Top PSLE scorers, take a bow

Yes, we should broaden our definition of merit but there's no reason to downplay academic achievement

I don't remember the PSLE score I got as a 12-year-old. But I know it was good enough to get me into Raffles Girls' School which, then and now, is a school that strives for academic achievement - and may it never be ashamed to say so.

I was happy to get into RGS to follow in the footsteps of my big sister. But I wasn't particularly chuffed one way or another about my score or that I had topped my neighbourhood school.

In those days, no one boasted about his or her scores, but no one was ashamed of doing well either.

In secondary school, we more or less knew where each other stood academically, competed in a friendly fashion and got on with the important things in life, like playing netball and volleyball, and going window-shopping in the nearby Scotts Road shopping centres after school.

RGS then was a school with very bright kids, many from humble backgrounds like myself. Thrown together with such bright sparks, I bumbled along, eschewing the tougher science streams for the much easier "sub-science" stream once I knew I was more drawn to the humanities than the hard science. I graduated from RGS with significantly fewer A1s in my O levels than many of my friends. I also went on to get fewer As than my classmates at junior college, but won a scholarship to study literature at Cambridge, on the strength of good grades in that subject.

This litany of my quite-good- but-not-stellar academic achievements is just by way of saying that I don't understand the current reticence when it comes to PSLE results, when the Ministry of Education (MOE), schools and mainstream media all seem so shy about releasing information and stories about children who aced the Primary School Leaving Examination.


A few schools' websites list photos and names of their top scorers - but in alphabetical order. A website,, has crowdsourced a list of PSLE top scores in some schools - to the scorn of others.

Some well-known people have come forward with the humble brag that they didn't do well in the PSLE but went on to do well in life, to encourage students who might have done badly, to push ahead and continue their learning journey.

This is all very laudable.

But whatever happened to the old-fashioned virtue of celebrating success?

Instead of schools, parents and communities openly celebrating academic achievement, I find an awkward shroud of silence surrounding top scorers.

It has been this way since MOE decided to stop publishing the names of top scorers in the 2012 PSLE. I hope Singapore has not acquired a bad dose of the tall poppy syndrome, where people look askance at other people's achievements and want to tear them down, and where high achievers then feel the need to keep their heads down for fear of drawing unwanted envious attention.

I am sympathetic to the views of those who argue that the past laser-like focus on top scorers has created a culture where parents, children and society look at merit in purely academic terms.

I agree with those who say it is far better and healthier to celebrate success in different dimensions. As MOE explained in a parliamentary reply to questions on the policy in January 2013: "The change is aimed at recognising students for their holistic development and all-round excellence, and not just their academic performance only."

So for the PSLE, the media featured stories of children who overcame illness or grief to score well.

But recognising students' holistic excellence should not be coupled with downplaying academic achievement. So I would have liked to see the stories of the top scorers, and the schools that produced them, and the teachers who helped them get there.

Are there children who went from a fail grade to a stellar grade? A migrant child, new to the Singapore school system, who struggled to cope? A cleaner's child who topped the Maths paper? A teacher who refused to give up, to help a child overcome her dyslexia to do well enough in Mother Tongue to secure her place in the top league?

Let's not forget that it also takes discipline, grit and perseverance - the qualities we want our children to cultivate as part of their "holistic development" - to ace the PSLE. While we give a pat on the back to those who did better than expected, and encourage median students to strive for more, we shouldn't be shy about celebrating those who topped the league tables in exams either.

Otherwise, it would be like celebrating Singapore's achievement in the SEA Games without reference to the number of gold medals won, or reporting on a football game by focusing on missed passes and the valiant efforts of a few injured players, and failing to report on the high points in the game and refusing to name the strikers who scored the goals.

If we are proud of our nation's sporting achievements, and aspire to the Olympic gold by dangling a $1 million cash award, why should we dim the lustre of our 12-year-olds' academic achievements in a national exam?

A win in the sporting field, the artistic field or the academic field should be celebrated by the community, not played down and hushed up. We should teach our children to feel both pride and gratitude in their achievements; and to feel both admiration and aspiration in the face of others'.

Nor should we as a society pretend to be as modest and humble about our achievements as we seem to want our PSLE graduands to think we are. As a country, Singapore is not shy about trumpeting its successes.

We are not shy to boast on the Economic Development Board website that we are the No. 1 city with the best investment potential, have a workforce that tops Beri's labour force evaluation, and Singapore is the world's easiest place to do business.

Government websites aren't shy either about boasting about Singapore students' stellar performance in global education rankings, whether at the Pisa tests or OECD education rankings.

Government ministers routinely trot out tables and charts to show Singapore's achievements in governance, administration, tackling of corruption, or median income.

The truth is that Singapore is an intense, competitive society. We can and should learn to appreciate different types of success beyond the academic and the materialistic, and we should broaden our definition of merit. We should also beware of placing excessively high expectations on our children.

But we should not swing too much the other way, to become a society afraid to celebrate success and achievement. We should certainly not deny 12-year-olds, who have worked hard in their studies, the recognition they deserve for their hard work.

So, top PSLE scorer of 2015, whether from Rulang Primary as fingered by, or elsewhere. Top scorer in Maths/ English/ Science/ Chinese/ Malay/ Tamil/ Hindi/ Punjabi. Top scorer in each school. Top scorer in the merged streams. Top scorer among migrant children who transferred into the Singapore school system mid-stream. Top scorer with special needs who needed extra time or physical assistance in the exam.

To each and every one of you: Take a bow. Well done.

The PSLE result won't define the rest of your life. But at this moment, your achievement is something you should feel proud of, not something you feel you should hide from others.

I hope, even if the rest of Singapore don't know it, that your parents, your siblings, your aunties and uncles, your teachers, your friends and people around you know of your achievement and are celebrating it with you. Openly, with pride. Because you deserve it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2015, with the headline 'Top PSLE scorers, take a bow'. Print Edition | Subscribe