[Writer’s note: While this article is addressed specifically to Singapore-based students, it may hold some truth for students in many other places as well.]
Dear young friend,
I’m writing this to share some thoughts that I used to convey to every one of my students when I was still a full-time tutor in Singapore (I retired in 2016). It is just my personal opinion, formed through years of experience as a student in the 1980s and 1990s, then as a tutor in the 2000s and 2010s.
Observing student life in the 90s and then in the 2010s, I can only conclude that the school system in Singapore has become 10 times more competitive than during my time. At least 10 times. During the 90s, most of my junior college classmates didn’t even attend private tuition. We could hang out at the bowling alley, the arcade or the hawker centre most days after school and still do well enough in the A-levels to qualify for the top local universities. (For some perspective: the requirements to get an interview at NUS law school in 1992 were B, B and C for the equivalent of today’s H2 subjects and a B3 for GP under the old grading system. Today you need straight As or very close to that.) We had no Project Work subject, nor was there a need to take a fourth content-based, ‘contrasting’ subject. I took only English literature, Economics and Geography as my content-based subjects, plus General Paper. That’s it. (I had already passed Higher Chinese in my secondary days, so there was no need to take Chinese anymore.)
Thus we not only had lighter curriculum loads, and needed lower grades to qualify for good universities and courses, but it was also easier to score a certain grade then than now. It was easier to score an A/B then than to score an A/B now. We did not have the education arms race then that we do now. Exams were easier (it seems to be an unspoken rule in Singapore that exams have to be made tougher every year. I’m not sure that this is a healthy approach, nor does it necessarily lead to better outcomes for students in the real world.) Oh, and CCAs were only ECAs (extracurricular activities) then, and generally less demanding.
Let me cut to the chase here. If you are attending JC in Singapore now, you are young and probably foolish, as I was in 1991. It’s a beautiful thing to be young and foolish. Life is confusing. You don’t know who you are and how to behave in many social situations. But you are full of energy and wild ideas, and you will make many colourful mistakes while having many memorable experiences.
Problem is, today’s Singapore doesn’t really give young people much leeway to be young and foolish anymore. There is so little margin for error.
If you are not fully focused on your studies, you will find yourself underwater very quickly and end up with an A-level result that gives you few options.
If you are preoccupied with crushes and boy-girl relationships; addicted to online games and social media; struggling with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, insecurity or any other psychological problems; troubled by problems in your family; or just plain immature or indisciplined, you will find yourself miles and miles off the pace very quickly in today’s Singapore JC. Every day will be a bigger struggle.
It is especially hard on the boys, as they are often not permitted to repeat their A-levels as a school candidate if they do badly. They have to take the exam again as a private candidate while dealing with the rigours of National Service. I have tutored boys in this situation and I can assure you it is no. bloody. joke.
The personal issues I mentioned two paragraphs ago are very difficult to grapple with, and they often take time to resolve. But I encourage you to face them squarely, as acknowledging the problem is the crucial first step to solving it. If you have a gaming addiction, face it. If you have a psychological difficulty, face it (and seek a good listening ear, like a teacher or counsellor). If you don’t even know why you are in JC, then you’d better take a good hard look in the mirror and ask yourself what you are doing with these precious months and years of your life. What do you want in your life long term, and are your actions congruent with your goals and wishes?
And as for romantic relationships, I totally understand how strong the attraction to another person can be. Personally, I was from the monastery (two different boys’ schools) for ten years prior to JC, so being around girls for the first time at the age of 17 was – well, a pretty overwhelming distraction.
Facing rejection from the opposite sex, too, can be very painful and make you unable to concentrate on your lectures for a week. Let’s not get started on lovers’ quarrels and breakups…
I shan’t proclaim any general commandment on whether JC students should or should not get into ‘steady’ relationships. I will only try to state a few, quite indisputable facts for you to ponder.
- Teenagers are at an age where attraction to another person is at its strongest (raging hormones!); but maturity is at its weakest.
- At the age of 17 or 18, you are still in the process of discovering yourself, who you are and what you want in life. And it’s a very long process.
- Romantic relationships involve very intense emotions and complex situations that are very hard to handle even for grown men and women.
With all these in mind, I suggest you think long and hard about whether you want to “go steady”. Some of you might be ready for it, and many are not. And if you don’t feel completely ready, it is not wise to get into it. It is lovely to get to know the opposite sex as friends, without any pressure of going further. Don’t pressure yourself, and don’t allow yourself to be pressured. You are not a lesser being because you don’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend.
You are also not a lesser being because you got rejected.
Respect yourself, despite all your flaws. If your name is Sam, say things like, “I like this person Sam even though he/she is not perfect. He/she is loyal to his/her friends. He/she has fighting spirit. He/she has charming crooked teeth.” I learned this technique from Senait Mehari, an extraordinary lady from Eritrea who was forced to become a child soldier but later became a successful musician in Germany. She said it’s good to refer to yourself in the third person because thinking in the first person means that you follow your thoughts blindly; “if we consider ourselves in the third person, we see a great deal more” (from her powerful book Heart of Fire).
And back to what I said earlier, do bear in mind the cruel and unforgiving reality of JC life in Singapore today. Is it worth putting your studies at risk and creating huge problems for yourself in the future, for the sake of pursuing this relationship now? What are the chances that this relationship will work out five, ten, fifteen years from now? (I have seen some JC sweethearts end up getting married – but not many.) Will you meet other people you fall in love with later? Almost definitely, yes!
May I wish you every success in your JC life and beyond. I hope you face your problems courageously and constructively, and come up with a plan to deal with them day by day so that you will be able to make the most of your JC life. Have goals, short and long term, small and big, so that you are not drifting nowhere during these precious years of your life.
Enjoy being young and foolish sometimes, but stay focused and seek a little wisdom every day.
P.S. I welcome your comments on this page, or by email at stevenooi18 @ yahoo.com (remove the spaces).
Website owner Steven Ooi, a First Class Honours grad from the National University of Singapore, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as a GP and English tutor in 2016. He continues to blog on issues of concern to General Paper and student life.
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