A letter to Singapore parents

Dear fellow Singapore Parents,

When I was in Basic Military Training (BMT) in 1995, I saw a sight that burned into my mind till today. It happened during the weekend when parents could come visit their poor, suffering boys after the first two weeks of BMT training.

I was waiting for my mum to turn up when I saw this scene – one of the recruits was sitting upright on a bench, closing his eyes and looking very pleased. His mother was sitting next to him, and was carefully using a cotton bud to dig his left ear for him. There must have been a lot of ear wax to excavate, because both of them did not pay attention to the rest of the world.

It was an encounter with the likes of over-pampering parents in Singapore. Thanks to this story, I have often told myself I would never dig my son’s ears in private or in public. It’s just pretty gross and frankly, my son should never allow that to happen!

This was a harmless incident but I also wonder if the recruit (who should be 40 now) has children of his own and what kind of parenting style does he have?

You know, our generation (“Gen X”) often complains about the misbehavior of the Millennials today – from their self-centeredness to their overbearing sense of entitlement.

Obviously, not all Millennials are bad eggs – the majority of them are good folks and I work with a few great colleagues in their 20s who exercise solid work ethics at all times.

But we’ve also seen cases where Millennials agree to come to job interviews and then go mysteriously missing at the appointed hour. My friend and entrepreneur Aaron recently experienced four no-shows in one day for a job opening, and as you can imagine, he was livid.

I have also attended a training course where most of the attendees were middle-aged folks. The few Millennials in the class said they were a misunderstood generation but had no qualms about turning up nearly one hour late for each day of the course.

The media and Gen X often blame the environment these young people grew up in – with hyper-short attention spans due to the Internet and mobile devices, and an education system which builds their confidence to aspire to immense heights before they even work one day of their lives. We older folks also suffer from device addiction and materialistic desires too, so we are not immune.

But I’ve come to believe it’s not the modern environment that is the only factor.

It’s a specific type of SG parenting that has directly bred the instances of bad youth behavior which we despair over. A parenting style that disregards consequences for individual and society, and one that involves throwing money at problems for a quick fix or attainment of “an ideal future for my child”. This form of parenting makes life less savory for the rest of us who have to deal with the consequences.

Take for example, the whole Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme for secondary schools. It was originally designed “to let secondary schools broaden their admission criteria beyond PSLE scores” and allow kids who were talented in sports and the arts to enter their choice of schools. Many parents (and principals) decided to game the system to also allow in kids who were strong academically.

That was a failure of both MOE and school principals to resist changing any system to the same-old, same-old of getting school rankings up via “grades farming”. And it is also another predictable behavior of such SG parents to spend money and convert a well-meaning placement program to something more suited for the narrow way they bring up their kids (you know, the grades-mean-everything approach).

Then there are some parents who send their kids to special sports coaches so they can bypass the PSLE with DSA…even when their children may not have the gift for track and field. Sports and sportsmanship hold no meaning for the young folks when treated this way.

Still, some say – if we don’t try (to exploit the DSA), we don’t know if we can, right?

And how about parents who have helped shape today’s miserable school-going situation?

When my son entered primary school seven years ago, the school was happy to flood my inbox with emails and declare that education was a “partnership” between the school and parents.

I did not want a partnership at all. To me, this was an obvious consequence of teachers being hounded to death by overbearing parents who insist their children should be treated like gold and that the school should tell parents of every single detail that is happening in class. Personally, I just wanted the school to teach my children properly, and discipline them if they flout the rules.

Sadly, the schools have made it my problem to ensure my children can absorb the excessive curriculum and get them the hours of expensive tuition that other parents seem to be happy to pay for.

For these “other parents”, do you not see that by piling our children with tuition, you have fueled the arms race for grades and declared that the ridiculous and poorly set school curriculum is perfectly acceptable? You blame the school or MOE for the high standards of PSLE or O-Levels, but like blind, ignorant sheep, you give it your utmost, slavish support.

Yes, on this blog, I have railed against the education system and done my best to not be a typical kiasu SG parent. As of 2016, I have resigned myself to the fact that the Ministry of Education will never change its myopic view of education despite all the fancy talk. All their mantra about “teach less, learn more” is just political spiel they do not really even grasp, much less practice. The system is simply the inevitable product of cookie-cutter scholars, not caring teachers and parents.

But I still hold out some hope that more parents will realize that the next generation is increasingly less prepared for the future if ignorant and unexposed parents have their way. Young people can feel self-entitled because their parents make it happen….

Wait, you say! “Which parent does not want the best for their children?”

I know I do!

But my definition of “the best” is a little different.

I want my children to have the time to rest and play and have the space to think for themselves. (I feel sad when they come home after a long day at single-session school with more homework than they can complete).

I make them do housework weekly with me so they can learn that it is not necessary to have a maid in the house when you can mop your own floor. I insist we do not eat at restaurants except on special occasions so they can learn the value of money and the simple satisfaction of a well-cooked hawker or home-made meal.

No, I am not starving my kids nor depriving them of what they need. I simply do not believe in pampering them, because I already have enough difficulty convincing them of how families in poorer countries cope with no money and starvation. I know my own experiences with having little luxuries as a child gave me a better grip on my finances today, and kids who grow up with much tend to appreciate little. This is the fundamental challenge of bringing up kids in the most expensive city in the world.

I know many parents share my sentiments and rail silently against those who seem intent on smothering their kids with the things money can buy. Bad parenting…okay, maybe I’ll be kinder… disconnected parenting starts at a young age too.

Every week, I see some parents shoving an iPad into the hands of their toddlers so they can go back to surfing on their own phones. That is really awful, don’t you think? It is not just encouraging eyesight deterioration, it is an abdication of knowledge transfer to the cold, unfeeling device with a shiny screen. As the kids grow up, they cling on to their iPads as they spend more time with tutors than their parents.

Young people today in SG may have no idea how intense the competition is from other countries… from their peers overseas who can both work hard and think outside the box AND accept a far lower starting pay to start at the bottom rung. You may have the grades, but believing you deserve a higher starting pay when you have no track record (yet) makes both you and the rest of the country less competitive than ever.

Parenting is hard, and each generation of parents faces new headaches (and terrible Top 40 songs). Our generation is encountering a landscape that changes so quickly, jobs become obsolete overnight and skills become worthless if we do not upgrade them furiously. Is this a landscape which micro-managed and sheltered young people can cope with?

When our generation X was young, we had much more free time to ourselves with minimal parental oversight and we turned out okay.

So I wonder, these parents that I rail against… where did they come from? Do they not see what they are doing to their children… and indirectly, ours? What can we do to make them see things our way?

Signing off as one weary father,



24 Replies to “A letter to Singapore parents”

  1. Hi Ian

    Thanks for this post. I fully share your view and is going all out to resist the trend and pressure of our school system.
    I run a development centre and I do encounter many parents who blindly pursue courses for children without any thoughts for them. It’s really sad.


  2. It is a norm that most people want more things and more throughput but not prepare to supply more input.

    Every new generation, new replaces the old, whether it is technology, fashion, concept, management style, food, parenting method, education, etc.

    Instead of just making ends meet, many choose to climb much higher in the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs ladder at the expense of the fundamental need of parental love and care for the children; I do not mean substitution by materialistic items.

    As a spherical thinking educator, I am in favour of old style “teaching” including spelling, dictation, and “repeat after me” reading, plus practical logical and cognitive learning.

    Parents are the most important teachers in a child’s life the moment the child comes to the world. Parents attend school to learn English, maths, cooking, public relation, finance, and all sorts of subjects trying to achieve a brighter and better future, but they forget they have already brought the future to the world, their child.

    Majority of parents fail to “attend” any class on how to cope with and prepare the child. They blame their forebear for making their generation rebellious or what they have become, but never question what sort of a child they will bring up.

    The difficulties faced by previous generation were that most chores were done manually and information was at a premium. They did not have the opportunity and luxury to “learn”. Unfortunately, parents of today are too lazy to learn despite the advancement in technology, and therefore they have no idea how to communicate with their children.

    There is no one size fits all education system. It is evitable that the students of today have to learn more, some old but mainly new subjects. The society is getting more complex and speed of progress is getting faster. Parents can stay at the bus stop, drive in slow speed kane or the take the highway. The means and therefore the end result will be entirely different.

    Apathy is the cause of all down fall. Contribute and voice your positive ideas; don’t just knock others’ without giving a good counter reason.


  3. Some parents like to blindly compare and copy what others are doing without the understanding of what their kid really needs. Some spoil their children with gifts as it is the limited form of love they could do to connect with their children. I agree that parenting is a skill that has to be learn. Parenting includes knowledge, communication skill, self-awareness, discipline, integrity and wisdom.


  4. What an insightful and incisive commentary. Sadly, such views seem to be in the extreme minority; but the existence of examples such as yourself gives encouragement to the future direction of the Nation. How did you manage acquire these convictions? I suspect astute parenting, and perhaps mentoring by a rare and wise teacher.


    1. Thanks Su-Chong. I am not the only one who believes in resisting this broken system of education and parenting. Perhaps I just articulate it more loudly than others, even though I feel equally helpless against the mob. Indeed, I have known many wise teachers and seniors, and there was one who taught me that I cannot change the world en masse, but I can do it by convincing one person at a time, and in turn he/she will convince another to effect great change over a long period. But change only comes when we can begin speaking up against what’s wrong.


  5. Hi Ian
    That was a great article. I have spoke about this with many Singaporean friends of mine. Those still back in Singapore are some what you describe and those that lives overseas are opposite.
    I think it is a culture change that we need in Singapore. It’s not only about education.. I think it is everything else too. Basic stuff like being courteous, respectful of people’s time, thinking of others before self… Until we can help to invoke culture change… It will be really difficult to see any massive change…


  6. Agree with you that the “teach less learn more” is quite a farce. The syllabus never lighten up enough to allow that. Just a nice sentence the politician coins to make his speech sounds nice on a rally.

    Many have still not realised this is the age of abundance. Instead of trying to acquire more and more like we did in our times, the challenge really is to choose to limit
    our choices. So people end up taking in whatever they can, aiming for the highest salary, soaking up as much info as they can ( thus end up spending all the free time on phone).
    Thanks for writing this. I also wonder what do kiasu parents feel when they read this. We always think of them as “they”. Who knows we do contribute to some of these traits ourselves. So let’s all reflect on it as well.


  7. Your letter does address the needs of the children. I’m based in London and the education in UK for children is a far cry compared to the education in Singapore. The children in uk can behave in a frightening manner in classes that there are fear from teachers to handle the displin of the children before even starting to teach.

    I suppose in Singapore, they’re figuring out which is a better system to try.


  8. I hear you, Ian. I share your sentiments on disconnecting parenting. 🙂

    My two teens never own a Nintendo, Wii, Sony Playstation, ipad, etc. I always remind my kids that as a parents, my husband and I need to ensure that their basic needs are met. A roof over their head, clothes to keep them warm in winter, provide three square meals and send them to school. The rest are perks. Perks that we can do without, bonuses that we need to earn and Christmas does not come daily! I do not want my kids to feel entitled!

    In regards to education and grade farming, it is not only happening in Singapore. We live in Australia and truth be told, many parents are just as academic focus. I thought that these academic focussed parents are of Asian background. But no! I have known of Australian parents who actually prep their kids at junior school for scholarship programs. They pay for special classes for their kids to sit for scholarship exams to get into top schools. Yes, there are parents here who are very into school rankings as well.

    I always tell my teens that academic excellence is not the be all and end all. It does not define a person and it is not a barometer for success. We are all blessed differently and as such, we need to understand our own strengths and interests, and work towards doing what we like. There is always a role in society for each and everyone of us. What is important in relation to academic is putting our best foot forward and do it once, do it right.


  9. Our GCE “O” level exam (1957) in Maths (elementary and additional), Biology, Chemistry and physics has sustained me, a “below average” Singapore secondary school student comfortably through mechanic’s and aircraft technology schools in California – and helped me earn an above average income for the following 20+ years (1981 – 2000+) .

    I managed to scrape by math and science at “A” levels while working as a “salesman” (more accurately defined as “field/ market representative) between work in Singapire and going to aircraft schools in California.

    My point ?
    Whatever inovations Singapore schools have made in the last 30 years the (out dated?) GCE is still valuable teaching system at least by US standards!
    Many more knowledgeable US community colleges accept GCE ” O” level” students directly to their 2 year programs; following which students can transfer / continue an additional 2 years to a bachelor degree program. Not only saving 2 years of studies, students may do different “major” subjects simultaenously – e.g. one may study electronics and physical education at the same time – maybe take 2 1/2 years instead of 2 years for a single major.
    Or even subjects that have different “origins” such as sociology & engineering. A more “liberal” education.

    My point No. 2!
    Showing physical love like hugging, appropriate kissing, and genuinely telling children you love them unconditionally – and you will always support them in times of troubles (especially premature pregnancy) – will bolster their self confidence to a non-measurable asset for “success”. This act of physical love is more evident in western culture – comparatively lacking among Asian couples. We feel embarassed or our culture dictates that showing physical love in front of our children or neighbours is inappropriate. So our children lose out in learning to “love others as we love ourselves”.
    Fathers if you feel too self concioused to hug your wife openly, do it in the bedroom before leaving for work- the “then you you might also earn a loving kiss – the “dutiful bye bye hug/kiss.
    This gives children comfort and added confidence that there is a strong marriage bond between their parents.
    Physiologically, seems it takes the love hormones 20 to 30 seconds to function at peak- i.e. to really feel the love in a hug.
    Kind of awkward if children or nosy neighbours are watching,
    but take this seriosly – in case by some misfortune one party does not come back (alive) at least you both had a ” proper genuine last farewell”.
    Hope my rambling has not bored you too much. Cheers!


  10. Ian, a very good article and I enjoyed the comments from your teaders as well.

    I am a big fan of education in Singapore. I believe that much of our society’s woes are as a direct result of our education system in the last 20 to 25 years. The government has always had a policy of tailoring our students for our economy. I have always felt this was wrong. We went from the british system of GCE and Vocational Training to Normal, Express and Gifted Stream from as early as Primary 3. I think this is nonsense. It just reinforces the idea of segregation and class differentiation at a very early stage. During my time there was just arts, science and later technical streaming. This was done to separate the right brained from the left brained although the top studemts come mostly from the Science Stream, we still were able to produce very good lawyers who usually hail from the arts stream. Then streaming was done only post PSLE…..GCE O and Vocational and then at Secondary 3 for GCE into arts, science and technical.

    So with an environment set by the Ministry based on love of exam reaults instead of love a learning we will produce generation after generation of both parents and children who knows only how to chase exams. The result is we produce people who are well schooled but not educated.

    I see this in some of our young ones. I have had managers who are so bad in writing that all their emails need to be vetted by a more senior manager before they go out.

    I have had CFOs who can do beautiful graphs and slides but cannot do financial simulation especially when it involves a business that they are not familiar with.

    I also have had Marketing Managers who can tell me all the latest theories but do not know how to overcome marketing challenges during “crisis” periods….what I call good time marketeers.

    Ian we can do more if we get like minded people to talk to the education community. I know there are teachers and educators out there who wants to teach for the joy of it and not for the money. How can we reach them and how can we forge a community with them to act as a voice for the Ministry to listen to?


      1. Hi there’s one question I forgot to ask…

        After reading your commentary, I really curious – what do you mean when you mentioned earlier that you’re a “big fan of education in Singapore”?


  11. Thumbs up! Totally agree with you, although from my short stint as an ex-teacher (perhaps I was very lucky), those types of parents mentioned were actually a minority, which leads me to have the impression that, are we shaping our policies based on those few who dare to made noise? Many parents, were actually like us, who felt helpless and encouraged the school to introduce consequences to the kids. We felt like an outcast when we told the school to go ahead and cut our kid’s hair since he broke the school rules or when we told the school to go ahead if the school needs to fail his exam or cane him, since he has to learn the consequences for choosing to break school rules, but many times, the school got shocked and chose to go the gentler way, which of course, have little impact of allowing a child to understand consequences. Its a cycle that has come to a point where its hard to pin-point if the root of problem is the system, parents, school management or teachers only. But something has to change and it must start now.


    1. The horrible parents are the minority, but because of the apathy or cluelessness of other less demanding parents, the poor behavior and expectations of such parents have become the norm, as well as policy.


  12. Hey Ian,
    I am a teacher of 10++ years and I can’t agree more with you. I see what you see too. And these millennial are appearing in our schools today… Some who are deeply cultured with the “results is everything mentality”. These vocal segment voice their loud abhorencce at the chase for results but their very actions contradict their idealism. The very living definition of oxymoron. I despair at this. And truly I am on the verge of quitting this sad scene. Now don’t get me wrong. I think our education system is one of of the best in the world having compared the infrastructure, environment and safety nets (multiple pathways) that MOE have provided for our children. I believe in its noble intentions too. What mutated the system are as you laid it out; (1) a segment of disconnected kiasu myopic loud parents chasing after grades (2) a segment of teachers and principals who gametized the system to preserve their self esteem and to achieve their career ambitions. Both I believe makes for a lethal combination that gives birth to these schooled but uneducated generation. And I feel so helpless about it. Am I too idealistic? I don’t know but I know I love this country. What can we do to change this mindset? Is it even possible in our lifetime? I agree with Steven Seet that perhaps it’s time to forge a community of like minded citizens and try to calibrate this boat that has swung way too far to one extreme.


  13. Hi Ian , I totally agree with you ! I was once sucked into the DSA scheme cause it seemed like everyone was prepping their child for it , kind of like buy insurance. It was ridiculous when I saw that there were 200 plus kids fighting for 5 places during the DSA trials ! On reflection I feel very sad about the DSA system as I see it only benefit kids from well to do families who can afford expensive coaches, overseas competition n overseas training stint to boast their resume. It’s not a level playing field, goes against the policy of meritocracy .


  14. Just fruit for thought.
    I thank everyone for their insightful contribution to this blog. A gem of information to me.
    On the subject of teachers, students and parents.
    I am an English language tutor to secondary school students. It is a subject that is not feverishly pursued amongs students in neighbourhood schools. The GCE O level results can attest to my claim. Many merely pass without distinction grade.
    I wish to highlight a couple of incidents.
    A boy tried to unlock a MoBike in a HDB void deck was apprehanded.
    Another trespassed a private condominium was spotted by the security guard and the school was notified.
    A girl had to routinely report at the police station because she shoplift.
    Another stole a laptop in a library and the CCTV recorded the theft.
    They all got away with a mere slap of the wrists. These teens never pay for their misdeed. Because we have a lenient society. You can draw your own conclusion.


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