Streams apart: Why has the N-word become a dirty word?

You’ve likely seen the video. A clip of a 13-year-old student asking his teacher to apologise for shouting at him in class was uploaded by a fellow student onto YouTube, then went viral.

The news shocked me. But not as much as this statement, casually inserted into a Singaporean newspaper report on the incident: “It is understood that the students are in the Normal stream.”

I don’t know why the point had to be reported or highlighted. Would the reporters have made mention of the fact had the antagonists been in a different stream? What is the statement behind that statement?

Consider why students are in their respective streams in the first place. Before I sat for my Primary School Leaving Examinations almost a decade ago, I recall my family and relatives telling me to do well so that I would make it to the Express stream. At my age I could barely understand the difference between both streams, apart from the additional year I would have to spend in Secondary School if I was in the Normal stream.

But thinking back now, I realise that despite not knowing much about the streaming system, I was already scared of being placed in the Normal stream. People I looked up to made it seem like it was an undesirable place for the less intelligent, the hooligans, the slow learners — the sort of reputation I would attract if I couldn’t make it to a “better” stream.

I remember looking at my PSLE results slip and my aggregate score of 198. I cried then because I thought it was proof that I was stupid, and that all my friends were smarter than me. Their proud parents had the Express titles to prove it.

Only after five unforgettable years in Normal classes did I realise the reason why we were afraid to be in the stream. It was not about our actual intellect, but rather how (un)intelligent we were perceived to be. It was about the perception, reinforced by sneering students, kiasu parents, and now even some parts of the media machine, that to my mind hinders the whole purpose and effectiveness of the streaming system.

When I was in the Normal stream, I was allowed to take Express-level English, meaning I had to join Express students for my English classes in Sec 4.

Immediately upon stepping in the classroom, I could sense hostility. We were assigned seats at the back of the classroom, a group unto ourselves. Trying to be friendly with the Express students and speaking up during lessons proved difficult — daggers were shot our way, sniggers were heard every time we tried — and we soon gave up, keeping to ourselves.

At Sec 5, we were often referred to as the “big siblings” of the school. I’m sad to say that after half a decade of putting up with discrimination based on our stream, my friends and I enjoyed terrorising our Express juniors, forcing them to allow us to jump queue ahead of them or give their seats up to us in the canteen.

We made them fear us as much as they looked down on us — showing how the preconceived notions of how different people in the streams were had sadly become a self-perpetuating truth.

We need to stop those stereotypes from being aired, at a personal level — parents, what do you tell your children about the importance of not being “condemned” to the Normal stream? — and at a societal level.

The media has a large part to play in this. As an intern reporter now, I am aware of the need to engage readers in the most appealing way possible. But this can never be at the expense of the self-esteem of children struggling to find their place and significance in society.

Deliberately singling out irrelevant bits of background information — in this case, the student’s stream — and implicitly associating it with a student’s negative behaviour sets the education system back decades, and unfairly taints all the innocents in that stream for no fault of their own.

Quit the stereotyping. Stop using the N-word as a dirty word, an unspoken but not-so-subtle way to explain certain behaviour.

Students in the history of the Normal stream do not have flawless records, but such behaviour can be found in the students of any stream; behaviour and attitudes are innate in children, not in their streams.


The video can be viewed here:

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