SINGAPORE: Twelve-year-old children around Singapore will be handed a tiny slip of paper today. In many schools, teachers will arrive early just to pack this into folders or envelopes.
This semblance of privacy however is fleeting. Minutes later, the nation will descend into an episode of mass comparison. Friends, neighbours and even distant relatives will ache to uncover your secret “three-digit number”.
The Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) sets off a very peculiar cultural phenomenon in Singapore. In most other situations, it is considered rude to openly compare numbers – whether it is a pay slip or bank account figure. This social etiquette does not apply to PSLE scores.
Like most Singaporeans aged 12 to 70, I can relate to this experience. I remember my own feelings more than two decades ago rather acutely. The pre-assembly bustle was smothered by a pervasive sense of anxiety – regular Straight-A students seemed unusually twitchy.
As I collected my results slip, it felt heavy with the “weight of destiny”. During the long bus ride home, I felt strangely displaced and lonely.
NURTURING MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCE FOR SUCCESS
Since PSLE was introduced in 1960, it has become a rite of passage for Singaporeans. It throws youth at the cusp of their teenage years into a frenzy of social comparison, just as they are struggling to build their sense of self and self-worth.
If I could go back in time and have a heart-to-heart with my 12-year-old self over a root beer float, I would tell her not to read too much into this three-digit number – that what she held in her hands were examination results, not a yardstick of her intelligence.
Human intelligence is multi-faceted. It cannot be fully measured by a series of written tests.
American developmental psychologist Howard Gardner divided intelligence into nine different types as early as 1983 – way before I sat for PSLE. The four main subjects – English, mother tongue, mathematics and science – only cover three of the nine types of intelligence.
Without going into too much jargon, this examination does not account for people smarts, self-awareness, musical talents, spatial intelligence, mind-body coordination and what Gardner calls existential intelligence – the ability to question the meaning of life.
None of these add a single digit to PSLE T-scores, but they give colour and purpose to a passion-driven career.
READ: Commentary: This mid-year exam season, let children take charge of their learning
Speaking of passion-driver careers, it is worth noting the Life Beyond Grades movement started last year by five successful entrepreneurs: Tjin Lee, Dolores Au, Aarika Lee, Derek Ong and Charmaine Seah-Ong.
Under the hashtag #LifeBeyondGrades, famous personalities including deejays, actors, and athletes shared their PSLE grades on Instagram.
Among them, Royston Tan, an award-winning filmmaker, scored 168; marketing expert and contributing editor of Buro 24/7, Tracy Phillips, scored 226; chef and co-owner of the Michelin-starred restaurant Corner House, Jason Tan, scored 190.
Each of these personalities have nurtured their talents and gone on to dominate their respective fields, proving that ordinary PSLE scores can lead to extraordinary careers.
REDEFINING HAPPINESS AND SUCCESS
As a freelance writer, I am convinced that acing PSLE examinations is not a prerequisite for a fulfilling life. I admit that I do not have the answers to two out of the three infamously difficult PSLE mathematics problems parents are up in arms about this year.
That has not stopped me from building a life I love, meeting inspiring people from all walks of life, and “hot-desking” in front of a pool in Sri Lanka or a fjord in Iceland.
If our generation can redefine the boundaries of the office and work itself, I cannot imagine what our children can do. Many will be scientists, creatives, chefs, coders and entrepreneurs in their own time. Some will fill up roles that don’t even exist today, and create things that we cannot yet imagine.
They should not feel so defined or diminished by a number on their result slip that it remains their greatest achievement or biggest baggage for years to come.
In response to that, the Ministry of Education has announced that it will be replacing T-scores with a grading system similar to the O-Level and A-Level exams. Come 2021, students will no longer feel judged by a number on their results slip.
That said, I doubt that this will do what it takes to quell the competitive sport of comparing grades. At least in part, change must come from ground-up and from the home.
If as parents, we downplay the significance of PSLE results, and focus on each child’s individuality and unique talents, we could collectively open up a world of possibilities and nurture a spirit of lifelong learning.
At this point, I should probably share that my PSLE score was 244 – neither very high nor low. Two of my closest friends at that time however were intensely disappointed with their scores.
At the age of 12, I did not have the empathy to ease their sense of loss and failure – that was a skill I developed much later.
Although I subsequently lost contact with one of them, the other has picked herself up from the ashes of “PSLE disaster” to carve a dynamic career in banking and finance. While our PSLE results differed and our paths diverged at many points, she remains my closest friend today and an inspiring role model for my 19-month-old daughter Lily.
If I could have a conversation with my 12-year-old self, I would tell her that life is a long winding road – there will inevitably be times when you do better than your friends, and times when they do better than you.
Without diminishing its importance as a national examination, PSLE is ultimately a checkpoint, not the endgame.
Your success and happiness will be measured by your grace and resilience in dealing with the many ups and downs throughout life. How you respond to each triumph or disappointment will shape you as a person, friend and parent.
The future, in all its richness and fullness, cannot be defined by a three-digit number.
Annie Tan is a freelance writer, and the mother of a spirited one-year-old who fires her imagination and inspires her to find her inner child.