Home > News > Regional
Sunday October 6, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday October 6, 2013 MYT 9:30:32 AM
by sumiko tan
MANY, many moons ago when I took my O-Level exam, I scored a B3 for Chinese as a second language.
In today’s super-achieving world, that’s just a so-so grade. But to me, it was a miracle.
I had struggled with Chinese all my school life, barely passing it at each exam.
Around the time I took my O-Levels, the government decreed that students would need to pass their second language to enter junior college.
It was the worst possible news for me, and my Secondary 4 year was one of fear and dread.
If I couldn’t get to junior college, it meant I couldn’t get to university, and if I couldn’t get to university, what hope did I have in life, I thought. My parents didn’t have the funds to send me abroad to study.
My future hinged on passing Chinese.
I’m not exaggerating when I say it was only in recent years that I stopped having nightmares (yes, literally nightmares) about failing the subject, even though I took the exam decades ago.
I’ve always struggled with Chinese. Maybe I’m what is today described as dyslexic in Chinese (although a part of me wonders if such a condition really exists or do I just need to work harder at the language), but the script simply confounded and still confounds me. I find it a struggle to tell the words apart, or remember how to pronounce or write them.
My command of Mandarin was also very poor, and as I came from an English- and Teochew-speaking home, I got no help there.
The only reason I not only passed Chinese but got a decent grade too was because of tuition.
Starting from primary school, I had a string of tuition teachers.
The first was an elegant Taiwanese woman who’d married a Singaporean and settled here. She was nicely plump, wore her hair in a high, glossy bun and drove a car. Every time she dropped by to tutor us, it felt a bit like an occasion.
When my siblings and I said we were bored with Chinese, she got us ink, brushes and rice paper and taught us calligraphy.
Another tutor was a pretty, fine-featured girl who bit her nails. She must have been in her early 20s then. She later married a wealthy businessman whom my father introduced her to. We were happy for her.
There were two or three other tutors after that. My least favourite was a stocky, unsmiling man who wore thick black-rimmed glasses and smelt of cigarettes and sweat. I made it plain that I disliked Chinese tuition – and him. He must have detested me too.
The tutor in my O-Levels year was a bespectacled young man who came to my house every Saturday. Unlike some of the others before him, he had an easy-going manner. I liked him.
Tuition was not pleasant – my attention strayed and I was both bored yet stressed out – but I didn’t hate it.
Under his gentle cajoling, I managed to memorise a couple of essays and, with several months of cramming under my belt, sat the exams.
I was shocked by my result, as was my Chinese language teacher in school. I still remember her look of astonishment when I showed her my result slip.
She wasn’t a bad teacher, but what she taught, and the way she did it, did not meet the needs of a Chinese language dunce like me. I required more attention, more explanation and more encouragement. My tuition teacher gave me that.
I made it to JC and had to cross yet another hurdle to get to university – I had to pass Chinese again.
I continued with the tuition. This time, I wasn’t as diligent and had a D7. It was considered a pass and good enough to gain university admission. I was happy to say goodbye to the subject forever.
Ironically when I was in my 30s, I had a renewed interest in Chinese and got a young woman from China to tutor me. We went through Chinese song lyrics and newspaper articles. I enjoyed the sessions but dropped out after a few months because I was busy.
Chinese wasn’t the only subject I needed extra help in at school.
Additional Maths was the other. I was tutored by an uncle and a cousin who were very kind, patient and generous with their time. I got decent grades for the subject at O and A levels.
Every few years, a debate on the merits and demerits of tuition will surface, and Singapore is in the midst of yet another round.
This time, it’s about Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah’s remark in Parliament that “our education system is run on the basis that tuition is not necessary”.
While I’ve no doubt that that’s the aim of the Education Ministry, the reality is Singapore is a tuition nation – and it’s not necessarily the ministry’s fault either.
Tuition would be unnecessary if parents – and students – are content with kids getting grades based on their natural ability. So, if your child is super smart, he’ll get As, and if he’s not bright, expect Ds, Es and Fs.
If we live in a society where low grades are tolerated, then, yes, who needs tuition?
But we don’t. The reality – not just in Singapore but practically everywhere – is grades can make or break your future, hence the race to get better ones.
And while the school system here does a good job of catering to kids of all abilities, there will always be those who will seek extra help outside.
Why risk not having tuition for your child especially when you can afford it? It’s an investment in his future.
Tuition is no guarantee that your grades will improve. But when it’s done well, and when the student is willing to be tutored, it can do wonders, like it did for me.
My O-Levels Chinese tutor gave me his full attention, understood what I was weak in, and customised a method to help me pass. And because it was just me and him, I felt free to admit what was confusing me without fear of being laughed at by classmates better at the subject.
This current round of debate will fizzle out sooner or later, and tuition will remain a fixture on the Singapore school scene.
I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
All my tutors helped me a lot, and I remain ever grateful to them. — The Sunday Times/Asia News Network
Tags / Keywords:
Education, Sumiko Tan; tuition, Reflect
WHY risk not having tuition for your child especially when you can afford it? It’s an investment in his future.
Copyright © 1995-2013 Star Publications (M) Bhd (Co No 10894-D)