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The English Language Teacher's Secret
Monday, March 18, 2013 | 11:51 PM | 0 comments

The English Language Teacher's Secret by Catherine Lim

I found this short story both highly amusing yet poignant at the same time; in fact, after I'd finished reading it I felt this profound sadness for the main character Miss Ponniah. It is one thing to have lost someone that you love dearly, but it is quite another to be reminded of that loss on a daily basis.

The story begins with a description of an issue that remains highly relevant to this day: the "increasing tendency among graduate women to stay unmarried". Women are becoming increasingly empowered and are choosing to focus on their careers, which has consequently contributed to Singapore's worryingly low total fertility rate - a problem that is not easily rectified.

The combination of exaggeration with a matter-of-fact tone is employed in order to create humour: the narrator tells us that the issue is of such high importance that no less than the Prime Minister himself is alerting the nation to the "perils of this trend", and that "the minister whose prestige was only slightly less than the Prime Minister's, took upon himself the task of personally interviewing" graduate women in order to get to the root of the problem. The image of an important minister going around asking graduate women for the reason they do not want to marry the educated Singaporean man is one that creates a derisive sort of humour, as he has been reduced to such a task, and one that does not correspond with his high ranking. On the other hand, one could also look at it from another point of view, which is that this problem has become one that is so crucial that even a high-ranking minister must now get directly involved in the effort of fixing it.

There is some critique of the government's methods here in this piece, as the narrator describes them as "not normally given to these methods of getting things done". On such an issue of love and marriage, one cannot simply hope to fix all problems by building "social grooming" into the curriculum of students in Junior Colleges. The writer also shows critique of the government by portraying that to them, love and marriage are only important in the sense that the lack of "brainy children" is hindering the country's future economic development.

This brings me to the issue of women's roles, which is also highlighted in this short story. This trend whereby graduate women are staying unmarried is described as one that is depriving the country of future growth, and one that is caused by the "error of their ways". Furthermore, nearing the end of the second paragraph, female graduates are described as a "crop" that was "left largely unsought". What all these pieces of evidence point to is an attitude towards women that sees them as only being good for producing children. The use of the word "crop", especially, paints a picture of women as reduced to plants good only for yielding babies, and crops controlled by farmers who, in a patriarchal society, are the males.

Another theme crucial to this story is that of filial piety. In Asian societies like Singapore, this is a value highly regarded and esteemed, and in this piece Miss Ponniah, the protagonist, is described as a daughter who stays loyal to her father as he lives out his last days.  This fulfillment of her duty and responsibility to her father, however, is what costs her the love of her life, Dr Chellam. The writer thus brings to light the problems with blindly following orders, even if those orders come from someone respected and loved, such as a parent.

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