At seven, I was desperately trying to fit in with other chubby primary one kids, with the one country eraser that I owned alongside stubby red pencils and wooden ruler. I was short for my age and was placed right in front of the classroom beside the teacher's table. It worked out for me - I relished the smug sense of importance that came with handing out assignments. I did my job well and the teachers liked me for it.
There was one other boy who sat by himself up in front across from me – Mah. He had his own special table and even though he was never tasked to distribute anything, Mah was also favoured by all the teachers. They were unusually nice to him all the time. Even on occasions when he didn't complete his homework, Mah never suffered the same humiliating smack across the calfs / knuckles / palms (in rising order of severity) like the rest of us.
Until one day, our form teacher’s patience for Mah’s persistent amnesia ran out.
"Put your hand out,” Ms Tan barked as the whole class watched silently. I flinched despite myself, it was the most severe punishment – no calfs, no knuckles. Ms Tan was going straight for the kill on the first count.
Quivering, Mah stuck his hand out. Three smacks across the palm with the dreaded wooden ruler. Mah bit his lip, bravely holding back the tears until Ms Tan said, "I'm going to call your Mother."
And with that, fairness was restored. Mah was no longer special, he was just like the rest of us, wheelchair and all.
Like Mah, special needs students teach us a lot about ourselves: how we see ability and disability. With children, these lessons stick and will shape the tenor of acceptance for a whole generation.
In all six years of my primary education, there were only two pupils who had special needs, both of whom had physical disabilities. Come 2019, all special needs students (which includes physical and intellectual disabilities) will attend a national primary school. The Ministry of Education (MOE) estimates about 1,770 children per cohort have special education needs. Of which, three out of four have mild special needs and already attend mainstream schools. The remaining one out of four, who have moderate to severe conditions, attend Government-funded special education (SPED) schools. A small proportion however, receive home schooling or attend a private education institution.
With this change in the Compulsory Education act, primary education will be made available to all students, either in mainstream schools or SPED schools. There will also be more teachers and school places, as MOE works to expand the ecosystem. Furthermore, MOE will appoint a special panel to oversee the change to the Act, recognising the diverse and complex needs of each child.
This timely change comes as part of a broader shift towards a more inclusive society. Starting 1 Jan 2017, single mothers will receive the same entitlement of 16 weeks of paid maternity leave like their wedded peers. The child will also receive Government benefits to help pay for childcare and healthcare needs. Statistically, even though the number of children born to single mothers is low, the change sends a strong signal that every child is important.
2016 marked a year of big strides towards inclusivity in Singapore, even as deep divisions have sprung up in the rest of the world. As we step into the new year, may we continually commit to being better neighbours and better people. Happy New Year from all of us at the Overseas Singaporean Unit.