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Monday, August 13, 2012

National Dreams, Childhood Aspirations

It's difficult not to contemplate the meaning of life when you're 47 years of age. You consider the birth pangs, the moment of anguish when you were expelled from the womb into a harsh and cruel world. Things were different then - no Facebook, no iPhone, not even the ubiquitous medium we now call the Internet. Listening to the voices of yesteryear, you were conditioned to recall a childhood fraught with difficulty - of how you were surrounded by a host of hostile foes eager to bully you and tear you down. Yet you were presented with numerous accounts of how you survived against all odds. And you smile as you look back at your personal accomplishments; still a little red dot in a sea of lines and curves, but a dot nonetheless in the big wide world.

This National Day seemed to have gone by for me without much fanfare. The glitzy parade and all its military and societal exhibitions, the thrills and controversies surrounding Singapore's 3rd and 4th Olympic medals, even the rumours that a great man's journey on earth had come to an end. Then again, I suppose I could be forgiven, considering that most of my attentions have been directed towards the newborn baby boy who had found his way into our lives and into our hearts just three weeks ago.

What has been on my mind has been what I desire for my little son E. And as Singapore turns 47, it's truly a time to reflect and dream about what the future would be like for one of the country's newest citizens. I am not the only one taking stock. No less than the Singapore Prime Minister has announced the formation of a ministerial committee to take a hard look at current government policies. That such a committee would be headed by the Education Minister is significant; as is one of the focal points of the review - Singapore's pre-school education.

The early childhood education sector has recently been the subject of much criticism. Following a report by the Lien Foundation, which in June this year ranked Singapore 29 out of 45 developed and emerging countries, suggestions have been rife about how to improve the quality of Singapore's pre-schools. This especially following the research findings that Singapore has fared poorly in three areas - the availability, affordability and quality of its pre-school services.

I was not surprised at the findings of the report. Consider the availability of early childhood education. I have heard personal stories of how Singapore parents proceed speedily from the hospital to the immigration office and then directly to the registration offices of the branded kindergartens. And all this to ensure that their child gets a place of choice some 3 years later. In terms of affordability, Singapore parents spend a significant percentage of their income on enrichment classes and other educational niceties; just to ensure that their children get a supposed head-start in life. Quality. There is a prevalent argument that pre-school teachers do not get paid as much as mainsteam educators. I believe the roots of the issue are deeper than that; I have met children from childcare centres, and many of them seem to be products of a rote-learning system which emphasises conformity more than creativity.

In stark comparison, the Lien report named Finland, Sweden and Norway as the countries with the best early childhood education. At a symposium in 2011 by the Sarah Lawrence College in New York, Dr Judith Wagner provided some reasons for the success of the Nordic system. The American Charter President of the World Organization For Early Childhood Education (OMEP-USA) observed that Nordic countries place great importance on what they call en god barndom, translated loosely as "the good childhood", a childhood in which play and exploration are at the centre of the learning experience. Dr Wagner cited the case of Finland; where she noted that school does not begin until the age of seven, that there are no standardised tests, that homework is minimal, and where children spend more time at school playing outside than inside even in the depths of winter. 

Dr Wagner's perspectives concur with my favourite educationalist Charlotte Mason. In her book Home Education, the 19th Century writer emphasised that children learn best through the exploration of nature via their five senses. I elaborated more on this in my previous blog entry on childhood. Charlotte however took the issue to a deeper level, insisting that a "very full scheme of school work may be carried through in the morning hours". She was of the firm conviction that homework should not be given to children under the age of 14, lest it disrupt the family life of the child.

What I desire most for E is for him to develop to his fullest potential on his own terms. I don't mean that my son should be allowed to do as he pleases, running in whatever direction the wind blows; what I do mean is for him to be guided towards his chosen goals - that Sue and I play a primary role in helping him achieve this objective. And what I desire for E, I too wish for my older son Z.

My good friend Galvin recently wrote the melody for a song that went viral on Youtube. The catchy tune, "I Still Love You", has become somewhat of an unofficial National Day song. It encapsulates a deep-felt love for the country despite the struggles faced by Singaporeans on a day-to-day basis. It is my hope that the new measures in early childhood education and in other sectors will be able to address some of the issues faced by Singaporeans.

As for me, my desire is to see my two children sprinting towards the horizon, persevering as far as the eye can see. There need be no limits imposed for the children of the next generation; only the constant encouragement and support from their parents, the firm yet gentle hand of guidance and direction; and an unwavering belief in them - one that will steer them through the deepest of valleys, and inspire them to ascend the highest of mountains.

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