Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Not built for society

I am not a good talker. And when I do speak, one of the following usually takes place:
1) I would speak in Singlish (an English-Malay-Hokkien creole).
2) There is a high probability of my using words which are commonly considered to be offensive.
3) Someone will eventually feel awkward because I have said something popularly deemed to be politically incorrect.

I guess I am not built for society, given my strong disinterest in meeting its expectations.

This week, I will be completing the registration of my Masters candidature with NUS. It makes me happy and excited to be back in an environment where I believe I can be and feel "normal".

I am about to finish my three-month contract with an internet company and I must say that it has galvanised my resolve to go into academia. Apparently, I have little idea what kind of future lies in academia, but so long as the desire to question and learn exists, I feel secure.

One very perplexing issue has been a thorn in my side for the past couple of weeks. There is this Diagnostic English Test, that has apparently been made mandatory for all incoming Arts and Social Sciences graduate students, regardless of nationality or university of graduation.

I have completed my 'AO' General Paper at the 'A' Level examination with an A2, and have attained an A grade for my thesis. I was never required to take the Qualifying English Test, that is required of undergraduate students either from non-English-speaking countries or locals who have attained below the grade of B3 for their General Paper.

In other faculties, incoming graduate Singaporean students or those from English-speaking countries are exempted from the Diagnostic English Test. It is utterly perplexing that I am required to take the test, having been through the Singaporean education system.

I shared the news with my brother and he said that the standard of English has declined. I agree.

I do not want to take the test. It is not because of pride wherein one thinks such a system and test insults one's ability and achievements, but rather the fact that I am one who performs erratically in tests and examination conditions. For all we know, I may "flunk" the English test and will be required to go for English language classes!

It is important to note that such a stance by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in the National University of Singapore is reflective of the condition of Singaporean education. Simply put, primary and secondary education is not good enough to produce and sustain a satisfactory standard of English. As such, graduate students (we are talking Masters and Doctorate candidates here) have to sit for English language proficiency tests. Amazing and disgusting.

The test involves spotting grammatical errors, doing a comprehension passage and some writing. Sometimes I do not trust my interpretations of texts, because their intended meanings interact with my opinions, often times leading to another form of "comprehension", which may not be, as how every Singaporean would know as, 'exam standard'.

I had always wondered, from young, why should we sit for the tests that society has set for us? For every examination we sit, we are actually dignifying and justifying the legitimacy of the system, of society. We have "developed" to such an extent where society has its own set of definitions to determine success, and its own set of apparatuses to measure success and individuals; while individuals are robbed of their will and ability to define, determine and measure society.

Society has made it so that we are dependent on money and the rigid processes to attaining the necessities for survival. You need food, but you need money to buy food, so you have to work to earn that money - one legitimate means to survival. Very miserable if you are not in the capacity to work because of physiology and a lethal dose of social or political discrimination.

By following the legitimate processes, we in fact give it legitimacy and justification, allowing for its unnatural longevity, making it rigid and less inclined to change and evolution.

It is such a system in which sickening mentalities are enshrined. We are a society that can believe that poor people are lazy workers.

Problems cannot be individualised nor medicalised, which will lead to their depoliticisation. In this case surrounding my reluctance to sit for the Diagnostic English Test, people might think that NUS is a lousy school because of the poor standard of English. We must consider the system through which the students have come.

In my time, as early as in Primary School, English lessons are functional towards the attainment of good grades. Who cares about foundation? We just practised comprehension and cloze passages like they were mathematical equations. When I reached Secondary School, not many of us knew what a preposition or a conjunction or a collective noun was! Wait a minute, shouldn't all these be taught in Primary School?

Maybe the Ministry of Education has put the cart before the horse. Heck, they just probably bought only the cart because of "pragmatic reasons". Horses just grow old, while carts are immortal and have replaceable parts. So typical of a government that consistently espouses rhetoric of practicality and pragmatism.

The study of English at Primary level was mostly for examinations. I was just very lucky to have a tutor who taught (drilled into) me English grammar, although my standard now isn't as good as it was under her tutelage.

It is true, linguistic and grammatical ability and proficiency can deteriorate. They require practice, in the form of speech and writing. A good example would be my Mandarin (not the orange), which would be comparable to a Primary Three student's. Since I do not speak well nor much, the only practice of the English language comes from writing.

Philosophically speaking, I have always believed we should transcend language, because language itself is confining and limiting. How do we specifically convey instructions or feelings that cannot be communicated using language? We end up using social cues and facial expressions and other gesticulations. Speech, in communication, cannot do without its "crutches".

I hate to talk to people for a couple of reasons - they get offended because of the ideology they hold (that is a people problem); they misunderstand what I say and my intentions (that is my limitation to expressing myself and the limitation of language itself).

Weird enough, to choose not to speak is to transcend speech. Avoidance and independence is a form of transcendence. Speech is an apparatus of society. It does not belong to any one.

Unfortunately, I am entangled in society. I cannot steal or rob or kill or do anything as I please. In order to pursue a goal, which might have been put into my consciousness by society itself, I have to abide by the human-made rules of society.

It is with great reluctance and resignation that I sit for the Diagnostic English Test. I personally see no meaning in it, because it is a tactic employed by an institution that sustain itself in a larger network of other institutions.

One test may be believed to measure and determine the standard of approximately 12 years of formal education, but the extra English language courses/classes cannot easily repair everything.

Students like myself suffer the extra administrative checks and segmentisations, because of the declining standard of English. It is about time we turn the spotlight on the Ministry of Education. Will they be accountable? Or will they blame Phua Chu Kang?


lcfu said...

i would already have finished my master if i didnt travel around the world... but i changed my mind, thinking of getting MBA =)
i like the way you write!! *passing by*

Sam Ho said...

hi, thanks very much.

i'm envious of you being able to travel around the world, even though i don't fancy getting out of the house haha.

all the best for the MBA! get more degrees!

johnNy said...

i wld like to quote V - "If u are looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror"

a very interesting post!! it struck a chord..

Sam Ho said...

thanks. V is an advocate of anarchy, oops i said the A word.