Grades are not the only pathway to success, says community group

Community group 100 Voices hopes society will place less emphasis on pursuing good academic results

With every release of major examination results here comes much talk of grades and top scorers.

Increasingly, there are appeals to parents to look beyond results - on social media and, recently, from a community group called 100 Voices.

Following the recent release of this year's Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) results, 100 Voices said in a statement to The Sunday Times that it hoped society would place less emphasis on pursuing good grades.

"We have noted responses on social media which highlighted that grades, especially PSLE grades, are not the sole determinants of future excellence. Such sentiments help to expand mindsets that there are multiple pathways in life," the statement said.

The group, whose members include World Toilet Organization founder Jack Sim, who failed his O- and A-level examinations, aims to showcase at least 100 different success stories, via posts and videos on Facebook.

100 Voices, which has about 860 members in its public Facebook group, was set up in October this year by some friends who had been discussing, via the WhatsApp messaging app, the suicide of a Primary 5 pupil, who had reportedly been facing pressure over his grades.

Four members of the group share their stories in the profiles featured here.

One of them, Mr Dean Yap, 42, says: "Success depends on how you define it.

"If you cannot make it in school, thrive on your natural strengths," says the stay-at-home father and freelance IT professional.

Some education experts, however, feel that it is still valuable to celebrate academic success.

Dr Timothy Chan, director of SIM Global Education's academic division, says that some students might get the wrong idea, for example, that "someone with poor results will nonetheless be a successful business person".

"The student may ask: 'Why do I need to study hard? Why do I need to master certain skills and knowledge?'" he says.

"People worry about an over- emphasis on grades, which might create pressure and compromise self-esteem. But that is half the story," he says.

"Academic success is a form of accomplishment. It is not the results per se. If the student puts in hard work and gets good results, that is worth celebrating. While there is no need to compare, parents should not shy away from celebrating that, as a form of encouragement to the child."

 Finding success as a family man

From left: Jayden, Elyse, Ms Josephine Goh, Mr Dean Yap and Anders. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Mr Dean Yap's academic success did not prepare him for working life. The stay-at-home father, 42, is a freelance software developer. He is married to human resource professional Josephine Goh, 40, and they have three children: Elyse, nine; Jayden, six; and Anders, five months old.

"I was always a good student but, in terms of my career, I do not have a success story.

After I graduated with an electrical and electronic engineering degree from the United Kingdom, I started working as an engineer in a semi-conductor company.

After two years, I became interested in the software industry and did a post-graduate degree in software design at Nanyang Technological University. For the next few years, I worked at a firm specialising in currency markets and then at a bank.

Throughout my career, even though I performed well, I was never promoted and I wondered why. I decided to start a business in software development in 2004.

The business failed after about four years, losing about $700,000. When I looked at my children, I felt a sense of guilt that I had exhausted my family's finances.

I was forced to reflect upon myself: As a student, I lacked many soft skills and did not see the need to listen to others. I dominated in school projects as I knew the subject well. I also did not see the need for teamwork or empathy, and failed to build a team in my business.

I did not know how to communicate or negotiate. I failed to understand what clients wanted, so I was unable to propose mutually beneficial deals.

Because of these setbacks, I want to expose my children to as many experiences as possible.

To learn how to socialise, they go to the playground almost daily.

We sometimes explore different urban areas. It helps them to handle ambiguity and setbacks. Once, we used a map and walked from Chinatown to Merlion Park, getting lost on part of the route.

I am also a parent volunteer at my two elder children's schools. Last year, I helped about 80 families prepare for a mini funfair at school. I'm helping families create memories.

I define my success as a father, husband and a parent volunteer. I find these roles meaningful and I can do a pretty good job.

I am happier now because the only thing I worry about is income. If I were working 10 to 12 hours a day, I would probably worry, additionally, about whether I was spending enough time with my children or communicating with my wife.

When the children grow up, I will focus more on my career."

 Life has many paths


Mrs Ada Lim, 37, made safe choices in her education, which did not benefit her career. She is the marketing and sales director of a technology business that she co-founded with her husband, Mr Christopher Lim, 38. They have two sons, aged seven and four.

"I made safe choices in life, but I found that they were not necessarily the best for me.

I did okay in school. For example, I had a single-digit score for O levels. It was only after I went into the real world that I experienced multiple failures.

I followed my friends and pursued an engineering degree at university, but it was not my strength and I flunked some subjects. I listened to my relatives and stuck to it, even though I wasn't sure what I wanted to work as after graduation.

I have not worked a day in engineering since graduating.

As I had volunteered as a mentor to troubled youth during my university days, I wanted a job where I could interact with people. My first job was a marketing communications role at a non-profit organisation, after which I moved to a managerial role in a charity for special needs children.

My former boss, who was the chairman of the charity's board, said to me: "You may not have the skills, but you have the right attitude."

I was the only full-time staff and reported to a board comprising volunteers. I was running it with guidance from the board of directors.

I count that as one of my failures as the charity had to close within two years. But it gave me a taste of what it was like to run a company, and I started one after a stint in corporate communications.

About six years ago, after I had my first child, I started a public relations consultancy, working from home. It lasted about four years. I would have earned at least $100,000 more during that time if I had stayed in a full-time job.

Still, these were not spectacular failures. I did not go broke.

Running the consultancy gave me a lot of flexibility - I could spend more time with my children in their growing-up years, than I would if I'd had a full-time job.

My current company is less than a year old. I've learnt a lot earlier in my career and I am applying those lessons now, such as how to talk to people as potential customers. I am also able to multi-task, in areas such as networking, bookkeeping and information technology.

There are many paths in life and I do not regret my choices."

Seek your own idea of success

Mr Visakan Veerasamy, who sat the A levels twice, blogged about how to retake the examination as a private candidate. PHOTO: VENESSA LEE

Mr Visakan Veerasamy, a former Gifted Education Programme pupil, found school difficult. The marketing executive is married to Ms Sharan Kaur, a freelance software developer. They are both 26 and have no children.

"I never got into the habit of doing homework. I tried to, but I struggled.

In primary school, I read a lot and played video games. In secondary school, I played basketball and the guitar. When I was between 17 and 20 years old, I was in a band.

I was in the Gifted Education Programme in primary school. The teachers talked to me like I would become someone great.

But when it came to PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination), I thought, "how come I couldn't get into RI (Raffles Institution)?"

My parents have a secondary- school education. There wasn't anyone who could effectively manage me. I needed to be managed.

I repeated the first year when I was in Tampines Junior College and retook my A levels. Both times, I did not do well enough to get a place in university.

My boss found me through my blog. I've been in this job for about four years. Marketing is something that I'm good at and I want to be better at it.

I have been blogging about my experiences for more than 10 years, including a post on how to retake the A levels as a private candidate. Every year, around the time the A-level results are released, there is a surge in traffic on my blog and students message me for help.

I'm not blaming the system, but I was probably not the right fit. I was a misfit in many ways, but people hardly noticed. When they did, the default response was: "What's wrong with you? Why are you failing, being recalcitrant?" It's assumed the child needs some kind of fixing.

It's important to recognise that every person is not just a set of grades. You might just need someone to talk you through this. It's about reducing the tremendous anxiety you feel about not fitting in.

I believe that everyone has something that is theirs: a talent, an ability or even the questions they might have. It's important to seek to expand your concept of self, your own idea of what success might be."

First million made at 32

Mr Mark Phooi failed to get into a polytechnic after sitting the O levels four times. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

For Mr Mark Phooi, 54, education was the ticket out of poverty, but his children have other options. He is the founder of First Media, a holding company that manages design agencies and institutions. He is married to housewife Elisa Chong, 56, and they have three sons, Marcus, 27; Kenneth, 23; and Nicholas, 19.

"I flunked my O levels the first time - I got only two credits, in Chinese and history. I was sent to the Construction Industry Training Centre, where I enrolled in a brick-laying course and survived only one day. It was not the kind of career I wanted.

I went on to take the O levels as a private candidate three more times because I wanted to get into a polytechnic like my peers. Education was the only way to success at the time. Without education, you had to go the blue-collar route.

My parents worked as labourers and I am the fourth of five children. We were at the lowest economic level. We often had achar or peanuts with porridge for lunch.

I did not pass any of the O-level examinations I took. I took on factory jobs and worked as a lifeguard and swimming coach. I earned up to $4,000 a month in the 1980s giving swimming lessons.

In my early 20s, I enrolled in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in a diploma course in fine art. I had enjoyed art in school and I was hoping to make something out of it. At least I was going to school - that made me feel good. Six months later, I switched to a graphic design course because the field had commercial prospects, compared with fine art.

To be rich, I needed to start a business. I started recruiting my fellow students to do design work and selling these services to companies. At 27, after graduating with a diploma in applied arts, I started a design agency, Lancer Design. Later, I took a master's degree in design from the University of New South Wales, Australia.

I made my first million when I was about 32 and was able to invest in property.

I had been taken in by the idea that grades were the only way to success. Later, I told my three sons that as long as they passed, it's all right.

Kids need to move away from a purely academic focus. My sons went to Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) (International), which provided academic and project-based learning, where students worked with one another. Being in the school also paved their way to possible future business opportunities with their old classmates.

My two elder sons got their degrees from Australian universities. My firstborn, Marcus, is helping me with my business. Kenneth is in his final year studying accounting and finance at University of Melbourne.

Having a degree gives one self- esteem and is one of the measures of a person's employability and, hence, financial stability.

But for those who have options, such as letting their children work in the family business, grades may not be important.

Our education system has served us very well. Saying grades are not important in general might have dire consequences. I see families pursuing good grades because they cannot afford to send their kids overseas for higher education, and their only chance is to get scholarships. That is a fact of life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 04, 2016, with the headline 'Looking beyond grades'. Print Edition | Subscribe