The Singaporean Dream?

Got this email from jh and felt that it was really well written. Could identify with some parts of the article and it really gets one thinking about what do you wake up for each morning.

Just glad I am very fortunate to still be able go back to the forests and rocky shores and still keeping in touch with people like otterman and lekowala. Good enough for the moment.

The following essay was written for Singaporeans Exposed: Navigating the
Ins and Outs of Globalisation (published to commemorate the 10th
Anniversary of the Singapore International Foundation, 2001, Landmark

How living in New York has illuminated for us the difference between the
Singaporean Dream and the Singaporean Plan

By Colin Goh & Joyceln Woo Yen Yen

Former lawyer turned writer/cartoonist Colin Goh and educator Joyceln Woo
are married and have been living in New York for the past three years.

COLIN & JOYCELN: We fell in love and in June 1998, we got married – true
Singaporean style. The studio photography, the clothes, church, the dinner
and the hundred of guests that we had never met before. What happened to us
after that was not so typically Singaporean. Here are our stories.

JOYCELN: As a child, I could never sleep the night before the first day of
school. The night before my first day of teaching was no different. I
didn’t know what to expect but I knew that I was going to help kids learn,
be the best teacher, and make a difference.

At my first staff meeting, the principal screened an image familiar to all
new schoolteachers – the Prism. Like a magical crystal ball, the Prism told
many things. It could predict how well students entering secondary school
with 4 subjects at PSLE would do for the ‘O’ levels. With the Prism, we
could evaluate each student’s potential grade in literature based on
his/her PSLE grades and then tell if our school had “added value” to the
child’s education.

Looking into the Prism, the principal announced that while she was
concerned about the various aspects of development – Intellectual,
Aesthetic, Moral, and Physical – “This year, our school will focus on the
Intellectual.” By this, she meant that as teachers, we should all ensure
that we stretched the potential of the students so that they performed
“better than expected” at the ‘O’ levels. I noticed in the subsequent years
that we never decided to focus on any other aspect of development. There
was never an Aesthetic, Moral or Physical year.

The conversations in the staff room educated me considerably about the
concerns of teachers.

“Oh, I heard you bought the new condo in Bukit Batok, that’s a good

“So which piano school are you sending your child to now?”

“Do you want to go buy diamonds with us, we are going to buy diamonds this

In my naïveté, this came as a shock. Why weren’t teachers talking about
helping students learn or improving instruction?

And when they WERE talking about improving instruction, it was invariably:

“So what questions do you think will come out for this year’s ‘O’ levels?”

“Yes! Yes! I spotted the right questions!”

“You have to make sure your students write 5 ‘compositions’ and do 5
‘comprehensions’ this semester.”

And when questions were asked, the answer was inevitably “Can’t change.
That’s what the principal wants to see.”

The culture in the staff room was a mix of different groups:

· the Tai-Tais, women who had married well-off husbands, and who admired,
respected and competed with each other for their Ferragamo shoes and Louis
Vuitton bags.

· the few unmarried men who were mothered by the Tai-Tais as they were
regarded as “good” men (i.e. hardworking and honest) but ironically
insufficiently compelling marriage material (for why on earth would a
functioning, virile, desirable man become a teacher?).

· the married men who usually lived in HDB flats (unlike the Tai-Tais and
their non-teacher husbands), who generally kept to themselves.

· the older single women who were diligent in ensuring that all forms are
handed in on time and helping students who need extra help get the
preferred grades. They were usually more conservatively (and cheaply)
dressed, and did not generally interact socially with the Tai-Tais.

· the expatriate teachers who were generally avoided by the other teachers
and not expected to do very much because they either could not be trusted
to do the work, were too difficult to communicate with, or were too
troublesome to work with. And when they got together, they made plain their
disdain for Singapore and its school system of which they were a part.
Stereotypical as it may sound, those I’d met had invariably come to
Singapore either to heal from a broken marriage (in which case, getting
involved with a local woman usually came with the package), or had fled an
unsuccessful career so they could return home and say, “I spent a few years
in the Orient.”

· And the young teachers, bright-eyed and bushytailed, who believed they
could make a difference, and who usually started out immensely popular with
the students. They organized extra activities which they were not required
to do, sat with students for long hours when they had problems, and
generally tried to innovate with teaching. The Tai-Tais usually tried to
matchmake the young single female teachers with single men they knew, but
never the single male teachers. Seasoned teachers generally sat back and
placed bets on when the neophytes would eventually burn out.

I didn’t know a single lazy teacher – everyone was extremely hardworking,
taking work home, often physically running around as they hurried to
different parts of the school. The teachers hardly had time to rest and
reflect. It was as if we had been trained to work hard, but not to think.

What unites Secondary 4 teachers is the common goal of ensuring their
students score well in the ‘O’ levels – preferably better in the subject
that they teach rather than in another subject. Success is defined largely
in terms of how many As produced in their class.

I remember one year distinctly – the school had done well in history and
the Sec 4 history teacher was jumping up and down in glee, like she had won
a war. On the other hand, the students hadn’t done as well in literature
and the teacher was walking around with her head down, wishing that the
bulletin board with the results didn’t place the teacher’s name next to the
results of each class. While everyone congratulated the history teacher on
doing well in spotting the right questions, we all didn’t know what to say
to the literature teacher. We sort of patted her shoulder as if someone had

And for non-Sec 4 teachers, our overriding concern was assigning the
required number of tests and exercises and grading them. Each semester, all
our students had to submit binders containing their completed and graded
assignments. And each semester, the teachers would spend several days of
class time ensuring that the students had everything in place, as the
submission of completed binders were a factor in a teacher’s evaluation.
The binders would disappear for months because it would take the Head of
Department that long to go through the binders and count how many
assignments had been completed. It didn’t seem to matter if the teacher had
taken 5 minutes to grade each composition or 30 minutes to make sure that
the students received meaningful feedback. What was important was that the
assignments were there.

I felt both angry and guilty that my idealism constantly came up against so
many artificial obstacles. I felt that the obsession with bookkeeping and
papering over any mistakes, real or perceived, allowed neither time nor
space for innovation. Further, the mania to deliver standardized results
trumped the notion of harnessing individual potential, of the teachers and
the students.

Worse, I felt I could not raise these issues. There was a culture of

My experiences are not about bad principals or teachers in particular. It
is about ways of being and seeing that represent to me, the Singapore
legacy that I have inherited. The principals and teachers that I talked
about are not to blame individually – it is just so difficult to be and to
see otherwise in the busy-ness, routines, and duties of our everyday lives.

I decided to leave to pursue graduate studies. Teacher education in
Singapore is tilted more to the vocational than the intellectual and I
wanted the space, time and knowledge to help me articulate and frame what I
was thinking and feeling. On a more pragmatic level, I knew that nobody
took the feelings of groundling teachers seriously and that people would
probably listen to me more if I had a doctorate. I was disappointed, but
still hopeful.

COLIN: I remember my first visit to New York. I had just graduated in law
from University College London, and had several months before I was
scheduled to take the English bar exams. Where most of my friends had
chosen to do attachments with Singaporean law firms with the prudent aim of
acclimatizing themselves with the career-to-come, I was paralysed with a
single, terrible thought: “These are the last few months I’ll ever have to
indulge my youthful passions.”

In an impulsive moment, and much to my parents’ annoyance, I blew every
last cent I had and wangled myself a place in a cartooning course at
Manhattan’s School of Visual Art. I had been cartooning for The New Paper
for several years by then (my comic strip The Concrete Jungle continues to
run in their august pages), but had no formal training.

I chose Manhattan because it was supposed to be the cynosure of the
creative world, and most important of all, where Marvel and DC Comics had
their headquarters. Where else would one study cartooning but in
Spiderman’s territory?

Those few months were the most mind-blowing of my life. By day, I was
either sequestered in a musty studio sketching Brazilian women or wandering
the varied New York neighbourhoods. By night, I hung out with the other
residents of the international hostel I was staying at – a diverse crowd of
students from Argentina to Kazakhstan and everywhere in between. I had
always thought Singapore to be a model of diversity and cosmopolitan
progress, but over countless milkshake-fueled discussions in East Village
hangouts, I felt like the proverbial mountain tortoise.

It was also the first time I began to question the path I was about to
take. I was meeting people who were taking chances and simply following the
dictates of their passion, whether it was art, dance or securities.

I had studied law largely because it was often cited it as the next best
thing after medicine, which I knew I’d be awful at. Besides, SM Lee was a
lawyer. What better endorsement could a Singaporean have? Despite being a
published cartoonist and writer by then, I never thought about a career in
the arts. It was a completely nonexistent option.

What was worse was that my parents never forced me into law. I just read
their minds, I guess. Besides, all my friends seemed to be doing it too. It
was the Singaporean Dream.

I also remember in my first year in law school, my parents telling me about
SM Lee’s now seminal “If I were an undergraduate” speech, where he told JC
students that were he a student now, he would not study law; he would be an
engineer, join the civil service, then obtain an MBA and thereafter enter
the private sector. SM Lee had switched from Coke to Pepsi. There was a New

For a moment, I thought, well, if I’m yesterday’s man, I might as well
deviate from the path altogether. However, that year, the Singapore
government decided it had too many lawyers and restricted the number of
recognized overseas law schools. A rumour began spreading amongst the legal
undergrad community that it wouldn’t be long before they didn’t recognize
British qualifications altogether. We had to hurry and enter the Singapore
workforce as soon as possible, before we were shut out. (As we now know,
the rumour was unfounded, and Singapore now admits it needs more lawyers.)

Nevertheless, out of prudence, I shelved any thought of changing fields and
became a barrister, then an advocate and solicitor of the Supreme Court of

I joined a large law firm, again largely because it was commonly believed
that it was good to bloody oneself in the trenches of the giants. I
practiced shipping law, again an extremely prudent choice, what with our
being the world’s busiest port. Further, it was perceived as exciting
because shipping lawyers often had to go out to sea to arrest ships. (In
truth, arresting ships is not vastly different from what loansharks do when
they hang pig’s heads on debtors’ doors.)

I had a decent, almost enviable, income. I had to keep telling myself that,
because the lifestyle was neither decent nor enviable.

Clients called me at 2 am in the morning. The High Court Registry nicknamed
me “Mr. 5 O’Clock” because I regularly filed papers right under the
guillotine, never of my own volition. My only pleasure was catching up on
industry gossip while waiting in line to argue before the court registrars.
There was not a single Chinese New Year holiday where I would not find
myself in the office. My parents only caught fleeting glimpses of me early
in the morning when I rushed to work, or late at night, when I stumbled in,
surly and mentally exhausted. I saw Joyceln, then simply my girlfriend, for
a few precious, stolen hours on Sundays.

But I had the job, and more important, the income. They brought me a
measure of social acceptability. Parents’ friends would nod approvingly,
non-lawyer friends would remark how much lower their salaries were. I made
enough to afford membership in a club I never had time to step into, and
for season parking in town. I had credit cards and designer ties. I could
share war stories about work that might have seemed glamourous to
non-lawyer friends, weaned as they were on a diet of Ally McBeal. I was in
the secure embrace of the Singaporean Dream.

My epiphany came as I was descending the gangway of a very large oil
tanker. At a height of ten storeys or more, the gangway abruptly slipped
its moorings and fell several feet. I found myself in mid air for several
terrifying seconds. Luckily the crew managed to secure it again. As I
retrieved my dropped manhood, I saw bits of the vessel fall into the sea
below. If I had not held tight to the chains, I would be dead.

When I told my colleagues about it, no one batted an eyelid. It was simply
one of the hazards of the job, like the long hours and the symbolic
fellating of clients. Some even quipped, “Who says law isn’t exciting?” But
working late that night in the stale air of my office, surrounded by musty
documents and lit by the sickly iridescence of my computer monitor, I knew
I had to get out.

My brush with death made me reflect on my life, as I suppose all encounters
with the reaper must do. I realized I was unhappy. Not
weeping-and-gnashing-of-teeth unhappy, just that dull ache of
uninspiration. Yet, on paper, I should have been completely content.

My conviction was reinforced when I passed my boss’s office and saw her
toiling away. Much more senior, she was still keeping the crazy hours of a
junior lawyer. She had a brilliant mind, equity in a giant and prestigious
firm and a sizeable income, but I realized that I didn’t aspire to her
lifestyle. And she was by no means unique. If I did not aspire to be my
boss, then what was the point? My life stretched before my eyes, and I did
not want to take another step in its direction.

I then made a classic Singaporean evaluation: if I’m going to suffer, then
by god, I’ll suffer for more money. I figured American lawyers make the
most money, so that’s where I’ll go. I decided the fastest way to do this
would be to do a one year Master’s degree, preferably in an Ivy League
university, since it would provide me ingress into the American market.

I spoke to Joyceln, and told her that the only place I wanted to go was New
York, because I wanted to recapture a little of that energy I had felt
years ago. Despite some reservations (New York has a not wholly undeserved
reputation), we both applied to Columbia University, New York’s only Ivy
League university. Miraculously, we were both accepted.

We quit our jobs, got married, emptied our bank accounts and left

JOYCELN: When applying to do my doctorate at Columbia’s famous Teachers
College, I spoke to several professors at the only education institution in
Singapore to find out about possible financial support. I had intended to
study curriculum and technology, and felt my experience teaching as well as
a stint designing educational software in an IT firm would be valuable.

However, the door was abruptly slammed in my face when I was told over the
phone, “If you are not in computer science, and not a first class graduate,
there is nothing we need to talk about.”

Perhaps spurred by anger, I worked like a demon at Teachers College and
earned several academic awards, including a doctoral research fellowship
which covered both tuition and a stipend, and came unencumbered by any
bond, moral or otherwise. The myopia with which I had been treated had
ironically turned out to be a blessing.

I even met with our Education Minister when he visited Teachers College. Of
the questions he asked me, two stood out: “When are you going back to
Singapore?” and “When are you going to have babies?” It hit me that I had
never spoken to the Minister when I was teaching in Singapore. I wondered:
am I valuable to the country only after I leave?

COLIN: Armed with a Masters from Columbia Law School and the grandiose
title of “Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar” which Columbia had over-generously
bestowed upon me, and having passed the New York bar exams, I knocked on
the doors of some of the largest law firms in the world.

I recall one battery of interviews being carried out in a large hotel,
where prospective lawyers would shuttle in and out of the rooms, each
occupied by interviewers from the firms.

A fellow prospector asked me, “Which other profession requires you to
shuttle from hotel room to hotel room?”

“Prostitution,” I remarked, and we both laughed.

It proved a prophetic statement, for when touring the offices of
prospective firms, instead of feeling pumped, I felt horrified by the
all-too familiar office layout, the mounds of paper spilling onto the
floor, the designer suits thrown over the backs of chairs.

The last straw came when a partner of one Midtown firm patted me on the
back and said, “I think you’d be perfect to help work on our port project
out in Saudi Arabia!”

It suddenly hit me that I was not embarking on real change at all. I was
merely rearranging the furniture. Like a good little boy, I had made all
the pragmatic, sensible decisions… and it was about to push me into the
abyss. I was still trying to achieve the Singaporean Dream, except
overseas, and on a larger scale. Well, not exactly…

It was then that I understood the difference between the Singaporean Dream
and the Singaporean Plan. And what is the difference?

I suppose the Dream has to be one of searching for peace and the liberty to
conduct one’s life as one sees fit.

That’s probably what my ancestors sought when they left China: the
governments of the Ming and Manchu were ruthlessly restrictive of
cross-border commerce, the lifeblood of my ethnic Hokkien and Teochew

And no doubt it was the Dream, fueled by hard work and courage, that has
made Singapore the indisputable commercial success it is today. And our
story is a wonderful one: the Little Island That Could.

However, invariably once people attain success, they start to canonize the
steps they took to achievement. This is how Dreams become Plans, and how
one hegemony replaces another: the search for peace and liberty becomes get
into a good school, then a good university, then a stable job, then buy
property and stock. The problem is, then what?

There is nothing inherently unique about the Singaporean Dream. The
American Dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is
substantially the same. (And especially in the upper middle class, the
American Dream is fast becoming a Plan too: prep school, Ivy League, Wall

But what to me gives America more hope is that they still celebrate
mavericks; they may never find happiness, but their liberty to pursue it is

My experience in Singapore was, however, very different. There were always
people telling you what and how you should do things, and imposing
penalties for deviation. There were ‘right’ schools, ‘right’ professions,
‘right’ strategies.

Of course there are those who would argue that ultimately, the choice is
one’s own and that there is nothing to prevent one from doing what he or
she wants in Singapore. After all, isn’t it one’s fault for caving in to
peer pressure? I would humbly submit that while theoretically true, such an
argument betrays an ignorance of the combined workings of hegemony and

The issue is how expansive the reigning ideology is. In Singapore, the
dominant view is to do whatever works (whatever that may be, and regardless
of who it worked for). In New York (I won’t pretend that America is
homogeneous), the prevailing view is that everyone should find what makes
him or herself unique, and capitalize on that.

Manhattan is smaller than Singapore, yet there is space for both Wall
Street Wizards and Alphabet City Shamans to coexist. Despite occasional
border skirmishes, there is recognition that the city would be a lot poorer
if everyone marched to the same drum.

An overly romantic myth? Perhaps. But that such a myth could persist in a
hostile and cynical environment like New York, was encouraging to me. And
anyway, the ‘fulfillment’ promised by the Singapore Plan was equally
illusory. In a competition of myths, I chose the one that gave the most
latitude to one’s passions over the one that indulged one’s fears.

JOYCELN: I think the most striking thing about New York is that so many
people here are in transition. They don’t know where they are going to be
or what they are going to be doing in 6 months’ time. But they are all
working towards their individual dreams, in their own individual way, and
not according to some mandated blueprint or destination.

The receptionist in my building is also an actor. I recently met a waitress
who was a graduate student in philosophy. I have classmates who are not
only still at work, but who also shoot films whenever they can.

Until New York, I didn’t know I could be poor and still volunteer to help
others who are more needy than me – not tomorrow, or next year, or when my
income reaches a certain level, but today.

I now tutor the children in my neighborhood who need help but can’t afford
to pay. I didn’t know how great it feels to be able to write, and express
my anger, worries, and joys. I didn’t know that if I am dissatisfied by
policies, I can get together with others to express it.

Just last week, there was a public school that was boycotting a
state-mandated test because the test was taking away precious instructional
time. What a novel idea! I didn’t know I was not alone, that there are
other Singaporeans who think like I do, who want to make a difference but
who are afraid and are so used to being silent.

COLIN: The insidiousness is this: in adhering to the Singaporean Plan, I
was acting pragmatically, but ultimately, dishonestly.

As late as the interlude between pupilage and practice, I had written a
play that was performed for the Singapore Arts Festival Fringe, for which
the British Council had sponsored me to attend the Royal Court Theatre in
London’s prestigious theatre school. Further, throughout my years of
practice, I also managed to continue cartooning The Concrete Jungle. While
I enjoyed writing and drawing, never for a second did I think this might be
a career. Worse, I felt compelled to downgrade their importance in my life.
First was money, then pleasure. It was simply un-Singaporean to think one
could get pleasure without money, or that working should be pleasurable.

But now I refuse to postpone my dreams any further, and shelve them under
some misguided notion of pragmatism. How often was I told as a child by my
elders, “wait till you grow up,” “wait till after exams”, “wait till after
you graduate”. I do not desire to wait until I retire. I might not make it
that far. I refuse to be a walking mid-life crisis in the making.

But living one’s dreams is difficult because it is a lone undertaking.
There is no such thing as shared dreams; they are personal creatures. And
while my peers are making partner and buying cars, I live in rented student
accommodation and scatter my work to the ocean of publications, hoping for
a bite. Thus far, I have only been published a couple of times, far from
being enough to pay the rent. Yet I do not feel despair. Trite as it may
sound, I recognize that life is about the journey, and not the destination.

JOYCELN: In Singapore, a considerable amount of talk in education has been
about continuing to be competitive in the global marketplace. Singapore
seems to have done well in this respect – we have consistently come in
first in the International Math and Science Study.

But in tandem with the fear of losing out on notional global
competitiveness is the willingness of many educators, policy-makers, and
parents to “train” the young to delay their dreams, desires and play for a
future goal, to “wait till after you finish your homework,” to “wait till
after the exams” while at the same time plying them with material bribes.

On the global front, it is ironic that the US is trying to emphasize
academic standards while Japan, who also finished in the top ranks of the
International Math and Science Study, is trying to cut down on the
curriculum to allow more time for play. Both cite global competitiveness as
their reason for doing so. One wonders as a country, whether we are
listening to the everyday experiences of our own children, parents and
teachers, or simply responding to some speculative construction of what is
needed to be competitive.

Can anyone say for sure what’s needed? Only a few months ago, countries
cried out for schools to produce more dotcommers. A look at the
rollercoaster line that is the NASDAQ should be cause for circumspection.

There are signs that children in Singapore are straining under this ethos.
Recent newspapers reports have reported that parents are spending an
inordinate amount of money and time to send their children for after-school
tuition so that they can achieve better results; scoring high marks in
tests and exams have been found to be a top concern for students; the
average 10 year-old has been found to spend 6 hours in school and up to 8
hours on homework and tuition each day, and, students have been reported to
experience physical reactions such as diarrhoea and asthma attacks during
or just before exams. Is this education, or child labor? Has scoring well
in tests become the reason for tests themselves? How do teachers, parents,
and teachers begin to imagine our lives differently?

COLIN: I think it is important not to wholly discredit the Singapore Plan.
It worked for some and may yet work for others. However, it is also true
that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and that it is always
an error to confuse what is with what ought to be.

JOYCELN: Consider these 2 stories. Which is closer to yours?

You wake up everyday and work from Monday to Friday, and often, Saturday
too. If you finish work early, you and your partner go to your parents’
place for dinner and see your child for a few hours. If you work late, you
buy a packet of char kway teow from the hawker centre but eat it at home
because it’s too warm to eat there. You’re not crazy about the job but you
know that if you keep at it, you can afford a car in 3 years’ time, and in
5 years’ time, buy a condo close to the primary school you want to send
your kid to. Your conversations with people are either for the purpose of
networking, work, or for familial obligations you cannot avoid. On
weekends, you play golf with your friends at your country club or watch a
movie with your partner. Once a year, you go on a ten day vacation to New
York, London, or Paris, and when your children are big enough, Disneyland.

Alternatively, you wake up and you have no idea what is going to happen
today, tomorrow, 6 months or a year later. Ironically, because of this
uncertainty, all possibilities exist for you. You can be the Prime Minister
of Singapore, you can make a movie, you can cook a meal you have never
cooked before, eat at a place you have never eaten before, you can color
your hair red, you can skip instead of walk, you can volunteer at the
school you have always wanted to volunteer at, you can write a book, or you
can have a baby even though you don’t have a maid. You have conversations
with people who set your heart palpitating and your mind on fire. Your
weekday is not so different from your weekend because everyday you are
thinking, creating, and more important, imagining.

Most of us recognize the first story and its pursuit of the 5 Cs of “cash,
condo, car, country club, credit card.” It is the Plan, which imposes a
conclusion on you, and you work in order to make all the pieces fit. A bus
stop advertisement I saw recently said it best: “We spend all our youth
chasing money, and when we attain it, we spend all our money chasing

A Dream, on the other hand, carries you on its wings to worlds that your
heart and mind have never known.

COLIN: My fault was accepting that the Plan would naturally work for me.
One doesn’t have to accept a legacy one inherits. I was complicit in my
unhappiness. I did not question enough, whether it was my elders, the
government, newspapers, consultants, whatever. I foolishly let others make
up my mind for me. I rather fear I am not alone in this folly.

If there is any blame to be laid, it is the upholding of a compliant,
unquestioning culture; that some people should never be challenged because
of age, status or whatever. It is not solely the establishment’s fault; all
political parties are entitled to play politics. But it is wholly our fault
for not fighting for what we believe in.

COLIN & JOYCELN: Criticism and disagreement is not treason, and our words
emanate as much from our dissatisfaction with, as our love for Singapore.
We simply believe that we are more than our legacy. This is the dream of
immigrants everywhere, whether they arrive in Singapore or on Ellis Island.


One thought on “The Singaporean Dream?”

  1. If you are concerned with intellectual development, you must understand the thinking process. See the new book on “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better”.

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