When was it that you obtained a new perspective on education? Was it a gradual process or a tipping point?
Using economic terminology, it was an exogenous factor. I did not expect to run into this group of friends in Secondary 1 who positively influenced me. They just approached me one day in the canteen and we started talking. I used to hang out with them after school and since they studied, I ended up doing it too. It was through this process that I ended up starting to study.
In order to progress from normal technical stream to normal academic stream, I had to get an A for all my subjects, a feat that had not been done before in Singapore at that point of time. I had a mentor who after knowing that English was my weak subject, bought me a Primary 6 Grammar book to work on. It was a somewhat humiliating experience at that time but looking back, it was quite funny that a 16 year old was using a book meant for 12 year old to improve his grammar.
At the end of the day, I don’t think I am where I am because of my own ability; I had plenty of help along the way, like the teachers who stayed behind to coach me. If all these people (I call them ‘angels’) were not around, I would not be where I am now. Even in NUS, I have met plenty of great professors who passionately tell me about their interests. This is how I discovered my own interest in behavioural economics.
You have spoken about how your own experiences with your teachers made you want to enter the teaching profession, but what made you choose to major in Economics?
When I started out, all I wanted to do was to be a Maths teacher. When I was choosing my subject combination in Junior College (JC) I had a Ministry of Education (MOE) director who was following up on my progress. The subject combination I wanted to do was an arts combination (Geography, History, Math and Economics) but I was told that a Science combination (Physics, Chemistry, Maths, and Economics) would open more opportunities. I did not quite get the significance of one’s subject combination at that point. Given the socialization of my upbringing, I never considered of becoming a doctor or a lawyer. Thus when I made it into JC, I was not as informed about the different majors in university and their relation to my subject combination compared to my peers.
In the end, following the advice I had received, I opted to do a Science combination. I found myself enjoying my General Paper (GP), Project Work (PW) and Economics classes the most as they allowed me to develop my own opinion. While I had no problems with the rest of my subjects, they did not create the same excitement within me. I chose Economics as my major because I feel that it does not necessarily have fixed answers and it trains students to think and view the world using an interesting perspective.
You mentioned all the help that you have received. What is a memorable experience you have about passing along this help and how has it affected you?
What I enjoyed most in university was creating programmes such as TMentors or Stepup. I realized that many of the students in university come from privileged backgrounds. They move from one good educational institution to the next in their progression to university. I do not wish to generalize here but the social exposure that some students have is sometimes limited to the other motivated students they met in their good schools. Programmes such as Stepup and TMentor allow these future policy makers to interact with people outside their usual social circles.
I don’t want to intentionally tell the mentors in these programmes that they will make the difference but when you interact with the children in the programme they will teach you something that no textbook can. These programmes run for a substantial period of time and as you interact more with the mentees you will learn more about them. I cannot say I am very ambitious – My main goal in doing all this is that, when the mentors graduate from university, I hope they realize there is another sector of society to care for and that they can be motivated to create policies that better cater to their needs.
How has your experience in Tembusu contributed to your personal development?
I was part of the reading pod run by Dr Kelvin Pang discussing the book, ‘The Smartest Kids in the World’. Although not stated explicitly in the book, during the discussions, the idea that we should teach what we are passionate about came to me. I wanted to input this into our educational system and this is how I came up with the idea that teachers should be able to teach whatever they are passionate about for a year. I can see this very clearly in NUS and Tembusu College in particular. The lecturers I had are passionate about the subjects they teach and this rubs off on students.
When I took the social innovation module under Dr Kelvin Pang, there was no prescribed textbook for it so Dr Pang crafted out his own syllabus. Drawing from my own teaching experience, I know logistically speaking that not as much effort is needed when you are teaching the same course repeatedly. When I consider the effort these professors put into their curriculum by being constantly on the lookout for new materials to supplement their course, I can see how serious they are about the subject they are teaching.
I know that there was an article written recently about a student’s experience in Professor Tay Yong Chiang’s module, Proof: What’s truth got to do with it. Drawing on these experiences, I would like teachers to be given the liberty to teach something they are passionate about so that students can be motivated to pursue their own passions.
Do you foresee any opportunities to come back in the future and collaborate with Tembusu College?
I definitely think so. For the programmes like TMentors. I would definitely like to come back and help.
Arjun speaks more on TMentors in Teach, learn and inspire.