Grim as it might sound, life in Singapore is often one lifelong game of numbers. A game that lasts from seven to seventy.

A Lifelong Game of Numbers

Went out with ex-classmates last Saturday night, and a good chunk of our conversation involved primary school registration for their kids.

As such discussions would go, we soon also started talking about school entry cutoff points, as well as how a near perfect score wasn’t enough for entry into a primary one, higher learning course. For those unfamiliar, a kid is seven years old when entering “P1” in Singapore.

With no kids to go berserk over such things for, I listened in silence as my friends lamented the challenges of registering one’s precious in an admirable school. Particularly, how such registrations often involve a game of numbers. In silence, I say, for deep down, I was so twisted up and heartbroken. What kind of horrible … Oh, all right, I’m lying. I wasn’t despaired. Actually, I was amused. In a grim way, that is. The truth is, despite much talk about cultivating all-rounded students and appreciating different types of lifestyles, life in Singapore is still firmly a game of numbers. In the case of school registration, it is also a confirmation of numbers. A competition of numbers.

  • How much you scored in the entry exam.
  • The distance between the school and your home. Measured in km.
  • How many siblings you have in that school.
  • How many hours and years your parents have contributed to the school. As a volunteer.
  • Whether you are able to stick to the privileged address of proximity after entry into your desired school. So I was told, two years.
  • And for the imaginative, or the unscrupulous, how much money one’s parents are willing to donate to that school for the entry.
Before all else, teach your kid how to count numbers!
Before all else, teach your kid how to count! Life is often an endless game of numbers!

Outside of education, life in Singapore could pretty much be considered as a lifelong game of numbers too. Especially for Singaporean guys. Every stage of life involves some figures, some score, some quota or some minimum amount to achieve. It is a constant challenge that dominates the sheer bulk of a guy’s life. A challenge that doesn’t let up even when one is near the grave.

  • As mentioned above, the various numerical measurements involved with primary school registration.
  • Grades, grades, and grades throughout primary school.
  • For those with demanding parents, the number of enrichment courses taken.
  • For those participating in sports for their schools, the competition for positions. I.E. numbers 1, 2 or 3 in inter-school rankings.
  • PSLE scores, before transition to secondary school.
  • Grades, grades, and grades again in secondary school. And CCA points. The latter conceptually designed to provide a more rounded education, supposedly, but quantified by numbers.
  • O-Level, A-Level aggregates. SATs scores. Etc.
  • Napfa test, that fitness assessment in preparation for compulsory military service. I.E. How fast you can run. How many chin-ups you can do. All measured using numbers.
  • National Service. Military conscription. Countdown to end of service from day 1. Count … down … A fresh set of numerical targets to worry about too. Range score. IPPT (fitness test) scores. Etc.
  • Entry into university is primarily based on aggregates. After which it’s a delicate juggling of number of modules taken. Scores scored. And so on.
  • For some guys, university life is also an amassing of number of co-curricular experiences and titles. Hey, I block leader for my hostel, you know … … I TWO time inter-school dragon boating champion … …
  • Entry into the workforce. Starting pay. Length of probation. What is your alma mater’s ranking and what effect that has on your pay. I.E., the impact of a number on a larger number.
  • Goddamn it! Reservist call-up leh! Countdown again! I still got six high-key left!
  • IPPT again! Yearly till you are 40, 45, 50 or whatever. (<– All numbers). Fail to hit the golden targets, Remedial Training! Another painful countdown till you are released from RT.
For some Singaporean males, annual IPPT, or military fitness test, is the most worrying numerical challenge.
For some Singaporean males, annual IPPT, or military fitness test, is the most worrying numerical challenge. | Source: The Straits Times
  • Quotas, quotas, and quotas for those working in sales and marketing positions.
  • KPIs, KPIs, and KPIs for the majority of the rest.
  • Hours, hours, and hours for those earning hourly wages.
  • GDPs, GNPs, percentages and rates, for those in the civil service.
  • Money! The incessant game of juggling numbers to ensure you do not, remotely, toe near zero. Probably the hardest game of numbers.
  • Savings! What figure i.e. number to commit to each month. What magical amount to hit before you even consider a car, or a house.
  • Kids! What number to have so as to milk the most out of government subsidies. What number not to have so as to avoid bankruptcy.
  • Limits! How many times you can sell your public housing lease before all subsidies are cut-off. How many demerit points before your driving license is suspended. That sort of thing.
  • Not all companies practice this. But for those in companies that do, it’s one endless battle to progress up the grades. Grades usually denoted by some form of numbers. (E1, E2, etc)
  • For those in uniformed positions, it is of course imperative to work towards having more sticks, more bars, more crabs on one’s uniform.
  • Rinse and repeat the whole section on schools, for those with kids.
  • Minimum sum. How much to have in compulsory savings to avoid various, ahem, unpleasant stipulations by the government.
  • Tax calculations. If you need to be careful about this, you know what I’m talking about.
  • Compulsory medical insurances and all related minimum sums, premiums, etc. Nowadays labelled with so many beautiful sounding portmanteaus in Singapore.
  • The age, the number, the golden figure! The year when you can withdraw your compulsory savings. When you can proudly retire from work. Or when you might face questionable dismissal by your employer.
  • The number of years left before your insurance savings plan pays you back.
  • Have I mentioned numbers are the foundation for the intoxicating games of shares and forex trading?
  • Have I also mentioned that as you grow older, more and more numbers become crucial to your survival? Blood pressure. Cholesterol level. Blah, blah.
Just when it seems about to end, numbers become more important than ever. In the form of blood pressure, Cholesterol figures, etc.
Just when it seems about to end, numbers become more important than ever. In the form of blood pressure, Cholesterol figures, etc.

You make life sounds so sad! Surely Singaporean life is more than just a game of numbers!

Let me put it this way. Numbers are unavoidable in life anywhere. Be it in the form of cutoffs, aggregates, quotas or grades.

To make sense and purpose of life, we need to quantify and qualify things. Quantification is usually preferred because it involves less argument. It’s far easier to compare numbers than to compare subjective standards.

That said, it’s still a tad sad, isn’t it? To have one’s life dominated by a game of numbers till one’s days are limited. In some cases, greater tragedy also follows with parents who succeeded or failed in this game inflicting a harsher version on their kids. These are the so-called monster parents. They become the worst heralds of the numeric game. They become its deadliest champions.

Is there any way out of this? Are Singaporeans thus doomed to suffer such ghastly domination for eternity?  I … have no clue. I couldn’t possibly, because I’m already so deep into this culture. As I write this post, I’m constantly looking at a number. The number of words I’ve written. SEO aside, somehow that number feels very important to me.

On the other hand, I do know of one form of temporary respite. This involves the usually subjective difference between numerical rankings. So you didn’t get into the top school. The one ranked numero one. What’s so disastrous with the second best? Or even the ninth best? Is the difference truly that frightening? Or is it merely paranoia induced by yourself?

Most of the time, we exaggerate our fears, yes?

As for the numbers Singaporeans cannot walk away from, what else is there to do but weather on? Weather on, with reasonable efforts at improvements whenever opportunities arise. Numbers cannot be rid of entirely, but we can always make them more bearable. Naturally, for actual improvements to happen, a collective effort is necessary. It is then the measurement of a society’s worth whether such a collective effort could be undertaken properly . If reviewed using numbers, this measurement becomes the one that matters most of all. It would be the lone one worth striving for.



About Scribbling Geek

The geek divides his free time between video games, movies, anime, and attempting to write decent short stories. Oh, and trying not to sprain his fingers from playing demisemiquavers on his Electone.

2 thoughts on “A Lifelong Game of Numbers

  1. I found myself really relating to this post, hahaha, considering how I’ve only left the Singaporean formal education system three months ago! (I’m eighteen, going on nineteen.) Thankfully my own parents didn’t put too much pressure on me to do well, but I know of peers who’ve had it much worse. Thanks for such an interesting post! 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comments. I’m glad to hear you didn’t have it too bad with “numbers” in your Singaporean academic journey. May it stay that way as you move on to higher education and work.

Thanks for commenting!