Education System In Singapore Essay

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In a new column called "The Flip Side", local blogger Belmont Lay lets loose on local politics, culture and society in his weekly musings. To be taken with a pinch of salt and with parental permission advised. In his first post, he talks about what's wrong with Singapore's education system.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat has come out openly to say that a lack of drive in Singaporean students is worrying.

And it is not as if he is completely wrong.

Look, I do agree. Some students lack drive. They want to be spoon fed. They want everything served on a silver platter. And they ought to be despised.

But at the very same time, it is not their fault.

It is daunting to be consistently motivated in Singapore, whether you're a student or otherwise.

So herein lies the greatest irony of all: the very first hurdle to be overcome is our education system.

Result-oriented education

Anybody who has gone through 15 to 20 years of studies in Singapore will tell you the same thing. There is an overbearing focus on grades and paper qualifications are elevated to unholy heights and worshipped.

Students are taught to be risk-averse in our rigid and conformist education environment. Plenty of precious energy and attention is diverted to practicing answering questions correctly.

The school curriculum runs on a syllabus with answers to questions that are either right or wrong. And there is limited upside to being too creative when taking exams.

Students are reduced to giving textbook answers to textbook questions.

Walk into any Popular bookstore and tell me it doesn't make good money selling 10-year series textbooks and assessment guides providing model answers.

Eventually, it is difficult to unlearn the bad habits instilled by education.

Risk-averse national education

And this brings me to my next point.

Even our national education preaches the need to err on the side of caution.

The entire narrative of The Singapore Story is couched in the language of risk aversion.

What are some of the things we've been told over the years?

One wrong move and we'll lose everything we've ever built.

Singapore is barely a country, let alone a nation.

We're a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, so think twice before doing or saying anything that will jeopardise whatever we've achieved.

Singapore cannot afford to have too many competing factions and competing interests.

Singaporeans must all act as one and move ahead as one.

We must take the lead from competent leaders.

Doesn't any of these aphorisms sound familiar to you?

Make no mistake at all because to be driven requires fuel.

And to be driven to do anything remotely spectacular and risky, that fuel should come in the form of risk-bearing behaviour, an attitude that is robust to failure and an unyielding desire to have fun while at it.

Sadly, none of these values can be taught in schools.

Fix education system

All these issues mentioned so far are related to why students might not be as driven as they should be.

Students cannot feel like they are in charge of their own destinies.

So, whoever in the future is going to fix our education system has to acknowledge that things operate on a vastly different logic outside of the education realm, and channel that knowledge back into classrooms.

This means, no more focussing on giving the right answers. Because the right answers sometimes don't exist.

And for a start, students need to find out about the alternative histories of Singapore.

Only then will they realise that the future is even more open-ended than the past and they can be the movers and shakers who will take Singapore into any desired path next time.

Because as it is, the education system simply doesn't train people to be deviants who tinker and meddle with the established order.

Singapore badly needs "tinkerers" -- people who are daring, who can fidget about, diverge from the beaten path and bear the risk of experimentation.

Daunting rules

But the truth of the matter is, this will be impossible to achieve as the rules and regulations that govern Singapore are exceptionally daunting at times.

Simply put, restrictions to curb your enthusiasm are institutionalised. And you don't even need a student to feel that way.

Take for example, Tan Jee Say, the guy who ran in both the General and Presidential elections last year.

Just last week, he set up a base in Orchard Road to host discussions.

He acquired the space lawfully. He is paying rent. Everything he is doing is above board.

But it now appears he might be flouting some terms and conditions because "hosting political activities" doesn't fall under the tenancy agreement of "restaurant and office use only".

I mean, come on, right?

All he wants to do is gather some people every week to sit in a circle and talk about stuff.

Why make things so difficult?

The way forward then is to shake up the foundations of our education system. Free up the requisite spaces.

Relinquish the stranglehold on people, while letting them decide on what can or cannot be done.

Until then, we'll see if we can get students to feel more driven.

Belmont Lay is one of the editors of New Nation, the third most overrated online publication in Singapore.

There has been a lot of talk and concern about the inherent flaws of the Singapore education system which cause it to be too stressful for our children.

Earlier this week, there was a CNA video of the life of a primary 6 student preparing for PSLE that went viral with over 11,000 shares on Facebook.

Another blog post that went viral was titled “What are we doing to our children?” written by Blogger Ian Tan. He shared his concerns about this worrying trend and hoped that for the children for our next generation, we will not “inculcate in them that a person should spend his life obsessing about results, money or what people think of them via status symbols”.

I’d be worried too if I look at the statistics.

In 2015, a Household Expenditure Survey revealed that families here spent $1.1 billion per year on tuition. This is almost double the $650 million spent 10 years ago and one-third more than the $820 million spent just five years ago.

While many were quick to blame the parents for being “overly competitive”, I disagree. I do acknowledge that there are some parents who are being unnecessarily ‘kiasu’ and using their child’s accomplishments to boost their own self-esteem or lack thereof.

However, I believe that the stressful Singapore Education System is a bigger contributing factor.

As someone who just graduated from university and entered the workforce, let me share my insights on why:


1. Grades are important for the biggest employer in Singapore

No matter how our government tries to appease the masses by saying things like “every school is a good school” and “grades are not the focus”, it doesn’t change the reality about Singapore that grades are extremely important for some jobs in the future.

Just take the civil service for an example which is the biggest employer in Singapore.

When one applies for a government job, you will be asked to list your O and A level results and the specific grade you got for each subject. This is despite the fact that such exams are taken really long ago like when one is 16 and 18 respectively. Not only that, you have to bring photocopies of these documents on your first interview.

The civil service also perceives the level of honours you get as an important factor in deciding whether or not to hire you and promote you in the future.

In fact, if you’re from a private university like the SIM Global Education program, your chances of qualifying for the civil service is lower than those from NUS, NTU and SMU.

In contrast, most companies in the private sector especially the leading ones couldn’t care less about your O level and A level scores.

Times have changed and when hiring fresh graduates, many of the top firms prefer to focus on other more important factors such as internships, community service, overseas exposure etc.

I’ve been to a few interviews and not a single employer asked for my GPA, much less my O level and A level results. In my first job at a British MNC, the HR department didn’t ask for my degree till there was a recent degree scam incident in Singapore earlier this year.

Sadly, the civil service is the main and biggest employer in Singapore. Thus, their hiring practices no matter how ridiculous would influence the mindset of the youth.


2. The Bell Curve System

In Singapore’s education system today, it is not enough to just do well in your grades. You have to do better comparatively to others. This is due to the bell curve system.

Say if you get 85/100 for your test but majority of your classmates get 90/100, you will probably end up with a B4.

Thus, in order to out-compete their child’s classmates, Singaporean parents spend money on tuition to help their child remain competitive. It is like an arms race where one is forever trying to be in the top ten percentile. Those whose parents can’t afford tuition will get left behind.


3. Competition from foreign students

Perhaps there was a bell-curve system in place during the 80s and 90s. However, it was a lot less stressful as kids just have to compete with Singaporeans.

The children today are competing with hordes of talented and bright students from ASEAN, China and India.

In 2012, there were 51,000 foreign students in government-run schools and institutions. This makes up roughly 8 percent of all the students here.

These students tend to be extremely hardworking because in general…

  • They may come from a poorer country and have to make the most out of educational opportunities they’ve gotten
  • They are also not obliged to spend time with family given that their family is not in Singapore
  • Their education system is better than Singapore in some ways. For instance, China’s education system is more advanced in mathematics and Mandarin than in Singapore. Thus, they can tackle these subjects easily here.

Since we have the bell curve system, local students must thus work harder to keep up with new ‘foreign talents’ in order to get a distinction. This is because the presence of foreign competition is significant enough to affect a child’s grades. For example, a student who might have gotten an A without foreign students now gets a B.

A good example will be my personal experience. When I was 16, I took Higher Chinese and my grades were moderated with students from China. As a result, I got a D7. In contrast, my friends taking Higher Malay and Tamil didn’t have this disadvantage given that there was no competition from Tamil Nadu etc.

One year later, I took A level Chinese. I scored a distinction easily without even putting in extra effort. This was because I was competing with Singaporean students and not the top ones from China.


4. Tuition centres teach exam hacks which schools don’t 

As someone who had tuition for a few subjects in school, I personally believe that the materials and teaching from tuition centres are sometimes better than those offered in school.

Firstly, while schools teach content, tuition centres put a lot more effort on exam hacks, teaching you how to game the system and score more with less effort.

With Economics tuition from Caravan Tuition at Novena, I scored an A for and was second place. This is because while others spent time studying the content, I placed 80 percent of my time on studying how the marking process worked and what type of answers examiners wanted from

This is because while others spent time studying the content, I placed 80 percent of my time on studying how the marking process worked and what type of answers examiners wanted from specific type of questions which helped me get an A.

A tuition teacher often has many contacts and can get notes and materials from top junior colleges and secondary schools. So for instance if a neighbourhood secondary school student may not receive very good guidance in his school, he can benefit from tuition as the teachers would be able to share resources and tips from better schools with him.

Thankfully, we’re seeing the rise of apps like Snapask. These apps allow students from secondary school and junior colleges to take photos of questions they find difficult and get answers.

I think this disruption in the private tuition is positive because it ultimately levels the playing field. Students from poorer families who can’t afford so much private tuition now can find a cheaper method of getting help for their exam preparation.


5. The Singapore education syllabus is getting harder each year 

For some strange reason, the syllabus is getting tougher and tougher with children being made to learn content that is way beyond our years.

We already have the most challenging syllabus globally. Why do you think our kids do so well in the International Baccalaureate (IB) compared to the rest of the world?  This is because our formal education system is much harder than the rest of the world and our GCE A levels and O levels is much tougher than the ones the British take.

However, the Singapore education system seems to be becoming harder and more stressful for the sake of it without any consideration as to how it can benefit our youth in the future.

Does introducing so much content and such a level of difficulty in our subjects really improve our workforce and build leaders of tomorrow? I disagree.

Instead, I believe the free time could be spent on developing soft skills and inculcating creativity instead. Scientific studies have shown that a relaxed mind is absolutely necessary for developing creativity.

As Jack Ma said “I told my son: you don’t need to be in the top three in your class, being in the middle is fine, so long as your grades aren’t too bad. Only this kind of person [a middle-of-the-road student] has enough free time to learn other skills.”

True enough, with the exception of Baidu’s Robin Li, many of China’s top internet executives achieved their success despite not having been “top three”-type students.

If you look at the corporate world in Singapore, it is mostly the people from Western countries who are on top. Why? Other than the fact that  many of our local people somehow perceive westerners as superior, these guys generally also possess the necessary soft skills for thriving in the workplace.

Heck, most of them are not even from schools that are ranked as highly as NUS or NTU.

The state of education in Singapore is worrying. As mentioned in my previous article 5 Differences between neighbourhood and elite schools, it is not equitable and no longer facilitates social mobility like how it used to.

Also, the Singapore education system is not delivering what the job market needs. Why is it that when Singaporeans emerge from this education system and enter the workforce, they are deemed as not having the right set of skills? That is like making students go through so much hardship with little rewards in the future in proportion to the effort they put in. Is it smart to leave it in the hands of bureaucrats who have little or almost zero private sector experience to know what the market wants?

If you agree with the analysis here, like this post and share it with your friends. What are your thoughts? Share your views below!

In Singapore’s education system today, it is not enough to just do well in your grades. You have to do better…

Posted by Jeraldine Phneah on Saturday, 28 May 2016


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