A Lifelong Game of Numbers

Went out with ex-classmates last Saturday night, and a good chunk of our conversation involved primary school registration for their kids.

As such discussions would go, we soon also started talking about school entry cutoff points, as well as how a near perfect score wasn’t enough for entry into a primary one, higher learning course. For those unfamiliar, a kid is seven years old when entering “P1” in Singapore.

With no kids to go berserk over such things for, I listened in silence as my friends lamented the challenges of registering one’s precious in an admirable school. In silence, I say, for deep down, I was so twisted up and heartbroken. What kind of horrible … Oh, all right, I’m lying. I wasn’t despaired. Actually, I was amused. In a grim way, that is. As it seems, despite much talk about cultivating all-rounded students and appreciating different types of lifestyles, life in Singapore still revolves around numbers. In the case of school registration, isn’t it still entirely a confirmation of numbers? A competition of numbers?

  • How much you scored in the entry exam.
  • How near to the school your home is. Measured in km.
  • How many siblings you have in that school.
  • How many hours and years your parents have contributed to the school. As a volunteer.
  • Whether you are able to stick to the privileged address of proximity after entry into your desired school. So I was told, two years.
  • And for the imaginative, or the unscrupulous, how much money one’s parents are willing to donate to that school for the entry.

Outside of education, life in Singapore could pretty much be considered as a lifelong management of numbers too. Especially for Singaporean guys. Every stage of life involves some figures, some score, some quota or some minimum amount to achieve. It is a constant challenge that dominates the sheer bulk of a guy’s life. A challenge that doesn’t let up even when one is near his grave.

  • As mentioned above, the various numerical measurements involved with primary school registration.
  • Grades, grades, and grades throughout primary school.
  • For those with demanding parents, the number of enrichment courses taken.
  • For those participating in sports for their schools, the competition for positions. I.E. numbers 1, 2 or 3 in inter-school rankings.
  • PSLE scores, before transition to secondary school.
  • Grades, grades, and grades again in secondary school. And CCA points. The latter conceptually designed to provide a more rounded education, supposedly, but quantified by numbers.
  • O-Level, A-Level aggregates. SATs scores. Etc.
  • Napfa test, that fitness assessment in preparation for compulsory military service. I.E. How fast you can run. How many chin-ups you can do. All measured using numbers.
  • National Service. Military conscription. Countdown to end of service from day 1. Count … down … A fresh set of numerical targets to worry about too. Range score. IPPT (fitness test) scores. Etc.
  • Entry into university is primarily based on aggregates. After which it’s a delicate juggling of number of modules taken. Scores scored. And so on.
  • For some guys, university life is also an amassing of number of co-curricular experiences and titles. Hey, I block leader for my hostel, you know … … I TWO time inter-school dragon boating champion … …
  • Entry into the workforce. Starting pay. Length of probation. What is your alma mater’s ranking and what effect that has on your pay. I.E., the impact of a number on a larger number.
  • Goddamn it! Reservist call-up leh! Countdown again! I still got six high-key left!
  • IPPT again! Yearly till you are 40, 45, 50 or whatever. (<– All numbers). Fail to hit the golden targets, Remedial Training! Another painful countdown till you are released from RT.
  • Quotas, quotas, and quotas for those working in sales and marketing positions.
  • KPIs, KPIs, and KPIs for the majority of the rest.
  • Hours, hours, and hours for those earning hourly wages.
  • GDPs, GNPs, percentages and rates, for those in the civil service.
  • Money! The incessant game of juggling numbers to ensure you do not, remotely, toe near zero. Probably the hardest challenge.
  • Savings! What figure i.e. number to commit to each month. What magical amount to hit before you even consider a car, or a house.
  • Kids! What number to have so as to milk the most out of government subsidies. What number not to have so as to avoid bankruptcy.
  • Limits! How many times you can sell your public housing lease before all subsidies are cut-off. How many demerit points before your driving license is suspended. That sort of thing.
  • Not all companies practice this. But for those in companies that do, it’s one endless battle to progress up the grades. Grades usually denoted by some form of numbers. (E1, E2, etc)
  • For those in uniformed positions, it is of course imperative to work towards having more sticks, more bars, more crabs on one’s uniform.
  • Rinse and repeat the whole section on schools, for those with kids.
  • Minimum sum. How much to have in compulsory savings to avoid various, ahem, unpleasant stipulations by the government.
  • Tax calculations. If you need to be careful about this, you know what I’m talking about.
  • Compulsory medical insurances and all related minimum sums, premiums, etc. Nowadays labelled with so many beautiful sounding portmanteaus in Singapore.
  • The age, the number, the golden figure! The year when you can withdraw your compulsory savings. When you can proudly retire from work. Or when you might face questionable dismissal by your employer.
  • The number of years left before your insurance savings plan pays you back.
  • Have I mentioned numbers are the foundation for the intoxicating games of shares and forex trading?
  • Have I also mentioned that as you grow older, more and more numbers become crucial to your survival? Blood pressure. Cholesterol level. Blah, blah.

You make life sounds so sad! Surely Singaporean life is more than just numbers!

Let me put it this way. Numbers are unavoidable in life anywhere. Be it in the form of cutoffs, aggregates, quotas or grades.

To make sense and purpose of life, we need to quantify and qualify things. Quantification is usually preferred because it involves less argument. It’s far easier to compare numbers than to compare subjective standards.

That said, it’s still a tad sad, isn’t it? To have one’s life dominated by numerical targets till one’s days are limited. In some cases, a greater tragedy then follows with parents who succeeded or failed in this competition inflicting a harsher version of the game on their kids. These are the so-called monster parents. They become the worst heralds of the numeric game. They become its deadliest champions.

Is there any way out of this? Are Singaporeans thus doomed to suffer such ghastly domination for eternity?  I … have no clue. I couldn’t possibly, because I’m already so deep into this culture. As I write this post, I’m constantly looking at a number. The number of words I’ve written. SEO aside, somehow that number feels very important to me.

On the other hand, I do know of one form of temporary respite. This involves the usually subjective difference between numerical rankings. So you didn’t get into the top school. The one ranked numero one. What’s so disastrous with the second best? Or even the ninth best? Is the difference truly that frightening? Or is it merely paranoia induced by yourself?

Most of the time, we exaggerate our fears, yes?

As for the numbers Singaporeans cannot walk away from, what else is there to do but weather on? Weather on, with reasonable efforts at improvements whenever opportunities arise. Numbers cannot be rid of entirely, but we can always make them more bearable. Naturally, for actual improvements to happen, a collective effort is necessary. It is then the measurement of a society’s worth whether such a collective effort could be undertaken properly . If reviewed using numbers, this measurement becomes the one that matters most of all. It would be the lone one worth striving for.


Scribbling Geek

* The geek is a lover of everything birthed by imagination. He constantly dreams about faraway lands and distant realms, and through writing, envisions himself as a product of these places.

** The writer blogs at The Scribbling Geek.


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6 Responses to “A Lifelong Game of Numbers”

  • 4reigners extension of PAP:

    “20% of sec sch places for no affiliation students”.

    What does this means? Come on, all, think out of the PAP boxe$!

    Read and analyse the fake newspaper reports very clearly, read between those fake lines.

    Obviously PAP always conceal true reasons. What appears in the reports of the ranked 150th newspaper, tells one nothing except lies. There was no no solid reasons given why must no affiliation students given 20% after ’50′ long long years.

    The ONLY REASON is simple – new citizens DO NOT HAVE ANY AFFILIATION. Where can they FIND ANY AFFILIATION besides PAP’s official support and leg up help? By the next 10 years or so, these new citizens still will not gain sec sch entry by affiliation !!! Perhaps next generation onwards.

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  • Cpf no enough:

    Too deep & intense thoughts. Dont let it get you or you’ll go cuckoo.
    Just take it in stride. Everyone has to, to survive.
    Numbers & rules are part of the game of life…
    But yes sg has gone overboard in somethings.
    The lucky ones can always choose to migrate…the rest have to live with it n kpkb all our lives. Its a jungle out there n only the toughest will survive…in sickapoor.

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  • Amos humiliated L*L and PAP:

    Amos did not play PAP’s “numbers game”. He did his “thing” i.e., what he knows he is good at. Is he a failure? Certainly not. He beat L*L and PAP “to the pulp” in US Court totally destroying their credibiliy and legitimacy. He accomplished something equal to what Joseph Schooling accomplished in the last Olympics. He “won” a “gold medal” – asylum plus the personal satisfaction of beating PA at its own game big-time in addition to helping Singaporeans get rid of the self-serving, greedy PAP to make Singapore a REAL democracy.

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  • LIONS:

    First,who you n your frens voted last GE?
    Secondly,will you CONtinue to be conned by the “number$ game”?

    You GET WHAT you VOTE,huh?

    Lee Ah Long only good at maths,he is a MATHS TRIPO$ From Cambridge.
    All he jnows is COUNTING N COUNTING $$$.

    So,next timr,VOTE FOR THOSE WITH COMPASSION N NOT WHO $core DI$tinctuons???

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  • PAP has the mandate:

    Kiasi, kiasu, kiabo is truly alive in Stinkapore with Stinkies….hhahahahahah

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  • Bapak:

    Most of the good school places are long pre-booked for their elites’ children. Perfect score from normal people wouldn’t work. You must understand how a corrupted system work.

    Therefore, you either join them to pretend to serve them until your first child gets into the choiced school then resign. Or you VTO!

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