Production Talk - 'The Tuition Nation' by Say Xiangyu, Alexa Ng Wen Han, Bernadette Choo, Jessica Wa'u

Touted as having one of the best education systems in Asia, it seems almost ironic that Singapore has a booming tuition economy as well. The Tuition Nation examines the interesting phenomenon of tuition in Singapore in a tongue and cheek manner. Does the looming presence of tuition signify a flaw in our holistic education system, or has it become a social norm that everyone follows blindly? Or perhaps both? Most importantly, The Tuition Nation examines the myth that shrouds Singaporean society today – the myth that tuition is necessary for survival. The film brings together the voices of university students, tuition-packed children, their parents, the experts and the rare family that does not have tuition. As Singaporeans get caught in the academic race to become the best, the film attempts to reflect upon and question the rationality of this practice that seems to be the norm in modern Singapore society.

We speak with Xiangyu and Jessica about the making of this documentary, which was screened at Filament 2011, a screening of final year project dramas & documentaries produced by students of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

How did the idea to explore the issue of Singapore’s tuition economy come about? Were you part of this system too?

Xiangyu (XY): I was part of the system in both the demand and supply. I received tuition for awhile in my primary school days and gave tuition to earn some extra cash during university (before I made the docu). As a tuition teacher, I saw how my tutees were so stressed up over the tonnes of work to do. They stay up till 2am to do practice papers, wake up at 6.30am for school and once they end, they have supplementary classes and then tuition with me. And they are just P6! It wasn't like that for me in the past and all these just seems rather ludicrous.

Jessica (J): For me it was precisely because I was out of the tuition system that made me want to bring out the issue of tuition in Singapore. In secondary school there was a tinge of envy because I felt my classmates were getting extra help in their studies which made them do better for exams and were thus 'smarter'. It didn't help that sometimes those who had tuition were noisy and distracting in class because they had already learnt whatever was being taught, prior to the lesson. Frankly it seemed unfair. Then as I grew up, I realised that it wasn't even something I needed in the first place, but I watched younger people sign up for more and more tuition thinking that it was essential part of their lives. So since this was something I felt so strongly about already, it hit me while I was lying in bed trying to rack my brains for a final year project documentary idea that the tuition 'problem' in Singapore might fit the bill.

How easy was it to get people to talk in front of the camera? What were the smoothest and most challenging aspects of making this documentary?

J: I felt we had a problem interviewing kids because their answers were mostly monosyllabic and we weren't experienced enough to know how to get in-depth answers or feelings from them. Frankly i don't recall anything 'smooth' aspects in this documentary. We struggled with every single thing; finding people, directing them, equipment problems, lighting problems, sifting through information, editing woes and so on. (even burning the final dvd had problems - heh thanks XY) But I would say the most challenging part was choosing and structuring the information. We had plenty of rough cuts, plenty of re-cuts and often we didn't know our beginning or even how we were going to end. We thought we knew what we wanted to say but it wasn't coming out or at least we didn't know how to voice it out through this documentary.

XY: We knew of many "extreme" cases ( lots of tuition + super stressed kids ) but we weren't able to interview them because.... they were too busy going for tuition! Ironic, right? Smoothest - I agree with Jess... there was nothing smooth. We once recorded an entire interview without sound because we didn't connect the boom properly! Challenging - The whole process of making this documentary was extremely intellectual. It's as if we were writing a thesis paper through the film medium. It would have been easy if we could go on camera to make our own statements. But it was tough because we had to put together a fluid argument from the different things our interviewees said. Sometimes due to the way people talk, one quote might not link to the other because of their tone, or energy level. So it's not just about cutting and pasting words because you have to look at things holistically. So you can be assured that every word in our documentary has gone through a very fine filtration process. There is not one word more or one word less.

How effective do you think making a documentary will make people more aware of the larger social issue at hand? To what extent do you think this production has achieved that?

J: If it's only making people aware of the issue then I think it's pretty effective. When friends and family saw the screening it was obvious they could relate to it and were definitely more aware of economic/social factors surrounding tuition - but it didn't mean they discontinued their tuition. I suppose it would just make people think twice before signing up their kid for tuition, but it will take more and a long time before this tuition mindset in Singapore changes.

XY: When you feature real people with real stories, you are personifying the issue and contextualizing it for people. And because these people are just like you and me, hopefully the viewers would sit up and realize that hey, that sounds like me or even better, I don't want to be like that.
Tuition Nation definitely achieved resonance with our local audience and the mere fact that it did just shows how much of an issue this tuition culture is, isn't it? Everyone could identify because it's either they've gone through tuition, or they have given tuition or they know of some cases who are. It's not a new issue. It has been around for years, decades even and it shows no signs of winding down. I believe we have made people aware that this is an issue, but as for what change it brings, it's really up to each individual to act upon it.

How much do you believe in objectivity in documentary filmmaking? Did you try to portray both sides of the story to your viewers in this production?

J: Seriously?

XY: This feels like an examination question for my documentary filmmaking class. C'mon, I just graduated! Don't do this to me... I have a story to share though. There was a parent whom we labelled in our documentary as an anxious parent; it wasn't a label we thought of because she did call herself a "kiasu" parent when we interviewed her. Many people disagreed with the things she said, but I could understand her point of view because during the interview, she explained that she didn't grow up with a lot of privileges, one of them being education and had to work extremely hard to get to where she is today. So she wants her children to receive what she didn't get to enjoy and she wants them to have the best so that life wouldn't be so hard for them. We thought that this part brought a different perspective to her story, because we often fail to see that this "kiasu-ness" can stem out of love too, and we decided to include this in our docu. She was on the verge of tears and all, and you could really feel the tension, but... some people actually sniggered at this part, which made me quite sad because I felt like they failed to see her other side. Were we trying to be objective? Did we do the same thing to other interviewees? Guess we'll just have to Google it.

Are there any other burning social issues which you would like to talk about through the film medium? What’s next after graduation?

J: After graduation: For me the bread and butter issues come immediately into play and working to pay of multiple debts becomes a priority. If something hits me while I'm lying on my bed thinking again, I might summon the artillery and try to speak through the film medium once more. but honestly there's probably a low chance of that happening.

XY: Burning social issues - EVERY social issue is a burning social issue! There are just so many people out there who need a voice and I really believe that film is such a powerful way to get these stories out. But you know, every social issue boils down to issues with individuals. And as much as I can highlight the problems of others, what I really hope to achieve is to show everyone the issue with themselves. Social change is hard. But individual change is much easier. People are just rushing to work, to make money, to go home, to feed their families, not knowing that in this way, they are simply rushing to die. Hopefully I can inspire people to find meaning in life and I sincerely believe that if everyone is intentionally living life to the fullest... we'd have lesser social problems. What's next after graduation - Change the world!
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