You’ve got a question?

Today is a special day because I asked my first ever question in a lecture of 70 people. The lecture was on Sociology of Power SC3205, a lecture conducted by Professor Kurtulus Gemici. To foreigners in the United States or United Kingdom, this may seem like a queer thing to be proud of. Yet, to me, a Singaporean, who grew up in an environment where everyone is used to “shut up and listen” in lectures, I am pretty darn happy about it.

To clarify, it is not that teachers in my secondary school and junior college do not encourage us asking questions in lectures. But what hindered many of us (at least for me) was the fear of looking and sounding stupid for asking stupid questions. Eventually, it became such that when teachers ask, “So, does anyone have any question?”, it actually translated to “So, I know that nobody is going to ask but I am going to ask anyway… does anyone have any question?… If not, that’s all for today. Yay, time for a break!”

In fact, what’s really upsetting about these scenarios is not when students fail to speak up when they had questions, but when students eventually stop questioning the materials they were presented with. The silence did not come from a lack of courage. Instead, it came from a lack of curiosity and inquiry.

So today’s episode made me pleasantly surprised not only because I asked a question, but also because I had a question that I cared enough and felt strongly enough to ask.

But one important point to raise is that my little “milestone” today was probably less attributed to my personal growth in thought and courage, and attributed more to the environment I was in. First, learning in university, I believe, gives room for so much more independent thought and that is a privilege that I am truly thankful for. Choosing topics that I am interested in (independently of my friends’ interests) and going to lectures alone can be quite an enjoyable experience because you get the actual physical space, and also mental space during lectures to ponder about issues that matter to you, and you alone.

Secondly, and more importantly, the environment of the lecture was extremely comfortable for open discussion. This is attributed mainly to my professor, who emphasised from day one that he encourages all of us to participate. He also made it clear that he is more than happy to hear us ask stupid questions. Because, more often than not, the questions we ask may not be as stupid as we think they are. He also assured us that we can ask questions at any point of time, even if that means that we may have to break his flow of lectures sometimes.

I love his attitude towards teaching because that is exactly what I think education should be. Asking questions is the key to learning because it unlocks a wealth of knowledge that we would otherwise not have known.

At this point of time, I would like to bring in an extract from the article “Standardised testing: the scourge of student life“, written by a senior of mine, Chan Chi Ling, for Standford Daily:

“Looking back on my education, the moments of insight and learning that I hold on to most dearly came about not because a test told me what I “needed to know,” or when I lost a point where I shouldn’t have. They were those that came as a result of inquiry into questions that excited me  questions that certainly do not end with test timers forcing me to put down my pen.”

Just like my professor, I truly believe in the notion that there are no stupid questions. As a tuition teacher myself, I experience at first hand, questions that are deceivingly so simple which are so difficult to answer.

To quote an example, to the question of “Why is blood red?”, it is very tempting to answer, “Because it just is! Can’t you see it for yourself?” But in actual fact, there is another question embedded in this particular question, which is “What are the components of blood which makes it red?”, to which I would have to answer that blood carries red blood cells which are red, and that red blood cells contain haemoglobin which gives it its red colour. (Then, my student was smart enough to ask further, “What makes haemoglobin red?” and I would have to admit my inadequacy in knowledge and tell her that I will get back to her next lesson.)

This is why, when a friend of mine responded to the feelings of pride I felt today with “So, did you get participation points?”, I felt an inexplicable sense of uneasiness. After writing this article, I think I understand why now. This is because, no matter how much we have been taught as students that participation points are important in terms of our grades (even my professor emphasised so in our first lecture), I still believe that it should never, ever, override a deep sense of quest for learning.

As much as participation points can motivate students to speak up to some extent, real and meaningful discussions only come about when students are engaged, when they are asking questions that they “wanted to ask” and not what they are “made to ask”. The best students are learners who seeks knowledge for the sake of it.

Idealistic as I always am, I hope that this is the kind of learner that I am, and will always strive to be.


Victims of their own oppression

After completing 3 final exams for my sociology modules, I finally have time to document 4 theories I found most fascinating in these modules. Interestingly, even though the modules span across 3 different fields of sociology, namely Social Thought, Education, and Gender Studies, the three of them have something in common- that the oppressed are victims of their own oppression.

Gender Studies – “The cyclical fluctuations of their power position, combined with status considerations, result in their active collusion in the reproduction of their own subordination.” (Bargain with Patriarchy by Deniz Kandiyoti)

Patriarchy refers to the domination of men over women in all aspects of social life, including economics, politics and family life. Classical patriarchy refers to societies that are both patrilineal (inheritance passed down to women) and patrilocal (women live in husband’s family residences).

While some women under the patriarchal system respond by fighting back e.g. women in sub-saharan Africa because of their autonomy in other fields such as trading, other women respond with subservience. This is common in countries such as China. But why?

This is because women learn that they can survive in such a system by gaining power over other women as they become mother-in-laws. It is in their immediate interest to gain the favour of their husbands and their sons. But ironically, as they resist complete male domination in the household, instead of uniting with all women to resist the patriarchal system, they become “participants with vested interests in the system that oppressed them.” (Wolf, 1974)

Gender Studies – “Paid domestic labour has often been interpreted as complicity on the part of female employers in ‘simply perpetuating the sexist division of labour by passing on the most devalued work in their lives to another woman’ and ‘escaping the stigma of “women’s work” by laying the burden on working women of colour’ (Romero, 1992)

This quote is pretty much self-explanatory, but it sure tells a lot. When working women hire domestic maids to lighten their burden of housework, so that they can focus on their work, on the surface it appears as it women have achieved equality in the workplace, but in reality, that is only made possible by the subjugation of other women of lower classes, of other races, of other nationalities.

Both do not realise that despite this arrangement, they have not been freed from the ‘cage’ of domesticity. The domestic worker leaves her home, only to find herself immersed in the domestic sphere of another home in another country. The female employer hires a maid to replace her role in doing domestic chores, but is still the person who is expected to train and supervise her at home.

That is why it is said that the third wave of feminism is stalled because women are not united by their gender, but divided by their class and race.

Education – “Insofar as they succeed (in converting institutional opposition in schools into a more resonant working class form), and become influenced by processes discussed in the rest of the book, so does their future ‘suffer’.” (Learning to labour: how working class kids get working class jobs by Paul Willis)

In the Marxist interpretation of education, the capitalist class who owns means of production, also owns the means of mental production, which is education. Hence, education is a tool used by the capitalist class to perpetuate their interests as universal interests by promoting values such as efficiency and meritocracy. This results in hegemony in which the working class aligns themselves with the dominant interests and this explains the persistence of capitalist class’ domination over the working class.

However, Paul Willis’ work brings a new twist to this interpretation of education. Instead of aligning themselves with the interests of the dominant class, working class children (known as the lads) embrace their working class culture and express them through a counter-school culture. Not only do the lads feel that they are different from middle class children (known as the earholes for their passivity and submissiveness), they feel superior to them. They feel more masculine, and that they are exposed to the adult world of “real work” which requires real practical knowledge, instead of theoretical knowledge. Even though working class jobs pay less, they do not feel any less inferior, because these jobs distinguish them from the earholes and are jobs that the earholes will presumably perform poorly in.

Their alignment towards and embracing of the working class culture indicates the inversion of dominant ideology. But ironically, it is the rejection of theoretical knowledge and school culture that prevents the lads from gaining social mobility through education, and result in them working in working class jobs.

Social thought and theory – “The labour-time necessary for the production of labour-power is the same as that necessary for the production of those means of the subsistence; in other words, the value of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of its owner.” (Capital by Karl Marx)

This last one would require a lot more thought and no one explained it better than Prof Emily Chua did in her answer key for our essay.

The Bourgeoisie owns the means of production, while Proletariat does not and must sell her labor to make a living. It is on this basis that the Bourgeoisie is able to oppress the Proletariat.

Exploitation occurs when a certain quantity of the Proletariat’s labour-power goes to the Bourgeoisie for free, and becomes Bourgeoisie’ private property. Bourgeoisie’s continued power over the Proletariat comes from Bourgeoisie’s exploitation of Proletariat.

This surplus labour arises from the fact that the use-value of labor-power is higher than its exchange-value: The use-value (value which measures the usefulness of an object) of labour-power is 24 hours. The exchange value (value of an object determined by market forces of demand and supply) of labour power, which is the labour-time necessary to produce the means of subsistence for a labourer is however possibly 6 – 8 hours.

Surplus labour creates surplus value for the Bourgeoisie, or turns the Bourgeoisie’s money into capital, self- valorizing value. In other words, it is the Proletariat’s labour that becomes Bourgeoisie’s capital, enabling Bourgeoisie to oppress and exploit Proletariat.

Thus, while the Bourgeois mode of production produces Proletariat by maintaining a class of people who must sell their labour to survive, at the same time, it is also Proletariat who ‘produces’ Bourgeoisie by labouring, and making the commodities that constitute Bourgeoisie’s property.

In essence, the Proletariat is a class that reproduces itself, and also reproduces the Bourgeoisie class which oppresses it.


These theories are the most fascinating ones I have encountered this semester because they are the best evidences to prove that the world is not always black and white. There aren’t always devils and angels. Relations between the oppressed and the oppressor are not always so clear, because one may not even know that he or she is part of the oppressed class and may only be conscious of his or her own existence (and benefits) in the most immediate aspects of life, and it could happen to any one, myself included.

In Gender, it could be to get a job that I like or to be the most powerful women at home. In Education, it could be to align myself with a particular culture so that I survive best when I eventually form a part of that culture. In Class, it could be to get a job for a living.

How can we free ourselves if we do not see ourselves and each other as one unified oppressed class?

I believe all these would be part of what Marx would call false consciousness- that we continue to perpetuate the system that oppresses us. This is a theory that is immensely tragic, but also immensely enlightening.


So this marks the end of 3 intensive modules. Even though the journey has been incredibly difficult, but at the end of the day, I always remind myself how privileged I am to be able to learn all these fascinating theories in university, that I have never ever encountered before.

I may not have grasped all concepts to their fullest, but as Prof Emily Chua said, “After exams, I want you to learn one thing: that everything you learnt in this module is wrong.” Concepts need to be learnt, and relearnt, learnt, and relearnt. So I suppose the learning process has just begun.

Here’s to more 🙂

Why are we so stressed?

In the past few weeks when the haze came, I remember lamenting to my tuition students, “How I wished the haze would go away!”. To my surprise, I was returned with responses such as “How I wished the haze will NEVER go away, so we don’t need to go to school!” My heart sank. The natural question was: What makes school so undesirable that students do not wish to go to school?

Today, when I was revising for my Sociology of Education course, I read this reading, “Children, Population Policy, and the State in Singapore” and fully appreciated how it made me understand the sentiments of these children in the broader context of Singapore. The following is basically a short summary of relevant parts of the reading which answered my question.

First, it is a well-established fact that Singapore is a secular one-party- dominant state, where PAP ruled since 1959. Thus, the state is the most powerful influence in the lives of the nation’s children.

One of the most significant ways in which the state can alter the future of the nation is by means of population planning, because a nation’s politics select which children are to exist, and to some extent whether or not some children are to exist or not.

There is an explicit focus on eugenics in Singapore’s population policies. Eugenics is the greek word for “well-born” and it involves a set of beliefs and practices aimed at improving the genetic quality of the human race. This is best illustrated by the implementation of the Graduate Mothers’ Scheme in 1984, in which the third child of graduate mothers were given priority in primary school admission, in response to falling birth rates of educated women. This scheme assumes: (1) graduate mothers are graduates because of superior genes and (2) educated middle-class parents would automatically reproduce educated middle-class class children.

Eugenics had further implications on the school system. The objective of education is consequently not training, but testing, to filter innate future leaders among the general population. This is done through streaming. Stress is not merely an accidental outcome of streaming, but a mechanism that will reveal innate qualities of children.

Additionally, the rhetoric of meritocracy works in tandem with the discourse in eugenics. Meritocracy assumes an equal playing field and equal opportunities for all. Hence, any individual differences in achievement is solely attributed to ability, which in this case, imply one’s superiority of genes. (On a side note: That is why meritocracy legitimises inequality, since it assumes that everyone is located where they are in the hierarchy, solely by virtue of their own merit. This is easily refutable by evidences of visible and invisible barriers working class children may need to overcome, such as the having to do part time jobs to support their family.)

The eugenic discourse, however, marks a contradiction between the state and parents. The state is interested in establishing a pyramid by sieving out superior children from inferior children. However, no parents wants their child to sink to the base of the pyramid because (1) no parent out of good-will wants that of his or her child (2) a child who fails in the education system is genetically inferior, and by implication, the parents’ genes must also be genetically inferior.

Thus, parents place great pressure on their children towards the top of the pyramid. One of the strategies parents do so is through private tutoring through which they can intervene, and which is a process that I am regrettably (?) part of.

Apart from stress derived from these processes such as tuition, the author argues that the result of the eugenics discourse is that children (and parents) are constantly being judged fit or unfit, wanted or unwanted, and this leads to a grave state of dialectic between arrogance and shame. People who fit well in the preconceived mould of the eugenics discourse feel destined with superiority, while people who do not fit well feel ashamed, even of their very existence. As a result, a nation of the arrogant few and the self-doubting and shameful many may be formed. This is where the real battle is, where the real stress comes from: the system that results in these processes.

The even graver thing is realising that, it does not matter if children are sorted out into different hierarchies as the state is concerned with, or children are pushed up on the hierarchy to destabilize this hierarchy as parents want their children to. Because in either case, children seem to lose. First, in terms of shame or arrogance, and second in terms of extreme stress.

Well, of course, not every parent colludes in sharing the eugenics values and the situation is not homogenous. (At this point, I really thanked the author for pointing out that not all is lost.) Some parents choose homeschooling as an alternative, or others focus on different definitions of success such as vocational training. Furthermore, the more recent discourse in education seem to tend towards nurture via nature, and focus on genes as the sole indicator of merit or success does not seem so apparent any more.

But in any case, this reading has truly opened my eye in understanding the effects of structure on individuals. This reading may not be a ground-breaking one, and concepts such as population control, meritocracy, eugenics have always been taught to us in class. Yet, it still takes such a reading, at least for me, to finally link individual occurrences such as the one I have encountered, with broader national issues to understand them as interrelated to one another.

If not, I believe, laymen instincts will overtake such knowledge, and I will simply answer the above question with “It’s all parents fault for being so kiasu.” or “It’s all the education system’s fault for all the exams.” But to understand the mechanisms and processes behind them is key.

To Educate and to be Educated

You can’t be a student and not think about Education. So here, I recounted 3 incidents I have encountered, which triggered a few questions about Education.

// ONE.

A few months back, my mum, sister and I ate lunch at Pontian Wanton Noodles stall in Bukit Panjang Plaza. Sitting beside us was a family of four, who brought along a scooter with them. Suddenly, the scooter fell on our table, toppled my mum’s bowl of soup and the soup spilled all over her shirt. My mum immediately stood up in shock. But what was even more shocking was what the little girl from that family retorted, when her mother commanded her and her brother to apologise.

“Mummy, it’s not me! It’s the wind! “

Despite relentless attempts on getting her to apologise, and her brother apologising to us, that little girl never did. I sincerely feared for her and millions of children who are just like her.

To the mother who apologized on the behalf of her children in the end, how much does the child has to lose when her mother loses a million of these golden opportunities to educate? How do we recognise them and how do we educate?-

// TWO.

Last week, a friend of mine recounted a hateful incident when he applied for a scholarship and his teacher never provided him help full-heartedly, until his A level results were released. Stellar results were the defining measure that he was finally worth his teacher’s effort.

To the teacher who failed to believe in him when he yearned belief, what defines talent and who should be given the power to define it?


During Sing50, a concert where Singapore musicians who had contributed largely to the Singapore music industry came together to perform, the sound system was laden with problems. While the sound was of discomfort to the ears, what was disturbing to the heart were the swarms and swarms of audience who got up from their seats and strolled across the center field to leave the stadium in the middle of the concert. It was presumably out of disappointment at the sound system, and out of kiasuism (a Singaporean term for the fear of losing) to beat the crowd. At the finale, the audience was left with an appalling 2/3 of the audience.

To the thousands of people who left before the show ended, does earning a degree truly guarantee an education?

To you and me, I have my answers to some of these questions, while others remain unanswered. As a senior of mine Chi Ling wrote, “(My moments of learning) were those that came as a result of inquiry into questions that excited me — questions that certainly do not end with test timers forcing me to put down my pen.” Here’s to learning more about Education, a topic so close to the hearts of many, as I embark on lessons on Sociology of Education in school tomorrow.