Singaporean author on a crusade against Asian education system
Like most mums, Monica Lim wears many hats but it's the writer's rebellious take on schooling that is her crowning glory, writes Clara Chow
Mention to Monica Lim that her debut novel, The Good, the Bad and the PSLE, seems to be perpetually out at Singapore's public libraries, especially in middle-class neighbourhoods, and she replies, without missing a beat: "Maybe the people who've borrowed the book will return it very quickly."
In a country where parents are often obsessed about academic excellence and acing the seemingly all-important Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), the title is bound to appeal. Hong Kong parents stressed out about their children securing sufficiently good grades to get into elite schools will be able to relate.
The book is subtitled Trials of an Almost Kiasu Mother. Kiasu, a phrase in Hokkien dialect meaning "scared to lose", is associated with an overzealous and competitive attitude in some Singaporeans.
Lim has a warning for these readers. "If anyone reads my book to see if they can get tips about aceing the PSLE, they'll be sorely disappointed," she says.
The novel is a light-hearted romp through three years in the life of a mother, Ling, and her two children, both at primary school. While daughter April is a self-starter who does well studying for her PSLE, the younger Noah blunders his way through class, coming up with some hilarious bon mots in the process. In one instance, he answers "what's aftermath?" with "PE".
April and Noah are loosely based on Lim's children, Lesley-Anne, now 16 and in her second-last year of high school, and Andre, in his second year of secondary school. "The majority of Noah's exploits are true, based on my son's. If you read it, some of it cannot be made up," says Lim, 44, who will speak at the Hong Kong International Young Readers Festival this week.
She and Lesley-Anne have penned a series of children's books about child superhero Danger Dan. Danger Dan Confronts the Merlion Mastermind was published in January, with a sequel, Danger Dan Tackles the Majulah Mayhem, out last month.
The pair writes in tandem. "We open up the same Google document and work on it together in real-time," says Lim. "When we first started, we had a lot of teething problems. She would not like what I was writing and would delete it. I could see the lines I'd written disappearing from my screen, and I'd shriek: 'Stop deleting my stuff.' And if I didn't like something she wrote, I'd delete it."
After two books, the pair found a working style that worked. Lesley-Anne is better at writing action sequences and Lim is better at dialogue, so they split the workload accordingly.
"It helped to bring us closer," says Lim. "If you have a parent-child project, there's always a tendency for the parent to commandeer the project, so we had to make sure that we respect each other. She's the child and she'll have the better idea of what kind of jokes children will like."
They had to complete all five books in the Danger Dan series commissioned by Epigram, the publisher of Lim's novel. This meant intense, morning-to-night sessions during long weekends and school holidays, particularly for Lesley-Anne, who was then part of a programme for gifted students. "While her friends were out playing, we were staying at home writing," Lim says.
She says her children's love for reading and writing was established early. "My office is lined with books. If they ever want to read something, chances are, I'll let them have it, as long as the story is not questionable. It's not like you must only read classics."
Lim runs her own copywriting company, Hedgehog Communications, and has a blog called "Of Kids and Education", where she focuses on her children and Singapore's education system. As humorous as some of her posts were, it was a letter she wrote to Singapore's education minister Heng Swee Keat in 2011 that drew the biggest reaction.
The letter expressed her concerns about the country's education system, and how it had become a business, "where everything was results focused and there was no emphasis on the process".
She posted the letter on her blog and it went viral on Facebook, eventually bringing Lim invitations to feedback sessions with education officials. "At the end of the day, for all that talk about meritocracy, we are on such an unlevel playing field," Lim says.
"I'm at home and can explain stuff to my son if he doesn't understand. But what about kids who don't have that? It's not really fair.
"My take is always that the education system doesn't exist alone. It's this entire system which comprises kids, parents, educators, and every part affects and links with the others. If you talk to other parents and they're sending their kids to every kind of enrichment programmes, you just get kancheong (Cantonese for nervous). If you see the report card and he's last in class, you're bound to freak out.
"It's an Asian mentality. You look at the trends. Asian countries are where the kids are stressed the most. This goes way back, it's a heritage or cultural thing, where we've always upheld a scholarly mentality as superior. If you're good in school, that's better than anything else, whereas, if you're in a Western country, it might be sports. So, if you've upheld this since the time of the imperial exams, it becomes very important."
Asian education systems based on these ideas may lead to undue competitiveness and burnout for students, but simply changing the structures won't solve the problem, she says.
"You need a whole cultural mindset shift. Parents have lost perspective. It would help if parents realised that this whole education journey is a marathon, not a sprint. Now, people look at it as laps. Every lap, you have to be first. And if you are not, you lose. But they don't see that the kids peter out."
The loss of perspective means we lose the ability to create security for children, she says. "I'm talking about a state of mind where they can grow mentally and emotionally without fear that they're not good enough."
Lim's parents told her she had to do well at school. They were thrilled when she topped the class in Primary 1, but expected her to be first every year, she says. When she slid to second the next year, she was scolded.
"That was the turning point for me. I thought, the person who got first is really smart, so what's the point of trying? I lost the self-belief of being good and, from Primary 3, I just slid."
At university, she studied English and sociology, which helped expand her thinking. She graduated top of her honours class. "If you do something you're passionate in, you can shine," Lim says, and it's something she often tells her children.
She went on to a career in public relations before starting her own outfit in 2002. The confidence to go one's own way is a trait she tries to instil in her children.
When her daughter failed maths a few years ago in secondary school, Lim said: "So you flunked? That's good. Work harder." With the help of a tutor, Lesley-Anne worked her way up to a distinction within a year.
But what was equally gratifying was she ranked top in English literature in Secondary 4.
"At some point, you've got to know better than the school. They are trying to churn the kids into straight-A students for the glory of the school. It has nothing to do with your child. Why go with what everybody tells you? Go with what you're good at. But, as parents, you have to back your kids up."
HK International Young Readers Festival, Mar 10-21, tel: 2977 9770, or visit youngereadersfestival.org.hk