Exam results are the most stressful thing in the world. A simple alphabet and a number determines [sic] what school you go to, what courses you can take, and what jobs you end up with later in life. It’s a turning point you have no control over.Mui Ee (Melody Chen), “The Teenage Textbook Movie” (1998)
Singaporeans have made a habit of regularly outperforming almost every other country in worldwide educational rankings. However, many of us know from firsthand experience that this victory comes at the cost of an awful amount of stress. To our credit, Singapore’s Ministry of Education is in the process of making some exciting changes that promise a less stressful future for our kids, such as ability-based banding and alternative class groupings that promise much more individualised care. Yet, society’s perception of our education system – in particular our ingrained insistence on thinking of exam grades, educational streams and academic pedigrees as the sole marker of a student’s worth – remains a powerful force in our mediatised imagination.
Like it or not, it seems that our education system remains a prominent source of both pride and pain. Which way, then, should our opinions swing? Caught between these extremes, our screens return to this topic repeatedly to find some sort of resolution to this puzzle. In this article, we will look at I Not Stupid (2002) and Lion Mums (2015-), two such instances of Singapore’s collective return to this unsolvable knot. More pointedly, we will consider why both shows fail to decide whether we love or hate our education system. Even though I Not Stupid and Lion Mums are separated by more than a decade, both shows exhibit an interesting and identical tug-of-war within Singapore’s academically addled psyche – we recognise the immense pressure we put our students through, but we are also reluctant to part with this source of pain. We seem to have accepted – even if grudgingly – that exams and their cache of symptoms are a necessary evil in our meritocratic society.
As such, our masochistic attachment to the exam comes through in these shows’ inability to wholeheartedly critique our systems. Despite the long stretch of time that has passed between these two articulations of the same problem, our opinions remain unchanged because we as a society cannot rethink our dependence upon the examination as our supposedly best way of ordering society. I Not Stupid and Lion Mums ultimately reinforce the very systems they critique because the conservative energy within Singapore’s meritocratic principles leave us with no other alternative way of life. In a thought system so deeply dominated by pragmatism, we cannot dissociate ourselves from our complicity in upholding this system because to do so requires us to radically reconceptualise the way we imagine life in Singapore, a price we cannot pay.
I Not Stupid by Jack Neo remains one of Singapore media’s most incisive explorations into the aftermath of the paper chase. This iconic film chronicles the struggles three EM3 students face in society, exploring the pain that academic stress inflicts upon the entire family. Terry (Huang Po Ju), Kok Pin (Shawn Lee) and Boon Hock (Joshua Ang) hail from families of different socioeconomic classes, and how they deal with their setbacks is deeply inflected by their financial means – a topic to which we will later return. Recently, I Not Stupid has been joined by Lion Mums, a long-form drama that knits its various subplots together with a consistent focus on getting the show’s children through their academic milestones. The series follows Jennifer (Bernice Liu), Durrani (Nurul Aini), Min Yi (Vanessa Vanderstraaten) and Chae Lian (Lina Ng), the eponymous Lion Mums, and how they sacrifice time, money and even their own romantic lives for the sake of securing their children’s future by securing their ‘A’s.
To their credit, both I Not Stupid and Lion Mums criticise the education system by showing how exam stress tears ruptures within the self and family. After Kok Pin is caught cheating in an exam, he finds himself trapped with no way out. Bombarded with messages about how Normal Technical students are useless, that ITE stands for “It’s The End” and the looming threat of being caned by his parents (which comes up in graphic detail within the film), Kok Pin attempts suicide. We follow him down the corridor through the eyes of an apprehensive tracking shot, almost as if we are the conscience of a country that has pushed its students to this level of desperation. Separated by the screen, we want to reach out but cannot, and we are forced to watch as Kok Pin weighs death against punishment. In this moment, I Not Stupid criticises the system by punishing us, a society that is complicit in its perpetuation. We are forced to watch violence repeat itself on screen and interrogate our own desires, wondering if success is worth its price.
Similarly, Lion Mums criticises the totalising demands of the education system by representing the breakdown of the family. While I Not Stupid hints at emotional neglect by chronicling how Kok Pin and Boon Hock turn away from misunderstanding parents, coping with their troubles by relying solely on themselves, Lion Mums shows what happens when parents get carried away. Jennifer’s daughter, Ada (Alexandra Tan), is a slow learner, but that’s not acceptable in Charleston Primary School. In this cutthroat elite school, concerned parents routinely send their children to Gifted Stream prep classes and enrichment lessons in order to game the Direct School Admissions scheme. Once Jennifer decides to take the aggressive approach with Ada’s slow pace, we watch as she holds Ada’s childhood hostage. Even though Jennifer loves indulging in Ada’s make-believe princess world, she begins clamping down on her fantasies, even calling her “stupid” and hitting her in a drastic turn away from the nurturing mother we are used to seeing her as. Jennifer breaks Ada’s innocence and moves against her own caring instincts because she lives in a system where toughness is rewarded above all else. In Lion Mums 3, Chae even tolerates her husband’s infidelity as long as Winston (Ian Teng), her emotionally distanced son, is willing to transfer out of his neighbourhood school and into the esteemed Anson High. In Lion Mums, nobody comes out of the academic battle unscathed.
Even though both I Not Stupid and Lion Mums take our schools to task by showing how academic trauma tears families apart, both shows ultimately submit themselves to the system anyway. In Lion Mums, Jennifer’s husband Richard (Max Loong) loses his job, and he becomes a Gruber driver (their world’s version of Uber) to make ends meet. Jennifer’s family experiences a major downgrade in lifestyle; they sell their terrace house and move into an HDB flat. Yet, in spite of their financial constraints, we still find Jennifer saying “we have to pay for Ada’s enrichment classes” in a moment of bizarre dissonance. Even in Lion Mums, whose premise is founded upon the interrogation of our academic idolatry, we find ourselves unable to depart from the sacred cow of educational success. As much as Lion Mums criticises its parents’ overbearing expectations, it still clings to its own object of critique when push comes to shove. One might charitably interpret Jennifer’s statement as parody, but the show’s sincere tone rules out that possibility. We must thus accept that Lion Mums reflects a deep tension between our society’s desire for a better way out and a reluctant acceptance that this is the way things are.
While Lion Mums explicitly returns masochistically to the thorn in its conscience, I Not Stupid exhibits a much more curious inability to criticise education to its fullest extent. Interestingly, I Not Stupid seems to pussyfoot around the topic altogether because it doesn’t know how to end itself well. After Kok Pin’s mother (Xiang Yun) finds out about his cheating attempt, she attacks him with a cane, but the moment is interrupted by a sudden burst of sickness. It turns out that she has been suffering from leukaemia, and will die without a bone marrow transplant. Terry turns out to be an ideal donor, and the film ends on the didactic note that we must help each other out in life. This films ends far from where it began, and one must ask why the plot swerves so drastically towards the end.
Across the cinema of Jack Neo, plot is often tied deeply with morality. Many of his films conclude with happy endings in which larger social problems are resolved through the charity and open-mindedness of individual players. By doing this, Neo shifts the onus for change from system to individual. He absolves larger structures of their complicity in our suffering by positing that it is us, and not the system, that needs to change. As much as this explains the moral forces undergirding Neo’s films, this does not explain why I Not Stupid ends so weirdly. If Neo wanted to depict the breakdown of a family under the weight of the PSLE, why did he end by shoehorning his story into a bone marrow ending that actually forgets the bulk of the film’s subject matter?
Given Neo’s affection for Singaporean morality tales, we must conclude that I Not Stupid ends like this not because he doesn’t want to discuss exam stress, but because he doesn’t know how to discuss the full consequences of exam stress. Even for him, education presents such a huge source of frustration that its scope exceeds the representational power of his cinematic vocabulary. While Lion Mums reattaches itself to the system, I Not Stupid chooses to forget, diverting our attention elsewhere instead. For Neo, he resorts to the “out of sight and out of mind” tactic because education, its stress and its foundational location within Singapore’s social structure presents an unsolvable knot that is easier to ignore than unpick.
Despite their best efforts, I Not Stupid and Lion Mums cannot resolve our love-hate relationship with our education system. For the former, it is easier to forget the knot than to go through the immense friction required to loosen it. For the later, even critical counter-narratives find themselves leading back to a folk narrative that meritocracy, enforced at every stage of education, is the only way to go. Even though we have made moves away from “credentialism” and towards a more rounded education, these ingrained social attitudes form the base for a cultural narrative that will take much more work to undo. In her groundbreaking book This Is What Inequality Looks Like, Teo You Yenn tells us that
Narratives are not bad things. We need to tell ourselves stories about ourselves, in order to understand our past, make meaning of the present, and aspire to the future. But when narratives are monolithic and singular, they become fortresses of vested interests, biases and blindspots.
To see better, we need to expand our narratives. [. . .] An important goal to set for ourselves lies in changing the narrative – our national narrative and our own internal biographical narratives. If we can do that – face up to how we are all implicated and entangled, confront how the narrative we hold onto upholds our own privileges at the same time that it maintains the disadvantages of some of our fellow residents in this country – then we can really begin talking about solutions. (p 43)
If we want to change our educational system for the better, we must disrupt the narrative that ‘A’s at all costs is the only way out. I Not Stupid and Lion Mums are important shows, but just talking about issues isn’t enough. Building on the work that these shows have done in exposing the hidden forces of pain and trauma that our narratives necessitate, we must now move from problem to solution. The MOE has indeed taken commendable steps, but let us not rest on our laurels and become complacent. We must ask ourselves how we can do better. As has been said, systems are changing, but society must do its part to walk away from this myth together. We must talk, produce, film with an intention to radically reimagine what can be so that we can move towards a freer way of life.
About the Writer: Ben is interested in how films and society relate to each other. Like most Singaporeans, he has many thoughts on education. He thanks his own teachers for daring him to be intellectually courageous. His other interests include horror, comedy, psychoanalysis and spicy food.
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