Last Friday, over 10,000 recent graduates of junior colleges (JC) and Millennia Institute (MI) gathered at their alma maters to receive their A-Level results. For these teenagers (most of whom are 18 or 19 years old), this event marks the end of a 14-year long journey through general education in Singapore, starting from kindergarten and ending in JC. Many other countries adopt a similar general education structure, which is increasingly labeled “K–12” internationally after being coined in the US. To be accurate, a majority of Singaporean students do not graduate from JCs, but other institutions that provide more specialized or vocational forms of instruction. I am biased towards this particular group of students, however, simply because I taught a tiny slice of the cohort.
For these JC and MI students, receiving their results coincides with a pivotal choice that they will make in their lives. Prior to this point, making an independent decision about what to do with their lives has been rare. They may have to pick a secondary school after their Primary School Leaving Examination and/or choose among JCs and MI after their O-Level exams. However, this juncture is the first time that they have to pick a specialized path, one that will (for the most part) open the doors to a few jobs while simultaneously closing them for many others. The choice is a thorny one, with multiple criteria going into the decision arithmetic — family approval, cost of education, potential career options, passion for the subject, etc. However, if they do choose to continue their education, they will fall back into a familiar routine of structured learning, assessments, and grades.
For as long as we are enrolled in a school, we follow its set of rules, metrics, and schedules. Our performance is neatly packaged into a numerical score or a letter grade, published like clockwork at the end of every academic term. When we are students, these numbers often have an outsized impact on how we feel about ourselves and what we are worth. The power that these numbers have over us is not tied to its primary function, which is a proxy for our learning, but rather the larger mechanisms and narratives that it is embedded within. Education is an important tool for social mobility. In Singapore, the data shows that someone with higher qualifications generally earns a higher income. The power of school grades, therefore, lies in its ability to eventually lead to a life that bears the symbols of success. There is a saying in Chinese, “钱不是万能，但没钱万万不能”, which roughly translates into, “Money is not omnipotent, but without money, one cannot accomplish most things.” Singaporeans are known for such pragmatism, which has led to a national success narrative associating three things: good grades, good job, good life. It is unsurprising that after outsourcing our sense of achievement for most of our lives to numbers on a transcript, we hop onto yet another number to measure our success as adults — the amount of money we have. This leads people to think that, “As long as I score good grades, as long as I earn a lot of money — I will be successful and happy!”
If only life is that simple. The narrative that achieving high numbers in grades and income automatically results in success is useful socioeconomically but does not paint the whole picture. We live in a world that requires the consumption of goods and services to keep economies running. Without a functioning economy, governments are not able to generate income from taxation that is required to run the state and protect its sovereignty. This necessitates a narrative that posits that the primary contribution that any average citizen makes to a nation-state is through production and consumption. Therefore, the feeling of success is not caused simply by earning loads of cash, but rather by what it means within such a narrative — being a productive member of society. It seems to me, therefore, that at the heart of our various pursuits is a deep longing for meaning and purpose.
Meaning comes in many forms. It can be derived from doing something that we love or doing things for the people we love. An act can be considered meaningful if it affects people in positive ways. Meaning gives us a sense that we have purpose in this world. The difficult part is that sources of meaning and the balance among these various sources is different for everyone at different stages in their lives. There is simply no one-size-fits-all approach to having a meaningful life.
Sometimes I wonder if our reliance on extrinsic markers of achievement impedes our understanding of how we experience and create meaning. There is a lot to life beyond getting a job that pays the bills, so being able to make life judgments is a really important skill. Unlike the ones in tests, many questions in life do not have standard correct answers, neither is a majority approach necessarily the right one for an individual. One would have to evaluate and judge for themselves what is truly fitting for them before taking a leap of faith. No matter how much we know and how certain we are of our convictions, there will always be things that we cannot anticipate.
In life, when and how do we take stock? According to the Oxford dictionary, to take stock is to “review or make an overall assessment of a particular situation, typically as a prelude to making a decision.” I recently turned 30. A few days after my birthday, I got an email from the graduate school of my dreams. It says that I have not been accepted and that only 5% of all applicants were selected. I feel happy for those who made it into the program, their dreams live on. However, it is difficult to not feel slightly disappointed at this outcome because it feels at this particular moment that my efforts for the past few years (and if I were to be ludicrous, 30 years of my life) have amounted to nothing. It is easy to wallow in self-pity but it is more meaningful and constructive for me to pull myself together and consider my next steps. In times like these, I personally find it important to be grateful for the journey that I have made so far and the people who are a part of it. Our life stories are woven only in retrospect and I hope that someday, I will see this event as part of a larger unfolding of my life. Life goes on; there is a lot more life ahead of me and I am in for the ride.