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 mostly listened in silence as my friends lamented the challenges of registering one’s precious in an admirable school. 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. As it seems, despite much talk about cultivating all-rounded students and appreciating different types of lifestyles, life in Singapore still revolves around numbers. In the case of school registration, isn’t it still entirely a confirmation of numbers? A competition of numbers?
- How much you scored in the entry exam.
- How near to the school your home is. 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.
Outside of education, life in Singapore could pretty much be considered as a lifelong management of numbers too, particularly for 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 seldom lets up.
- As mentioned above, all the 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 interschool rankings.
- PSLE scores, before transition to secondary school.
- Grades, grades, and grades again in secondary school, plus CCA points. The latter conceptually designed to provide a more rounded education, but quantified by numbers.
- O-Level, A-Level aggregates. SATs scores. Etc.
- Napfa test. The 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 itself is primarily based on aggregates. Then it’s a delicate juggling of number of modules taken. Scores scored. And so on. For some, also an amassing of related co-curricular experiences and titles during varsity time. Hey, I block leader for my hostel, you know … … I two time interschool 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.
- Quotas, quotas, and quotas for those in sales and marketing.
- 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, go near zero. Probably the hardest challenge.
- Savings! What figure i.e. number to commit to each month. What magical amount to hit before you even consider that car, or that house.
- Kids! What number to have to milk the most out of government subsidies. What number not to have so as not to risk 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 move up the grades, usually denoted by some form of numbers.
- 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 care 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.
- The age, the number, the golden figure! The year when you can withdraw your compulsory savings, when you can proudly retire from work, or 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.
You make life sounds so sad! Surely Singaporean life is more than just numbers!
Let me put it this way. Numbers are unavoidable in life anywhere. Be it in the form of cutoffs, aggregate, 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 numerical targets till one’s days are limited. In some cases, a greater tragedy then follows with parents who succeeded or failed in this competition inflicting a harsher version of the game 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 doomed to such ghastly domination for eternity? I say … I have no clue. Probably 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 horrendous or merely what you imagined to be the worst possible outcome?
Most of the time we exaggerate our fears, don’t we?
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 subsequently the measurement of a society’s worth whether such collective efforts are properly undertaken. If reviewed using numbers, this measurement becomes the one that matters most in life. It is the lone one that deserves fussing over.