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Singapore Math

Monday, June 6, 2011

Censored Math Questions from Singapore

In late nineties, during the dot-com fever, while providing CD-ROM contents for a local multimedia company, I came up with a mild collection of contextual word problems, following the call by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) then to pose some real-life problems to make the subject relevant and meaningful. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, the board of [conservative] editors vetting the questions rejected them.

Here’s a sample of that collection, which were deemed “contextually relevant” but “pedagogically insensitive” or “culturally loaded,” whatever those terms meant.

1. Joe managed to bribe the customs officer by bringing in boxes of chewing gum to be distributed among his gang members. The merchandise was allowed after Joe agreed to pay $20 per box for half the number of boxes smuggled, $10 for every three of the remaining boxes, and an additional sum of $50. If Joe was charged $330, how many chewing gum boxes did Joe smuggle? (24)

2. A property agent hinted to his client that he could help him pay less on stamp duties for his flat, if he agreed to undervalue his property. The unscrupulous seller found that he could gain $67,500, if he were to declare to the Housing Board that he was selling at 2/3 of the actual price of his apartment, and was giving the agent 1/10 of the difference. How much did the buyer actually pay for the apartment? ($225,000)      

3. Mike Ray got six strokes of the cane for his juvenile crimes. Fearing that a heavy penalty might lead to a boycott of the country’s goods, the judge decided to sentence the American teenager leniently. The light sentence was formulated based on the number of offences committed: two strokes for every five offences for the first half of the total number of offences, and one stroke for every five offences for the other half of his transgressions. How many offences did Mike commit? (30)

4. A principal had his jail sentence halved after he admitted to molesting two of his female teachers and some of his school girls. Because of his outstanding contribution in the field of education, the lady judge mercifully sentenced the principal to five years for every three victims. How many girls did the principal take advantage of, if his sentence was reduced to 10 years? (10) 

5. A foreign tourist was found guilty of multiple crimes perpetrated against foreign maids working in Singapore. He was charged for outraging the modesty of two women, and the penalty carries a maximum jail sentence of 5 years. His pick-pocketing activities landed him with another 3 years behind the bar. He served one quarter of his remaining jail sentence for exhibitionism, and served his last six years for beating two policemen. How long did he stay in jail? (16)       

Some reasons given for rejecting the above questions were:

Question 1 allegedly promotes bribery and corruption.

Question 2 encourages corruption and dishonesty.

Question 3 nurses permissive juvenile delinquency and xenophobia.

Question 4 supposedly promotes rape, outrage modesty, and the like.

Question 5 encourages crime and murders of the second, third, and fourth degrees!

Of course, these tongue-in-cheek questions were written lightheartedly to add some spice to the pool of hundreds of artificially posed questions needed for the CD-ROMs. But they're censored right away without any suggestions to rewriting them.

Indeed, one recurring complaint among scores of local math educators and parents that our locally published math titles are replete with sterile, politically correct questions (which bore many students to tears), is an understatement, to say the least.

We, teachers and writers, look to the days when we'd truly and fearlessly be able to set real-world questions that our students and their teachers could relate to—by posing contextual problems that offer a rich conceptual understanding of mathematical topics.

If you think that your child or student may not be quite ready or mature enough for the above fertile, politically incorrect questions, may I invite you to some aha! math questions instead? You may download them from  and 

© Yan Kow Cheong, June 5, 2011