PSLE to Degree: Dad’s Role in My Singapore Education

Paul (the author), Belinda (mum), Karen (sister) & Sim Siong Leng (dad).
Paul (the author), Belinda (mum), Karen (sister) & Sim Siong Leng (dad).

The joke about the Singaporean education system that parents are more stressed than children is perhaps rooted in our Asian culture, which prizes education as a platform for success. From balloting for spots in primary schools, to signing up for tuition, parents are very involved.

As an undergraduate, I look back fondly and in amazement at how I survived our robust education system. A big reason I came out relatively unscathed is my parents’ involvement.

Here are eight tactics Dad employed, based on his experience in dealing with students as an academic and counsellor in the university:

1. Acknowledge that education is important

Dad grew up in circumstances which did not emphasize education. His climb from student in a now-defunct local primary school to associate professor in a university was gritty, to say the least.

He did not want his children to repeat his struggle and took a crucial first step, even before we were born, in acknowledging that a solid education as a key to a more comfortable life, especially if the child has no family business or hereditary riches to fall back upon -as is the case with our family.

2. Inculcate a sense of purpose

In the hustle and bustle of compiling school test papers, supplementary exercise books and co-curricular activities (CCAs), my parents made sure to inculcate this paramount value: Purpose.

“Why study so hard?” became a rhetorical question. “Not for Mummy or Daddy,” Dad reminded us intermittently, “but for yourself, your future, and your future family!”

The result: Self-motivation -the driving force behind discipline in our quest for learning.

3. Get the right incentives right

Dad steered clear of the “Gift-For-Grade” trap. He never promised a Game-boy or a meal at a classy restaurant as bait for good grades. In his opinion, this quantified and placed a material value on our efforts, and would develop “wrong values” in us.

The more sustainable incentive is self-motivation.

That said, we appreciated whenever Dad encouraged us with a better meal or gifts. But he always clarified, “Daddy did not buy this because you could get the results.” And, we never viewed these as the end-game in itself.

4. Deal with failure and success

Often, in dealing with under-performing children, a parent’s first instinct is to accusatorily ask, “Why like that?” This does not help the child, especially if his confidence is already dented.

At the other extreme is indifference. The lack of follow-up undermines the child’s efforts and sends a wrong signal that studies need not be taken seriously.

Here, Dad adopted an encouraging hybrid. He never expressed disappointment or anger. Rather, he tried to find out the root of the problem. Was it carelessness? Was it a lack of conceptual understanding?

When I performed well in the exams, Dad celebrated with words of encouragement. Sometimes, a pat on the head means more than a new Playstation.

To him, the learning process and attitude is more important than the end result. Before any test, Dad’s only expectation for us is that we prepare to the best of our abilities so that we have no regrets.

5. Fulfil the child’s potential

Einstein commented: “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life thinking it is stupid.”

Each child is unique.

Some children are academically-inclined, while others are better in music, sports or the arts. Take an honest appraisal of your child’s potential, through weighing his interests, strengths and weaknesses.

Calibrating and managing expectations is a challenge, but sets reasonable standards to move on. Constantly comparing your child to a colleague’s over-achieving daughter will only bring unwarranted and unproductive stress.

6. Balance- beyond academics

Dad encouraged us to “go out and have fun with friends” because they would be friends for a lifetime. He was glad I made it to the school hockey team in secondary school so I could “sweat it out” after a long day at classes and become physically fitter.

Unlike the archetypical Tiger Dad who coerces his child to ace CCAs and chalk up Community Involvement Programme (CIP) hours to emblazon the portfolio, Dad encouraged us to participate simply because it made us better people.

Dad is a firm believer in a holistic and well-rounded education as a springboard to the “real world” after graduation. He found value in me losing important hockey matches to teach me how to handle failure -something I would definitely face in the future.

These days, I keep fit by going for jogs and volunteer at an elderly home -not because I have to, but because I was exposed from young to want to do so.

7. Small things aren’t small

Parents can support their children in little ways. Here I offer two examples of how Dad supported me in my schooling years.

Many Singaporean fathers moonlight as “taxi drivers” for their children on the weekends. Dad was no different. Despite knowing that we ran the risk of becoming spoilt, he continued to chauffeur us to and fro supplementary classes so that our travelling time would be minimised, and we could concentrate better.

Dad’s presence and support at my weekend hockey matches remains a fond highlight of my schooling life.

Small things add up. They are significant. And, children remember them.

8. Communicate and keep track

My parents kept a macro-view of my progress -without obsessing over every worksheet right through my education.

We established an “open-door policy”. I could tell them my problems. This was possible because they modified their communication from “top-down” to a “friend-friend level” -a trick Dad picked up from his counselling experience.

Be sensitive to your child’s body language and expressions. Dad is able to pick out when I have a bad day in school, and need some quiet time.

Nagging, with the noblest intentions, remains a child’s bugbear. When I suffered from burn-out leading to the exams, Dad encouraged me to take a break.

Another arsenal in Dad’s treasure box is asking open questions, for example, “What do you think?” This cultivates the child’s higher order thinking and analytical skills, and avoids going down the slippery slope of spoon-feeding.

Education starts at home

The arduous climbing of the education ladder is a local rite of passage. The preparation to face the many battles -Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) all the way to a diploma or university degree, begins at home, even before entering the school gates.

I cannot bring Dad to the exam hall. Yet his advice and encouragement remains etched in my mind as much as it is in my heart. This spurs me on. Whether I come out of battlefields battered or victorious, I know I return home to a pair of encouraging arms.

Also read the following articles by Paul Sim:

  1. Dad’s Changing Hat’s – A Son Reflects
  2. Of Dad and Home-cooked Dinners

About the Author: Paul Sim Ruiqi, a Dentistry undergraduate at National University of Singapore, writes about how his dad’s involvement helped him get through academic and life hurdles from PSLE to university.