While we're still on the topic of education, I'll share a few thoughts on a recent interesting experience of mine.
Last week I took a day off from work, to give a talk at a secondary school. The other guest speaker was Stella Kon, one of Singapore's best-known playwrights. We spoke about creative writing, to an audience of about 60 literature students.
By the way, I don't get paid for doing things like this. However, students in Singapore do study a few of my literary works from time to time (as these works are included in the Education Ministry's official resource book for literature teachers).
So I am happy to offer my time, meet students and help to make Literature, as a subject, come alive for them. (And before anyone asks, no, my real name is not Catherine Lim).
Anyway, a few of my observations from this experience.
My session was just one of several events comprising a Literature camp for the students. Among other things, the students made field trips; took photos of various places discussed in local literature; wrote their own poems and short stories and acted them out; and came up with different ways to represent literary works (for example, through art or music).
My first impression was that such activities could be too challenging for the average Secondary 3 student. On the other hand, it really depends on how the teachers conduct the activities.
If the activities are conducted with the stern seriousness of typical Singapore education, then they would become quite stressful. On the other hand, if they are conducted with a sense of play and the freedom to go wrong, then they would be a great way for the students to experience what Literature is all about
I felt that most of the students did enjoy my session a lot. "I am your homework, " I said, "and it's not often that you get to talk to your homework, and ask questions about itself." I was promptly peppered with a wide range of questions, including "Do you have a day job?" and "How has your religion influenced your writing?".
All in all, I felt that the school deserved credit for organising a camp like this. Certainly, when I was a student and doing Literature myself, we never got to try our hand at such interesting activities. Meeting a real, live writer wasn't an option either, since we mostly studied the works of dead white men like William Shakespeare.
I also had the opportunity to chat with a few of the teachers. I learned that Literature was not a popular choice for Secondary 3 students. Most students want to do the triple sciences (Physics, Chemistry and Biology) which leaves them room for only one Humanities subject. The preferred choice then becomes History or Geography, for the reason that Literature is perceived as being more difficult to score well in.
Well, some things don't change, do they. As you may have heard, in recent years, many schools don't even offer Literature anymore, as it tends to drag down the overall pass & distinction scores.
A final observation. I was curious as to why the school had invited me to speak at this event. Yes, I am an MOE-endorsed local writer, but in my opinion Singapore has several other writers who are more interesting and more active than myself, on the literary scene.
"Like who, for instance?" the teacher asked.
"Well, like Cyril Wong," I said. Cyril Wong, by the way, has published seven books and was the 2005 Young Artist of the Year for Literature; and the winner of the 2006 Singapore Literature Prize; and a former runner-up for the NAC-SPH Golden Point Award. In my opinion, he is perhaps the most significant and talented writer, among Singaporean writers living today.
"Ummm, Cyril. Well, we visited his blog," said the teacher, "and it had a picture of a naked man. We didn't think Cyril was very appropriate for our Literature students."
Cyril is gay, you see. The gay theme emerges in some of his writings, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly. As a matter of pure literary merit, he produces some of the best works in the history of Singapore, but this achievement cannot be fully acknowledged in our schools. We are still a homophobic society.
Along the same lines, Alfian Saat is also a "dangerous" writer. He is hugely talented, and his works are very thought-provoking. But because Alfian's works are so sharply political, so sharply critical of the government, they will have no place, or only a very limited place, in the Singapore classroom. In effect, he is censored from the minds of young Singaporeans. Thanks to Lui Tuck Yew (again), Alfian isn't even allowed to do relief teaching in our schools.
Sad, but true. In the end, the students will just have to settle for staid old Mr Wang. And even then, the Ministry of Education only picks my more-conservative works.