By Assoc Prof John Donaldson

Many students in Singapore’s Normal (Technical) (or NT) stream do indeed have specific dreams and aspirations.

Some of these students fail to achieve their dreams, but many others succeed – with the help of specific kinds of interventions.

Singapore’s Institute of Technical Education (ITE), commonly derided as “It’s the End”, might be better celebrated as “It’s Truly Excellent”.

The ‘Malay stereotype’ – that Malays lack motivation and aspiration – is just that, an unfounded stereotype.

These and other findings – some surprising, others confirming what we already believed but lacked evidence to demonstrate – are substantiated in the upcoming report Dreams Realised, Dreams Deferred: Understanding and Addressing the Racial Gap in Educational Achievement in Singapore, co-authored with seasoned researcher Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim. The research project, conducted with and supported by AMP Singapore’s research subsidiary, Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), incorporated interviews with more than 100 participants – adults who, as children, experienced the NT stream first-hand. These participants generously shared their stories with our research team members, including dozens of the meticulously trained Singapore Management University undergraduates and RIMA staff members.

The project was inspired by a conversation with RIMA and AMP leaders. They pointed out that organisations like AMP run essential programmes designed to support students financially, as well as to help them perform better, allowing them to emerge from the NT stream or even never to enter it.

These leaders also recognised that less is known about those who remain in the stream. How did NT students fare over the long-term? Why have some performed well? Why have others failed? What can we learn by comparing cases of success and failure? Can we leverage that knowledge to design and innovate programmes that will help others succeed?

To this end, we designed this research project to address these questions – and more. The research also allowed us to scrutinise even more fundamental assumptions about NT students. Do NT students lack aspirations? Is ITE a discouraging dead end?

And – the most sensitive one – is there evidence to support or invalidate racial stereotypes?

Singapore indeed faces an education gap that appears to be defined along racial lines. According to the General Household Survey, just over one in seven Malays between 25 and 39 years of age (those in school after the NT stream was established) graduated from university, compared to more than one in two for the nation as a whole. Nearly one in three Malays between 25 and 39 did not finish a postsecondary education, versus one in six for the entire population. What explains this gap?

Academic research allows us to probe uncomfortable questions such as these. Can the so-called ‘Malay stereotype’ explain the education gap? Or are other factors that affect many NT students, regardless of race, better explanations?

To this end, we asked our interviewees to recall whether, when they were young, they studied diligently to prepare for the Primary School Leaving Exams (PSLEs). And indeed, based on this self-report, nearly 70 percent of respondents acknowledged that, as primary school students, they lacked motivation to study.

This result is not surprising, since the only way into NT is to perform poorly on the PSLEs. And one way (but, as it turns out, not the only way) to perform poorly on the PSLEs is to not prepare for them.

But far from providing evidence in support of the ‘Malay stereotype,’ the results undermined it.

In fact, roughly equal proportions of Malays and non-Malays acknowledge not studying sufficiently. Thus, the stereotype that NT students were not motivated to study indeed appears among our interviewees – but not disproportionately across the races. In addition to delinking the lack of motivation from race, our study uncovered two other actionable aspects of motivation.

First, motivation is not fixed.

Of the students who were unmotivated as primary students, nearly two-thirds subsequently applied themselves and found motivation at some point between the PSLEs and our interview, even though they recognised they had not studied hard enough in primary school. Moreover, there was no discernible racial pattern to explain those who subsequently became motivated versus those who did not.

Second, motivation exists alongside personal or contextual factors that also affect student outcomes, often decisively.

If two-thirds of our interviewees were unmotivated, how did the motivated remaining one-third end up getting streamed to NT? For most of these, other issues – related to family dysfunction, such as physical abuse or divorce, or some kind of trauma, such as a recent death of someone close to them, derailed harder working primary students. Moreover, many of these students – though not all – did not get back on track, and failed to emerge from a vicious cycle of academic failure.

So if not the ‘Malay stereotype’, what explains the education gap? We considered more than a dozen potential factors in our research. Some of these factors, such as poor math skills, parenting style, and family dysfunction, caused the students to be streamed into NT – but these were not systematically associated with race. Other factors that were linked to race, such as family income and family size, we could ruleout via our results as causes of students’ entering the NT stream.

Thus, while our study failed to identify a consistent factor or set of factors that explains the racial gap, we could rule out the ‘Malay stereotype’ as an explanation.

What about post-secondary school? To what extent did NT students succeed? And what factors allowed some to succeed and some to fail?

Success can be difficult to evaluate – do we measure success based on the interviewee’s own aspirations, or based on social standards? Success as defined by personal aspiration, while sounding straightforward, may be more complicated than it appears – a chosen occupation may reflect a dream, or may reflect settling for something that seemed more realistic while fatalistically rejecting the true dream. At the same time, we felt even more uncomfortable judging success only by society’s measures. In the end, we applied both standards.

Asking interviewees about their dreams also allowed us to test the commonly held belief that NT students lack aspirations. In contrast to this stereotype, we found that more than 70 percent of our sample described to us a specific, identifiable aspiration or dream, and a further 16 percent held a non-specific or non-material dream. However, we also found that, while most did hold specific dreams, 40 percent of these cases involved dreams that we believe society may not recognise as being legitimate. These included people who aspired to be bakers or technicians, Muay Thai teachers or rugby coaches. This finding gave us pause – is the belief that NT students lack aspiration based on their actual lack of aspiration, or primarily on the fact that they hold aspirations which society might not recognise?

In any case, based on these criteria at least, many of our interviewees – about 40 percent – had realised their dreams, or else were well on their way. A further 10 percent were facing a crossroads at the time of the interview, such as applying for a programme or a job that would fulfil their dream.

The remaining half? Their dreams were deferred. But even among these, about a half (a quarter of the entire group) were content nonetheless. They hadn’t achieved their dream, but reported being satisfied with their lives – holding a decent job, having close friends, raising children. The remaining quarter had their dreams deferred, and ended up feeling bitter or discouraged.

Take these results with some caution. These outcomes are not fixed, but are snapshots in time. Moreover, our sample is not representative of Singapore’s NT population as a whole. Nevertheless, based on these snapshots, a surprisingly large proportion of interviewees seemed to be thriving. Some seemed to be doing fine. Others were clearly not.

Comparing interviewees with contrasting outcomes surfaces key differences that separate those who succeeded and those who did not. But we quickly noticed that the keys to success were not simply the opposite of the pitfalls.

To understand why, consider the analogy of someone falling unsuspectingly into a deep hole. To get out of a hole one has fallen into, one does not simply fall upwards. To be sure, understanding the factors that contributed to that person falling into the hole might help others avoid falling into a similar hole. But imagine how helpful it would be to identify how some people managed to get out of the hole.

In the same way, the causes of success were not simply the opposite of the causes of failure.

The Ways into NT…
Moreover, as it turns out, there are several ways into a hole, and nearly all of our interviewees – successful or not – had encountered one or more of these common pitfalls. Our participants included…

• … hands-on learners who are not academically inclined but often find inspiration in vocational settings.
• … late-bloomers who could have been academically inclined, but did not apply themselves as primary school students. Such students find NT to be too slow, but often struggle to move out.
• … those weighed down by family dysfunction, including some of those who superficially appeared to be unmotivated.
• … people with learning disabilities, often untreated.
• … those who spoke non-English languages or dialects at home.
• … many whose families faced severe economic problems.

… are Different than the Factors for Success
Similarly, we identified a number of factors that helped people get out of their holes – interventions or solutions that helped some of our interviewees succeed. Most of those whose dreams were deferred lacked such interventions, or encountered pitfalls that rendered these interventions ineffective.

Can understanding these pathways help suggest interventions for students who are struggling academically, as even our successful interviewees did?

The successful interventions included…

• … discovering a passion. For hands-on learners, this was often discovered in ITE, but rarely in secondary school.
• … having someone who unconditionally believed in them. However, this was effective only when it was sustained, unconditional, and organic. We found not a single successful participant whose gains came from a ‘mentoring programme’ or from being presented with distant, high-flying role models, such as successful business people or policymakers.
• … wake-up calls and even trauma. These, too, must be organic. Most of the successful cases who experienced trauma had support from friends, family, or social workers.
• … institutional support and flexibility that provided second, third, or even fourth chances.
• … financial aid. This was nearly universal among successful cases, and was vital to their success. In addition to identifying several types of interventions that proved effective at helping some interviewees succeed, our analysis generated several additional encouraging findings.

First, teachers matter. The interviewees’ experiences showed that NT teachers can often make or break a student. A discouraging, dismissive, or burnt-out teacher can set them back. But one or two genuinely encouraging teachers can sometimes overcome even a slew of discouraging ones.

Second, many of these factors – finding a passion and institutional flexibility, as well as unconditional encouragement and support during trauma – came from an unexpected source: ITE. Many of our hands-on learners found success at ITE. At ITE, many of our participants had the opportunity to engage, perhaps for the first time in their lives, in hands-on activities at which they could actually excel. For many late-bloomers with poor N-level results, ITE provided a much-needed flexibility – a fresh start. The renewed commitment to ITE is apparently paying dividends. In any case, ITE’s positive influence was profound for many of our interviewees.

We hope that ITE will no longer be known as “It’s the End” but instead stand for “It’s Truly Excellent.”

Third, financial aid proved vital, and played an indispensable role in most successful cases. Many failed cases were those who could not secure sufficient financial help, such as those with parents who were too disengaged or too overwhelmed to apply for aid, as well as those whose aid applications fell through the cracks. Given the patterns, we concluded that continued financial aid is absolutely necessary. Yet we found not a single case who found financial aid by itself sufficient for their success. In addition to aid, other interventions also proved necessary.

While these findings were encouraging, fundamental issues remain. As much as ITE made a difference, salaries for fresh graduates remain low. How low? Recently, according to National University of Singapore’s Social Work Professor Irene Ng’s calculations, a family of four in Singapore would require a monthly income of at least S$1,913 to meet their basic minimal needs. By contrast, the mean starting gross monthly salaries of fresh graduates from ITE in 2019 varied depending on the school, ranging between S$1,632 and S$1,846, according to the Ministry of Education’s graduate employment survey.

Taken together, these imply that an average starting salary of an ITE graduate is insufficient to keep a family out of poverty. It suggests we must redouble our efforts to generate meaningful employment for vocational graduates, and to ensure that the remuneration is sufficient to support a family. These are issues that are probably too fundamental for Singapore’s Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs) to tackle on their own. Likewise, VWOs can do little about changing social attitudes – the stigma that NT and ITE students still experience.

The Ministry of Education is fundamentally reforming Singapore’s streaming system, courageously promising to eliminate streaming in secondary schools by 2024. The reforms have garnered much praise as well as some concern. Some analysts, such as National Institute of Education lecturer Mardiana Abu Bakar writing in the pages of The Karyawan, have also questioned whether whatever system emerges in place of streaming will be more like the old system, if not in form then in function.

Irrespective of these concerns, Singapore will always have students who perform better than others. And we should continue to do all that we can to ensure that every student has the chance to succeed.

For those on the lower ends of academic performance, our report evokes some straightforward suggestions – many of which are within the capabilities of Singapore’s VWOs, government agencies, and other helping organisations. Continue generous financial aid, but keep vigilant for those who fall through the cracks, and realise that any amount of aid is rarely sufficient by itself. Help students identify at least one adult who organically cares about them. Help them discover their passion. Accept their aspirations as legitimate, and do whatever we can to help them to realise their dreams.

Assoc Prof John A. Donaldson, Associate Professor of Political Science at the School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University (SMU), researches politics, rural development and poverty in China and elsewhere, having conducted extensive fieldwork in rural India and Thailand, as well as in Singapore.

Dreams Realised, Dreams Deferred: Understanding and Addressing the Racial Gap in Educational Achievement in Singapore (2021) seeks to identify critical factors that explain the differences in outcomes among adults from Singapore’s NT stream. It is intended to be a practical guide, with research-based ideas on how to address the needs of underperforming students and help them achieve their goals. Co-authored by Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim and John A. Donaldson, with support from SMU, RIMA and AMP, the report is based on an analysis of the life experiences of a diverse group of more than 100 lower-income Singaporeans with experience in the NT stream. The publication is part of a research project examining Singapore’s streaming system, and is scheduled to be released in the third quarter of 2021.

This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, July 2021, Volume 16, Issue 3.

Photo Source: The Karyawan