On Sept 14, Life Beyond Grades (LBG) was launched with the aim of broadening the definition of success in Singapore by looking beyond a child’s academic talents.
A total of 65 local personalities were pictured on social media holding up placards revealing their PSLE scores, many of which were average or low. The message: That grades did not define their success.
Many lauded the campaign for its attempt at making students and parents see that grades weren’t the only indicator of success.
However, some netizens thought the campaign gave the impression that grades did not matter at all. Others felt that grades may not matter only for someone born into a position of privilege, but good grades were needed for someone hoping to break out of the poverty cycle.
One commenter on LBG’s instagram wrote that an unintended side effect of the campaign was that parents might think it is fine “to let it go and not encourage their children to excel”.
Perhaps. But if the message of the campaign – to redefine the meaning of success, and for parents to provide a more supportive environment for their children to explore their own passions, both in and out of the academic arena – were allowed to resonate, I would have benefited from it greatly.
My late father gave up on me becoming a good student, and instead, hoped that I would pursue something that did not require me to do well academically to live a fulfilling life.
I come from a privileged family. And contrary to what some have said about privileged children needing to work less hard in school, in my experience, it meant more pressure to excel in school, be outstanding in my co-curricular activities (CCA), and maybe even become president, one day.
And then I received my PSLE results.
My dreams, as a 12 year old, of becoming Singapore’s head of state evaporated the moment I saw my PSLE score: 180 points.
I had worked so hard to do well so the results made me feel like a failure. But I believe my dismal PSLE score took an even heavier toll on my father than it did me.
As a good parent, he cared a lot about my success, and doing well by getting good grades was perhaps the only definition of success that he knew.
He wanted to save me, and himself, from the societal and familial stresses that we would have to face from family and friends because of my low PSLE grade. While no good friend or relative would openly criticise someone for their child’s poor academic performance, my grades were often discussed at the dining table. So the quiet frowns, the awkward silences, were a judgment on me as a person that became a taxing experience for both my father and me. And here’s where a campaign that encouraged a parent to look beyond a child’s exam score and instead provide a nurturing environment would have done so much.
Let’s face it: Grades have always mattered in meritocratic Singapore. And all too often, a child who doesn’t make the grade would feel very lonely. As I did.
When I went to secondary school with my low PSLE grade, I lost all my best friends to better classes or better schools, where they formed new bonds with peers of their academic calibre.
Yes, I didn’t just feel like a failure – I felt like a lonely one, too.
That I came from a privileged family didn’t matter, and the safety net didn’t make me feel any less of a failure. Even worse, my low score made for interesting conversations about my future or lack thereof among relatives who were more academically inclined than I was. It was no fun for me. Or my father.
I’m sure a campaign that de-emphasised grades when I was 12 would’ve made me less miserable – in school and at home. And today, I wonder what my father would think about having said, “I give up”, if I raised a placard indicating a PSLE score of 180 accompanied by a message that that this grade does not define me.
He would’ve been less stressed, and perhaps we might have been able to spend more time together working on his hobby of making wooden lamps while he imparted his knowledge of the world to me, instead of filling my days and evenings with tuition.
Maybe then, I may have been more successful crafting props at my first job as a production assistant at a creative agency, or perhaps learning to speak with greater confidence, from shadowing him at work while he held his meetings with clients.
To me, these experiences are more valuable than tuition and grades.
Yes, I came from a privileged family who could afford tuition. But all the hours of tuition couldn’t overcome my lack of academic talent.
Yes, privileged families have strong connections to their alma maters. But I still needed a minimum grade to get in. And my father’s connections counted for nothing when I was separated from the friends I had grown up with because of my grades.
I wish the campaign had been around when I was 12, so that my father would have perhaps been more accepting of, or less stressed over the fact that I took five years instead of four to take my O levels. He would probably also have been more accommodating of my slow progress. I could have enjoyed my education a lot better and become more prepared for life.
What I found most refreshing about the entire LBG campaign was perhaps a post by contributor Calvin Soh. In it, he offers a fresh perspective on nurturing and preparing his children for a workforce where artificial intelligence (AI) will impact many industries and take away many jobs.
Soh has guided his children into developing a growth mindset – where failure is not seen as a sign of incompetence but rather an opportunity for growth.
Citing the limitations of AI, Soh Said: “AI can’t create, imagine, love, empathise, take
risks, make a gut call, or be street-smart.”
He thinks the growth mindset would either prepare his children for the future workforce,
or at least give them a slight advantage in being adaptable to changes. They’d also know that failure is part of the journey to success.
Which is what I learned, but only years after my father’s passing.
But I’m not in any way blaming my father for focusing on grades. And I won’t get into the argument about whether grades matter or not, because that’s not what this campaign is about. Instead, I hope parents would give their 12-year-old child, regardless of their PSLE grade, a nurturing environment where they can develop their potential to the fullest, in all the time they need, to achieve their goals and realise their dreams in life. Because, despite his best efforts, that is something my father couldn’t do.
I intend to do that for my child, when I finally have one. And I am sure my father will be proud of me for that.