The Great Paper Chase [1974]

I’ve been reading OB Markers by Cheong Yip Seng. It’s a very compelling book with lots of anecdotes that hit me pretty hard. I find it odd that so few of them make it into common or popular discussion. Here’s one:

“One Sunday, we published Mary’s column headlined, “The Great Paper Chase.” In it, she decried the relentless pursuit of good grades. All the certificates she worked hard for, from primary school through university, were “not things I want to treasure”. Lee Kuan Yew was stung by this sharp critique of the education policy. He saw it as an attack on hard work and the heavy emphasis on examinations. The next day, he demanded her head. He wanted her sacked. But how could we? As editor, I was responsible. My bosses and I decided that the best course was to move Mary out of harm’s way. She would give up writing and work as a subeditor. If she continued to write the column, we would have endless problems with the PM. He would see her as an unfriendly critic of government whatever she wrote. Mary was not happy with her new duties though she was also a good subeditor. Writing was her forte and what she most enjoyed. It was not long before she left. She went to London, where she worked on Fleet Street.” – Cheong Yip Seng, OB Markers, Chapter 5: The Knuckledusters Era

I tried my best to find the column online, but I couldn’t. I showed Sharan what I was up to, and she was determined to succeed where I had failed. We stayed up till 4am trawling through the digitized archives on NLB’s website, but found nothing. We went to the National Library the next day, and we found Mary’s column on microfilm. It was in the very first issue of Sunday Nation.

Here is Mary’s column. (Emphasis mine.)

The Great Paper Chase…

… Training ground for the adult rat race

The Great Paper Chase is on. It is that time of the year to test the memory power of our 16 and 18 year olds, whose plans for a shining career may be made or broken at these “O” and “A” academic hurdles.

It is that time of the year when all of those enlightened statements by educationists and politicians about “Let’s not be a certificate-oriented society” disintegrate as parent and child, teacher and student stampede — or rather, cram — down the path of learning towards “making the grade”. 

It is all right for those grown-ups to talk about not rubbing the teenager’s nose into the books. They’ve already found good, solid jobs. Anyway, when it comes to injecting new blood into their money-making empires or bureaucratic establishments, they still sift out the distinctions and credits.

I have had my share of the pre-examination cramps. For 15 years, I was given to understand that passing examinations was the only purpose of my life.

My father bore down on me to get a Grade One School Certificate because he never even got close to sitting for one. And because my brothers had theirs Dad didn’t want the family record broken.

And when all the sleepless nights and days of struggling (with revision, guilt and obligation, and coping with sinking confidence and rising panic) were all over… nothing.

I was then told: “Even a Grade One means nothing these days. On to Pre-U you!” So the bind of books, the wars of independence — to be allowed to “twist” the worries out of my system at some mindless party — started all over again…

And all for what? To get a piece of paper that might just give me a little head start on the trite but true “rat-race”. And with the rat-race getting fiercer these days, you need more than just “A” levels or even an Honours degree for that head start.

How hard it is to be student these days, to have to suffer through all those years before grown-ups deem you fit to enter their plastic world.

When I was in school, I couldn’t see beyond not making the grade. The question didn’t even arise, so set was Dad on my achieving it. All that he did to help was to refuse me permission to go out with schoolmates, to participate in ECA, to watch TV beyond 8 p.m., to read anything other than school texts.

My mind, he must have thought, was a machine. Any fool could pass an exam (and in our household, passing and passing par excellence were one and the same). All you needed to do was to keep the machine in good running order with constant — and I mean constant — programming.

I lied to my father about the date of my Pre-U finals. Just so I could take on the wardrobe mistress job with Raffles Players for As You Like It. But he found out on opening night.

The show must go on for all he cared — it had to go on without me, he said. After much useless pleading and too many tears, I stomped out of the house with my paper-bag of props. The show went on — for five nights — and after that, I returned to the flurry of preparing for the finals. Fortunately for me and for the teacher in charged of Raffles Players, I passed.

It is a wonder I never suffered a nervous breakdown before or during examinations. I used to secretly admire classmates who studied so hard, they fell sick just before or during the examinations. If I could only study as hard as they, I used to kid myself. And besides, think of the sympathy those “wrecks” must be getting at home.

I know better now and am thankful for my built-in timer which would tell me when I had had enough of all that cramming.

I know now that it is a tragic waste of precious time and energy to not be put to the actual test. And what kind of tests were these anyway?

We used to “cheat” by studying from booklets of questions going back seven years for the same exams — on Elementary Maths (the Achilles spot in my brain), Grammar and “Precise”. At some point during my secondary school days, I found out that the test questions had a tendency to repeat themselves.

I now have an abhorrence for prepared answers to literature, geography or history questions. Instead of using them as food for thought, we were expected to regurgitate — and we did — these block answers to satisfy the faceless marker of our papers.

Which explains why by the time we made it to university, we were thought to be cloistered in an ivory tower. Those things that were beaten into our brains in school had little relevance to any part of our grown-up lives.

We were never taught to analyse, to question questions. Training ground for useful roles as citizens? It is a miracle we are doing as well as we’re doing, considering the kind of schooling most of us had.

I realise that revolutions almost never begin in secondary school classrooms. So what’s there to talk about? It is somewhat pathetic that boys and girls have to go back to school at nights, just so they can have some peace and quiet to do their homework and study (if they’re lucky).

That their parents and brothers and sisters at home know only to demand that they excel in exams, never showing the much-needed consideration and understanding which would help smooth the furrowed brows of young pressured minds.

My mother was a great help during my exams. She never asked me when I came home, How Was It? if I didn’t feel like telling her. Just a comforting squeeze round the shoulders and a “It’s time you had a break”. And she used to slip me comics to relieve my over-programmed mind.

My father on the other hand, would never fail to demand “Did you answer ALL the questions, CORRECTLY?” as soon as he got home from work. For a time, he would even go over the question papers with me — the one way to undermine an already shaky confidence.

But I soon learned to lie. I’d say yes to all his questions and avoid a post-mortem by saying I had a lot more revision to do. My mother realised that I needed, not more pressure, but understanding and support during those awful weeks before and during.

I really appreciated her not going off for her usual mahjong sessions then — my exams provided the only break in her habit. I sometimes suspect that she was more relieved than I was when I passed out, the mortar board on my head, sweating under a rented gown and clutching an empty cardboard scroll (the real paper came a month later.)

The certificates I got on completion of my paper chase are now probably lost. No matter. They are not things I want to treasure…

UPDATE: Mary Lee wrote a follow-up after this post went viral: How LKY changed my life