GREAT expectations (Part I)

Among the things I need to do as a lecturer of a community college, one of the things I really enjoy doing is coaching Final Year Project students. Lecturers are supposed to be supervisors to the students, but I view myself as a coach. This is where the magic happens, where I can go in depth with students, almost on a one on one basis.

My students often complain that my expectations are too high but personally, I think my standards are comparatively low. Note the pretext though: I do not treat my students as students. I treat my students as working adults on their first job. And I always tell them that I impose an even harder standard on myself, if that is any comfort at all.

So what are the expectations I have for an adult? Well, there are a few which I insist for them to do. And I’ll just talk about one of it today.

Make Your Own Decisions

Singapore is a very tough society to survive. From a ruling described as “draconian” by many around the world breeds an entire generation of people who are “kiasi“, a local term which literally means “afraid to die” but I think what this really means is being afraid to take ownership. In fact, I believe many people may find making wrong decisions and having to bear the consequences more fearful than dying. This make sense at least to me: we have heard too many stories of people committing suicide as they couldn’t bear the weight of what they have done.

This culture of being afraid to take ownership, I thought, results in three main categories of people: (1) people who often look for justifications for their decisions, (2) people who push the decision making to other people and blame them when things go wrong, and (3) people who are in indecision.

I am advocating for a variant to the first type. Instead of looking for justifications, which felt like trying to cover up for mistakes, I’m advocating for my students to think things through carefully, look for reasons that support and give confidence to make decisions.

I make my students think through every decision they make in their project. They have to bear the responsibilities of the decisions they make. But I also need to give them the confidence to make decisions. This is where they need to practice critical thinking skills, searching for suitable reasons for the decisions they made.

With that been said, it doesn’t mean I free myself from responsibility. I, too, as their coach, I will take ownership of the wrong decisions they made. I’m not sure if students know this (but I know some of them will because they said they are reading my blog) but managers will also come down hard on the lecturers if we are not doing enough to support the students in their work.


So here is the big contradiction:

I cannot tell my students what they need to do if I need them to make their own decisions. And this is so for major decisions as well. That may not seem like sufficient support, or at least I felt that I’m doing less when compared to the rest of the lecturers.

But what I do give, is, guiding them on a possible thinking process. They come up with a decision, and I’ll refute their decisions with my arguments. If they decided to go with my line of thoughts, I’ll refute my own arguments again. And again. Until they are able to acquire a comprehensive set of reasoning that will help to support the decisions they made.

Lastly, I still wouldn’t make any decisions for them, they have to do it themselves. I found that at the end for their project, it will usually improve their comfort and confidence level in making decisions.

This is a time consuming process. I’m taking a huge risk that they may fail, which means that I too, have failed.


I don’t think the Singapore society should have another generation of kiasi people. They just need to be able to think things through, make a decision, get the confidence and just do it, just like Nike.


a little bit of rebel ~reprise~ (Part 1)

I wrote a Japanese journal entitled “a little bit of rebel” (Literal translation: “The Importance of the Rebel”) back on 28 Mar 2010 on Lang8. The translated version of it goes something like this:


In school, we are taught to write our essays from the top to bottom.

In school, we are taught Mathematics, but we were not told how we can use them.

In school, we studied hard for our examinations, memorising endless number of formulas, remembering to write our answers the way our teachers expected us to.

There is no lee-way for creativity.

After that, we grew up to become lawyers, politicians, engineers, managers, researchers, doctors, teachers and soldiers to fit into the machinery known as a country. We continue to work hard but most of us without an aim. After all, money is needed to survive and who cares about the rest anyway.

However, let’s look at the those who have made it big. Bill Gates never completed his school. Thomas Edison can’t study at all. They are also the rebels of society.

This society frowns on the rebels who disrupt their usual way of life. These rebels are the same people who exhibited their bravery to overcome the norm of the society in innovative and creative ways to improve the society as a whole.

This makes me wonder if the education system of Singapore who have been so successful in creating scholars, has also created people who are too indulge in their own lives. I don’t even feel a simple thing such as patriotism in most of them.

This makes me worry about our future. Have we created a society of uncaring obedient people?

How about a little bit of rebel in everyone?


I reflected once again on what I have written three years ago. What were the qualities that a modern rebel possess that the school doesn’t seem to be teaching and is important for our next generation?

Now that I am a lecturer teaching 16 to 19 year-olds, I felt that there were three qualities that stands out more than any other: critical thinking, innovation and collaboration. In other words, we are talking about the left brain, the right brain and the brain that belongs to someone else other than you.

Wikipedia defines Critical Thinking as reflective reasoning about beliefs and actions, and, a way of deciding whether a claim is always true, sometimes true, partly true, or false.

I often challenge my students:

  • Why such a design?
  • Was it inspired from a famous design?
  • Who inspired your design?
  • Who is this person?
  • Did you get this design from a credible person or credible source?

On the surface, critical thinking seems like a life skill where logical reasoning are used to justify for doing what you did, a survival tool in the strict Singapore society. However, I think there are more far reaching implications to this. I feel that we need to challenge students to think about everything that they are learning, listening and reading.

  • Are your teachers teaching you the right stuff?
  • Is the media telling me everything I need to know about a certain situation?
  • Is the Wikipedia article I’m reading now telling me the right stuff? (I know it’s an irony to choose the Wikipedia definition for Critical Thinking but this is done on purpose)

In order to empower the next generation to do lifelong learning, I feel that these are difficult questions that students must learn to ask and try to answer as they approach adulthood. As the knowledge landscape we are in continues to be shaped by the flood of information coming through the media and the Internet, critical thinking will be the filtration pump and the flood gate that keeps the knowledge reservoir fresh. Unlearning and relearning becomes a non-negotiable process of effective lifelong learning.

Being a rebel means we question the norm in a meaningful manner. Please do not scold or ostracise a person if he is asking questions that challenges the norm because he wants to make sense of things. Instead, just analyse and answer, and ask more questions from his point of view so that everyone gets to learn together.