Of Rank and Race: A Personal Viewpoint on The Straits Times Schools 100

October 10, 1992

This article was published in The Ridge (10 October 1992).Of Rank and Race

We may agree, as a fact, that we never seem altogether pleased with any answer or, for that matter, with anything. When the ST Schools 100 report came out with a ranking of local secondary schools a month ago, it gave honest reasons centred around the provision of a best guide to view secondary education. However, I was sure I could easily find critics.

“Stupid,” Genevieve Goh, Archi I, answered, swift as the wind, and went on to stress that the performance of schools had, for most part, nothing to do with their reputations in themselves. “Like Mrs Chan, my JC Econs teacher, said before, ‘Good students go to good schools, the schools sure get good results.'”

Adding on, Pang Tit Keong of Sce II replied, “Parents think this is a good gauge of where to send their children to get good grades. This may be a good gauge of how well last year’s students performed, but not how well your children will perform.”

The conversation was plain enough for me to raise a plain question: do we not think our time-tested government would have known this? Why then does it still see wisdom in carrying on with the release of an academic league table?

When I was younger, my mother told me a story about an animal race that was supposed to have happened a long time ago. The first twelve animals – the Rat, the Ox, the Tiger, the Rabbit, the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Sheep, the Monkey, the Rooster, the Dog, and the Pig – were honoured by the gods with each a zodiac position in the Chinese lunar calendar. This was how the story ended, or at least how my mother chose to end it.

Recollecting it now, I have a hunch to believe my mother might have deliberately left out many essential details unwise for little children to hear, details concerning especially the aftermath of the Race.

It is certain that the Race could not have impressed many animals, for any race, even one the length of a stone’s throw, is a biased competition. The Duck always prided itself for being able to run, fly, and swim. Imagine its swell of discontent when it was its natural antagonist the Rooster, who could hardly fly and walked funnily with a jerking head, that won a place of honour. The Crocodile was unhappy too, even though it was the King of Rivers, being able to sail faster than ships against currents of swirling waters. But the Race was for the swift on land, and, on land, the Crocodile waddled on its belly.

No animal could be more displeased than the Lion, the King of the Beasts itself, who came in twentieth position. Was there a creature stronger or more majestic and fearsome than the Lion? Yet, it found no place in the astrological Order to be revered by men afterward. The Sheep is celebrated for a full Year, but the name Lion is only a byword.

The measure was unfair, for the Race was clearly for the swift. However, that could not be altogether right too, for the Cheetah was not bestowed accordingly with prestige although every creature knew it was the fastest animal around. Instead, the Rat who travelled on the back of the old trudging Ox came in first, and the lazy Pig who started early made it as the last of the Zodians. It thus seemed that the gods were not at all concerned whether one honestly had the gift of speed; the Prize was not for any creature worthy to compete but for any creature who made it, regardless of method.

One can be right to believe the gods were really interested only in filling the positions of an Order they desired to set in motion, an Order they were obviously more interested in. A creature could stand up and tell them what the gods might have overlooked, but it could never do this for long for fear of someone tearing it off its feet while it was looking up. For squabbles and competitions had already begun, which, I suspect, developed into the ecological food-chain. No Cats, for example, could ever imagine a rule of Rats. And everyone knew now they were not equal. The Worm, who had always thought of itself equal with the Snake, came in one of the last and was too ashamed to  think of any good of itself, damning itself and all generations of offspring forever to the Underground which it thought befitted its rank.

Creatures like the Worm felt too base to ever intend to question the gods. Others knew they must gain respect to be heard and occupied themselves in training up for such another Race to make it into the ranks of honour. However, those who made it to these ranks, namely the twelve, knew they deserved the exaltation and would never dream of questioning the gods. In the whole motion of things, the gods still got what they intended.

And what happened from then on, I know too little to comment.

I cannot think of a simpler way of viewing the issue at hand. The critical individual must not learn to only look at things objectively. The ranking of schools may well not be what is originally desired; the consequences of the ranking that we honestly think have been overlooked may be what is. The aftermath could really be the first intent, and what the everyman think as an intention may only be a by-play.

Gwee Li Sui
Arts II

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