The classrooms at Admiralty are sparsely decorated. When I visit a class of 13-year-olds, there’s a single artwork on the back wall; a paper cut-out of a cherry tree scattering blossom. At the front, where the teacher stands, is a whiteboard, a projector, a Singapore flag and a clock. I am later told that other decorations had been removed to avoid distracting or aiding students during a round of tests.
The subject is English, a second language for most of the children here, who speak either Malay or Chinese at home. At the front of the class, the teacher, Wendy Chen, is showing a film of migrant workers responding to racist comments. It’s a controversial subject: foreign labourers who work in construction, manufacturing and domestic service are often targets of racial prejudice in Singapore. Chen strips the language down to its constituent parts, asking the 13-year-old students to look at the use of the pronouns “we” and “they”. She hands out a newspaper cutting, again about migrant workers, and asks them to analyse it. “Underline who, what, when, where, how,” she instructs briskly.
The atmosphere is industrious. Throughout the day, the children work quietly at their tasks with relatively little chatter. Corporal punishment is permitted as a last resort — for boys only — at Singapore schools. When the teachers need to command attention, they strike an insistent note rather than raising their voices. One teacher, as she senses her class flagging, begins to pepper her instructions with the phrase “my dears”. Further absorbing discipline, many of the children join police or military cadet organisations, and can be seen dressed in uniform and standing to attention in the schoolyard after class. For the boys, who face two years’ national service after graduating from high school, it’s a particularly useful preparation.
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