On achievement and the celebration of success

A while ago, an opinion article on Straits Times, “Top PSLE scorers, take a bow” struck a resounding chord in me. The topic is especially relatable as the author, Chua Mui Hoong’s “quite-good-but-not-stellar” education trajectory is rather similar to my own, as well as many other friends around me.

At primary six, I managed to score well enough to enter Nanyang Girls’ High School (NYGH), a school which I had not expected myself to enter. On my first day of school, I remember the immense sense of pride I gained when I wore my white and crisp uniform, or what we fondly call the hongzi ( 红字).

Yet, the same uniform which brought me pride also brought me a handful of unpleasant memories. Once, when I visited my primary school to celebrate teachers day, a boy almost ran a bicycle into my friends and I. He shouted, “Good school so what? Don’t be so proud la.”

I was shocked by the incident because the boy was a school mate I had never known in primary school. At the young age of 13, I could not register how my being as a student of NYGH could bring so much resentment, such that a person could judge me by virtue of the uniform I wore, and the school it represented.

After secondary school, I moved on to Hwa Chong Junior College (HCJC) under the Integrated Programme (IP). Similar to the writer, I got few As compared to other friends in JC. But when some of my friends posted their stellar results on social media and share their education journey in JC, I never hesitated about congratulating them and giving them the full respect they deserve. When some friends expressed their regret of getting a “B” instead of an “A”, I could understand their disappointment and never hesitated about encouraging them and giving them the concern they deserve.

Outsiders may scorn them and think that they are being boastful and elitist. After all, students in HCJC could have done well largely because of greater resources. And shouldn’t a student be contented with a “B”? There are many other students in Singapore who do not even have the chance to enter JC. Furthermore, in the long run, our A level results do not matter as much as our university results anyway.

All these comments are fairly reasonable. Interestingly, these comments do not just come from the public, but also from students in the school itself. But still, I can understand their jubilation when they had done well, and their disappointment when they had not done as well as they expected, even if their score is good enough by the standard of others.

As a student, I had seen friends who juggled academics and heavy commitments in their co-curricular activities (CCA). Depending on the nature of the CCA, practices could go up to two to three times a week, and there might even be practices on weekends during concert period for performing arts CCA and the competition period for sports CCA. After the peak periods of a CCA, students would spend long hours studying in the library and reading room to catch up on their studies. When examinations drew near, tables outside the staff rooms would be filled to the brim during lunch time and sometimes, both teachers and students would get by lunch with only a simple sandwich from the canteen.

People may say, “Wah, so kiasu.” and indeed HC students can be very kiasu. But within that also lies a deep drive to achieve excellence and an unwillingness to let reasons such as CCA commitments become excuses to not do well.

Do all HCJC do well naturally? I would say that that may be true for a special few, but for the large majority, academic excellence requires a immense amount of sacrifice of time spent with friends and family, and a great amount of effort. As a result, students in HCJC may be labelled as nerds who are overly academic driven, but I believe that it is only right for everyone to be given the right to pursue what they think ought to be pursued.

If a student choose to spend lesser time in studying to spend more time with his passion in cooking, volunteering, or just spending time with his or her family and friends, that’s okay. But if another student chooses to strive for academic excellence, that’s okay as well, and his or her stellar results should not be treated as a given because there is nothing innately natural about it. More importantly, a student should never have to hide their achievements for fear of uncalled for envy and unreasonable insults, like the kind I received when I was 13.

I had a friend who once told me that A levels isn’t really a test of brains, but a test of grit. First, that applies to the perseverance one must have throughout JC. It truly is a marathon and all stakes are banked in on the very final run. Second, the exam itself deserves a mention. A large number of papers take three gruelling hours to complete, and all students had to write faster than they ever did in their lifetime.

Thus, when I got my results and found out that I got ABBC/A, as compared to my friends who mostly received straight As, I felt slightly dejected, but I was not surprised. I had seen what these friends had put in to succeed and what is required to do well. I know very well the kind of people who would excel – the ones who struggled, persevered and worked harder than anyone else – and I was not it. As much as I regretted, I also fully understood how difficult the journey was for them, and was deeply convinced that their spirit of excellence will inspire me to do better in the future.

Surely it is true that national exams like PSLE and A levels do not mean everything, but I fully agree with Chua when she said that “The PSLE result won’t define the rest of your life. But at this moment, your achievement is something you should feel proud of…” Each success is a precious product of years of hard work and it ought be celebrated for, not for the fact that it may guarantee one a secure future, and position one ahead of his or her counterparts, but because it truly embodies the idea that you reap what you sow.

However, while I agree that academic excellence should be lauded, I also believe that every student in elite schools such as HCJC, from every top scorer, to every ordinary student, myself included, ought to recognise just how privileged we are. Regardless of our grades, we were blessed with dedicated teachers, exceptional facilities, and above all a culture and environment that motivated us to do reasonably well.

Similarly, for all the top scorers of PSLE, while I believe strongly that they should be acknowledged, that acknowledgement must come hand in hand with a deep sense of appreciation for all the other players, such as teachers, friends and family members who had played a part. It should never be a celebration of one’s success, but the celebration for the success of all these contributors as well.

Next, there should also be no denial that inequality exists to causes differences in achievement of students. That could come in the form of different physical and intellectual abilities, different class background, and more. It may be too idealistic, but perhaps the solution is not to discredit top-scorers for their academic excellence due to possible innate advantages that they hold, but to direct resources more less discriminatorily.

I am uncertain about the resources other schools have, but I certainly wished that every student would have had the opportunities and facilities I had in NYGH and HCJC, so that they too can have a chance to succeed in areas they are interested in.

I would like to raise a quote by one of the most inspiring youtube star, Jenn Im. In one of the youtube video, titled “10 Things I Learned in College”, she said, “It doesn’t matter where you got accepted to, where you got rejected, because college is what you make it. You can go to an Ivy League School and learn nothing because you didn’t want to learn anything.”

I chose this quote to illustrate that this post is not about students in elite schools. Instead, it is about every student in every school in every country. One’s achievement does bring glory to his or her school. Yet, plenty of times, achievements of individuals may become an unhealthy rivalry between schools. That is understandably one of the reasons why Ministry of Education (MOE) and the media refrain to share the results of top scorers.

Most achievers become nameless individuals who become part of cold hard facts and statistics such as “50% of the school population received 4 H2 As, highest since XXXX”. But, an achievement is something more personal than that. It encompasses individual struggles that only people closest to these students may know.

Thus, I also believe that acknowledgement do not only have to come from the media or from MOE. Success can be publicly celebrated, but it is the acknowledgement from parents, teachers, peers or even the students himself or herself that may be even more important.

Once, I overheard a conversation on the bus. It went roughly like this:

Mother: Girl, how much did you get this time?
Daughter: I got 45/50.
Mother: Oh, what is the highest in class?
Daughter: I don’t know, teacher never say.
Mother: How about your friend? What did she get?
Daughter: I’m not very sure, I think she got higher than me.

Upon listening to this conversation, I just wondered: must the girl’s results be judged comparatively to others before her mother can decide whether or not it is good or bad? This incident proved that while MOE may avoid revealing results to avoid comparisons, mindsets of parents are acutely difficult to change.

I certainly hoped that when they got home, the mother would take a look at her paper and assess for herself whether or not the child has improved. Did she stop making the same mistakes? Was the paper harder than before? Did she understand the concepts she could not understand previously?

If the answer is yes, I would have loved for the mother to give a pat on her daughter’s shoulders, and say “Great job, my dear girl.” That simple phrase, I believe, would have given the daughter a greater sense of achievement than acknowledgement given from anyone else.


Author: Cheryl Tan

22 // +65 A closet thinker. Documents her life in words and songs. Hopelessly obsessed with skies, and oh, FOOD.

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