What’s the purpose of education?


“I nearly got full marks for my geography test. I scored only 18 out of 20. I couldn’t answer two questions which were not inside my textbook!” my 13 year-old son blurt out.

“You seem very unhappy over your result. You really wanted to score perfect?,” I asked him.

“Of course lah. My favorite subject is geography. I love the subject. I spent lots of time studying it. It’s just not fair that questions did not come from the text book. I am so frustrated!” my little old man continued to complain.

I was rather bemused about it. He is in secondary one with the normal stream. My son did badly in his Chinese for his PSLE. If only he had done slightly better, my brother who is a school teacher told me that my son would have been in the express stream. His Chinese “pulled” him down according to my brother. Till today, he still fails his Chinese. It is not his cup of tea.

I have spent so much time explaining to him the significance of Chinese. Why he should at least pass his basic Chinese but to no avail. I told my son that learning Chinese is not difficult. It’s all in the miind. To learn a language whether it is Chinese, Malay or Hindi, you will surely learn it’s unique culture and characteristics. No amount of translation will be able to transmit the exact nuances and peculiarities of that culture via the English language. I explained to my son that I have seen many Chinese peers totally ignorant of Chinese that resulted in the trove of invaluable treasures denied to them. The beauty and uniqueness of Chinese cannot be so easily explained to him unless he experiences it himself.

I quoted him some common Chinese idioms – those four character idioms with a story behind it to illustrate my point. Just only four Chinese characters could relate an interesting story, its meanings and breath of experience. In short, the four Chinese characters capture the spirit and gist of the entire meaning of the story or anecdote behind it.

If one day, he grows up totally ignorant of Chinese I fear he would pin the blame on me. For it was I who insisted that we communicate with him in English since birth. Chinese – Mandarin or dialects were banned at home. The reason being I wanted him to speak English without any trace of Chinese accent. I wanted my son to speak like Francis Seow or LKY not Goh CT or Lim SS! I’ve achieved that at a heavy cost.

You see learning to speak a language be it English or Mandarin must start on the day the child learns to speak his fist few words. After that window period, the opportunity to speak perfectly without any trace of dialect accent is gone. We may master the written form of the language, but we can never master the perfect pronounciation and diction. I am comparing the spoken language to the fluency of Queen’s English or the elite class of American English. Just listen to Clinton’s or Obama’s speech.

In our context, we are resigned to the fact that English will always be our master language. Mandarin is always secondary to English here. Once this fact is accepted, we must next concentrate on our master language to excel not only in the written form but also the spoken form. I believe that mastery of English in the written form is incomplete without perfection of the spoken form. But the spoken form is only possible to nurture at a tender age. When I heard Francis Seow’s rally speech, I was very impressed with his spoken English. He is one of the few Asians (Chinese) able to speak the English language to almost perfection. It’s a joy simply listening to his soft spoken yet eloquently powerful speeches he made just before he went into self-exile.

I was actually discussing about my son’s geography subject. I have digressed too far. Let’s come back to the subject agaiin. I was telling my son what if you really score perfect score not only for this exam but for all your tests and even distinction in geography? He replied that he would be very happy. It’s an achievement for him, he says.

When I ask again what sort of achievement? He was stunned for a moment. I got the best lah. I got first in class for my favourite subject. You don’t want me to score well for my geography? – he questioned me.

Before I answered his question, I asked him what did he learn in his geography class so far. He only started geography class in secondary one. There was no geography class in primary school. He told me that he learnt about rocks and their formation, types of rivers, mountains, terrain, forest whether tropical rainforest or savannah grassland, climate and weather etc. He has not gone into minerals and mining, different aspects of a country’s geography and details of climate, seasons or oceans yet.

I asked him if he studied about Singapore – our geography and it’s surroundings? My son snorted to say that everybody knows that Singapore is such a small country. What geography? Nothing much to study lah. There and then I launched into a lengthly lecture about our geopolitical position in this part of the world and our precarious survival premised on what he is saying that we got nothing in terms of resources. This is the first time he heard about the term geopolitical. He was surprised that geography could be such a wide topic and it’s intertwined with our survival and existence. They say children’s minds are like sponges. They absorb and digest fast if they are passionate about the subject with dedicated inputs from reliable sources.

I concluded by saying that he is only learning the tools of geography. There are many smart people learning “tools” throughout their whole life but they do not know how to apply them or never apply them at all. Just like some soldiers who have never been to a real war all their life. They train as a soldier their whole life only to retire without any real action.

I illustrated by citing the example of my tools in my tool box I use for DIY. If you want to learn a trade, you will first need to learn all the tools of the trade. In electrical installation, the basic tool is the test pen where it will tell you if there is current or electricity in the wiring. Next, all the pliers, cutters, screw drivers, trunkings from small to big. The types of wires from 1.5mm to maybe 6mm. Which type of wire for what purpose. The wiring for power point is different from lighting point. The color codings – red, black and green or sometimes they are brown, yellow and green instead. Industrial vs domestic fittings etc etc The list of tools could go on and on… never ending.

My son then asked me how I manage to acquire all these knowledge when I am not an electrician. It’s a matter of interest just like you also like geography. Then I told him there are people who could master all the tools. There are also people keep learning about tools and they keep learning about their uses. They only know about tools but they do not know how to use them to do the real work. One good example is hardware salesman. They sell all kinds of tools and they keep track of new tools. Just only screws, there are so many types. There are even shops specializing in selling screws only. The whole shop sells nothing but screws only.

My son was quite amazed with the things I was telling him. He exclaimed that I was a good story teller. I then asked him if he agreed with my earlier statement that there is so much more to learn. By getting a perfect score for your geography test is only a small step towards a long journey of life long learning. You just don’t stop at perfect score. You are only learning the tools that only aid in your understanding of the whole ecology of events, surroundings. Combine geography with politics becomes geopolitics which can mean our survival or oblivion. It is no more a matter of knowledge but a matter of life and death if we do not understand the serious imponderables nature has given us. Examples and scenarios in simple forms were explained and sketched to enlighten him on the vast implications.

We ended up agreeing that education is more than grades. It is about knowledge and a passion for learning to better understand the complex treacherous environment we live in. I told him that he must master the tools first before he could go on to analyse and examine further. For without those tools, no real work can be done. Every trade has its own unique sets of tools to do their work. Tradesmen, professionals and even politicians are only successful in their own respective fields if only they know how to fully utilize those tools to achieve what they want – as a means to the ends.

Hopefully, he will remember what I told him. When I was his age, my old man who is illiterate didn’t talk to me like that. If only he had, I might have been a different person.

My son’s PSLE results.


About Gintai_昇泰

I'm a Chinese Singaporean living in the Eastern part of Singapore. I tweet on current affairs & inspirational quotes. I blog on issues or events if they interest me. I write for pleasure. I also write mainly for my family and friends.
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33 Responses to What’s the purpose of education?

  1. agongkia says:

    My Geh Ang Mo neighbour ‘s son always got reason to give when he dun score full mark.I believe the son will be another chia leow bee in future.
    I also ask him what is so great about English Language that one need to use that language in his Chinese family and not to allowing the use of dialect or Chinese at home.His reason is the same as yours.
    Hougang Mr Low can be what he is today because of his proficiency in his dialect.
    I score 98 upon 100 in my English in primary school so what?Look at my poor English mix with Singlish now and you should be able to tell that high score doesn’t mean success.
    I will only teach my future children one thing:Speak our dialect.Remember our root.
    Low score doesn’t matter.Be a good citizen and dun abuse our power if we have,dun cheat or cause harm to others in any way..

    • The fact is dialects (unless it’s Cantonese) are a dying breed. It will follow Latin which is a dead langauge. Why so stubborn to cling to it when you know it’s slipping away?

      • agongkia says:

        Dialects are not dying but only those who can’t speak well will use to say so just to justify their inability to speak in their dialect.
        Majority enjoy Getai and karaoke with Hokkien,Teochew and cantonese songs.
        Ask patriot here and I guarantee he will not only tell you he can speak perfect dialect,but can even sing Hokkien songs and likely Dr Toothfully can sing Siong Hai Tarn oso.

        • SG Girl says:

          Personally I feel that dialects are important; they represent your roots – where you came from, 饮水思源. To me, my dialect is my mother tougue; it was what my parents spoke to me when I was a baby. One does not give up dialects just because one is told that they are useless or it is not needed in the working environment or it has to so as to master Mandarin. Would you give up your surname if someone told you it sounds awful? One of the reasons that students find difficulty in mastering Chinese or speaking Mandarin is because they do not know dialects. Mandarin is the easiest among Chinese dialects. If you master one dialect, you should have no problem learning/speaking Chinese/Mandarin.

          I only got to learn English and Chinese when I entered kindergarten. I found Mandarin and dialect similar as some vocab sounds the same. And I put in hard work in learning English as my parents can’t speak English. I had no problem with both languages throughout my years of education.

          Till now I still speak dialect with my family and relatives. Even when buying food at coffee shops, I use dialect. I miss those days when hawkers could speak many dialects and Malay language; felt so warm. Now most only speak Mandarin and I don’t know how other patrons (who don’t speak Mandarin) order their food.

          • I feel it’s a matter of trade-off, option, priority and preference. One can concentrate on one or two to excel or acquire all at expense of quality. We can’t be greedy right? To do so might end up a jack of all trades but master of none. In terms of depth, dialects can never surpass Mandarin which is the official premium of all Chinese languages (dialects). It is an exercise in futility to cling on to it no matter how nostalgic it evokes. It’s a known prediction that dialects except the HK Cantonese or the Taiwanese brand of Hokkien will die off eventually with the passing of older generations. It’s painful but it’s a fact that we cannot ignore regardless of your preference. The earlier you accept this fact the better it is for you to move on and face the future without any burden of past baggage. This is how great minds stay on top of current issues and soar higher in the brave new world. I understand your points but I’m seeing beyond the horizon twenty years down the road when you hit middle age and my son will be at his prime inheriting this tiny place. I may no longer be standing here but residing 6 feet underground! The cycle of life moves on.

  2. patriot says:

    We shud allow anyone to do what he/she is at peace with.
    Fake ang mo or married to angmo is not the issue.

    The problem lies with their feel superior complex and worse,
    feel that the english language elevates their status in knowledge,
    work, science and culture.

    We all know that the janitor, cleaner and many more, like taxi
    driver and hawkers are speaking english after the vernaculars
    were taken off from the education system. Are they more atas
    than those in the same trade? Are they more knowledgeable
    and better than those using other languages.

    Anyway there are people who admire silicon and denture more
    than their flesh and teeth. Not surprisingly as many are super-
    ficial as well as artificial in living.


  3. T E Reh says:

    English, Chinese, the key is being able to communicate and be understood by people. This is the purpose of language. What silicon, what denture, what atlas? Rubbish!

  4. ape@kinjioleaf says:

    Language is but a tool to communicate. A complex tool though as it transcends culture and intellect. A tool that is ever evolving. Be it Chinese, English, Malayu, Tamil etc and however well we master one or more, it is useless if our cannot communicate effectively to another person. There is no one language more superior than another.

    • It’s perfectly true that there is no superior language. Fact is there is popular or widely used language. Another fact is only 5 languages are used in UN. Four are used in Sg.
      Everybody in Sg can speak and write English. But some do it better than others. Would you like to hear a half past six making a speech or an eloquent speaker? Would you like to read someone who writes illogical rubbish or an essay that is very clear, precise, full of articulate thoughts which you can’t even express well? There lies the difference my dear fren.
      Throughout history why some writers will never fade even though they’re dead? Why ppl still love Shakespeare, Keats, Austen, Dickens etc? That’s another point worth thinking about.
      Another point worth noting is why Sg has got only great one orator who can talk to the audience until black becomes white or vice versa. Ponder over this.
      Every President in US of American must be a great orator to sell his ideas and plan to the voters in order to get elected. Nvr mind if he sprouting rubbish. Ronald Reagan was the best even though he was an actor. He was given “The great communicator!” title. He’s still the best. That’s what I was trying to tell my son. Of course, I don’t expect many of you to share my views. But I know what I’m saying. I know what is best for my son. At least he is quite fluent. He doesn’t think in Chinese in his brain before he speaks. Unlike me, sometimes I think in Chinese and got it translated before it comes out of my mouth. It’s slower, not spontaneous! I can’t beat those native speakers in that sense when it comes to a real face to face debate where language skill will decide who has the upper hand. The winner is obvious.

  5. reddotsg says:

    Before i wen to ns i could not speak mandarin or hokkien, after ns i can now speak hokkien n mandarin. This made me realise how impt language is. When i go to malaysia or indo, they always ask where i m from. Once u can speak others lingo, they are more accepting of you. So now i tell my kids chinese is so impt,cos in 15-20yrs time they will prob hav to go to china to find work. Being able to speak both english n chinese will still giv them a slight edge. Better still if they are willing to learn more languages.

    • Well said. Can’t agree with you more.

    • Seraphim says:

      I have to agree that being able to converse well in 2 languages have many advantages. One of them is to get better bargains while overseas. eg. Thai tend to charge you more expensively if they know you are a tourist and do not speak Thai. Speaking to them in Thai and you will normally get a better deal. Being bilingual allows you to seal deals with other companies much more easily as there is no communication barrier. And people can also find work if they are really proficient in 2 languages or more. eg. Translators.

      I would say that no matter which country you go, if you can speak the native language of that country/people, they will be more receptive to you, though there are some exceptions like Shanghai. (Chinese is a weird race that tend to be racist against their own race.)

      Then again, to be able to speak English like a caucasians/europeans may not be equal to success. As you will notice, no matter how well you speak English, the westerner will not treat you as their equal. The only way to be treated as an equal is through sheer talents and capabilities. So I personally find that good personal qualities is more important than the ability in certain languages.

  6. patriot says:

    It is just so funny to me that there are so many
    harping on the advantage of knowing foreign languages. But,
    just choose to overlook the loss of the ability to use or
    comprehend ones’ own natural, original, racial, dialectical
    and cultural attribute.

    Cultural identity has always been a touchy issue to me. I shall
    register here on the last day of this Site, to say thank You to
    everybody that me had got to interact with.


    • FreeToLearn says:

      When the government abolished broadcasting all dialects on the radio and television channels back in the 80s, my ah kong was enraged. My ah kong insisted that all his grandchildren must learn to speak our dialect.

      I am glad that my ah kong did what he did. Now, I am to able to speak English, Mandarin, Hokkien and Cantonese. I learned to speak Cantonese because I always hangout at my Cantonese neighbour’s house when I was young.

      Now my own young children are also picking up some Hokkien here and there whenever they visit their grandparent. My children are also learning to speak English and Mandarin. I also encourage them to play with my Malay neighbour’s children hoping that they can also pick up some Malay language in the process.

      I think, sometimes we adult are a great hinder to our children’s learning ability by setting limitation and restriction on their learning capability base on our own ability. If the children are given the freedom and encourage to learn as many languages as possible when they are young, most of the time they will surprise us with what they are capable of.

  7. patriot says:

    By the way, I would like to say the purpose of
    education is for knowledge and knowledge is
    the Way to enlightenment.

    Any link of education to ones’ career, state of
    living, behaviour and survival are ancillary.

    I shall conclude here with the Chinese Saying
    ‘tian sheng wo pi you yong’ meaning there has
    to be a purpose for being and existence.


  8. I Thinketh Therefore I am! says:

    Every language one learns is like a tool in your own toolbox be it English, Chinese, Spanish, Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese, Korean, etcs. With every new language one acquires it is just like adding another pair of eyes, ears and mind. One will have the ability to read, communicate and learn new things in that language. Is it wise to limit ourselves to have only one tool which is popular in the market now in our toolbox? There is no harm adding as many tools into our toolbox as possible whether they are popular or useful now or in the future is not important. They may just come in handy someday.

    Who will enjoy more when he/she is on holiday say in South Korea – one who only speaks with 100% proficiency in English or one who speaks with 75% proficiency in English, Hokkien, Chinese and Korean?

    • agongkia says:

      Moolon imnida.Especially the Korean nongchoon agassi and ajumma who dun speak foreign languages will treat you like their Nampyong.

    • Yup. You got your points. Tell you what. I’ll tell my son to master our 4 official languages i.e. English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Forget about Korean or Thai. Maybe, also learn Tagalog and Hindi cuz there are many new citizens speaking those languages. My son could become the next PM since he speak all those languages to win their support and votes! That would be ideal.
      Fact is that he can’t even pass his Mandarin. If possible, learn the 4 + 2 mentioned above if he aspires for political office. More practical right?

  9. But he’s right. There’s nothing to study about the geography in Singapore. Very boring features.

    • politicalwritings – you being sarcastic or what? If not sarcastic, boring to you, interesting to others what. Typical Singaporean mindset that many things Singapore are boring.

      • What do you have in Singapore geograhically?

        • Seraphim says:

          Geography is a wide topic as Gintai has stated. It comprised of 2 major sub-field. Human and nature.

          Human geography is very useful for Singapore, though I cannot say the same for nature. As Gintai has stated, political geography allows people to see how political process works. Eg. How PAP constantly change the electoral boundary of the GRC. Development geography allows the understanding of the distribution of resources. Health geography allows people to see where certain diseases are prominient, eg. dengue and this in turn allows government to implement interventions to club the issue and utilise resources more efficiently.

          Every subject has its uses, just a matter of how you use it and the extend that it could be utilised.

  10. Elaine says:

    Dear Gintai, thanks for your sharing. I wanted to point something out: You confuse accent with fluency. Chen Show Mao is a great example who confounds this common myth. Chen is very bilingual and his Chinese accent certainly sounds like music to the ears when he speaks Mandarin, whereas his English does have a Chinese/ Taiwan accent. Yet he is very fluent and equally well-versed in English/ American culture. Similarly Europeans who’re bilingual and speak English fluently, but heavily accented. Much as GCT may not sound as polished as LKY, he’s fluent and grammatical.

    • GTC’s English has improved a lot over the years. Francis Seow pointed out many of our former PM’s errors and instances of poor usage in his book. 2 of the more memorable ones were:

      “We will lay here.”

      “We’ll get to the bottom of the picture.” (mixed metaphor)

  11. Huat Gor says:

    Do you notice the older generation of Singaporeans can express themselves quite fluently in English for those who had studied for some years till form 3, form 4… as compared to today’s younger generation of Singaporeans? Could it be the older generation did not “benefit” from the bilingual policy which was implemented on the younger ones? Neither here nor there? i have worked with colleagues (now retired) who were from that “union jack” generation and i find they could convey their thoughts quite effortlessly in English even though they are not bilingual and non-uni graduate, mind you. They only know English, Malay and Hokkian/Teo Chew. Why? Those days, if you went to an English medium school, you only need to learn one language, as a result, the brain development/training helps to facilitate a stronger neuron-synaptic junction bonding in the language faculty? Ditto to the folks who went to the Chinese medium school. Both the former and later are superior in their language skill as compared to today’s average youngsters ( it is not fair to compare with the top 10% of today’s students who obviously are effectively bilingual). I support you Gin Tai

  12. It’s sad to think that our kids’ results can get “pulled down” by Chinese or English. Their overall results will affect their opportunities to further their education locally. Yet, there are foreign undergraduates and graduate students who are only able to write passable English and can’t even speak passable English. They are now occupying places in our tertiary institutions while our own children who don’t excel in languages are denied a place.

    • Expensive price says:

      4 of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in the world were dropouts – Gates, Ellison, Jobs n Zuckerberg. Singapore has more ” highly educated” than most countries but seem not to have any of these or any native Nobel laureates – is there something we are missing in our education system – understand Israel has many Nobel laureates – abt the same population size – any insights or reasons for this shortfall?

      • Expensive,
        May I remind you that our supreme leader ever said that most Singaporeans are well educated but not smart. Just look at our current crop of MPs to assess for yourself. Need I say more?
        One good recent example is how that smart MP was quick to endorse that joker Fool without thinking. Any retard would know that $3,000 a mth dishwasher just can’t too good to be true in our current cheaply flooded FTs in our job market. Lol! What a jerk. Sorry it’s joke. Typo error.

  13. abao says:

    Hi Gintai,
    dont worry about express or normal stream, sometimes the 1 extra year does help in healthy lifestyle development.
    as for the language policy, i will never be able to speak native english standard. nor converse to peking chinese standard. but sometimes i feel that to there is an importance to maintain some form of locality. there is no point forcing on other’s people’s culture… to the point complete assimilation is achieved, then what local culture do we have as a nation?

  14. Huat Gor says:

    Geography and History are no less important than the sciences and languages. Perhaps your son may not fully appreciate what you have discussed with him on the topic of geopolitics…heck, even when i was 2 years senior of his age, who cares about Parameswara and the Malacca Sultanate or the 1st Anglo-Burmese war or the stupid treaties and dates we force ourselves to memorize LOL. Only later in our adult lives we took interest in current affairs, the economy and such that i begin to visit the old dusty book case. I think at that age, i was more interested to know about Indiana Jones and the lost ark, the great fascinating Egyptian ancient history than some Malay Sultanate coming and going. I think the onus is on the teacher on how to bring the subject to life, suffer the poor history teachers LOL. We are again living in perilous times ( the last equally perilous times were in the 1800s leading up to the end of WWII, maybe that explains why there were such heavy emphasis on History and Geography among commonwealth schools then?) and knowing and thinking about History and Geography will prepare our young Singaporeans to navigate the coming storm of the century. Here’s an example of applied knowledge of History and Geography – http://thediplomat.com/china-power/the-interview-robert-kaplan/

    All the best to your son, i am sure with a father like you together with the church cell group he will turn up alright. God bless.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Your son hair so long never got in trouble with teacher or principal? Please tell us which school. We want to send our kids there.

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