Schools, results and familial prestige

Most Singaporean Chinese students would have experienced this situation at least once. On the day the student receives his/her examination results, be it the PSLE, O Level, or A Level, their and their parents’ mobile phones are bombarded with a flurry of text messages. These messages would be from parents, elatives and family friends anxiously probing for the student’s results, even though I would argue that most of them have little to no understanding of what the grades mean or how the grading system truly works.

Avoiding such questioning is near impossible. I once tried to avoid answering such text messages upon receipt of my A Level results, but they called relentlessly for days until I picked up. One is almost forced into it.

Results aside, students often face questions from relatives and elders about the type of school they are studying in, the specific school in question, and even the subjects or course one is enrolled in, serving as indicators of a student’s competency. I argue that although the students’ results are somewhat
indicative of their competency and serves that purpose in the administration of school enrollment, it is culturally seen as a way of assessing and re-assessing familial prestige. Of course, familial prestige in Singaporean Chinese culture consists of much more than children’s academic records, but it is nevertheless an extremely important point of consideration for most Singaporean Chinese.

I view the constant probing for one’s examination results by family and friends as a ritual undertaken by one’s relatives and family friends, seeking to establish one’s place in the “hierarchy” of academic prestige that is also extended to one’s family. When one does well above average (eg. a straight-A student), the parents of the student convey the news with humble pride. There is an implicit assumption that one’s child has brought honour to the family, a concept that is undeniably cultural with regards to the relative superiority of the child’s competency to other students. In the case of average or below average results, the parents convey the news with humble humility. My uncle once said, “It is just what we expected.” when telling us about his daughter’s PSLE results.

The frequency of enquiries follow the frequency of national examinations exactly, as one’s position in such a hierarchy of prestige needs to be re-assessed after every few years. If one continues to do well, the prestige is “renewed”. If not, it is seen as a “fall”. However, while families are bestowed upon the prestige associated with their children’s academic competency, seldom would there be shame associated with average or less than average academic performance despite the “fall”.

There are also other ways relatives and family friends might assess one’s place in that hierarchy. The most common method is to ask for the kind of academic institution the student is studying in, be it a secondary school, junior college or polytechnic etc. Once that is known, the follow-up question typically asks for the specific name of the student’s school. Junior colleges are more highly regarded than polytechnics, while in the realm of junior colleges, brand-name schools like ‘Raffles Institution’ or ‘Victoria Junior College’ are more highly regarded than so-called “neighbourhood” schools like ‘Tampines Junior College’. It is not unusual also to enquire about one’s course of study. In the case of a junior college student, being in the ‘Science’ stream is more prestigious than being in the ‘Arts’ stream, although it is generally still more prestigious to be an Arts student in a brand-name school than a Science student in a “neighbourhood” school. Hence, the degree of prestige is first associated with type of school, then the brand-name (or not) of the school, then finally the course of study.

It is important to note that family here does not only include parents, but also aunts, uncles and grandparents. Hence, single aunts may also take a bite out of this prestige by telling her friends that her niece or nephew has done exceptionally well for the national examinations.

I have talked about the assessment of one’s academic competency using examination results, type and name of school and course of study as indicators. This assessment of academic competency is then used to assess the level of prestige one would have, and thus would extend to one’s family. It is not so much the case that one’s achievement belongs to the family and not to one. Rather, the individual’s achievement is seen to allow one’s kin to partake in the prestige one has earned, which elevates the family’s place in this unusual hierarchy.

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