Work, Life, Singapore, Primary One School Registration, and Gaming The System

Just before we moved to Singapore I had this colleague who was very talented but didn’t know it. Every time he had to make a decision he second-guessed himself. He would spend ages pouring over textbooks when he could have been more productively employed getting on with the job, and pester up to three people with the same, minor query to gauge the balance of opinion, then pester them all again with a new, related query only five minutes later on.

One day I was handing over to him at the end of my shift when he asked me something more personal. “Do you ever feel like you’re just not on top of things?”

I looked at him over my clipboard and gauged his expression. Clearly, he was pretty down, even trending towards hopeless. He might have been wondering whether to throw it all in and take up full-time dole bludging, or pursue a life as one of those paid human guinea pigs they’re always banging on about in medical ethics.

As for me, I’d already clocked fifty hours without getting anywhere near the end of my work week, and if I didn’t leave in ten minutes I could add three quarters of an hour to my commute time due to peak hour traffic hitting the bottleneck over the river. I considered my words.

“C,” I said eventually, “if you don’t feel like that every day, you’re just not aiming high enough.”

I waited to see if this would have the desired effect. It did – he brightened, and nodded, and allowed us to return to the task at hand. Three minutes later I was sprinting for my car.

Afterwards, he told me how much better he’d felt reflecting on what I’d said. I would have brushed it off, but he not only stressed his gratitude through several repetitions, he went on to study for – and pass – his emergency medicine exams.

This week marks the final phase of school registration for primary one. As a foreigner who can’t do much except wait til everyone else has called dibs, I’ve been pretty much chilling out.

Many citizens of Singapore, on the other hand, have been positioning themselves for the best schools for years, through volunteer work and community leadership roles, or even household moves. Some have been madly discussing their registration strategy on (“because we not stupid too”):

The game doesn't end there. Some parents whose children have been offered a place at a second-choice school during the official selection process have already started gearing up for a post-selection transfer.

(Click to enlarge) The game doesn’t end there. Some parents whose children have been offered a place at a second-choice school during the official selection process have already started gearing up for a post-selection transfer.

…or at the school gate in front of P, who seems to have picked up on the flurry and grown somewhat concerned. “I want to go to an international school,” he announced suddenly, a few weeks ago.

I looked at him over the stroller and gauged his expression carefully. He seemed perturbed, and ready to dig his heels in. As for me, I’d already discussed the situation at length with everyone I could think of, and was not only happy with our decision, but kind of behind the game in terms of opportunities for international school applications. I considered my words carefully.

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“If I go to a local school, I won’t be able to understand the teacher.”

“They teach in English, just like at kindy! Except for the mother tongue lessons, which are taught in Chinese* – just like at kindy.”

“Yeah, but sometimes I can’t understand the teacher at kindy, because she has a different accent.”

“Because she has a different accent? P – earlier today we had the following conversation: ‘Hey P, could you tidy up your crayons?’ ‘What?’ ‘I said could you tidy up your crayons?’ ‘You want me to do what with my crayons?’ ‘Could. You. Tidy. Your. Crayons.’ ‘Could I what?’ Point is, I’m not sure the accent is your main problem. Anyway,” I bent down and took his hands as he scowled, “I’ve heard you with your friends. Think how well you speak Singlish to them.”

And he must have followed my advice to think on this, because when he opened his mouth again he was using his “kindy voice”: “Cannot!” he said. “Very difficult, lah. I not understand teacher, then how? Ah?”

“Yes P,” I said, standing up. “What you actually need to work on is your rhetorical technique.”

But just as I was about to move on, I thought of that colleague from my old job and a new reply occurred to me, so I bent down again and looked into P’s little face until he realised I was watching and met my eyes. “You know, you’re right. You’re almost certainly going to have trouble understanding the teacher.” He shifted position, both surprised and hopeful.

“It would happen at an international school, too. It happens to everyone. Everyone, everywhere, who ever goes to primary school, has trouble understanding the teacher at some point or other. It happened to me stacks of times – your father, too. You can minimise it by trying to pay attention, of course, but avoid it? No.

“So, P, the important question isn’t which school you go to, but what are you going to do about it?”

There was a pause while he considered. “I could put up my hand and ask the teacher to say it again?”

“Yes! Good. You could definitely do that. What else?”

“I don’t know.”

“You could ask one of your classmates?”

“I could ask one of my classmates.”

“Or sometimes you don’t have to ask, you just have to watch what everyone’s doing and you can work it out. You’ve had lots of practice at that. I’ve seen you join in games with kids when you don’t even speak the same language, just by watching and copying what they do.”

He nodded. I smiled. And I was just about to pat him on the shoulder and put the whole problem behind us when he piped up again: “But when I put up my hand to ask the teacher to say something again, she says I should have been listening the first time. And I’m not allowed to talk to my classmates in class, and I’m especially not allowed to copy them. I don’t want to go to a local school because I’m not going to understand the teacher and she’s going to get angry at me and she’s going to shout at me and punish me and I can’t help it and I just need to go to an international school.”

Does that mean I was aiming high enough? Because I clearly wasn’t on top of it.

Æ lives in a world where most problems can be solved with the right software, so last week, he introduced P to the game Portal. This follows a previous attempt to teach P good playground conduct using Sid Meier’s Civilization.

(“You have to think what would happen if you were playing CIV and you tried to attack the whole rest of the world all at once, and you didn’t even have a good General yet. It’d be like bringing this, kind of, cake knife to a gun fight.”

“There’s cake?”

“It’s metaphorical cake. The cake is a lie. Look, the point is you can’t win this battle through force – you’re going to have to try some other way. How else can you win CIV?”

“Through… scientific achievement?”

“Yes! Now you’re playing to your strengths. Go out into that sandbox and wow them with science! ….Or, wait! Make it monuments. Oh! And also fighting is wrong!”)

Since Portal is a game in which you navigate a sinister and controlling institution under the instruction of a dispassionate Artificial Intelligence who constantly tests you in order to assess the results and periodically reminds you that your whole life depends on figuring out the answers, I can see how it sprang to mind.

“The Enrichment Centre-” (they actually call it “The Enrichment Centre”) “-regrets to inform you that this next test is impossible. Make no attempt to solve it,” announced the AI.

Æ sat quietly as P tried anyway.

“Frankly, this chamber was a mistake. If we were you, we would quit now.”

“She’s just trying to trick me,” said P, and Æ grinned.

“No one will blame you for giving up. In fact, quitting at this point is a perfectly reasonable response.” Nuh uh.

“Quit now and cake will be served immediately.”

P and Æ exchanged glances, and almost imperceptible shakes of the head. Soon, P had solved the puzzle and reached the next chamber.

“Fantastic. You remained resolute and resourceful in an atmosphere of extreme pessimism.”

Portal is P’s new favourite game ever, and you never know – it might work. At the very least it will teach him the word “emancipation“.

It’s normal for children to feel nervous about a big step like entering primary school – the nerves don’t concern us. His response does. What we want is for him to forge through to better things. I guess in our own way, we’re all trying to game the system.

*Mother-tongues come in a choice of Chinese, Malay, and Tamil.

Lest I paint all Singaporean parents with a cliched brush, allow me to give you Christy’s (fairly relaxed) thoughts on the primary school registration process, including details on how it all works.


We registered! It was fine. There were milkshakes, statistics, and imaginary guns.