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Principals who put down students have no place in educating our young

Posted by theonlinecitizen on January 20, 2008

By Andrew Loh

‘It is very sad when your principal doesn’t have faith in you and will not give you a chance.’

– Student from school where the principal’s “apply for ITE” remarks sparked outrage.

That sums it up for me. This is the result of what adults can do to children with unthinking and insensitive words. And when such words come from a school principal, it is unforgiveable, really.

The principal had “advised” some 27 Sec 5 students “ to seek transfers to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), since they were unlikely to do well in the O levels this year.” (Straits Times)

The “advice” was given on the very first day of the new school year.

The Straits Times further reported:

“To back her point, she even flashed the girls’ detailed N-level grades on the board in class using an overhead projector; she also stressed that she wanted 100 per cent passes in her school.”

Note: She “stressed” that she wanted 100 per cent passes in her school.

Principal’s impression of ITE and ITE students

From the words, behaviour and tone of words used by the principal, I can’t help but feel that she has a very poor impression of the ITE and ITE students. Which makes me wonder if the principal is aware of how far the ITE has progressed.

In a speech at the opening of the ITE’s new College East campus in 2006, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said:

“ITE itself has grown into an institution that has an international reputation for excellence in technical training. As a World Bank report put it, “ITE has achieved significant breakthrough by establishing itself as a post-secondary institution. It has effectively rebuilt and transformed its former ‘vocational’ institutes into top-line educational colleges. ITE has given skilled occupations a new social and economic importance, creating viable careers for its graduates.”

If that praise was not enough, the ITE also won the Harvard Award from Harvard University in 2007 which “recognises the world’s most transformative government programme with profound impact on citizens’ lives.” (Asia One)

Education minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam added his praise by describing the ITE as a “jewel in Singapore’s education system”.

Asia One also reported:

“The chairman of ITE’s board of governors, Mr Bob Tan, said a unique feature was its nurturing quality. ‘When students come to the ITE, they have a self-image of people who cannot make it. It’s a matter of raising their confidence.”

It’s The End – if educators and ministers put students down

Instead of taking a firm stand in support of the students, Minister of State for Education Lui Tuck Yew steps in and defended the principal. According to the Straits Times:

“Speaking to reporters after a teachers’ investiture at the National Institute of Education, Rear-Admiral (NS) Lui said it was important to separate the ‘tone’ from the ‘substance’ of the message.”

The minister was also quoted as saying:

‘We can calibrate the tone, we can soften it, improve on the presentation, but there is a lot of work to be done between Secondary 4 and Secondary 5.’

‘Principals need to do their job to convey this message to the students and teachers to do their part to challenge them, set high goals and to help them achieve these goals.’

I am amazed that the minister would put his weight behind the principal’s words and actions – “conveying this message”, as he put it. Flashing the students’ results with an overhead projector in class? Stressing that she wanted 100 per cent passes? Telling the students to apply to the ITE because “they were unlikely to do well in the O levels this year”?

And doing all these on the very first day of school?

Conveying the message indeed.

The minister then goes on:

“’We will be hit by storms, there will be waves, we will be lashed by the winds… but we can be responsible for how we respond to it.”

The minister seems to have forgotten that it is not only how each person responds to challenges that is important but also the way leaders encourage and inspire others in times of challenges that are just as important, if not more so.

You do not try and get people to be ‘responsible’ by putting them down – especially when the people are young, impressionable students. And certainly, you do not do this in front of an entire class by flashing their results using an overhead projector!

Irony – PM Vs Principal

In his speech at the College East campus, PM Lee described an example of an ITE student, Sairin Sani, who did well:

“Last year, I visited ITE College Central (MacPherson) and met one ITE graduate, Sairin Sani. He came from the Normal stream and had little interest in his studies while he was in school. But his life turned around when he enrolled in ITE.

He took to ITE’s hands-on training like a duck to water, and regained his confidence and zest for learning. From ITE, Sairin went on to polytechnic and then to NTU, where he graduated with first-class honours in Mechanical and Production Engineering. He is now pursuing his dream career in aerospace engineering.”

PM Lee also described the achievements of another ITE alumni, Johnny Tng. PM Lee would make a better school principal, it seems. He related real life examples of ITE students who did well in what obviously was an attempt to encourage and inspire present and future ITE students.

This is what the school principal should have done, instead of her demoralizing and disheartening rhetoric of doom and gloom.

The bigger picture

The importance of ITE graduates cannot be discounted, especially in our small population of Singaporeans. As the Minister for Community, Youth and Sports, Vivian Balakrishnan, said:

Together as a cohort, ITE students will form up to 25% of our future workforce. You have a significant role to play in our economy and to the building of our nation.” (MCYS)

25% of our workforce will be made up of ITE graduates. Now, that is something to think about – especially for teachers, instructors and yes, principals. Yet, that should not be the reason why we should refrain from demoralising our students. The only reason why we must be patient in nurturing and inspiring our young, perhaps, should be because it is simply a joy to mould young minds, see them succeed and make something of themselves in life.

Now, that calls for a breed of special people dedicated and dedicating their lives to the task – teachers, principals, parents and friends.

My last words will be for ITE students themselves. And here I would like to quote PM Lee and blogger I Am Not A Geek:

PM Lee:

The Singapore education system will provide many avenues to suit different needs, with many routes up and many ways to succeed.”

Blogger I Am Not A Geek:

I wish those Sec 5 girls all the best. Do not give up, the ‘O’ level is actually easier than you think, trust me! Just work hard, and never listen to people who tell you that you are a gone case.”

Principals who put down students have no place in educating our young – no matter how you “separate the tone from the substance”.


Read also: Sharing with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong from the ITE website.



25 Responses to “Principals who put down students have no place in educating our young”

  1. Robert HO said

    RH: Don’t they teach Educational Psychology or even simple Psychology in Teacher Training Institute? Or did these teachers and principals flunked the subject and should go directly to [teach in?] ITE instead? Did not the Minister for Education know of, or ask educators’ advice on the issue, and at least considered the Rosenthal and Jacobson’s (1968) research on this matter?

    Why are dumb generals and admirals in charge of Education? Who obviously did not bother to read a single book on Education all these years or at least asked for some briefings on the subject? You all get F for this.

    Please apologise to the students, their parents, the people who pay your millions-dollar salaries, and resign.

    For some reading matter on the topic, click :


  2. Hoping said

    It’s called cherry picking. ‘Rationale’ is if there no high probability of success, don’t bother putting in more time, budget dollars and other resources. Same thing happens on a national level. Engineering, then IT, then life sciences so I guess that’s where principals and other civil servants learn it from. Maybe that how Lai Tuck Yew became spare minister for education — had improperly trained sailors die under his watch so let’s move him somewhere else where he just might be successful …

    One example: My kid’s primary school had all along won the gold medal for a particular event in the Youth Festival. Last year, they managed to win only the silver medal. Guess what? This year, that CCA has been designated a non-core CCA. If only parents and their children could similarly choose principals, teachers and coaches.

  3. This is a very peculiar incident indeed. Call me wishy-washy if you wish, but I can’t determine how “wrong” the principal was. Consider my analysis. There are two possibilities: the principal wants a nice record for her school and herself because of it being a KPI to her salary and resume; there is also the possibility of the principal being truly concerned with the students, but chose very wrong words indeed. Both, of course, are wrong, but they are wrong in very different ways. There is also a common wrong in that she implied a low stature for the ITE, as Andrew has pointed out, but I shall ignore this for the moment and consider the two possibilities.

    Now, the first possibility seems to be what most people reasoned to be, including Andrew in this article, for it was written in the newspapers that “she also stressed that she wanted 100 per cent passes in her school.” Now, this is a very tricky sentence. First and foremost, we must note that it comes from the journalist’s reporting, which might not reflect and may comprise a sensationalisation of the actual situation.

    Secondly, it is not clear where the source of this claim is. Is it from parents, who are more prone to overreacting as all parents would? Is it from one student, who may have misinterpreted the principal’s words, for she could’ve very well said something like, “I want all of you to pass your exams” – a well-meaning sentence? Or is it from all the 27 students the principal spoke to?

    As for the second possibility of using wrong words, she might’ve made a poor decision in choosing to say what she said and doing what she did. Yes, it’s wrong, but in my opinion – and I surmise many will agree with me – that this wrongness is not as dire as the first possibility, for after all it emerged from a true concern of the students. In fact, this can also explain the ITE comment. How likely is she to commit such a mistake? I don’t know, but I know it is easy to make a comment (especially to a large crowd) and have it misinterpreted. It happens to me quite often, whereby my audience took a message which I never intend to imply.

    I’m definitely not supporting the principal, but I’m not faulting her either. At least not yet. In my opinion, there is still a lot unknown. All these while, we have not heard the principal defend herself (other than in the initial report), for example. My point here, primarily, is to highlight the possibility (and of significant probability) that the principal is well-meaning but employed flawed words.

  4. me too said

    I have to agree with Pandemonium. I cannot help but feel that ST, our 154 best newspaper in the world has probably took the comments out of context and blew it up, way out of proportion. No one wants to be told they are dropping behind, and if you can ‘get back’ at your principal, in the ST, why not? I do not know the principal personally, but I believe it is a wake up call that needs to be told. If it was to pull up her KPI, then I guess it sucks full time as well, and the MOE needs to relook their banding etc, but I somehow feel the Principal may well have been misquoted to give milage to ST readership.

  5. PM Lee speech said

    While it is heartening to know that PM Lee endorses ITE, let us not forget that there is still a pecking order in singapore and we need to keep ‘It’s the End’ tag to strike some fear in our students. Let us be clear, although we know that PM Lee’s son has a learning disabilty, did our PM turn to ITE for help. Would he allow his son to be within 10 meters of the bunch of ITE students? No, he turned to Singapore American School who did a much better job! And for all the talk about how great our education system is, how great NUS and NTU is, how many of our minister’s sons and daughters are studying in our distinguished local varsities? There is always a pecking order, and ITE is ITE and we all know where it stand in our education system. That is why Lui says the Principal’s message was right. She was right, He was right. If not, PM Lee’s son would have been there.

  6. blackshirt said

    Surely, our esteemed minister would not be that careless to say what he said on record, if he did not get his facts right. He would have asked his ministry’s officials to check with the principal and the students first. He did not repeat the exact words used. He just talked about the tone and the message.

    Damage control went all the way up to him and bypassing the normal channels in the ministry. If the newspaper have quoted wrongly or out of context, we always get quick rebuttals from the ministries for any mis-representations. We have seen this kind of actions often enough. The minister did not correct any mistake of any reported words used by the principal as written in the news reports. If the principal had been seriously misquoted, the ministry will have a press release to correct it.

    Our esteemed government simply do not allow our “best” newspaper to cause any embarrassment to the government under the premiership of Mr Lee, without any green light to proceed. We all know how our ST works (mee siam mai hum?). You simply cannot alter 27 students’ words to suit their tone of the message. If the newspaper wrote differently from the actual message heard, the witnesses at the talk would have cried foul.

    So, in this case, ST does not have enough options but to write closely (or exactly) whatever were said.

  7. quitacet said

    the reason why this principal said what she said and did what she did is because the structure of incentives to principals in our public schools is the way it is. her personal career advancement in the civil service is predicated upon looking good to other bureaucrats who assess her based on those numbers. these other bureaucrats may not know anything about education, but they know whether targets have been met or not. the welfare of the students is a secondary concern at best.

    whereas in a private school, the faculty and staff are accountable to their clients, namely the students and their parents, because if clients are dissatisfied with the level of service they can take their business elsewhere. The owners of the school ie the shareholders will hold the principal responsible if profits suffer because of bad decision making. if this principal had been in a private system, she might have reconsidered her words and done a better job to serve her clients’ interests, because in a private system, her selfish interests are aligned with the students.

    don’t blame the principal for looking out for number one. blame the system, and the bureaucrats it serves, for making it better for principals to focus on the numbers rather than the people.

  8. AY said

    How disappointing when educators and ministers look down on normal stream students. The problem with this Lui guy is simply he is not an educator or a motivator. Neither does he knows about, what it means to be a true minister as he was simply brought into the government with a walk over. His head has become too big for his shoes. I have known many of my friends who are late bloomers and they are presently successful professionals in their own fields.

    My own personal example:
    – Failed ‘O’ levels
    – A teacher in my school encouraged me to take the exam again
    – Failed ‘O’ levels the 2nd time, the same teacher encouraged me again to take the exam as a private candidate
    – Obtained 5 ‘O’ levels on 3rd attempt
    – Went on to attain ‘A’ levels
    – Attained first class honours degree in Australia
    – Obtained a MBA degree from a well-known UK university
    – Present day – a successful professional in my own right

    All because a teacher in my school spent time and encouraged me not to give up. I therefore encourage the 27 students not be disheartened and press on. The world is your oyster and if the Singapore system cannot provide you what you want, work hard and find a way to be educated overseas. Get that degree or masters and prove the high and mighty civil servants WRONG! NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE!!!! I sincerely empathise with you all as I believe some of you will be leaders of the community in the future.


    Your fellow Singaporean now living overseas.

  9. Dr Syed Alwi said

    Dear People,

    Its the education system itself that is rotten. Singapore places too much emphasis on academic test scores and grades – over intangibles like honesty, courage, humility etc. All in the name of a materialistic meritocracy.

    Perhaps entry to JC’s, Poly’s and Universities should be based on 60% academic grades and 40% CCA and CIP performance.

  10. In a meritocracy society, it is inevitable for teachers, principals to demand good grades from the students. Perhaps, they all wish for their students to do well, by using drastic measures. Or maybe, they just want their students to do them proud.

    So when things do not turn out as well as expected, attitude starts changing. People start to use different approaches to educate or urge their students to improve. In the past, students have to tolerate the lecturing they got from their teachers. Sometimes, it does work, as some would adopt the “I’ll prove you wrong” attitude and really perform well in their exams.

    However, I have to admit that times have changed, there is a need to change our method of teaching,adopting a more creative way and prevent hurting our students fragile feelings.

  11. SS Lee said

    If what the 154th published is accurate in the first place, then the principal is totally selfish. And I agree has no place in education – QUIT before you do more damage with your ATTITUDE. Showing off their grades on a projector for all to see? How much of the word ‘RESPECT’ does this principal understand? He/She shoud go back to school to learn this first ! Educators are here to impart knowledge, mould and encourage students and not put them down on 1st day of school for the sake of their own KPI’s!
    The sailor-minister shows obvious lack of cranial thinking with his stupid remarks. He obviously has not place in Education. Perhaps it’s best he went back to fishing off his navy boats and dispense his advice to the sotongs in the sea.
    Poor students. I hope they will take heart that they themselves decide what is best for them and there’s nothing wrong to try if they want to.

  12. Poepsyche said

    Many of you talked about KPI. Interesting.

    I think head of school’s remuneration should not be tied to the students’ result simply they do not teach them directly. The HR should be more creative and structure something more directly related to the head’s job when assessing them. Something like how well they can manage their teachers and boost morale.

    Parents and students should be given a formal platform to choose their perferred teacher when it comes to learning. Then, teachers’ remuneration can be tied to the number of students they can “earn”, because they have proven track record for being a quality teacher.

    My humble two cents worth. 🙂

  13. […] is the Reason of My Heart: Education in Singapore needs to see beyond KPIs – The Online Citizen: Principals who put down students have no place in educating our young – Molly Meek: Mediocrity in Meritocracy: There must be, there cannot be – Looking For LaLaLand..: A […]

  14. Dr Syed Alwi said

    Dear People,

    The problem with Singapore’s education system is that it is too focussed on high-stakes, academic examination results. Singapore’s meritocracy is way too materialistic. Therefore character development has been neglected. Intangibles like honesty, courage, humility etc are not relevant anymore in our education system. What matters are percentage points and KPI’s based on them. Not creativity. Not ingenuity and certainly not the milk of human kindness.

    I suggest a way forward. Perhaps entry to JC’s, Poly’s and Universities should be based on 65% Academic grades and 35% CCA & CIP performance/involvement. So that it goes beyond mere exams.

  15. George said

    Blackshirt – Do you remember the wrong number from the MOE in parliament regarding the number of foreign students in our uni?

  16. shoestring said


    Interesting propositions but there are ways and means to “earn” students without being a competent and good teacher. In fact, there might be even more politics and massaging of figures.

    We have all seen what kind of people material rewards have attracted to our Civil Service. Instead of focusing on the reward system only, the Ministry should review their selection process and criteria to ensure that only those with genuine interest in teaching are admitted into the service. Thereafter, work towards retaining them to reduce the attrition rate. That includes redefining the teachers’ job scope. Throwing more money at them will not solve the problem when you pile more and more irrelevant responsibilities on them.

    That will not only boost our pool of dedicated and competent teachers with the right attitudes and character but also save us thousands of tax dollars because we will not have to recruit and train so many teachers every year to replenish the pool of teachers and only for them to leave after their bond.

    And where might these trained teachers go? To employers in the private sector and other countries who do not have to spend a single cent training them.

  17. yonanz said


    “the Ministry should review their selection process and criteria to ensure that only those with genuine interest in teaching are admitted into the service.”

    how? please enlighten me.

    We all know how to stand on the highground and criticize but we give little to no attention on how to solve the problem. These sort of erudite linguistic vehicles are sure inspiring and even impressive but lack the practicality. Sure, we want a selfless teacher as much as we want a deeply sincere and passionate civil servant. We want an education system that caters to the weak as well. We view the scholarship system with disgust. But until someone can really provide a credible alternative solution, all this shall stay.

  18. shoestring said


    I am already doing you a big favour by helping to narrow down the main problem in my opinion.

    How about going back to the drawing board and start thinking from the perspective of students, parents and teachers? Are you really concerned about the future of the students. What is education to you?

    How about dropping the idea that money can solve all problems? Stop using money to attract talents if you dare. You probably don’t because you are only concerned with making up the numbers, not quality. You are afraid that applications will plummet. But that is because you do not have faith in the goodness of people who may have other priorities besides big bucks. You think others are also interested in money as much as you are. Have you ever thought that good teachers are not showing up precisely because of the system?

    How about letting go of what you think is best for the people and country and start listening to what the people has to say?

    How about go down to the grassroot level instead of sitting in your ivory tower waiting for glossed-up reports from your superintendents and principals. How about going through the tedious process of checking school records and examination papers and scores to see how figures can be massage? You probably won’t because you are afraid the truth will be ugly.

    Still not enough? Alright, here’s more.

    How about re-looking the teachers’ role – are they educators or Jack of all trades? Which will be better for the sake of our students? Is the Ministry trying to get the most tangible outcomes out of the additional dollars they have given out to attract “good teachers”? Is it value for money or money for quality? How do you define “good”? 100% passes? At the expense of humanity, compassion, love and real education? The shallow appeals more doesn’t it?

    You know why you can’t think of any other ways to improve the system apart from being defensive? Because you do not have what it takes to see things from other perspectives. You are probably blinded by the material. You know why you keep asking for solutions? Because your heart is focused on things that matter to you and as far as the education system is concerned, it works perfectly from your perspective, based on your goals.

    Comments edited by moderator.

  19. Robert Tan said

    Personally I think the principal should be sacked.

  20. ganchau said

    Words can heal; words can kill,
    If educated ones like these
    with harsh words can spill,
    They have be instilled
    That EQ is just as important as IQ!

  21. shoestring said

    “That EQ is just as important as IQ!”

    Interesting that you raised the issue of EQ. In fact, it would be good if this sparks a debate because EQ, as important as it is, has often been misused and misinterpreted, to achieve specific ends such as obedience, submission and to silence dissent. I will not be surprised if it happens even in schools, and not only used on students, but amongst teachers, HODs and principals as well, in the classrooms, and appraisals and informal gossips.

    It may be worthwhile to note that not everyone, including in academia, subscribe fully to the notion of EQ:

    Locke, E.A. (2005). Why emotional intelligence is an invalid concept. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26, 425-431. (Taken from

    As far as I can remember, the concept took flight in Singapore after MM Lee touted its virtues. Since then, it has been taken as the gospel truth or holy grail.

    I think it is important to recognize when there is a need to “watch our words” and when to lay the cards exactly as they are on the table. If we are not carefully, we might end up as a largely plastic society that thrives on pleasantries that border hypocrisy for the sake of “success” in life, which in turn, is subjective.

  22. Dr Syed Alwi said

    Dear Shoestring,

    I would like to ask you one question – how do we encourage and foster those entrepreneurial qualities as well as other positive, intangible characteristics – among our students ?

  23. shoestring said

    Dear Dr Syed Alwi,

    I am not well-versed in entrepreneurship and do not know why you asked. Perhaps, you could clarify what you are trying to drive at.

    As for students, I believe they should be allowed to explore their interests freely. But at the same time, freedom to explore also comes with taking responsibility for one’s actions and decisions. Sadly, from my observations (and I am going to be stoned or this), most of our students and parents want the best of both worlds. They want things done their way but do not want to take responsibility for the consequences. Such is the blaming culture so prevalent here.

    Framed in the context of this incident about the principal, firstly, I do not condone or condemn what she has done because I do not know the full picture. Much depends of what actually transpired and the reactions may or may not be proportionate or even justified.

    I believe in encouraging students with kind words and having faith in them. But we also have to recognize that there will be recalcitrants who will need more than the soft approach. That is where I do agree with giving “wake up calls” especially where time is the essence.

    One might argue that the decision rests on the students and what the principal did was uncalled for. But there might also be students who would turn around and blame the principal for not having cautioned them about the consequences.

    As much as we can empathize with the principal, we must also not forget that there might be some who do it for their own interests.

    Finally, I believe that harsh words spoken out of love and sincerity is much better than sugar-coated ones coming from a deceitful heart. EQ is not only about being sensitive to other people’s feelings, but the ability to withstand criticism and to speak with honesty.

    I hope that answers your question.

  24. […] is the Reason of My Heart: Education in Singapore needs to see beyond KPIs C – The Online Citizen: Principals who put down students have no place in educating our young – Molly Meek: Mediocrity in Meritocracy: There must be, there cannot be – Looking For LaLaLand..: A […]

  25. […] is the Reason of My Heart: Education in Singapore needs to see beyond KPIs C – The Online Citizen: Principals who put down students have no place in educating our young – Molly Meek: Mediocrity in Meritocracy: There must be, there cannot be – Looking For LaLaLand..: A […]

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