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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Float Like A Cannonball

An interesting article in the Strait Times today, where Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong discusses his plan for leadership succession.

Here's a section that caught my attention:

Building up talent for a future Cabinet

I was looking at some data of our top students to see what happens to them. Take the people with four As at the A levels. We have about 600 or more a year. About two-thirds study in Singapore, and one-third go overseas. One-third is 200, roughly.

Of the people who go overseas, a bit less than half go on scholarship. A bit more than half go on their own. So at least 100 don't go on scholarship. Of these, nearly half have not come back. That doesn't mean they have emigrated; it means they are working abroad. They may be with a merchant bank, they may be with some MNC, they may be pursuing their careers as lawyers or engineers in New York or London. So that's 50 to 60 persons a year gone overseas from among our best and brightest.

Even among the two-thirds - 400 - who studied in Singapore, about 100 of them, we think, are working overseas. So that's 150 or more people from among our 600 top students per year not in circulation - one-quarter of them.

Now hopefully, one day most will come back, and maybe one day after they've come back, they can be identified and channelled and brought into politics. But you can't be certain of that, and this flow is going to continue. So it's a big challenge to find successors, particularly for politics. So that's why we're still looking.

This reminds me of the most devastating job interview I've ever experienced, which I briefly mentioned in an earlier post.

Many years ago, I applied for a research position. I was shortlisted for a job interview, but when I arrived, to my horror I was confronted by a hostile interviewer who not only dismissed my educational qualifications and lab experience, but oddly enough, also criticized me for my poor "A" level results. Not surprisingly, my application was rejected outright.

It is already quite strange that a potential employer would shortlist me just to give me a dressing down, but it's even more bizarre that I would be assessed negatively based on my "A" level results!

"First-class honours? Everyone out on the streets has honour degrees. But WHY did you get a D for 'A' levels!!?!"

It was an absolutely appalling sort of experience which I'm happy to say that I've not encountered ever since.

Still, it got me thinking.

I remember that when I was studying for my "A" levels, we had to cram a whole lot of material for the big exam. The pressure was so intense, and there was so much stuff to memorize and practice that I didn't really understand the significance of all that information.

In fact it wasn't until the first year of undergrad that I finally realized what I had been trying to learn at "A" levels. That gave me a strong suspicion that the "A" levels wasn't really about learning, but is more like a kind of entrance exam, an elimination round to separate the relatively weaker students from the elite students. Someone even told me that the success of your entire life depends on your "A" level results.

Over the years, this suspicion has gradually waned as more educational opportunities became available for the later bloomers. The establishment of the open university for adult learners, and more mobility between ITE, the polytechnics and universities seemed to provide many alternative routes towards academic and career success.

But after that disastrous job interview I wasn't so sure. Maybe things are still the same.

Actually, I often wonder why so much emphasis is placed on achievement so early in life. This has resulted in many overzealous parents planning insane schedules for their children and pressuring them towards perfect scores right from Day One (sometimes earlier!).

Elite pre-schools, elite primary schools, elite secondary schools... piano lessons, violin lessons, ballet lessons, swimming, tennis, golf... assessment books, past year exams, tuition, tuition, tuition...

Perhaps they believe that children are like cannonballs?

You've got to pack as much gunpowder as you can down that barrel and aim it properly, because the initial velocity and angle will determine the maximum height of that cannonball, with mathematical certainty.

So load 'em up and watch 'em shoot into the sky!


Personally I don't think that closely resembles the real world situation. After all, children are living, breathing, adaptive organisms whereas cannonballs are passive, dead objects.

I prefer to think that children are more like birds.

You need to nurture and care for them in their childhood. Help them understand their own strengths and weaknesses. Watch them and guide them as they take their first tentative, slow, bumbling steps towards the skies.

Once they have learnt to fly, they will take to the air under their own power.

High or low, fast or slow, they will find their place in the sky.

Unlike a cannonball that is destined to follow a parabolic flightpath, birds can alter their flightpath at will. They can change directions. They can land gently on trees and cliffs. They can flap their wings, or make use of thermals and tailwinds to help them gradually climb to incredible heights.

Take for example, the photo of the bird shown above. That isn't an eagle or a falcon.

It's just an ordinary-looking goose species, called the bar-headed goose. It is not the largest, strongest or fastest bird in the world.

But yet it migrates over the Himalayan mountain range annually, making the bar-headed goose the highest (routine) flying bird in the world.

This small bird, which only weighs 2 kg on average, has been found flying at altitudes of 33 000 feet - the cruise altitude of huge passenger jets such as the Airbus A380.

You are thinking: "So what if a bar-headed goose can fly over 30 000 feet? Whole flocks of bar-headed geese already routinely fly at that height - we must give our young goose a head start!"


Back to the cannon we go.

Pass me the gunpowder...

Stones taught me to fly
Love taught me to lie
Life taught me to die
So it's not hard to fall
When you float like a cannonball


Wai said...

Sigh. Well written. Who cares how much you know, how well you think, or how much experience you have. All it comes down to is the grades sometimes. And those early grades at that. :( I'd love to stay and work in Singapore, but I'm afraid they wouldn't have me.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Hi Wai, welcome to Fresh Brainz!

Thanks for your comment. Grades are more important in some fields compared to others. Elite jobs may already be reserved for early achievers but I'm sure there are still many superb appointments for everyone else.

Edgar said...

I got a D for A levels too, luckily I had three As for the other sciences which sorta hid the fact that I terribly sucked at Math. My uni entrance interviews never failed to bring up the issue about the D. Neither did all the other interviews I got but oh well, I'm happily (sorta) in Dentistry 2 years now so I hope I don't get that "WHY DID YOU GET A D FOR A LEVELS" thing in future.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Edgar:

Wow, looks like such a encounter is more common than I thought.

Also, it's rather odd that they did not pick on my "O" level and PSLE results. Something magical about "A" levels - perhaps something to do with elite scholarships...

Corrine Chua said...

I don't see why A-level results are more important compared with undergrad or even graduate GPA.

I never took the A-levels before, but based on what you're saying, it's just a test to see how well you can cram and regurgitate. That isn't learning! So back to the point, if it's just cramming, then why are those results important?

Something makes me suspect that these people didn't have to go through it (A-levels etc), so they don't understand how the education system "works" (or doesn't work!)

Just my 2 cents.

Edgar said...

Haha I suspect they have seen too many 4 "A" students so we seem rather lacklustre, while simply forgetting that they probably didn't have that good results themselves. Their loss anyway.

They didn't have problems with my O or PSLE results either.