SINGAPORE: He runs what many may consider a tuition centre, but for more than a decade, social entrepreneur and co-founder of The Thought Collective, Tong Yee, has advocated a pivot away from an assessment-driven society.
Tong is director of the School of Thought, one of the five social enterprises under The Thought Collective umbrella. In many ways, the school was the start of his journey of personal discovery. It was set up with the aim of helping financially disadvantaged repeat students pass their General Paper (GP) exams, and to gain a better understanding of the society they grew up in.
Tong went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about the role that his social enterprises play against the backdrop of Singapore’s “tuition culture”, his thoughts on what’s wrong with mainstream education in Singapore, and what it will take to build a more socially-conscious and resilient society.
They first spoke about how his personal and academic struggles have shaped his course in education and entrepreneurship.
Listen to the interview here:
Tong Yee: I think if I go back far enough, it is really because of the family I grew up in. I was born into a pretty wealthy family. My grandfather was a shipping tycoon. He used to do the trade between Singapore and Indonesia. I watched my grandfather handle the money and half the family wealth disappeared within one-and-a-half decades.
Bharati: What happened?
Tong Yee: It was just mismanagement of money. A lot of the money came because of a lot of good fortune. My grandfather built the first few skyscrapers in Singapore so that was a tremendous amount of wealth.
But he didn’t have the leadership to continue to hold the wealth. So watching all this money disappear, I really came to the conclusion that life can’t be about chasing money. Having seen it and seen what it does to families - for me, it became a question of: What else is this about?
That really started my own journey toward education and looking at how we can pass on the values that really count.
Bharati: What was your answer to the question? What else is this about, if it’s not about money?
Tong Yee: If it were to come down to one word, I’d say it’s about identity.
Bharati: When you say “identity”, let’s face it, even that is ...
Tong Yee: It’s loaded.
Bharati: It’s difficult to define, isn’t it?
Tong Yee: If I remove the money, what else is my identity? Who am I and what do I stand for? In simple terms, it is the story that you live.
There was this really bright young man I taught years ago. He came back to me at age 28 and said, “I just don’t know why it is that I have such fear over my success.” And it all went back to an experience he had when he was eight years old. He peed in his shorts and the whole class laughed at him. The teacher also laughed at him. And he never got over that. And that became part of his story. He said it came down to living a story of shame or that he’s a dweeb.
Unfortunately, it was a primary school experience so it stuck with him the whole of primary school. He was teased throughout. A lot of his drive for success was about shaking that off. That was his motivation. It wasn’t about standards or excellence. It was about: “I’m going to prove you wrong.”
So he realised at 28 when he was being promoted at work, he was really quite brittle. A bit more caustic with relationships, harder on people. And he never understood why because he said it was not the person that he really was.
Bharati: Before we talk about how these issues can be better handled within the framework of mainstream education, have you personally found an answer to your “identity” question?
Tong Yee: Yeah.
Bharati: What are those answers?
Tong Yee: It was interesting enough because it was the journey I took that gave me clarity as opposed to what people tell me. A story that’s coming up for me right now is my father calling me “irresponsible” when I was young. Having that stay with me for almost three-and-a-half decades or so, and just learning to say that that’s not my identity, that’s a story somebody has given to me, that’s what it is.
But I do find that there is something else that goes deeper. Right now, I identify clearly with coming to a space where I stand for youth, I stand for education and carrying myself as a citizen of Singapore. These things have become stories I have chosen rather than stories I have been given.
“I HAD DIED INSIDE”
Bharati: How did you arrive at this?
Tong Yee: Part of the journey came from me entering the training field. I was unfortunately suicidal at the age of 28 or so.
Tong Yee: I guess it was maybe the mistakes in life, mistakes in relationships.
I was also a three-time repeat student. Within the Singapore narrative, I was not supposed to make it. I think that story held me pretty tightly.
Bharati: Did you attempt suicide or did you just think about it?
Tong Yee: The closest I came was in Holland Drive, Block 14. I remember going up to the 16th floor and sitting on the ledge. I had a mental conversation with my mother about whether I should or should not jump. And she said “no”, so I pulled myself from the ledge.
But I remember at that point in time I think I had died inside. It was all those mistakes.
It was the story that this life is worth nothing.
Bharati: You said it was all those “mistakes” that led you to think that way, but what was it about the way you perceived what was happening to you that led to this period?
Tong Yee: I do think it has something to do with personality. I’m more empathetic by nature, so I read a lot into people’s expressions, faces. You don’t have to say much and I would see disappointment, or no real belief or faith. The people who did keep me alive were three or four people who believed in me. What survives or what doesn’t survive is really a question of whether people believe in it.
The PAP survives because people believe in it. Singapore survives because people believe in it. It’s the same for individuals. If you don’t put enough belief in people, the currency is taken away. All of us need people’s beliefs.
Bharati: Who are these three or four people who believed in you?
Tong Yee: My mother was one of them. She never knew what was really happening in my life. But there was one conversation I had one night with her when I was a bit of a shell. She came up to me, sat next to me and said: “I want my son back. Do you mind returning him to me?”
That woke me up.
There was another teacher also. Ms Hamimah Abu. She unfortunately passed away. She had an accident pursuing her Masters.
Bharati: You’ve talked about her before. She was your GP teacher. How did you overcome the suicidal thoughts?
Tong Yee: I think in about my early thirties I began to enter the training field. Friends would come over and say attend this course or attend that course. These were the Anthony Robbins-type of courses. So I think it began with that. But it really began to have me become more aware of what is this story I’m in. Where did it come from? So I began to read, go deeper within coaching fields, within narrative therapy, within a lot of wonderful work that counselors are doing.
The more I began to get my own certifications, the more I thought: “It’s a matrix you’re living in,” and I became much more “choiceful” about what story I was going to be in.
Bharati: In spite of being a repeat student, you managed to make it through university, having to repeat one year in university, and then to NIE and you went into education yourself. You taught GP in mainstream schools. Why did you go into education?
Tong Yee: I don’t think I’ve a profound answer for you. I was actually supposed to have a career at Television Corporation of Singapore at that point in time. I was doing cameos for the sitcom Under One Roof.
I was thinking about whether or not I wanted to get into a career in entertainment. And it was at that point in time that I was already teaching at Nanyang Junior College as a relief teacher because Ms Hamimah had told me to do so. I only had a six-month stint. It was upon her passing that I decided there was a legacy I had to give back. That’s when my career took a drastic turn.
There was a problem though. When I was 23, I drove without my licence, so I got caught by the police. And it was very difficult getting into the ministry at that point in time because of an obvious criminal record.
But at some point, a law was introduced. For minor crimes, you just need to remain clean for five years and the record is expunged. I remember my students running to class saying: “You’re free!”
Bharati: So they knew about your criminal record.
Tong Yee: They knew because they asked why I was relief teaching and not teaching full-time, and I shared it with them.
Bharati: Did they judge you for it?
Tong Yee: No. Parents and schools always worry, but in my experience it didn’t have a negative impact. In fact, I had a wonderful principal who mentored me.
Bharati: Why did you leave mainstream education to set up the School of Thought and The Thought Collective?
Tong Yee: At that point in time it was to help repeat students. I saw the pain that repeat students go through and I think there was an aim to go out and help repeat students.
Bharati: It wasn’t just what you had seen, it was also what you had personally experienced as well.
Tong Yee: Yeah.
Bharati: Describe your personal experience of being a repeat student.
Tong Yee: Chinese New Year sucked. This was the time you get together with relatives, answering those kinds of questions. What are you doing? What’s happening to you right now? It didn't help that I had a sister who did really really well. The “Cambridge/Harvard” type. So that was very challenging. I remember doing well enough to exit the system but not well enough to move on to the next stage. I remember needing to pay for all sorts of tuition and the guilt of that.
I remember listening to the radio thinking it was my only friend.
I remember friends moving on and then the conversation changing, as a result of them moving on. It was really hard to keep friends.
Bharati: Why didn’t you do well in school?
Tong Yee: I think I just didn’t really connect to it. It’s interesting because I couldn’t see purpose or meaning. It was important for me at that point of time. The subjects that I did well in were the ones where the teachers were able to connect in terms of long-term purpose. I think there were also distractions like computer games and what else. But beyond that, it was really about purpose and meaning.
EDUCATION NEEDS TO PREPARE US FOR A FUTURE WE CANNOT SEE
Bharati: Some students don’t need that. All they need is instruction, figure out how to get an “A” and they do it and move on. Some of us need to know that purpose and meaning.
Tong Yee: That’s about range you know. It’s something that I tell this to my own teaching team. On the first day of school when you enter the class, find the one that irritates you the most and make friends with that person. That person who irritates you has got nothing to do with the person. No kid comes to class thinking: “I’m going to irritate you.” At the end of the day it’s something about you that resists that particular child. And I’ve learnt that over the years the more I begin to engage in this practice, my range increases. I am able to deal with conceptual people, structural people, people who are empathetic, people who are completely cognitive. And I guess it’s really about me learning the language that they live in.
I don't think parents and teachers have a real good sense of what is happening in 15 years' time. We are looking at some pretty deep issues - ageing, automation, security, food security, water security, climate change. These things are not fairy tales. They will hit us hard if we don't build some resilience right now in this generation.
The challenge I think all educators have right now is: How can we prepare them for a future that we cannot see? We have some sense that these are the big threats but we don’t know what they would look like.
What therefore are the skills that this would come down to? One basically is the skill of reading context. What exactly is the situation right now, where exactly is the power, how do I figure out my place and purpose?
The second thing we are talking about is, and I hope I am not understating this, personal mastery. How do I have the courage to continue to stay in this particular space and not run away once it starts getting messy? And leadership is very key. Understanding the context and personal leadership.
Bharati: It’s not about the hard skills, because the relevance of those will change every few years.
Tong Yee: For sure.
PROBLEM IS NOT WITH TEACHERS’ HEAVY WORKLOADS OR CLASS SIZES
Bharati: You have experience teaching in mainstream schools and you work with them today too. Is enough of that being done in mainstream schools here?
Tong Yee: I have a lot of compassion for mainstream schools. The real challenge is, if you speak to any teacher, is them saying: “I didn’t sign up for this. I signed up to teach, but now I’ve ended up doing all these other things.”
Bharati: The administrative tasks?
Tong Yee: Yes, and the system is obviously under some level of siege. This is global. Education needs to transform, everyone knows this. Education needs to move away from high-assessment stuff. Teachers are under siege. I don’t put the fault on the teacher. I think many of them have the desire. After four years or so of teaching they get it. They get that it’s about range. But I’m not sure if we’re giving the kind of competency or distinctions to allow teachers to do that.
Bharati: So you’re saying that they are not taught the skills to teach well.
Tong Yee: I think the Ministry of Education (MOE) is looking at how we build stronger facilitation skill-sets with teachers, and how we can help facilitate these powerful conversations. They need to be trained differently.
I know schools have counsellors, but counselling suggests that the child has a problem. But they’re not going to come to you if they don’t perceive the problem or they don’t want to reveal the problem.
I think coaching is a very different thing. We have coaches not because we have problems, but because it’s worthwhile asking questions. Can teachers pick up the skill-sets to work with the child on who they are, as opposed to how they score?
Bharati: This goes back to that issue of identity you mentioned earlier.
Tong Yee: Yes, I would say we’ve really got to work on identity. We’ve got to stop underplaying the value of civics and character education. We’ve really got to bring some really powerful meaning to it. If Singapore is going to pivot over the next 15 to 20 years or so, it will come down to identity. All these words you are hearing: grit, resilience, empathy. It will come down to this human technology that will help us to move.
The awareness of who students are – as opposed to what they do, or what kind of grades they have – is missing. They don’t know who they are. I think we’re always struggling with identity. But starting off early with the conversation of identity and having them see the importance of it is really crucial.
Bharati: You yourself mentioned earlier that the schools are under siege, teachers are under siege. Their workload is demanding. Class sizes are large. So can we really expect them to be the ones to help with this issue as well?
Tong Yee: I think the most encouraging thing I’ve seen over the past four years and it’s something I’m still coming to terms with, is that the MOE is looking outside of themselves and into broader society and saying, we need some support. I have never seen such humility from the ministry. The people I have met have sometimes used the words: “I don’t know. We’re not the experts anymore.”
And the messages they’ve been giving to us is: “How do you teach this subject? What is it that you’re doing right now that makes this work? How come you work with this child but we couldn’t? What’s missing within our system?”
And they’re asking these really good questions.
Bharati: But is it with the aim of again, making sure kids do well in terms of grades rather than anything else?
Tong Yee: No, I do think that in terms of leadership of the schools many of them get it. It’s really about 21st century competencies - what’s going to happen with all these disruptions in the world.
Bharati: But again it sounds very utilitarian, doesn’t it. It’s about giving students all these skills so they can excel financially, power the economy. It’s never really about building socially-conscious individuals for the sake of it. Or building more empathetic individuals for the sake of it.
Tong Yee: I don’t think so. Or at least I don’t think people are seeing it as mutually exclusive anymore. I think building more empathetic people, people who are listening or clearer about who they are actually does strengthen the economy. And it’s fine that it does. So even if they’re looking at it as a way to strengthen the economy, it works for the individual and society as well. I think all these school leaders are starting to see that.
Bharati: So let’s take it back to the ground. I asked you this earlier but you didn’t really answer the question. You said teachers are under siege. We know their workload is demanding. Class sizes are large. You mentioned that teachers need to be trained differently, but would the structural problems negate that too? You might be able to do all this at the School of Thought, but is it realistic to expect teachers in mainstream schools, with all the issues they face, to be able to take the kids through the curriculum and help them with issues of identity as well?
Tong Yee: I really think changing class sizes and things like that would just be dealing with the symptoms. I’ve to see that there’s a capacity or at least skill-set or appetite for every teacher to handle different groups. Some teachers can be in a room of 300 and they can grip them for a good two hours. There are some teachers who are really good one-on-one. I don’t think it’s about size. I think it’s about building range and facilitation skills within teachers. What does it look like if I were to mentor you in handling a group of 40?
Bharati: Yes, you mentioned that earlier, but what about all those administrative tasks, organising school events, collecting payment for stuff, etc.
Tong Yee: I think for little things, schools should have technological solutions to make admin easier. But beyond that, and this might not be too popular, but I’m going to say it. When I began to run my own school, I took for granted the admin work. I took for granted how much impact admin work or operations have on a child’s life. And if I’m truly concerned about the education experience of the child, I should be watching from end-to-end. So I think teachers might not see this in the long-run, but largely we’re building a system where they would become educational leaders. To become educational leaders they need to understand every end of the spectrum, not just the subjects.
I think it’s important to understand whole systems. One thing we took for granted in my organisation was our own registration process. Someone comes in, fills up a form, signs up for class, what’s the big deal, right? But that 10-minute conversation with whoever is at the counter, is shaping the entire understanding of what the experience will be.
SELLING OUT BY RUNNING A TUITION CENTRE
Bharati: The School of Thought started off as a way to help repeat students. But the model is a tuition agency model, isn’t it? And now, you take in all sorts of students. You might say it’s a tuition centre with a social mission. But others might see that as an oxymoron. Some see tuition centres as sharks capitalising on peoples’ insecurities and feeding off them. Even though it’s not as simple as that, what do you have to say to that?
Tong Yee: Yes, this is the tension I’ve been living for a very long time. When we first started, there was no charge for tuition. It was volunteers coming in and running it. Then we realised that in keeping the organisation running, there were costs. A teacher would come in to volunteer time, and they build a certain competency and teaching profile.
If, however, the relevance of their everyday needs were not met, they would leave. And that become a huge HR problem because we couldn’t keep the consistency of people who actually knew what they were doing. So then we had to start looking at salaries, start looking at other business costs were coming in. In doing so, we became a tuition centre.
Bharati: Some might say, in a way, you sold out.
Tong Yee: Yeah, it was really difficult struggling with identity. But I believe we do things differently. For instance, if any child has difficulty affording it, there’s financial aid throughout. We don’t deny it from them. But somewhere along the line, School Of Thought began to be known as a more elite school and what happened over here was that, the profile of students that came in was no longer in need of financial aid. In our early years, a lot of people would get financial aid. We’re still charging less.
Bharati: While it’s important to keep the business sustainable, the reason I talk about money is also because expensive classes, some feel, propagate elitism and keep self-improvement out of the reach of the poor.
Tong Yee: I find that it is their own choice what people want to do with their money. I am not in a position to come in here to self-righteously say: “I think you should spend your money in this way.” And I think if they are gaining advantage from money in this particular way, then that's that.
However, in French society I think they look at a lot of fraternity and brotherhood. Even here, it’s about equal opportunities. But we will still come to a place where some people would eventually earn more than others. That’s why we will always have to give back. I think inevitably, whether it's about gene pool, opportunity, or unequal playing field, there will be differences. Even my children right now have a huge advantage in terms of their own development by virtue of fact that I am their father and I have a certain skillset.
But the big question then is: Do I raise them to a level that they know how to give back? And that's why I say it's back to soft capital. How do we keep our fraternity in our country strong? That’s something we need to talk about more in education. Not just being competitive when it comes to assessments.
Bharati: Let’s get back to the question of whether you have sold out by operating what is essentially a tuition centre model though.
The big question then is: Do I raise (my children) to a level that they know how to give back? How do we keep our fraternity in our country strong?
Tong Yee: Yes, the second way in which we do things differently is that the school owns no IP, which means that if somebody from a competitive group were to come in and begin to learn what we do, we’re okay with it. That’s great, because whatever we have been innovating has been for the public good.
It’s not owned proprietary by one particular group. There are certain behaviours that we have in terms of our organisations that are different from most other groups. Right now, we’ve got about 30 public school teachers that are coming to our school every year. They sit in our classes, they learn what’s going on. They attend the lectures and they don’t pay a cent. And the idea is for them to go back into the classes and make that kind of impact there.
Bharati: Tuition centres only thrive if mainstream schools don’t do their jobs well. That’s the thinking in some quarters.
Tong Yee: I’ve heard that a lot.
Bharati: If you were really serious about your social mission, wouldn’t you actually contribute to building a scenario in which mainstream schools are able to do their jobs well and there would be no need for people to be pouring money into tuition?
Tong Yee: Yes, I did mention the tension. The really encouraging thing is that for ourselves, we are also of the disposition not to withhold information. Every single thing that we have learnt about human dynamics, how to work better classrooms, how to get powerful experiences out there for sharing. I think that’s what the impact is. So I don’t think on the outside, people associate us with tuition centres.
Bharati: Even so, instead of taking individual students and charging them for tuition, why not equip the mainstream schools with all these skills and technologies that will help them do their jobs, such that there’s no need for tuition centres that feed off people’s insecurities? Which, in many cases also feed the tuition centres, creating a vicious cycle? Granted, it’s not entirely that simple. Even if mainstream did 10 times better than they are doing now, there will be people who’d want tuition just to get an edge. But if you were serious about your social mission, shouldn’t you be doing things differently?
Tong Yee: For now and this could be more existing in my mind than in reality, but I feel it’s a permission issue. It’s how do we gain enough credibility to actually even penetrate schools or working with teachers of associations or other platforms are out there.
But yes, I absolutely get your point. It should be working with teachers to equip them. And I think we need to do that in a more systematic way with the Ministry.
But when I look at what’s happening in tuition centres right now, the amount of fear-mongering is crazy.
The selling really is fear-centered. Schools are not preparing you. You’re going to die, you’re going to die. And they send the message out and make our kids scared.
Bharati: I’ve looked at your publicity material. You don’t do this or sell the fact that you can guarantee A’s.
Tong Yee: I try my best not to. But there are certain things that we do differently that actually sometimes work against us if we’re thinking about it in terms of business. For example, students would say they want more notes or more answers. And we’d say: “No, you’re going to learn how to do this yourself.”
Some teachers can be in a room of 300 and they can grip them for a good two hours. There are some teachers who are really good one-on-one. I don’t think it’s about size.
Bharati: But I looked at your website and you do advertise exam-ready notes.
Tong Yee: But they’d say: “I’m sorry but this other tuition centre gives us this many stacks and then they read the answers to us. They’re increasing our scores.”
This year was also the very first year that we put up a S$15,000 ad in the papers, because we felt we were really dying. Students are not coming to our centre. So we put out an ad. But we refused to go down that route of guaranteeing A’s so we talked about contributions to life and what our alumni has done.
All the other tuition centres say that if you put out a S$15,000 ad, you’re going to get about 500 to 600 customer calls. We only got three calls and only one signed up. And I thought, do we really have to go down that route, to start selling grades?
Bharati: Are you likely to do it?
Tong Yee: No, but once in a while we get students who write to us at the end of the year and say: “Even if I got a C for my subject, which I didn’t, I’d still be grateful for these classes because of what has happened for me in terms of learning and discovering.”
“PLAYING A STUPID GAME”
Bharati: But the fact that you can’t generate business from this alone, and people have been sucked into and remain in a vortex of almost detrimental academic competitiveness, would indicate that in spite of the work you’ve tried to do over the years to increase social consciousness, you’ve not been very successful.
Tong Yee: I do have enough to be sustainable as a business.
Bharati: I mean in terms of changing mindsets to value things other than grades.
Tong Yee: There’s a pretty famous philanthropist, Stanley Tan. He came to me one day and said that no matter how successful Thought Collective is, you’re still a drop in the ocean. He said if you don’t start looking for scale, or integrating into larger systems, you’re living in a bubble.
I don’t think I would deny the point you’ve made. At the end of the day, if groups like our own don’t learn to contribute to a much larger system, we’re playing a stupid game.
Bharati: So do you plan to stop playing this stupid game?
Tong Yee: I’m not sure whether at this current juncture I can say everything on radio. But I can say what has happened in reality, as opposed to plan. We’ve already started to work with a lot more civil society partners. So we are getting more of these trusted vendors, collaborating together, learning how to become more coherent in schools. But in short, my own move is to see how I can become a civil society leader that helps ensure our impact is not so fragmented.
How do I make sure some of these organisations are far more coherent, and more cohesive with what we do so that government can take us seriously. I’ve been doing this over the past two to three years and it’s a process. It won’t happen overnight.
Bharati: In an interview you did in 2012, you said your hope is to actually phase out tuition for its own sake. Are you any closer to doing that?
Tong Yee: No, no.
Bharati: Why not? Why hasn’t it happened?
Tong Yee: You know, the stupid thing is that I’ve not really gone to talk to other tuition centres for the sheer fear of being associated with them. I have not spoken to the dark side.
But the funny thing is other tuition centres have begun to approach me in the past two or three years, and said they’d like to do more of what we’re doing. They don’t like the way they are selling. They’ve asked if we can collaborate and maybe work together. I think many tuition centres have ex-school teachers and I do think they still have that old identity inside them.
It’s nothing concrete, but I’d say there’s an emerging conversation on basically whether or not they can begin to pivot out and what this means to business and business costs. I think all human beings, when push comes to shove, they just push the story out, but they recognise it’s not the way to go.