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Monday, September 7, 1998 Published at 15:41 GMT 16:41 UK

Singapore slog

Hwee Hwee Tan, 24, has published various short stories and a novel. She won the 1995 First Bite competition for best new writers on BBC Radio 4. This piece is a slightly abridged version of a Radio 4 talk, 'Tonight's Homework'.

I grew up in Singapore, and the only thing I remember about it is school, school and more school.

A Singaporean student spends six hours in school, then goes to a community centre for two further hours of remedial lessons.

After that, you have to practice your piano or ballet. You wind down your day with three more hours of homework.

And you know, this is just for the six year olds. Your work load gets much more intense once you've graduated from kindergarten.

The Chinese worship education. Success in Singapore revolves around exams, good grades, and certificates. In other words, getting the right paper qualification.

Guess who invented the first national exam system in the history of mankind? You got it. The Chinese. They came up with the system of using exams to choose the best scholars to serve in the civil service, a system which they created 4,000 years ago.

Suicidal 12 year olds

I don't quite know how I feel about this. You know, it's like the English gave us soccer, and the Americans gave us TV.

The Chinese, on the other hand, are responsible for coming up with a system where you jam a bunch of 12 year olds in a little room. Then you let them sit there for an hour, while they panic themselves into a suicidal state, because they can't figure out how to multiply six by twelve.

Singaporeans are obsessed with exams because they want good grades. They want good grades because those are essential if you want to go to a famous university.

Thus this gives rise to a kind of inside Chinese joke. The joke goes: How do you know your parents are Asian? You know your parents are Asian when the only English words they know are Oxford, Harvard and MIT.

Another odd thing with the Chinese is that going to university seems to be a good thing in itself. For some reason, for the Chinese, the value of your occupation seems to rise proportionately to the amount of years you have to spend at university.

Morally upright

I've always suspected that so many Chinese people aspire to be doctors and lawyers simply because it takes forever for you to get your qualifications.

So you know, it must mean that the job requires a lot of talent, skill and hard work. And this proves that you are a brilliant and morally upright individual. I don't know why corporations never clued on to this.

If McDonald's wanted to improve the quality of their workforce, all they would have to do is to require their crew to spend ten years at Hamburger University. Then you'd get millions of hard-working Asians defecting from medical school to master the science of creating the perfect all-beef patty.

The reason why so many Singaporean students aspire to go to Oxbridge is because Singapore used to be a British colony. Not many people know this, but English is the main administrative language in Singapore.

All the signs are in English, and all our lessons in school are also taught in English. Singapore follows the British education system, so we take the O level and A level exams set by the Cambridge examination board.

Warped view of England

Singaporeans even send the exam scripts to England to be marked by the examiners here. Hence, when I was growing up, I was told to read a lot of books by British writers. I probably spent unhealthy amounts of time immersed in stories created by Enid Blyton.

Let me assure you that due to the influence of Enid Blyton, Singaporean children have a very warped view of their British counterparts. Until I arrived in England, I always thought that English kids spent their vacations tracking down drug smugglers, like the Famous Five.

They all had magic trees in their backyards, and when they were bored, they could climb up the tree and have adventures in faraway lands with witches and fairies.

Because of Mrs Blyton, I also bitterly resented the fact that I had to live with my parents and missed out on boarding school. For according to Enid, boarding school was one grand adventure. You made your best friends there, held secret midnight tea parties, and played tricks on the matron.

Primary school in Singapore, by contrast, was pretty boring. We spent all day studying English, maths and science. But in order to prevent us from turning into the little degenerates like those kids in Lord of the Flies, we also had 'moral education' classes.

Filial piety

In those classes, the teachers lectured at length on virtues like filial piety, one of the core Confucian values prescribed by the bureaucrats who designed the national curriculum. It was all very 'family values', back to basics stuff.

In England, children tend to leave home once they get a job. Here, there seems to be no worse fate than to be 30-something, unmarried, and living with your parents. However, in Singapore, it is expected that you will live with your parents until you get married.

And when your parents hit their retirement age, my primary school teacher always taught us that the virtuous Singaporean, the model citizen, would ask them to move in with her and her husband, so that she could take care of her elderly parents.

The worst thing one could possibly do was to abandon one's parents by sending them to an old folks' home. And yet, tragically, there are people in Singapore who are evil enough to send their parents to such an institution.

Thus one of our assignments for moral education class was to visit an old folks' home, to comfort the grandpas and grandmas who had been deserted by their own flesh and blood. We brought the old folk gifts that we had made during our art classes.

We glued together wooden clothes pegs to make toy chairs. We made bookmarks out of dried orchids stuck on yellow construction paper. We even made paper lanterns by stapling together the special red ang-pow envelopes that we received during Chinese new year.


When we visited those old folks' homes, we acted as surrogate grandchildren to the elderly people there. We fed them, and listened to their sob stories, which always fixated on the fact that their children never visited them.

We would always round off our visit by singing That's What Friends Are For. The problem, however, was that we could never ever finish singing the song. Because by the time we reached the middle of the chorus - "through good times, through bad times, I'll beat your side forever more, that's what friends are for" - the sopranos (that is, the girls) always collapsed into a blubbering wreck.

When we returned to school, our teacher would always remind us never to send our parents to an old folks' home. Whenever she lectured us on this topic, my face would always have one of its mugshot moments. My features would be fixed in a vacant stare, emotionless, inscrutable, revealing nothing.

I focused on the letter 'A' chalked on the blackboard behind my teacher's head, hiding what I felt, hoping my class mates would never find out that my parents had sent my grandfather to an old folks' home. My sin was compounded by the fact that out of all the 10 grandchildren that belonged to my grandfather, I was his favourite.

That was what everyone told me, because I was the only grandchild whom he raised personally. When I started going to nursery school, because my parents were working all day, after school, I would go to my grandfather's flat.

Help with homework

He was the one who took me out for lunch everyday. In the afternoon, he would help me with my Chinese homework. One of the major challenges that he helped me conquer was how to write my name in Chinese.

Now, Chinese words are ideograms, so writing a Chinese word is like painting a picture. The words are made up of different strokes, and the problem with my name - Hwee Hwee - is that it is made up of fifteen strokes.

Most Chinese words have an average of seven strokes or less, so 'Hwee' has an abnormally high number. Thus Hwee Hwee is a pretty traumatic name to give a kid, because the high number of strokes made it very difficult for a four year old to memorise.

But despite the fact that my parents had cursed me with the most difficult name in the Chinese lexicon, my grandfather helped me practice writing my name every day until I finally got it.

In the last year of kindergarten, I was voted the top student in my year and even gave a speech at the annual concert. My exalted status among the six year olds was no doubt linked to the fact that my teachers were incredibly impressed that I was smart enough to be able to write name as complicated as 'Hwee Hwee Tan'.

However, when I turned 13, my parents decided that I was old enough to return home after school by myself, so I stopped going to my grandfather's house. During that time, my grandfather suffered a stroke that turned him into a vegetable.

So my parents sent him to an old folks' home, the Evergreen Moral Home for the Aged Sick and Handicapped. On the rare occasions that I did visit my grandfather, I couldn't recognise him.

It was like my grandfather had already died. All I saw in front of me was an empty, hollow shell. This wasn't the man who raised me. So why should I go and visit him?


I think the first time I ever cried for my grandfather was after I finished writing about it in my first novel, Foreign Bodies. It's only when I write about my grandfather that I realise how much guilt I have trapped inside me.

In Foreign Bodies, the protagonist, Mei, confronts all her guilt when she attends her grandfather's funeral. But you know what the appalling thing is? I never even went to my grandfather's funeral. Why? Because by this time my parents had moved to Europe.

And I was busy with school - probably with some major exam like the GCSEs or the A levels - I mean, by now, who remembers? So though we never discussed this, we all decided implicitly that I was too busy with revising for my exams to be able to take a week off to go for my grandfather's funeral.

So why did I fail to visit my grandfather when he was in the old folks' home? Well, it was because I had to be in school until two o'clock every day. And after that, as I was a member of the squash team, I had to train three hours every day after I finished my classes.

Our teachers gave us three tests every week, so when I returned home, I had to revise for those.

I never had any free time during the weekends to see my grandfather, because apart from all my school work, I was also the editor of the class magazine, a reporter for the school magazine, and in charge of directing a Neil Simon play for English week.

And so that has always been the excuse I gave myself. I left my grandfather to die by himself because I was too busy with tonight's homework.

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