The Straits Times
Published on Dec 01, 2012

Nature, nurture and the PSLE


WE SPENT eight hours driving, often in blinding rain, to attend my mother-in-law's 80th birthday bash. My son was spooked by having to wade through floodwaters to get back to our hotel. I explained to him: "Family-benefits-obligations" - Where there's family, there are benefits as well as obligations, and this was an obligation.

Inspired by the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre, I have been thinking up my own "triadic dialectics", ideas based on three-way relationships.

Lefebvre infused space and time (Kant's "necessary conditions") with energy to give us "space-time-energy", thus transcending the limitation of "space-time" analysis. By his positing a "melody-harmony-rhythm" dialectic and the analysis of rhythms, anthropologists can now circumvent the problem of time being either only "social" or "clock" time.

I thought of British (national and local) politicians caught ripping off taxpayers, top earners hiding their wages in offshore schemes to avoid paying tax, and benefits scroungers exploiting the system. In one voice, they claim that they are "doing nothing wrong".

Yes, on a "rights versus responsibilities" basis, they are within the rules.

But on a "rights-responsibilities-morality" dialectic, their rationalisation fails.

Marriage, contrary to received wisdom, is strongest when it is a relationship between three partners. Christians believe these to be "husband-wife-God". Marriage (as an institution) is sustained by "husband-wife-something else". The "something else" could be religion, family obligations, collective conscience, social convention, economic necessity, or whatever.

Take away any one of these three prongs and the marriage (and family) risks failing, as we see it happening all over the world, not just in Western cultures.

In a similar vein, I pondered the old chestnut: "nature or nurture". The triad "nature-nurture-opportunity" would put to rest the "either/or" arguments that do not help in the resolution.

No matter how many chances my son is given to play football, he will not excel because it is just not within his nature. You cannot nurture what is not there.

On the other hand, if we had not given him the opportunity of a private education, his natural talent would also have been stymied in a state school. Nature without nurture will be wasted.

Ergo, it is crucial that every Singaporean child is given every opportunity to nurture their nature-given talents, most of which cannot be showcased by Primary School Leaving Examination results.

Lee Siew Peng (Dr)

Harrow, England