Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ethnicity-based statistics -- how useful or accurate are they?

Today, in local news, it was reported that Singapore's Ministry of Education has "released its annual report on the academic performance of Singapore's three main ethnic groups". Unsurprisingly, in light of Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim's (who is, besides being the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs) recent remarks on a similar topic, the spotlight is placed on how, despite improvements made by the local Malay community, this community apparently continues to lag behind the other two main ethnic groups in terms of academic performance, especially in mathematics.

However, as I read the news reports, I cannot help but wonder: how useful are these ethnicity-based statistics? How accurate a picture do they portray?

Do not worry; since I am not statistically-inclined, I will not be attempting to provide answers to the above questions through statistical analysis. Instead, I will be critically examining the implicit assumptions that perhaps led to the government's compiling and presenting of these ethnicity-based statistics.

The assumptions

Firstly, what is "ethnicity"? Well, the dictionary definition of "ethnic group" is "a group sharing a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, or the like" or, similarly, "large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background".

Hence, by presenting statistics which classifies Singaporeans into the three main ethnic groupings of Chinese, Malays and Indians, the implicit assumption is that each of these three groupings has a common and distinctive background based on either culture, religious beliefs or language. Also, the implicit assumption is perhaps that members of these three ethnic groups generally, if not universally, share a similar background with other members in the same group.

Secondly, by presenting statistics on how Singapore's three main ethnic groups performed academically, the implicit assumption is that there is a correlation between one's ethnicity and academic performance. And judging by how the statistics seem to be interpreted, it appears that the assumption is that there exist a relationship of causation between one's ethnicity and academic performance. In other words, the assumption is that how well or badly an individual performs academically is caused, if not determined, by that individual's ethnicity.

Examining the assumptions

Now, the question is: are these assumptions valid?

With regards to the assumption that the Chinese, Malays and Indians each constitute a separate and distinctive ethnic group, I would say that this is perhaps generally true. However, this does not mean that these ethnic groups are somehow monolithic in nature. Instead, I would think that there exist significant variations amongst members of each ethnic group. These variations or differences can, for example, be based on socio-economic status, educational background, gender or even sexual preferences. In fact, sometimes, intra-ethnicity variations may be greater than inter-ethnicity variations.

Specifically, while two individuals may both be classified as being ethnically Chinese, they may differ in almost every other aspect of their lives. One may be a middle-class, elite school alumnus, Christian heterosexual man while the other can be a working-class, neighbourhood school alumnus, atheist lesbian woman.

Conversely, while two individuals may be classified as belonging to different ethnic groups, they can perhaps be more similar with one another than with the other members of their respective ethnic groups. For example, the hypothetical Chinese man mentioned above will perhaps be more similar to a (similarly hypothetical) middle-class, elite school alumnus, Christian heterosexual Indian man than the abovementioned hypothetical Chinese woman.

Thus, in light of the above, the presentation of statistics which only take into account individuals' ethnicities will evidently gloss over all the other meaningful variations and similarities, be they found intra-ethnically or inter-ethnically, that are present amongst individuals.

Moving on to the second assumption that one's academic performance is shaped by one's ethnicity, I would say that while it is indeed possible that one's ethnicity could contribute to how well or badly one performs academically, it is however not the sole or most significant contributing factor. As was mentioned above, other variables or factors, which could also contribute to one's academic performance, may potentially be one's socio-economic status, educational background, family background and so on.

In fact, with regards to the above, it appears some of those observers interviewed by the local media about the statistics in question would agree, consciously or otherwise, that other variables also contribute to one's academic performance.

Specifically, in the report by CNA, the following (in italics) was mentioned.

Neither has the gap significantly narrowed between Malay students and other ethnic groups. This is despite continual efforts of the Malay community to reach out to students. Some observers said one reason is broken families. [emphasis mine]

Abdul Halim Kader, president, Taman Bacaan, said: "If you do not address this issue properly, it will continue to affect the educational performance of the Malay students, especially at the lower educational levels."

I do not know about you all but I doubt broken families is a syndrome exclusive only to the local Malay community. And I would think that this variable will be a greater negative contributing factor to one's academic performance than one's ethnicity. I mean, hypothetically, a Chinese student with a broken family will more likely suffer in his or her studies than a Malay student who has a functioning and whole family, right?

Also, in the Straits Times report, other possible variables that could negatively contribute to an individual's academic performance would include government policies, indifferent parents and inability by parents to afford private tuition classes for their children. These variables, in my opinion, are not limited to a single ethnic community and neither are they variables which are caused by one's ethnicity (lest any of you all claim that these are just intervening variables while the ultimate cause remains as one's ethnicity). I would also think that these variables are more significant than one's ethnicity in determining one's academic performance.


Hence, in light of the above discussion, I would think that while it may perhaps be administratively expedient to release ethnically-based statistics about Singaporean students' academic performance, this, without taking into account other possible and significant variables, however will not give us an accurate, comprehensive or useful picture of what exactly are the factors which contribute positively or negatively to an individual's academic performance. I mean, with slight exaggeration, if we continue to only take into account individuals' ethnicities when examining their academic performance, it will perhaps be similar to us just taking into account individuals' physical heights or astrological signs to examine how well or badly they perform academically.

It would thus be more meaningful and better for us to, while not being ethnicity-blind, broaden the scope of variables we compile statistics on and to examine their possible linkages with academic performance if we are to truly improve the academic performance of Singaporean students.


Anonymous said...

I tend to agree. such statistics as had been released are quite useless in terms of getting to the core of the issue.

Without any attempt to further analyse each ethnic group's performance based on common across the board factors/parameters such as family size, socio-economic status, gender, even parents' occupation, the statistics quoted seem to serve no more than an expedient tool to make a certain point with a hidden agenda.

But, so far, I have yet to be impressed with Dr Yacob's ability - notwithstanding his PHD (in what, by the way?).

LCC said...

To Anonymous (26/12, 1910h),

My point exactly.

And according to his Cabinet minister profile page, "Dr Yaacob Ibrahim was a structural engineer at Bylander Meinhardt Partnership before receiving a scholarship to pursue a PhD at Stanford University". I guess this means his doctorate is in structural engineering.

vociferor said...

hi there,

I agree with your points - the ethnic groups aren't monolithic; academic performance is not correlated solely with ethnicity - but i think it should be pointed out that they are not valid criticisms of race-based statistics.

The races aren't homogenous; yet the divisions between races may or may not be deeper than the divisions within races, and that is the question we're looking at using race-based statistics. In view of our rising income inequality (and I'm sure you'll agree with me that educational achievement is correlated with income), that's also a question which we need to address.

Still, I think it's important and timely that you brought this issue up. The whole issue of academic differentials across the races is something which desperately needs discussing.


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