Real Education, This Is Water

Both my boys aren’t the kind who would sit down and do colouring
I remember as a child, colouring was one of my favourite activity
It was my way of adding colour to my imagination, giving it life
I would sit down and meticulously fill up a picture with colours
It never occurred to me that that would require immense patience
I only realised that after watching my boys do colouring

I realised that when one is doing something one enjoys, hours feels like seconds
If one is doing something one dreads, a minute feels like a lifetime
Unfortunately, I only realised this after I became a mother

I learned to play the organ when I was young
Every week, I would diligently practise the song that I was supposed to learn and play
I remember dreading going for lesson because playing in front of the teacher made me really really nervous

I really enjoyed playing the organ, however, it didn’t occur to me that way then
My learning experience was more about fear than enjoyment

I did well for my tests though and even topped a couple of them but I eventually stopped the lessons after 6 years

I didn’t excel nor did I pursue my interest in music
I realised that fear could kill the joy of learning and testing did very little in cultivating one’s interest

In school, I really enjoyed art classes and dancing
I did fairly well in both and was the lead dancer for most of the dance performances
But I had never considered choosing the arts
In those days, only students with less than desirable results did arts and I was always in a science class
I grew up believing that my interest was in the Sciences and Maths

I continued to work as an engineer after I graduated from the University because during then, engineering jobs in MNCs were highly sought after
The top students secured lucrative and highly sought after jobs with MNCs even before they graduated

I never really knew what I wanted to do with my life, so I went with what everyone was vying for
I was a typical Singaporean, caught in the rat race the day I started school, a product of the system

If our education system’s objective had been to churn out workers to support the nation’s economy, then it has done really well
It had moved the country from 3rd world to 1st within a generation and in 2012, it was ranked among the top 5 best education system in the world with Finland and South Korea

If our education system’s objective is to teach me what they want me to learn so that I can pass exams, then it has been very successful
I scored well in my exams but I don’t remember half the things that were taught to me

Is it the education system’s job to help me find my passion ?
Perhaps not, because that wouldn’t guarantee that they would achieve their objective of generating non thinking workers to support the economy

Is our education system perfect ?
Obviously not, neither was it broken

I am grateful for what we have
Knowing that people will risk life to have just a fraction of what we have
Knowing that I am writing this post in spite of the less than perfect education system
Knowing that I came to to be self-aware and thinking now
Knowing that as a parent, I can compensate for the imperfections of the schools
Knowing that I can make a difference today by doing what I do, beginning with how I bring up my own children

Life is not so much about being given the best, but about making the best out of what we were given
Often it is through adversity that one builds resilience
And while we struggle with whether there is a need to reform our current education system, perhaps we should think about what is real education

And I shall leave you with a quote from David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech in Kenyan College in 2005, This Is Water

The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.
This I submit, is freedom of real education, of learning how to be well adjusted.
You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.
That is real freedom.
That is being educated and understanding how to think.
The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant annoying sense of having had, and lost some infinite things …

The capital-T True is about life before death.
It is about the real value, of a real education, which has (almost) nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness.
Awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight, all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves…over and over…this is water…this is water’




  1. lyn lee says:

    Yes, identify with much you wrote. Learnt an instrument, did the same through education system, bucked trend just a very little by going into Arts at 17, but then most re-conformed the rest of the way.

    Good food for thought on what our education system’s job is/should be… and yes I believe too that as parents little decisions we make can make a difference. 🙂

    • malmal says:

      thanks Lyn, I wonder whether kids these days are going through the same thing…Frankly, I have no qualms about a country’s education system being built on the basis to support the country’s economy. This is not something new, neither is it something that is only happening in Spore and if Spore education system needs a reform, the world’s public education needs a reform.
      As parents, we have great influence on our children and I believe that even with an imperfect system, we can guide them and pass down the lessons we learned to them

      • lyn lee says:

        Yup, in most ways I guess I do seem like a success story of our education system, and I wouldn’t say I regret my decisions. Guess my parents were quite enlightened too, in their advice to me. So I hope to be able to stand against the current crazy tide (it’s gotten so much crazier) and be like my parents, in my guidance to my children. 🙂

        • malmal says:

          It’s good that your parents were enlightened, I think during my times, a lot of our parents weren’t educated. My own parents and my parents in laws never pushed the kids like parents do today. Sometimes it makes me wonder what has all these years of education done to us ?!

  2. Sandra says:

    Well Written! i’m forever grateful to have parents who never pushed the rat race but told us to do our best & simply be useful… i try to do the same for my boy & let him know that his passions are just as important – although some days it is difficult to remember that myself… but we try & we learn…

    • malmal says:

      Hi Sandra, thanks ! you know what, my parents never pushed me either. It is just me, myself and I. Somehow being in the system forced me to want to compete. I was already in the rat race, even before knowing what is one. Finding one’s passion is important, it is equally important to know that apart from passion, there is responsibility, things we need to do even when we do not like it. And I believe, apart from ABCs and 123s, these values can be learned in schools…as parents, I am learning as well.

  3. Dawn says:

    Well written 🙂 however, i really do not think sg’s education system is going to change anytime soon…at least not in my lifetime. I was having a conversation with my aunt the other day and i said…thinking back, why did i bother to take a Bachelors in biz?..i’ve totally no use for it now, so thankful I did not ‘follow the crowd’ and move on to a mba..instead, i went for another degree…this time, in culinary studies. I LOVED IT! Studying for exams are not at all stressful, thats when i know, this is something i truly love…till now, I can rattle off dimensions from a julienne cut to a brunoise dice….its in me…i cannot however remember the theories definitions of ‘eoconomic growth’ or ‘macro theory of distribution’….the thing is, i only realised what i love…a tad late.
    The key is… how are we, as parents able to tell what our kids truly love and enjoys? so we can assit them to help further that ‘gift’ in them. No one wants to see their child fail in school, with the bar set for the standards is increasing every year…how should we deal with that? ….i’m constantly thinking…

    • malmal says:

      Hi Dawn, thanks ! Sadly, we are a product of our education system. But the fact that we are thinking now, all is not lost 🙂 It is great that you discovered your passion, I am quite sure there are a lot of people who had lived a lifetime and not finding theirs. I believe in unstructured play and I think it’s important that we let the kids to just play. I believe that children should go school to learn and not to compete or ace exams. If there is any one that they need to compete with, is themselves. I know, it’s easier said than done

  4. Jenn - lilbookworm says:

    It is true that our education system trains technicians, which could be easily explained why we have a lot less entrepreneurs. Since our generation & future generations are more informed, we as parents are in better capacity to help our children in the path they could thread. I choose to believe that :))

    • malmal says:

      hey Jenn, thanks for your comment. As parents we do have great influence in our children’s life but I do worry that sometime being too anxious to help, we might end up drowning their voice. It can get fuzzy whether we are fulfilling our own dreams or helping them chase theirs. It’s a tough job

  5. Debbie G says:

    Nicely said! I do think that parents have a great role to play in guiding a kid’s education although I hope that I will have the wisdom to pull back at the right time so that my kids have the opportunity to make the big decisions on their own.

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