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The Straits Times, Singapore, 7 September 1996
Beating, no, caning, yes: In defence of the rod
By Leong Ching Ching
ON AUG 20, an 11-year-old boy at St Stephen's School in Siglap was allegedly punched 15 times by his teacher.
The offence? Going by Nishant Hemanth Kumar's account, it was because the teacher had heard him say that the punches, originally meant for students who did badly in the Chinese examinations, would not hurt.
Three days later, another 11-year-old boy at Sennet Primary school was allegedly hit because he could not complete his composition.
Raihan Sapari, who was hospitalised, said that his teacher had pulled his ear and hair, pinched his arm and hit him on the head with his books.
She then threw his school bag on the floor, stepped on it to stop him from picking it up, and then used it to hit him on his back, he said.
Punching, pulling a child's hair and ears, hitting a child with his school bag -- do you call all these punishment?
Mr Lam Hoo Poon, principal of the latter school, seemed to think so.
He told The Straits Times: "In a moment of anger, the teacher must have lost her control. It is unfortunate that such a thing happened despite constant reminders that corporal punishment should not be executed."
But surely what those teachers did could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be construed as "corporal punishment". A beating is a beating.
Punishment -- whether as deterrence, education or rehabilitation -- is not beating.
It is a system. It must be rational and fair, thought out carefully and administered coolly.
Indeed, if the teachers had done what was alleged, then it was surely not punishment but something closer to child abuse. Such acts are difficult to excuse, but perhaps not as difficult to understand.
A Singapore Teachers' Union report last year reveals that students are getting harder to control. Although the incidence of ill-discipline has not grown over the last 10 years, troublemakers have become more defiant.
They swear at teachers, challenge them to fights and sometimes even assault them. Disruptive students make up three to five per cent of the 500,000 children in primary and secondary schools.
This works out to 15,000 to 25,000 such students.
Last year, I visited a school as part of a report for the year's school ranking exercise.
When I sat in one of the afternoon classes ("in the Normal Stream, perhaps not one of the better classes", the principal confided), I saw that the students were patently uninterested in what the teacher had to say.
He spoke in English, but those at the back of the class talked among themselves in a mixture of Hokkien and Mandarin.
When he asked for answers, no one volunteered. When called upon to reply, a student shrugged his shoulders and replied that he did not know the answer. Nor, he implied with his tone, did he care.
Five days of this, 40 weeks a year -- it would either wear a teacher's patience very thin, or make him wish there were some way to whip the class into shape.
The principal of Pei Chun Primary, Mr Chen Keng Juan, has been a long-time advocate of corporal punishment.
A mild-mannered man who heads the 1,200-strong Singapore Chinese Teachers' Union, he has been fighting an uphill battle to empower all teachers to cane students.
Many schools already have guidelines on caning: public caning to ensure transparency, a panel to decide whether it is truly a disciplinary problem and a discussion with parents before the caning.
Despite these measures, many teachers are still reluctant to use the rod. Mr Chen noted that generally, society did not approve of caning, and teachers did not understand how the cane could help them.
Parents worry that this power would be abused. Surely counselling, pastoral care and detention are sufficient, they argue.
But the plethora of discipline cases prove them wrong. And when all else fails, a cane is precisely the tool to ensure that punishment is systematic and above board.
True, it will hurt and it can be humiliating.
But far better a painful but justified caning than hair pulling and arm punching. Far better a system of corporal punishment than acts of impulse based on the vagaries of human emotions.
Speaking of his teacher, Mr Lam said: "In a moment of anger, the teacher must have lost her control." How many more are there like her in our schools?
The STU report says that 36 per cent of teachers in schools here feel "victimised" although it does not say whether this feeling is due to principals, the authorities, students or their parents.
And 29 per cent of them observe that teachers often shout at the pupils.
These figures are frightening, I wrote in a column last year, because unlike ordinary people who can vent their frustrations on adult colleagues, teachers, who spent the bulk of their time in the classroom, could take it out on children.
After the column appeared, many people called to say that it was unfair and unjustified because they did not believe that teachers could lash out at students in frustration and anger.
A doctor whom I had tried to interview at a medical conference stomped away when he heard my name, saying that my views about teachers were too "incredible".
I had hoped he was right. But the two incidents last week could prove him wrong.
In the end, we must acknowledge the need for some form of "tough" discipline, a strong hand to guide unruly, stubborn children.
The question remains whether we want to back a transparent system such as caning, or allow teacher frustration to build up and erupt.
Better the first, I think. Better to allow a cane to be raised in kindness, than a fist to be used in anger.
The writer is with The Straits Times Political Desk.
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