Monday, October 06, 2008

Science Stream versus Arts Stream

A friend of mine, Tzu Anne, pointed me to this post that was originally from a Singapore newspaper, the Electric New Paper, and reproduced in Lim Kit Siang's blog. The story is about a certain Lim Wah Guan. His story is one that is not that common in Singapore. He did pretty well in his primary school exam (PSLE) and for his O levels but did horrendously for his A levels which caused him to be rejected by NUS four times. He finally applied and got into UNSW in Australia for a degree in Chinese and Theatre Studies which he excelled in. He later did a Masters in Oxford and is currently pursuing a PhD in Princeton.

His story is not a typical Singapore story in that, as far as I know, very few students who score a C, E and O for his or her A levels and B, D and D in a repeat exam actually end up doing a PhD in Princeton. It does highlight the fact that there needs to be some flexibility in an education system but having some flexibility is usually not costless. (For those who are familiar with stats, think of having flexibility of making room for a late bloomer like Lim Wah Gaun as increasing your chances of making a Type I error because you want to decrease the chances of making a Type II error)

But more importantly, it does call out to me the question of whether someone should choose a certain stream or subjects to study just because it is easier to 'score' in those subjects. In the Malaysian context, this usually manifest itself in the good students going predominantly to the Science stream and the poor students going predominantly to the Arts stream.

Many students in Malaysia who are not interested in the subjects that are taught in the Science stream after Form 3 may be compelled either by peer pressure or by their parents to choose that default option even though they might be interested in pursuing more subjects in the Arts stream.

Personally, I think that this is a very sad predicament to be in. I left Malaysia after Form 3 but did spend a week or so in Form 4 in Malaysia before leaving for Singapore so that I could spend a few more days with some of my friends. It was more or less taken for granted that if you were a good student, you would automatically enroll yourself in the Science Stream. The students in the Arts stream were somewhat of a laughing stock to us in the Science stream since they were only there because they could not get good enough results to get into the Science Stream. As a result, teachers who teach subjects in the Arts stream were often demoralized because they were teaching poor students who were usually not that motivated. I would be interested in having access to some of the statistics because my guess is that a far larger percentage of students in the Science Stream ended up in universities whether foreign or local compared to those students in the Arts Stream. This becomes somewhat of a vicious cycle since students in the Arts Stream have low expectations of themselves and teachers then have low expectations of them and so on and so forth.

I don't think there is an easy way to rectify this situation but one possible way would be to allow for greater flexibility for students in the Science streams to take courses and subjects in the Arts stream. I'm not sure whether such flexibility currently exists in Malaysian schools (I suspect that there is some flexibility) but it should be extended such that over time, the negative stigma associated with the Arts stream and Arts related subjects can be decreased. It may also have the positive effect of mixing the 'better' students from the Science stream with those in the Arts stream.

I would greatly appreciate it if more recent secondary school graduates can enlighten me on the current situation in Form 4 and Form 5 but I highly suspect that the negative association with the Arts stream is still as pervasive as ever.

From an individual's point of view, I think that someone should take courses and subjects which he or she is interested in and not ones which are perceived to be easier to score. From a larger, societal perspective, having good and not so good students interact more based on subjects which presumably at least some of them are interested in is no bad thing.


Anonymous said...

I left Form 5 about 4 years ago, having studied in one of the Bestari schools on urban KL. I was in the Science Stream as well but am now doing a Humanities degree.

Yes, your suspicion is true, at least in my experience. Those who were better students (academically and also in terms of co-curricular involvement) were usually in Science Stream while only a handful would be in the Arts Stream.

The teachers for the Science Stream classes were more willing to see into the academic success than the Arts Stream teachers, I personally feel. Extra classes, extra homework, tips and good rapport - these were all characteristics of the good Science classes.

And to date, most of the Science Stream graduates have gone on to courses like Chemistry, Engineering, Medicine, Pharmacy so on and so forth, in places like Oxford, MIT, Nottingham, Monash, LSE and such.

So yes, I think it's a vicious cycle that Arts Stream have this notion about them that they do poorly in exams, therefore they are bad students who 'deserve' to be in Arts Stream, and therefore lack the motivation to excel further. And it is reverso for the Science Stream students.

I think it a pity that this cycle happens.

Unknown said...

I graduated from Form 5 last year and currently I am in the 2nd year of the IB.

This schism between the Arts and Science streams definitely still exists. At the root of the issue is, I believe, inflexibility in the Malaysian education system; given the opportunity, I don't doubt that many students in the Science stream would choose to dabble in humanities and social sciences, and likewise for Arts students in the natural sciences.

As it stands, however, these are very much package deals with little wiggle-room. Usually the only avenues to attempt subjects in a different stream are tuition classes and self-study. Certainly, the introduction of greater flexibility in the system for students to pick and choose will not be easy, but it is, I think, an admirable goal to aspire to.

With the lack of apparent political will to do so, however, I don't see this Science-Arts split being bridged anytime soon.

Shawn Tan said...

This vicious cycle has run on for far too long. To change it, requires not only a change in the education system, but also a change in the mindset of the students, parents (and even grand parents). We must not forget how big a role family actually plays in the education of a child. Till today, many students still choose university courses based on their parents 'advice' (which inevitably comes attached with the funds). So, it is not going to be an easy thing to accomplish.

To many parents, it is all fine and well to pursue your dreams, as long as it can put food on the table and the reality of the matter is that the term "impoverished artiste" is not a misnomer. The sciences are a safer bet for landing a paid job as people with analytical skills are needed everywhere. Granted, we need people with creative skills too, but in far fewer numbers.

So, until this situation is reversed, no sane parent is going to invest in something that may land the child in poverty. I think that we can safely say that most of the students who end up studying arts courses overseas, either end up in something like law, economics, accounting or never come home after that. I just don't see a very big demand for people like Lim Wah Guan in Malaysia.

So, the reality of the matter is simply market demand. If and when there is a demand for more people from the Arts, you will have more people choosing to do it. Then, the Arts will probably not get shoved into a corner and the parents will be supportive of their child's interests but honestly, even banks prefer hiring engineers to economists.

I have friends who have an honest love of writing. However, one is a senior consultant, one is a lawyer and one is a teacher now. When you have a family to feed and bills to pay, dreams tend to take a back seat. I honestly hope that they will be able to save up enough to afford their dreams one day.

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

I am a good student but i opt for art stream because i had totally no interest in science. I ended up in stpm and scoring with the only 4.0 in my school at that time. Currently pursuing my degree in UM ( which i don't really proud of) - haha --

cDi said...

Hmm, I'm not sure what is there I could tell you about whether can they choose subjects that they like.

But I know most Science stream students would take one or two extra subjects, mostly either English Literature and Principles of Accounting. The two most "tak malu" subjects taken in my school and guarantees A's alot.

But now the Science and Arts stream seems less stringent compare to your days KM. I graduated from a stream called "Sub-science" which is apparently quite rare and it depends on the schools themselves. Sub-science streams mostly just discard Biology, and take up Principles of Accounting as a main subject.

It mostly appeared that Science stream students can take up more subjects, but sometimes the Arts stream can apply for science subjects if they could find a tutor who is willing to teach them. And as is the case, a lot of them are not willing to do so. It is considered a waste of time and money.

I guess it is just the mentality that as Science students they are more open for more options in terms of career, and Arts students are in general only having limited choices.

But I think the moment they reached university level it is not really the case now is it?

I'm not too sure about what happens after that.

WY said...

Hey....good science stream background always help...though with that said, i have one big fat conclusion for malaysian secondary education system...

it's not perfect (aka f**ked up).

Anonymous said...

Hey! I did my form five in Arts stream and got a meager degree in general science. But that didn't stop me from getting a PhD from one of U k's prestigious universities? What really matters depend on you yourself and dont get involved in the blame game

Anonymous said...

sorry, meager credit in general science...

clk said...

The problem with most people is to stop learning once they finish school and float in the job market once they start work.

Whatever mistakes they made prior to that just drifts along with their daily lives.

Lifelong learning and pursuing your childhood dreams must continue even after one have a family although in our country, most of us are "forced" to save for our childrens' education hence we forsake all else.

I for one am pursuing my dream of becoming a lecturer beyond my M'sian retirement age.

Soo Huey said...

I think Shawn Tan raises a good point about there being greater demand for analytical skills in Malaysia and that choice of study is dependent on market demand. This also lends itself to explaining why the most commonly encountered "sub-science" (see Cindi's post) option is to drop biology for accounts, and the most commonly undertaken "sub-arts" option is to include additional maths.

I believe in the core of the art vs science debate, is a lack of appreciation for the arts in Malaysia.

It is common for there to be less appreciation for arts in impoverished or developing countries, as the state of living necessitates focus on practicalities. However, I believe Malaysia has progressed sufficiently that we may and must now focus on societal/human resource development including creativity, freedom of expression, and ability to analyse and critique.

There are now increasing avenues for different types artistic expression in KL, but almost non-existent elsewhere in the country. Lack of exposure to creative elements means people have not been given the chance to appreciate their value.

There was recently a letter written to the Star newspapers that I read with some abhorrence. Amongst the statements that troubled me was…

"…useful creativity springs from following the rules rather than letting the mind pursue thought without control. Equally, true enjoyment and rewards come from the ability to perform a task successfully for the benefit of oneself and others. The key words presently seem to be fun and enjoyment, but what about work and commitment?"

The author evidently has no idea about art and creativity. It is this same type of mentality that discourages students from pursuing the arts.

As it is, Malaysian students have been drilled to be overly obsessed with academic performance and most do not read for leisure. For those who do have a healthy appetite for reading, the variety of literature in Malaysia is somewhat limited due to lack of demand and consciousness. This means increasingly our graduates know very little more beyond their school textbooks. Unless society is taught to better appreciate creativity, expression and the arts, I cannot foresee a shift which is necessary for us to develop into a truly matured developed society. No amount of money spent on physical infrastructure can buy development of society and human consciousness.

Soo Huey said...

Btw, just to give some background, I studied science in school and university, and am now a scientist by all definitions!

I love science and research, but just so happen to love everything else too! If I had the option in school, I would have dropped chemistry, additional maths and mythology (aka "history") and chose English literature, political science and psychology.

I have no doubt our education system is denying many students the right to their true calling...

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what subjects students in the Arts stream in Malaysia take? I seem to recall that students in my school took subjects like Principles of Accounting, General Science, Geography, and Literature. Not much arts in there if that's the case!

I think that the Arts stream in Malaysia is not really what you think of when you consider Arts. It's more like a stream to prepare students to go out and work after they finish form 5 or take a vocational course.

For me, unless they revamp the education system, it would always be better to take the Science stream instead of the Arts stream when possible. My reasoning is thus:

1. Better teachers in general. Not that it's right but all schools prioritise students in science stream. You get the best teachers and the arts students get the rest.

2. Arts stream is a dumping ground for subjects that are not compulsory and that no one wishes to take but there are teachers to teach. An example is geography. With history being made compulsory, almost no one chooses to take geography as an elective but it's a subject which I feel is equally as important as history.

3. Only Artsy subjects are probably literature and art (literally drawing, sculpting etc.) not social science subjects.

4. If you aren't particularly into literature, which you can also choose as an elective in the Science stream, or hate Science subjects very much, I don't see any reason to go into the Arts stream. At least in the Science stream you get subjects which, in my opinion, are more useful and difficult to learn without guidance. Geography you can learn on your own if you have a keen interest. Principles of Accounting is not too difficult. Many of the things you learn in your Physics, Chemistry, and Biology class can probably be applied or at least seen in your daily life if you choose to do so but are harder to understand on your own.

To conclude I repeat - unless there's a drastic change in the education system where there's flexibility in the choice of subjects AND the offered subjects, I think that the best stream to head into would still be the Science stream.

Anonymous said...

I report from Singapore. They have changed the syllabus. Now, A levels students must take a "contrasting subject". This means, a science student must take 1 arts subject, and the arts student must take 1 science subject.

I think they are trying to create a more rounded individual, instead of a nerd who talks only in his subject of study.

Maybe the bustup in the Singapore newspapers 2 years ago of the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) had an effect on them wanting to create more interaction between arts and science students.

Whatever the reason, it is bound to screw up some people's lives, while improving others.

You see, the arts students will almost all take Maths as the contrasting subject, because they cannot do Bio, Chem, Phy! And science students who are good only in maths, are now forced to lower their grades when studying perceptive arts subjects.

Whatever way, I think it will improve the school interaction and knowledge training of their students (and foreigners like my kids studying here).

Anonymous said...

I think students should think about what they r capable of doing instead of choosing science stream just bcoz the teachers r better. I have friends who used to be in science stream end up with struggle most of the time and bad result. I on the other hand in art stream less struggling and got a good result. At the end of the it is the result that matters. However science subject is good to prepare you to enter a medicine or engineering school else i dont see the point. I m a art stream student and at this point i have 3 diploma included one in IT, marketing and medical. It is always best to choose what u r good at.

Anonymous said...

This is really dominant in my school.
After PMR,students are not allowed to choose which streams they wanted to go for.
We were instead just shoved into Form 4 science stream classes.
The ones that didnt do to well in PMR on the other hand were placed in the Arts stream class which btw, happens to be the one and only Arts stream class in my school.
I however opted for a change.
Everybody said I was making a huge mistake as I am one of the schools top students.
Nevertheless, my moved brought a lot of changes to the school.
I became the first Head Prefect to come from Arts Stream and i'm still doing well comparably to the science stream students.
The thing is, I knew what I wanted to be and I'm striving for it unlike most students who go to Science streams just to be on the safe side.
It's a pity but it's reality.

Soo Huey said...

Hey, InvestmentBankerToBe.. I just want to say kudos for your courage and success in "breaking the mould/stigma"!

I work as a scientist and enjoy science and research. However, in my personal time, I prefer the arts and often regret not having a better grasp of the wide world of literature and artistic expression.

I've seen genuises in art whom by my assessment far surpass some of the "intellectuals" graduating from science.

Hence, I'm an avid supporter of the arts and strongly encourage students to pursue their interests and never allow society to restrain their true leaning/potential. After all, economics makes the world go round and art makes it beautiful. Well done on your personal success and paving the way for others!!

Jwxwei said...

It's still what you think. I'm currently in Form 3.

The other day, my math/sivic asked my class on what stream they wanted to study in next year. Almost everyone answered Science with only a few saying they wanted to go to Arts.

When my teacher asked one girl why, she said science has more choices. Well, my teacher said, that isn't really the point.

And across from me, I heard a boy saying to his friend that it's stupid if one gets 7A's for PMR but opts to go for arts. This is obviously a stupid statement.

Arts students aren't necessarily 'not smart' right? My mum was an arts student and she is one of the smartest women that I know.

At first I wanted to go to Science because I wanted to learn Bio, but after that Sivic lesson, I started thinking and I made up my mind today. I want study Arts. But this doesn't mean that I won't work hard to get good marks for my PMR examination.

To me, Arts seems more practical than Science. Maybe because my ambition isn't something in the medical or engineering field.

Soo Huey said...


I strongly encourage all students who feel their interests lie in the Arts to take it up despite stereotype. However, I'd just like to highlight a few things to ensure you make the right choice. Please note these are my personal views only, so they are up to your discretion.

Choose a stream or subjects you're INTERESTED in, not because you think you don't want to be in the medical or engineering fields, or because you think Arts is more practical.

I think it is ridiculous to expect students to know what they would want to do for a living at a relatively naive age of 15. From this point onwards you'll develop exponentially, and I've never met anyone who eventually turned out to be what they wanted/thought they'd be at F3.

As for practicality, if you abide by your classmate's rationale, it is more practical to take up science, so practicality is subjective.

I strongly believe you'll thrived in whatever stream as long as you enjoy it, so go with whatever INTERESTS to you. It's one of those times when thinking with your heart is the smart and "practical" way to go. Studying something that doesn't appeal won't get you a future career that you'll like.

To me, the major difference between the two streams isn't about practicality or career options. Besides obviously having different study content, the main difference is how it trains your mind. So it's about how you enjoy thinking and what types of "challenges" you prefer - Balancing accounts or balancing chemical equation; Delving into the mind of a poet or into the mysteries of physics; Expressing yourself artistically or demonstrating a mathematical puzzle; Understand the workings of economy or our human body?

Why do you want to learn bio? Because you'd like to understand how biological systems work? If you are one who likes to understand how stuff works, then maybe, just maybe, you've the mind of a scientist. Biology is quite different from Chem or Physics, but both latter are also different from each other! Anyone who tells you bio is all about memory work has no idea. The only way to truly excel in bio is to understand.

Sorry if I've confused. Happy to discuss further.

shafiq hafeez said...

Hi, before I start, I would like to introduce myself in short. My name is Shafiq. I’m currently an art stream student in Malacca High School and I’m not proud of the school as I hate the school since the first time I step my foot on the school. I know I’m not really a good students as I only scored 3 As in my PMR viz BM, BI and KH but, before you critic me, read my whole text first..

All the students from the science stream students ‘ARE NOW THINKING’ they are good enough just because the stupid mentality of ‘Malaysian Education’ that good students deserve to be placed in the science stream. For your information, not all science students scored good results as there are students who didn’t scored any A manage to enter science stream. Now I’m telling why I chose to enter art stream. The first reason is of course because I’ve no interest in science subjects as those subject aren’t what we, art stream students need to continue life. Come on don’t be such losers giving the winning medals to the science students. Of course they can enter the art courses in universities and colleges but you have to remember they are lack of knowledge in subjects like economy and account as most of them studied biology, physics and chemistry which means that we can score better in universities if we make a change. Now I got no 27th in the whole form among 243 students, still not satisfying me. The first student in the art stream managed to get no 5th…. This proving that science stream students aren’t that good as in their fantasy world.. pathetic, in a bad way haha...

I have an older sister who studied in a science IT class. She scored 7 As in her SPM. However she took law after SPM in a university in Shah Alam. She only managed to score 2.5 which is the lowest passing mark in all universities and as a result she can’t continue her study there. Therefore she took a new course, business law in a college in Malacca. Now she has another one year there and I sincerely don’t know what’s going to be to her. I don’t know why they all, science students want to learn art chambers after SPM. Losers…… see, they ridiculed and looked down to the art stream students but at last end up in art chambers after graduated SPM. (*_*)!!!!!!!!

Everyone in this world needs arts chambers subjects such as economy to continue life, without economy, Malaysia can’t send the first astronaut to space. Plus, watch all the top 10’s richest man in the world. None of them are scientist, engineer, doctor etc. Not even in the top 40’s. They’re all businesspeople who use the knowledge of economy to achieve their current positions. They are more powerful than the science workers because they hold the power of status far away better than them.-art stream wins haha-.. RICH PEOPLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Kudos to InvestmentBankerToBe and Shafiq Hafeez...
Well, I agree with shafiq that art sunjects such as economics are important too.. And most of the rich people are graduates with economics degree.. And I do really think that art streams are equally as good as sc stream..
BTW, I am a sc stream students and i'm taking economics and commerce as well.. cz' I really love chemistry, add maths and economics, commerce.. but the ambience and the motivation in the art stream given by teachers and also the students themselves in my school are so low.. so I opt 4 chemistry..


Wong Chun Xing said...

I love natural sciences but unfortunately I ended up in the Arts Stream.
Now I face difficulty because I cannot pursue my dream of becoming a scientist.
I am not qualified to take the science course that I'm interested in university just because I studied Arts Stream so I'm not allowed to take the Science Stream subjects in SPM.
I have finished my SPM and I'm not sure how to plan my future as I don't have other interests and talents.
Choosing Arts Stream was one of my biggest regret in life because I realized that I'm not good in Arts nor Commerce.
Realizing my interest and talents in science after studying in Arts Stream was too late.

shuli said...

i'm form 3 this year studying in a chinese independent school in kk.i'll be taking pmr examinations this end of year, so i'm still struggling to decide which stream to go. i personally like art stream, because i like designing, but my parents want be to get into science stream because of the higher opportunities. being able to go into science stream is a tough job, and i never liked chemistry. so, i would like to ask for some advice, be it someone that's already working, or graduated, a little advice would help me decided.