definition is closely linked to the inefficiency of victim identification. This relationship was addressed in the anti-trafficking bill, which emphasized that consent of the victim would not be an impediment to enforcement. However, the visionary behind the bill, Mr. Christopher DeSouza (Member of Parliament), explained that officials ‘on the ground’ would have the authority to judge if a person in a raid is a victim of trafficking. This elicited concern from civil society activists and organisations, which questioned if the Bill could serve as adequate protection if the victim’s fate was left to the subjective judgement of individual officers. Once again, ambiguity in the “administrative flexibility” of the law has allowed the beast that prowls our streets yet another opportunity to elude capture.

Off the streets, labour trafficking is another pressing issue that the Bill attempted to address. It intends to focus on “forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude.” The Bill does not allude to other exploitative practices such as restriction of movement (by withholding worker’s passports), wages and living conditions on the basis that such indicators are included under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA). Unfortunately, the EMFA fails to address these problems effectively as it seems to prioritise productivity-driven growth over issues such as long working hours and the lack of wage protection. Small wonder then that we have the third highest GDP per capita in the world but remain a destination country for labour trafficking.

The Bill, which took effect on March 1, also highlights a ‘victim-centric approach’ to frame the key pillars of the government’s efforts to combat human trafficking. In line with this approach, the Bill proposes the provision of temporary shelters and video-conferenced trials to better assist victims. Yet again, we see a failure to pick out the primary concerns of victims, which would undoubtedly include deportation or repatriation. The response to these concerns should be laws that provide victims with practical solutions such as alternative employment and a temporary stay visa. The government should be harnessing its resources to create specific mechanisms to ensure that victims of trafficiking are adequately protected and accommodated, preventing them from entering the vicious cycle once more.

According the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, Singapore remains below the minimum standard the curb human trafficking. While this has been the case for the last 4 years, I’m optimistic about the direction the government is taking and look forward to the day human trafficking is properly ensnared by the wrath of the law.

Political theatre – why we can’t just be the passive audience

It is often said that theatre holds a mirror to society and compels audience members to ponder hard-hitting topics in ways unparalleled by television or film. In recent years, Singapore’s theatre scene has blossomed and matured exponentially, opening dialogue and defying convention in bold attempts to push the proverbial envelope of artistic expression. From Wild Rice’s staging of The Importance of Being Earnest with an all-male cast to Pangdemonium’s chilling depiction of a serial killer in Frozen, no one can argue against the progress we’ve seen.

Despite these refreshing additions, local theatre remains painfully restricted by the limitations set by governmental bodies such as the National Arts Council (NAC) and the Media Development Authority (MDA). The productions highlighted before were mostly made possible through the contribution of sponsors and donations, a luxury that most companies do not have. It seems political theatre has stagnated into a series of lighthearted, barely satirical allegories performed by the same theatre companies. With the liberty to artistic expression inhibited by these regulations, can theatre truly be considered an accurate reflection of society?

The gargantuan cost of supporting a single production would send any independent theatre company into bankruptcy. Enter NAC, which uses this opportunity to swoop in and lift these struggling companies from their predicament, into the waiting arms of self-censorship. Companies are promised the council’s support but in turn, they must refrain from addressing sensitive issues lest they face the risk of financial liquidation. In 2010, W!LD RICE experienced a cut in NAC’s annual grant from $190,000 to $170,000 on the grounds of being “incompatible with the core values promoted by the Government and society”. In the same year, Theatreworks experienced similar funding cuts as it lacked “local presence”.

These punitive measures against leading theatre companies have set a clear precedent — the government will only support art if it is agenda-less, non-international and pro-establishment. By that logic, the only form of performance art that should be left untouched is the annual National Day Parade, but one can only handle so many renditions of Count On Me, Singapore. What we need is a readiness to put society under a microscope and call attention to its inherent flaws.

Admittedly, playwrights and theatre companies have much greater leeway to explore controversial themes than before. Renowned playwright Tan Tarn How started the ball rolling in 2011 with The Fear of Writing, a play about self-censorship. Chong Tze Chien followed this with Charged, which addressed interracial prejudice, the first of its kind. Two years ago, in light of the SG50, the Esplanade featured 50 Singaporean plays, which included works by playwright Kuo Pao Kun such as The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole (1985) and The Silly Little Girl And The Funny Old Tree (1987).

This was the same Kuo who had his citizenship revoked and was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) due to the “increasingly political nature” of his works in 1976. Having his plays featured in a nationwide celebration of theatre is indicative of the government’s willingness to view political theatre as something more than pernicious endeavours for reform in the guise of pantomimes.

Despite these encouraging developments, theatre companies still face several obstructions. While NAC uses funding to restrict the kind of content presented onstage, the MDA has the responsibility of giving advisories and licenses to performances, to allow “consumers to make an informed viewing choice”. Companies are also compelled to comply with the conditions attached to the license or risk not being able to stage the performance.

On this matter, Chong Tze Chien, company director of the Finger Players said: “We are one of the very few countries in the world where arts groups have to apply for a licence before we can put on a performance… that in itself is already a form of censorship, and a more insidious one, actually.”

From heated debates on new reforms between pot-bellied men in coffee shops to hushed discussions among first-time voters on the train, politics has been an ongoing conversation for years. Unfortunately, it is a conversation that barely reaches the stage these days. What local political theatre desperately needs is a vocal, enthusiastic community backing it. If we want stories onstage to reflect the day-to-day realities of life, we need to ask for them. If we yearn for the cathartic, all-consuming experience of honest uninhibited theatre, it is our responsibility to demand it.

There is an admirable fearlessness to political artists who have an insatiable desire to stimulate dialogue. The sense of personal responsibility among these individuals is certainly encouraging. In a 2011 interview about Fear of Writing, Tan Tarn How says “Is political theatre raising questions about the state, nation and society? Artists have held up the mirror to society but the gaze from the audience isn’t a gaze of reflection and transformation. What we’re getting is a contractual return of time of consumption and entertainment: a lifestyle of mere spectacle.”

Five years later, more theatre companies are beginning to address pertinent issues and the increased accessibility of various news platforms has made Singaporeans more politically aware. I believe we have arrived at an extraordinary time where both artists and audience agree that entertainment should not supplant the engagement of real issues. This is an invitation to Singaporeans of all walks of life and political views to grasp this opportunity to make a mark on the history of local theatre. It is time to walk the talk and while you are at it, break a leg.