Oh, Cheryl!

Our knickers were in a twist over the math problem that was really about our appalling English 

To think a math question, posted by Singaporean Kenneth Kong on Facebook, could cause such a level of social media hysteria. Some might say it was Singapore’s equivalent of what I call Dressgate — the “Is this dress white-gold or blue-black?” debate that divided the planet.

The math problem that called for a correct birthdate trended on Twitter, Buzzfeed, Mashable and Reddit. The Guardian ran a story on it. The New Yorker published a cartoon mocking “manipulative little psychopath Cheryl”. Certain news sites like the BBC offered video explanations of how to arrive at the answer. Now, there’s even a Wikipedia page dedicated to it.

The question on everybody’s lips: So when is Cheryl’s birthday?

While many among us were flummoxed enough to conduct long discussions over the logic behind the question, others were alarmed at a glaringly bigger problem: Not only is the math problem riddled with grammatical errors, its phrasing is so convoluted that it takes minutes of re-reading just to understand the information provided.

To me, that wasn’t a math problem. It was simply a communication problem. To think English is the primary language in this country. We get indignant and take offence when people express surprise at how well we speak English when we are overseas. Why, then, shouldn’t our math questions, logic-based or otherwise, be phrased with care, too? As with everything, clear, basic sentence structure is not too much to ask for, to ensure effective communication.

Literature’s educational role should not be downplayed in favour of Singapore’s focus on Stem (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math). It’s telling that literature is no longer compulsory in schools. More than a tool that opens minds and provokes critical thinking and lively discourse, it is the nurturer of turns of phrases, poetry and prose — and, if you ask me, is as relevant today as when it was first created by literary greats like from Brontë to Orwell, Murakami to Maugham.

More so, in fact, in an age when communication is increasingly carried out through technological devices, encouraging the use of acronyms and other forms of lingo and textese that reduce words to truncated entities which make no sense at all.

While Singapore’s high global ranking in math and science should be lauded, some hard questions need to be asked about her people’s English proficiency. Is adequate reading encouraged in schools? What’s taught during English lessons? Is our education system sounding the death knell of good syntax? Will future generations of Singaporeans struggle to get a simple point across?

Good communication skills are an indispensable asset. Period. To ensure that, a good foundation in English needs to be laid from a young age in school curricula, to be strengthened over time with the right tools. Failing to do so would be a bigger travesty than forgetting Cheryl’s birthday.

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