Previously I wrote about the breakdown of the Singapore education system and how elitist and dichotomising it is. It is known as being competitive and stressful, but what is little known about it is by making one choose one’s path from as young as in middle school, it results in a situation where the “choice” involves very little choosing at all.
By the time we’re in secondary school (middle school), at the end of secondary two (eighth grade), Singaporean students start subject specialisation and are able to pick the subjects they would want to study for the rest of their secondary education. Like in the UK, students have options such as taking “triple science” (physics, chemistry and biology — reserved for top-performing classes usually), or go more of an “arts” route (literature, geography, history, drama, etc.). Students will also get the chance to take Advanced Math (calculus).
These choices don’t seem like they matter much at this stage, but they actually do. The subjects one picks determine which post-secondary school the student is able to enter, which in turn affects not only which university the student can enter but even the major the student can take.
For example, were I to go on an “Arts” route in secondary school (which I did) and took more humanities than sciences and math, I would not even have been able to enter what is called the “Science stream” in grammar school (high school), I’d have been only able to enter the “Arts stream,” because a good grade in math and science are a requirement to enter the “Science stream.”
In the British/Singaporean education system, where a student declares a major before he or she enters university, what majors one is able to declare is dependent on the subjects one took in grammar school. Want to declare Engineering? You’d need a good grade in physics or chemistry and math. Want to declare law as a major? Probably stellar grades in English, math, humanities, basically everything (I doubt law school would admit anyone with less than straight ‘A’s)
Having dropped Advanced Math in middle school, and not getting an ‘A’ in regular math for my ‘O’ levels, I was prematurely excluded from ever entering the “Science stream” in grammar school, which means that I could never have been able to even study any of the math or science majors in university in Singapore.
All that because I chose to study literature and geography in middle school.
But when a child is forced to make these decisions that ultimately impact his or her life at the age of 14, 16 and 18, how is that child supposed to make those decisions when even people in their 20’s and 30’s don’t even know what they want to do with their lives?
As such, these students merely make pre-packed life choices — not knowing what they want to do with their lives, they can only shoot for the best they can achieve, and hope that it’d all work out. For example, most simply aim to enter “triple science” in secondary school. since those classes are reserved usually for the best, without consideration if they would actually want to pursue a career in science later on in life. Students figure that if they have the best grades possible, it gives them the most options later on.
In high school, students have to choose about three to four ‘A’ levels subjects to take. If the students mostly took science classes in middle school, chances are, they’d probably be going for the “Science stream” in high school as well, even though the “Arts stream” is available. To them, they think that taking the arts limits their options because they cannot envision getting into university through the arts, and hence default to taking the sciences and math. Students take subjects because they’re good at it, not because they like they subject.
In my high school, the ratio of science to arts classes was 31 to 8.
The majority of my high school peers in the “Science stream” ended up declaring engineering or business or some sort of science/math-related major to enter university, because that’s what they have been studying their entire lives from the point where they had to “make a choice.” They chose not to have to think about choice, and chose a default, pre-packed path in their life of math and science, because they’ve been told everyone needs that to get at least some sort of a job.
Did my friends want to become engineers and businessmen? They still don’t know what they want to do with their lives. But they know they have a career of math and science in which they can apply for jobs, because that’s what they studied in university.
In Singapore, it is not so much “What do you want to be when you grow up?” because the end is not so much a want as it is an inevitability.