Jan 22, 2008

Safety in the Syllabus

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.


Anonymous said...

In the first place, why should literature be an examinable subject?

I found "studying" literature extremely stressful during my secondary school days because there was always going to be a mark on my write up at the end of the day.

I remember my very first test on an "unseen poem" resulted in a score of 1/20! That was a big shock to me in Sec 1 when I was used to scoring in 90s upon 100 in Primary School!

I remember one of the questions went something like "What do you think the poet was trying to protray when he wrote 'the rain was like an iron curtain?'"

My reply was marked wrong. (I do no remember what my reply was because it was apparently wrong)I told the teacher that the question asked what I thought the poet was trying to protray so shouldn't any answer I give be given due consideration?

Well that was my introduction to literature. As I read more literary works I understood this emphasis to encourage creative thinking, thinking out of the box, lateral thinking etc etc etc.

But almost invariably the way to scoring good marks in literature was to regurgitate all those model answers you could find in literature guide books and pepper it with a teeny weeny bit of "creativity"

This led me to conclude that literature was the most absurd examinable subject one could have. But literature was not absurd but in fact rich and wonderful. I do remember reading that some art college is facing challenges in grading their students art works. How do you put a grade on art? It is like fitting a square into a peg hole. Why make literature an examinable subject at all?

If I was a poet I'd be curious to know why this student had a different interpretation of my poem rather than to force him to see things the way I did.

I wonder if Mr Wang feels the same as a writer?

Ser Ming said...

Had similar experience with drozbloke. The difference is that, I failed my literature terribly with E8 in my O levels. Hoho.

I find that literature is a very 'intangible' subject.

There is no definite right and wrong answers. It is very much depend on how the reader intepret the piece of work (be it writing, drama, drawings, etc), which may usually becomes the first impression one has towards the artist

And then to find out what the artist actually meant. From it, we learn to appreciate the artist's insight, creativity, innovation, etc.

Unlike the more 'tangible' subjects like Maths, Science, Geography, etc.

I think literature is a league of its own.

I failed my Arts & Crafts too, besides lacking creativity, I just don't have the technical skills in drawing and designing haha.

Anonymous said...


You are confusing the question of whether literature is examinable with that of whether it is being graded correctly in our standardised examinations. Of course literature is examinable. Even if there are many different valid answers to a literary question, a student can be graded on how well he is able to defend his chosen answer, based on textual evidence. Even if there is no one correct interpretations, not all interpretations are equally good.

If indeed literature students in Singapore are graded based on model answers instead of the ability to present a convincing literary thesis, then that is very sad.

Anonymous said...

Actually Cyril Wong' work's are quite good.But hey Leonardo Da Vinci is gay too so who are the audience (esp the "conservative majority") to judge any arts.
The Anti Gay(aka sodomy) sentiment stem from the SODOM place where the people of that place want to "enjoy" the angel(how graphic for a religious text and by the way that guy offer his daughters as alternative????). Traditionally Chinese and Japanese only view the tendency as a quirk.In fact,at least one Ming emperor and Japanese warlords are known to enjoy men's company XD.
Worse still most of the self declared censor do not know how to produce artistic works without ref to the masters(hint some of the better one have a gay life):P
Poems to read:
"We the downtrodden shoulder freedom" Indonesian poet forgot name :D

Anonymous said...

In other countries where education curriculum is based on education principles, rather than on economic principles, every student *must* study Literature and Geography and History, and Biology, even if they have no intention to become doctors or bioscientists. And they study LanguageS too (yes, that capital "S" is very important).

That's so that they can become educated humans who:

- can appreciate the good writings of fellow humans, and can read between the lines i.e. Literature

- can analyse the good deeds and errors that had occur in other civilization so that the same mistake would not be made i.e. History

- can understand how the natural phenomena that they see or hear, has arisen eg. earthquakes, volcanoes, caves. And can appreciate where and how the rice and wheat that they eat are produced and harvested i.e. Geography

- can understand basic things such as what happened to their body when they get a fever or a cold, and more importantly, where they came from and how the very first living organism came about and how come there are so many different species of living things around their everyday world, and how to classify them logically so that it won't look like a big mess - Biology

- can communicate in their own language as well as can understand and appreciate several major languages spoken by their fellow humans - Languages

That's what you would define as an educated person. No? Or should an educated person be one who knows next to nothing on all these said subject, but knows E=hv (Energy = planck's constant times the velocity of light)?

And so, in UK, their A-level curriculum do not teach Physics/Chemistry to that advanced a level compared to the curriculum in their former colonies. Neither do every student study *additional* or *further* math. The extra time shaved is used to learn the humanities (lit., geo., hist.) and languages (English, French, German).

But in unique sg, our govt throw away the humanities, and "ask" everyone to adopt one language. That's not producing an educated man. It's producing "digits" (to borrow LKY's own word) to serve the economy and since the economy is targeted at the English-speaking Manufacturing sector, then it's English and Physical sciences that we study *exclusively*. We study to become digits/slaves, not to become educated@

And now bioscience and China is on the rise. What happen? We now study Chinese and biology to again become digits/slaves in the new economy!

And the last I heard, we are encouraging people to enroll in gambling schools to serve the latest economy!

So, if we do not want our children to be short-changed in their education, realising that our teachers love to demoralise our children is only part of the equation. Even with encouragement, ourldren are short-changed by a very skewed system that is highly unbalanced in its curriculum.

The solution is simple - educated our children overseas, or locally in International Schools. The former require emigration. As for the latter, our children need to be non-Singaporeans in order to do that. And that is actually a much easier task to achieve than most of us can imagine. The "secret" is actually very simple: "Jus Soli" <-- google for it.

For those of us who still have no children, it's not too late. Haha!

Anonymous said...


if you wrote: "'the rain was like an iron curtain' is a portrayal of a very heavy downpour, so heavy that one cannot see far, as if an opaque curtain is in front of one, and so heavy that the droplets are as heavy as iron balls" -- like that, you can get Grade A.

If you wrote: "'the rain was like an iron curtain' is the portrayal of a very light drizzle because that's what 'iron' and 'curtain' means ordinarily -- like that, you get F.

So literature can be assessed - not by your interpretation alone - but by how you justify/support your interpretation.

I think that's the same in law too - it's not about whether you conclude the man is guilty or not. It's about how good you are in justifying/ supporting your conclusion.

Anonymous said...

Hi anon,

Actually from what I vaguely remember, I wrote something similar to the effect that the rain was very heavy such that you couldn't see very far. But that was wrong. The answer was some artistic some of symbolism about freedom and I can't remember what exactly.

In any case, literature is in my mind unexaminable. It can be discussed, it can be debated but can it be given a grade?

If the basis is on how well the student defends a particular stance or view then it means that the subject is merely a test of the students ability to convince the examiner.

Invariably I have found during my experience as a student that it is far easier to write with a view that the examiner shares.

There is an old adage "a man convinced against his will is of his opinion still"

Which is why it is a lot easier to establish a common ground of agreement (model answer/view) and then pepper with some "creative" leanings.

After the disaster of my first literature test, I obtained a variety of grades for subsequent tests and exams ranging from A1 to B3 with my exam/test taking strategy. When I checked with my fellow classmates they also agreed that whether one scored (ie A1) for literature was highly subjective. But if you studied the guide book and regurgitated everything by rote memory you would at least get a B3.

To be frank English language was another subject that was open to this sort of subjectivity when it came to scoring. Mainly because of the composition section. However I found it much easier to write an entertaining tale to amuse and impress the examiner rather than the dry regurgitate most of the standard old views about Macbeth. At least every composition I wrote was new and I enjoyed the process. For literature it was more like just memorizing set fixed views and interpretations.

General Paper at A levels is also a tricky one to score, again because of the essay section. But I found that there is a lot more variety to the topics that could be thrown at you which made it still entertaining. My pet topics for the essays were usually of socio-economic-political nature. But during my A levels there was no such topic given. I remember the first topic was something like "Why I like to read" Duh? Primary school ar?

So I chose the topic "Discuss why the world should take notice of global warming"

I gave it a twist. Rather than approach it from the environmentalist point of view. I wrote on the economic implications of an earth with rising temperatures and disappearing coastlines.

When I got home my father chided me for not reading the winning essays of global warming that had been published in a Ministry of Environment publication and said I was bound to do badly.

I had the last laugh in the end.

Put yourself in the shoes of the marker reading all these essays that say the SAME THINGS. How boring isn't it? Then you stumble on a student who is writing something different.....that's how you score in essays.

Well enough about exam technique. At the end of the day, the real world has little use for those skills. But it was fun.

Anonymous said...

If MOE were the marker and Cyril Wong were the student. How do you think Cyril's essays and works would be marked?

It's all highly subjective. It's not as simple as to say that literature as a subject is about how well the student defends his views. The choice of which view to defend is also vitally important when it comes to doing well academically in literature.

Anonymous said...

/// if you wrote: "'the rain was like an iron curtain' is a portrayal of a very heavy downpour, so heavy that one cannot see far, as if an opaque curtain is in front of one, and so heavy that the droplets are as heavy as iron balls" -- like that, you can get Grade A.

If you wrote: "'the rain was like an iron curtain' is the portrayal of a very light drizzle because that's what 'iron' and 'curtain' means ordinarily -- like that, you get F. ///

And if you wrote "the rain was like an iron curtain" because the poet was a closet democrat residing in a communist country and he was alluding to the lack of freedom, you would be sent to the gulags in Siberia to do hard labour. You don't get graded. You get degraded...

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Without having seen the poem myself, I would guess that the "rain like an iron curtain" phrase worked on at least two levels of meaning:

1. Physical rain literally falling heavily from the sky;

2.Some connotationof physical separation or enmity (the phrase "iron curtain" refers to ideological divides in europe, especially before the Soviet Union collapsed.

A1 for Mr Wang again, haha.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Without having seen the poem myself, I would guess that the "rain like an iron curtain" phrase worked on at least two levels of meaning:

1. Physical rain literally falling heavily from the sky;

2.Some connotationof physical separation or enmity (the phrase "iron curtain" refers to ideological divides in europe, especially before the Soviet Union collapsed.

A1 for Mr Wang again, haha.

Anonymous said...

Nice theory with elements of truth in it.

However, how do you reconcile this theory with the fact that Catherine Lim's books and stories are taught in school? That lady kena wack serverely by the establishment and she is still saying the same things today in her public letter in her blog.

As for Alfian Saat, my instincts suggest he lost his teaching job because he is gay. Not so much because he is a dissident or person with anti-establishment ideas. I have read before that some opposition candidates are teachers (and still teaching as of now).

Seems like the syllables and the schools and MOE are more squimish about sexuality issues -- gay, nudity, mature content. Probably more appropriate for University or JC level.

I am not sure if Cyril's or Arthur Yap's works are left out in University or JC level because they are gay. If so, than it would truly be sad.

Of course outright dissident content will be banned outright. That is to be expected. One does not expect a social study or national education class to read the books of CSJ.

Anonymous said...

"the rain was like an iron curtain"

I am thinking sex.

And why not? There is fluid and there is iron. Go figure!


Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Catherine lim's fiction doesn't have any sociopolitical edge or bite. For her, that kind of stuff only happens in her non-fiction, and Literature doesn't include non-fiction.

As for arthur yap, he was never openly gay in the way that cyril wong is openly gay. In fact arthur's writings hardly ever touches on anything related to sexuality at all.

Anonymous said...

"Ummm, Cyril. Well, we visited his blog," said the teacher, "and it had a picture of a naked man."
How can we argue with this logic? Would you want to buy a Blu-Ray player from, say a Harvey Norman outlet, if the salesperson was showing the 9 Hours DVD?

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

I would not consider all of Cyril's works to be suitable for secondary students. Some of his works would be just too difficult. A few other works would be "no-no" for the explicit sexual content.

On the other hand, he has also written poems such as, say, "Because it is Wrong, So it is Wrong" which explores how many in society are conditioned to be irrationally prejudiced against homosexuals.
The poem itself is not even remotely obscene. There are no sexually explicitly details at all. It is insightful in its exploration of how society can develop its discrimination against any kind of minority group.

However, because cyril is cyril, and singapore is homophobic, this poem is just another of his excellent poems which won't be found in the s'pore classroom.

You understand the title of my post now?

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang there are many writers in Singapore.

Trust me we read them. Ultimately the bench for any writer is how much did he make.

I believe this may be why some writers don't publish main stream, the returns are paltry.

For example; I believe random house standard rate for a 200 page fiction paperback retails for $15, but the author only gets 0.10 cents.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

well, why don't u hire sa'at as a tuition teacher for your kids then?


Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

I -may- have a new book out this year. Currently in talks with a publisher. However, nothing concrete yet, no contract has been signed. It also depends on whether NAC is agreeable to provide some funding under one of its schemes to support local writers.

Henry Leong said...

Good works my friend!

Anonymous said...

Makes more sense to retail it on line, no money etc. No one physically publishes anymore, too lecheh and the returns are very small indeed, not even worth it - worst still the publishers don't even guarantee publication so if it doesnt sell you end up having to bail him out from holding inventory. Everything stands against the writer.

Michael said...

They could do worse. And without you, they would.

Anonymous said...


Your comment was uncalled for, typical of those made by losers unable to put upward an intelligent argurment.

Anonymous said...

I'm merely suggesting that people practise what they preach. I am not homophobic, but I am skeptical that Mr Wang rubbishes the legitimate argument that a picture of a naked man is inappropriate for young kids. If a man put a picture of a naked woman on his blog, would you encourage your kids to look at it?


Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

LOL, Mugster, it's amazing how many errors you can commit in such brief comments.

1. You have confused Alfian with Cyril

2. I am not a school

3. My kids don't study Literature

4. My kids don't need tuition

5. AFAIK, Alfian is not a private tutor

6. I did not "rubbish" what you claimed I rubbished. See 1st paragraph of my comment at 2:52 pm on 23 Jan.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Related link:

"Is Academic Freedom in Teaching Important?" - by Elia Diodati.

Anonymous said...

Unlike in Western countries I don't think anyone can make a living, let alone become rich, in Singapore by just specialising and excelling in literature and the arts as an author, playwright, etc. So if someone is into it, it is due to total interest and passion for it after bread and butter issues have been well taken care of. A good example is full time film maker Eric Khoo. Also you may have notice that some of our more well known writers eg Goh Poh Seng, Catherine Lim, Alfian Saat and of course SDP Dr Chee have some clashes with the authorities. Also those who blog and write very well eg Mr Wang, Alex Au.

Anonymous said...

As a Secondary 3 student, I am acutely aware of what you mean. our request to do gay rights as a topic for our project has been rejected by the school management. It would only be acceptable if we plan to invite an 'objective and authorative' figure, like a PSYCHIATRIST.
Teaching literature does become somewhat of a problem seeing that many literary figures have 'unspeakable vices'. Our teacher avoids it like plague, quite amusing actually. To see that Shakespeare, Wilde and Forster have suspiciously barren love lives due to censorship.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

As a lit student, i'll like to clarify that we do have some texts touching on / written by homosexual people (i mean, virginia woolf is a lesbian too).

And well, although we generally study fiction, we do encounter some non-ficiton texts too.

Maybe it's just less restricted in the University level i guess?

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

I'm sure it is less restricted at the university level. I thought I should point out however that there is a distinction between studying texts written by gay authors; and texts with an explici gay theme.

plopp said...

As a lit student, I think sometimes even though the teachers disagree with administrative policy against teaching things written by gay writers, they cannot 'secretly' go against it, right? Maybe I have Stockholm syndrome.