“Conversations About The Gifted Education Program” is an independent documentary made by Koh Choon Hwee that aims to shed light on the program and its related issues. Featuring informal interviews of ex-students, current teachers and parents of student, the documentary covers ground ranging from the academic and pedagogical aspects of the program and the behavioral norms of the GEPers, to the ethnic/socio-economic climate of the program.
The documentary certainly clearly does not shy away from addressing controversial aspects of the program, and neither were the interviewees unwilling to share their experiences about them. Some of the interviews dealt with the lack of ethnic diversity in the program, the social ghettoization of certain segments of the GEP population as well as the sense of entitlement some students pick up.
Given the GEP’s inherent exclusivity, and the Singaporean psyche’s strong aversion to issues related to ‘elitism’, one may easily fall into the trap of assuming that the documentary simply seeks to attack the program for its flaws, especially after only viewing the first few segments of the program. Watching on however, one gets the sense that these critical aspects were raised more out of a honest search for greater insight into the program, which of course, necessitates not avoiding the elephants in the room, rather than a desire to guide the interviews to fit a pre-conceived, critical thesis. When dealing with the negative aspects of the program, for example, most of the interviewees spoke candidly, and with minimal interference from Choon Hwee.
Furthermore, the interviews give a healthy level of coverage to more positive aspects of the GEP program, from its emphasis on helping students learn rather than simply do well in exams, to its being a non-judgmental environment where students of a more idiosyncratic nature are able to develop intellectually and emotionally without needing to face pressure to conform to the more socially mainstream (no pun intended).
The interviewees’ candor also adds an important human touch to the documentary. Many if not all were happy to open up during the interviews, which is perhaps an indication that a tactful and informal interview style was properly deployed in the filming of the documentary. It helps to be able to add a human face and honest conversation to a topic where the perceived Other is more often than not caricatured or essentialised.
The documentary however, is a little structurally loose. I personally would have preferred to have the end sections dealing with the ethnic and social make-up of the GEP placed alongside the opening sections on the behavioral tendencies of the students since they are rather related. But if a chiastic (ABBA) was intended, it would have been a lot more aesthetically tighter if the documentary both started and ended off with a Salima-Benjamin Low pairing, whose configuration so aptly fits the documentary on a couple of levels. Firstly, they are a couple composed of an ex-GEP and a mainstream student. Secondly the fact that both have things in common and also have the GEP ‘thing’ in between them, and exhibit some degree of ambivalence toward the program, leads to an interesting dynamic when they communicate on the issue-a dynamic I felt could be more greatly explored and emphasized.
One issue which I felt was ripe for exploration but barely skimmed over was the pursuit of overseas education by the ex-GEP students. In a segment, a parent of an ex-GEP child revealed that her child’s classmates were mostly studying overseas either on a government or industry scholarship or their parents’ money. Given that studying overseas carries great prestige and is seen as something that the best students undertake- the ‘poorer’ ones study locally, one might have expected that it be explored in tandem with the GEP. Though the documentary was probably filmed during term time, to hold a skype interview or two with ex-GEPers studying overseas is not logistically impossible.
Tangential imperfections aside, this documentary is an honest, searching and insightful account of the program. It is critical without being prejudiced, and laudatory without being fawning or defensive. It also succeeds in adding human face to the image of the GEP, which helps readers understand the issue not just intellectually but empathetically. In the documentary, Choon Hwee pursues a model of inquiry that promotes genuine understanding of and dialogue over ‘sensitive’ issues.
The original documentary can be viewed at this link or below: