Alan Soh

I am my own columnist, sharing my own thoughts and recent experiences!

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Inside Classroom Project

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It was a pleasure meeting an educator from UK last Sunday afternoon.

I met Ms Lucy Crehan for some nice iced tea at Marriott Hotel lobby at Orchard Road. She sought my personal views on the Singapore education system, hence as a born-bred Singaporean who went through our own education process, I shared whatever I could with her. 🙂

This friendly young lady took a short break from teaching to travel to top 8 performing countries including Singapore (as measured by PISA – Programme for International Student Assessment), hoping to understand their education systems. The pros and cons. The good and bad.

She has flown back to London on Tuesday.

To find out more on what she is doing, do check out Lucy’s website on “Inside Classroom Project” at


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Speaking up in English

speak englishSingapore Member of Parliament for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, Mr Hri Kumar has shared his thoughts about parenthood and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) via Facebook today.


This was what he shared:

There were 2 stories in the news this week about our education system. The Sunday Times of 30th March reported a speech by Assoc Professor Jason Tan (from National Institute of Education) where he introduced a new word (at least to me): Parentocracy.  Basically, AP Tan said that children today are more likely to succeed based on the advantages their parents give them, and less so on their individual abilities.   

On Wednesday, we learned that the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked Singapore teens top in the world in a problem solving test. It puts paid to the often heard criticism that Singapore students are just excellent at rote learning. Our PISA ranking is a great achievement, and our students, their teachers and the MOE deserves credit.

But there is one important aspect of education which PISA does not test, and we should be mindful of.    

I have been a working professional for over 20 years, and have interacted with many Singaporeans at all levels of the employment ladder. While there are always black sheep, the Singaporeans I have dealt with are hardworking, knowledgeable and have a deep sense of responsibility and commitment to their work. But they are often let down by their standard of spoken English and a lack of confidence to persuade or articulate their views on their feet. Many employers I know share this view.   

I say this not to criticise Singaporeans but to highlight that we are paying a high price for this deficit.   However skilled you are at problem-solving and however many hours you spend at your desk, you will not likely make a strong impression in the business world if you are unable to communicate your thoughts and ideas effectively. I have lost count of the number of times I have attended meetings where Singaporeans keep silent while others dominate the discussion, thus giving the impression that the latter are more knowledgeable or capable. If you say nothing, people will assume that you have nothing to contribute. That is a serious disadvantage if you are competing for a job, a promotion or a project.  

To be clear, I am not saying that we should be all talk and no action. To put it simply, it is important to have the substance, but you need to demonstrate the form as well because, like it or not, you will be judged on that.    

What does this have to do with our education system?

I believe that one reason why my generation of Singaporeans lack such skills is that there was never any incentive to speak up or speak well in school. In my time, oral exams were only pass/fail, and were, frankly, meaningless. So, very little time was spent on making presentations or engaging in activities which enabled us to speak up. Instead, we spent a lot of time writing and on hard subjects, because that is what the exams demanded of us. If we were poor in English or our second language, we memorised compositions and hoped that a similar topic would come up in the exam! Where English was concerned, the deficit was not made up outside school as very few of us spoke good (or any) English with our family and friends. In short, we graduated not equipped with the oratory skills important for our working lives.   

The Ministry of Education has moved on this. A few years ago, it introduced the STELLAR program and has changed the PSLE English syllabus to promote better speaking skills. There are more activities for students to make presentations and engage in debate. Our students now are more confident to speak up. These are good steps, but I wonder whether they are enough. Anecdotal evidence suggests that much more is being done in this area in the international schools. It would be good if we could get a sense of how our students are doing compared to others.  

Here is the connection to AP Tan’s point. If we placed greater emphasis on speaking up in schools, and assess students accordingly, there will be a greater incentive to speak well. Nothing focuses the minds of students and parents better. I am not proposing to burden our kids even more – we can afford to scale back a bit on content. Yes, parentocracy dictates that those with means can and will send their kids for enrichment classes to improve their speaking skills.  But that advantage will always be there in any system – think tuition and personal coaching for art, dance and tennis to meet direct school admission (DSA) requirements.   

But here is the thing – it costs much less money to get our children to speak up and speak well than to learn to play tennis or the piano. The difference is that at the end of the day, our children will learn a real skill which will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

My thoughts:

Like most Singaporean students, I used to be quiet in school during my younger days. Dare not voice opinions. Because I fear of appearing stupid or ridiculous in front of others. 

In the past 10 years or so, as I stepped out into the workforce and due to my hearing-challenge issue, I began to push myself, to speak up as often as I can. Partly also due to peer influence (most people around me are uni graduates and professionals), I need to bench-mark myself, therefore I make sure I speak proper English as fluently as I can.

I only do Singlish-speaking during informal settings such as conversations with friends or family members.

I am usually a quiet worker. I think long before I speak. If I can do so on-the-spot, I will try to value-add to the task by providing constructive feedback or share some honest opinions.

I am well aware of the fact that if I don’t bother to speak fluent English as often as I can at appropriate occasions publicly, NOBODY will know how well I can express myself, let alone gauging my communication skills, performance appraisal etc.

Having intelligence quotient  (cognition, memory, thinking, process) is important, but other factors such as emotional quotient (self awareness, self regulation, emotions management) and social quotient (social & interpersonal skills, political strategies, leadership, influence, negotiation, communication, impression management) are also equally vital as well.

I believe EQ and SQ can help one succeed further in life, than just relying on IQ.

At the end of the day, you want people to notice you. Agree?