updated 12 Mar 2011, 11:59
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Sat, Feb 05, 2011
China Daily/ANN
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Mum's the word for pretentious moms
by Leong Ching

Reading Amy Chua is like reading a book of your own dirty little secrets. The first gust is that of relief: "Yes, someone else is cracking the whip as hard as I am!" The second is the breath of fear: "Oh no! She is doing more than me!"

Singapore is a country of about 6 million people. We are used to being told that our neighbors in Southeast Asia are catching up with us, that our destiny is uncertain, given our small size and lack of resources.

Among the most nervous of people here are Singapore moms. We play a never-ending game of chicken - racing with millions of other parents to the edge of a cliff. What is at stake is nothing less than the future of our children.

Singapore faces three main pressures that are unique. First, since ours is a bilingual education system, we have to make sure that we are at least competent in two languages - English and the mother tongue. For parents of Chinese origin, this means ensuring that, even though we speak English with our children at home, we find some way to grill them in Chinese, especially given the economic rise of China.

Many parents send their children to two kindergartens, an English one in the morning and a Chinese one in the afternoon. We also get China-born nannies and teachers to come to our homes three to four times a week, and send our children for immersion lessons in China.

Second, Singapore is a completely porous economy, which means we open our doors to the brightest and best children from across Asia.

As a result, many of the top scorers in the national exams (held when children are 12 and 16) come from other countries - mainly China and India. So, Singapore moms get to teach their children about global competition from the tender age of 7, when children enter the formal school system.

The third pressure on moms here is the most insidious - it is the pressure never to show that we are under pressure. Singapore moms are like Amy Chua, but we would deny it to the last man if we were asked.

Our answer would be: We do not put any pressure on our children. We merely help them, because they do not know how to help themselves.

The government in Singapore spends $8 billion (US$6.25 billion) a year on education. Singapore parents spend $800 million a year, or 10 percent of the government's spending, on private lessons. Periodically, people have appealed to the education minister to ban tuition. But the minister has quite wisely pointed out that such a ban would be quite impossible to enforce.

The government can close down all the private tuition centers, but even then some mothers would be sending their children for private tuition secretly. Every mother wants her child to have a head start. Yet none would admit it. After Amy Chua's controversial column appeared in a local newspaper, mothers here were quick to denounce her.

"I would never send my children to private tuition classes like her - my daughter already gets straight A on her own!" says one newspaper journalist.

Another Singaporean mom, now in the United States, makes her son take piano lessons, swimming classes and drama rehearsals, insisting that the 9-year-old "enjoys" them.

Another mother has her 11-year-old playing the piano, singing in the chorus, swimming, playing tennis and entering robotics competitions and scoring in the 99 percentile in national math test.

"In seven years, Harvard!" she says. But she refuses to accept that she is rigid. Her child's feelings are important.

It would be tempting to take what they say at face value, because we don't like to be pushy, domineering and destructive mothers. We do not want our friends to think badly of us. Perhaps more importantly, we don't want our friends to do what we are doing, because that would neutralize whatever head start we manage to give our children.

We like to think that we have the best of East and West, we like to think that even though Singaporean children have some of the best global scores in science and math tests, we have somehow managed to combine this with liberal values of self-determination, and a less than draconian style of parenting.

Amy Chua did all of us a favor by blinking first - she told the truth, and holds up a mirror to show us what we are truly doing to our children, in the private hothouses of our homes.

It may be wishful thinking to hope that her extremist views will trigger off a gentler, more compassionate parenting style across Asia, but for a start, she has at least, taken away the hypocrisy of pretense.

Accepting this reality is the first step toward change.

The author is a research fellow in public policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of the National University of Singapore.

More stories:

Dear Amy, your kids would eat mine
Tiger Mom hears roar of opposition
'Tiger' parenting not for Singaporeans


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