Obstacles to the Success of Singapore’s Education Reforms
Jul 03, 2015

The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew - whether motivated by the fact that Chinese schools back in the 50s could be potential grounds for the indoctrination of communist ideology or he had the foresight to see the economic value of a dual language policy – nevertheless, had the insight to introduce bilingualism into schools in 1966. As English became the first language, replacing mother tongues as the medium of instruction in schools and a useful universal working currency, Singapore’s global economic landscape also bloomed. With it, the birth of a rising middle class that has increasingly grown to become complacent and began exhibiting a sense of entitlement, which calls into question the argument that education is a social leveller and an instrument of moral instruction. After all, the Chinese has traditionally pride education on raising a gentleman, someone whose character is aligned to his moral mandate to improve his society. The Chinese were also the first to introduce national examinations, where Chinese students took a standardised set of national papers to assess their abilities to serve as scholars and high-ranking officials. Today, in China, we have the ‘Gao Kao’ where millions of students sit for the same national papers which determine the trajectory of their careers and thus, their lives. This is similar to Singapore’s Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE), GCE ‘O’ levels and GCE ‘A’ levels, which can largely steer the future directions of one’s life in Singapore.

Education & Social Divide

Perhaps in the 60s and 70s, schools saw a diverse landscape where everyone, rich or poor can discover and develop their niche or at least, at the very basic level, receive an education that allows the student, especially the poor student to gain access to a decent job that gives him some level of social mobility and thus respectability. Over the years, however, as the education eco-system matures and Singapore becomes more cosmopolitan and prosperous, the role of education as a social leveller began to, ironically, diminish. Instead, it has become the dominant tool to differentiate the haves and the have-nots and a weapon that carves the elites out from the mediocre. Many of these elites are gifted students and/or scholars who will likely aspire to leadership positions in both the private and public organisations after they graduate from prestigious international universities. Although a generalisation and a stereotype, many of these scholars also generally come from pretty sheltered families and have little real sense of the hardships experienced by those at the grassroots level. Recall then 18-year old Raffles Humanities Scholar, Ms. Wee Shu Min, daughter of parliament member Mr. Wee Siew Kim, who in 2006 called a writer who was lamenting about job security and age discrimination “to get out of [her] elite uncaring face” and labelled the writer, a Mr. Derek Wee as belonging to “the sadder class.” Recall too the simplistic social categorisations of “Poly” versus “JC” students in the 80s and 90s – at one time, JC students were assumed to be academically more successful than Poly students because the cut-off points for JC was lower (L1R5 < 20 points) and students from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) were told that the acronym ITE actually means “it’s the end” for them since only students who are academically weak enters the ITE and they normally end up filling low-end jobs, working long hours and paid little after they graduate.

Because the local education system is so results and examinations-oriented, having more resources mean that one’s children, with slightly above average intelligence, can receive more help to ace the assessments which mainly focus on the ability to score. Up to secondary school, having a good memory, having an efficient round-the-clock tutor, especially a tutor who is also teaching in public schools and moonlighting as a private tutor as well as having a conducive study environment almost guarantee that the student can do well in the system. This is proven by the fact that until recently, whenever major national examination results were released, so called ‘branded’ schools, as colloquially known, took the limelight in the press. Anyone standing outside a premium school and a neighbourhood school can tell the gap in material wealth of these two groups of students. The lines of luxury cars dropping and picking students from prestigious schools skirt much longer than the lines snaking in and out of neighbourhood schools. Until recently, rich independent schools have better facilities such as in-house swimming pools and air-conditioned classrooms. At the most superficial level, these are marked tell-tale signs of material inequality in the two camps. Having rich parents mean that the students can afford a lot more academic help and have access to a lot more good quality enrichment classes or books that can help them to excel in the school system, so until this material gap is bridged between the haves and the have-nots, an overly materialistic society will continue to undermine the vision of having a diverse education landscape where everyone, rich or poor can maximise his potential and gain the best educational experience.

Emphasising the Value of Education in Ordinary Schools

Not that the top students have stopped coming from the best schools, but PM Lee’s cabinet has begun to realise that giving these so-called elites too much press-time isn’t going to help votes, so ranking of schools has been abolished and newspapers were told to give fair coverage to neighbourhood schools. As of 2012, the practice of naming top students in national examinations was stopped. Instead, national examinations coverage has concentrated on how students who came from disadvantaged backgrounds were able to surmount the ill-cards that fate has dealt them to triumph in Singapore’s school system and I think even if this is a strategic political move, at the surface level, it has the effect of inspiring struggling working class students who do not have access to the best academic infrastructure to take heart that there is light at the end of the tunnel because the school system can be fair and compassionate.

Such coverage gives hope to students who come from broken, dysfunctional and poor families that there is meritocracy in Singapore’s school system if the student is willing to put his shoulders to the grind, endure extreme hardships and foster remarkable discipline to ultimately rise above his inferior situation – that all is not lost if you have irresponsible or indifferent parents who can’t be bothered if you are in EM3, normal technical stream, playing truant at the void deck or sniffing glue at deserted stairwells. In this sense, while the unintended consequence of an overly-successful school system is exacerbating social inequality, the redeeming trait of our system is that our leaders are increasingly conscious of this threat and are putting in effective policies to mediate the widening gap between the rich and the poor, thus preventing the profiteering of the school system by the wealthy and consequently, making a mockery of the notion that education is a gatekeeper of the truly able and deserving.

The Role of Character in Awarding Scholarships

To complement the Education Minister Heng Swee Keat’s vision of “Every school a good school,” the talent acquisition unit in the Ministry of Education (MOE) has also began expanding its criteria in conferring scholarships. Compared to the trend where it was taken for granted that most scholars hail from top schools such as Raffles or Hwa Chong, now the Ministry and even the most recognised President Scholarship have begun to consider more carefully, students from less glamorous and lesser known schools. Together with the introduction of the Edusave Character Award and the ministry pumping in more resources to develop niche areas in neighbourhood schools, incrementally, there is a shift away from the over-emphasis on written tests scores and academic excellence only.

After all, character is not built in silos and exceptionally bright students who unfortunately come from less privileged backgrounds, who does not succumb to gang enticements, took pains to avoid drugs, teen pregnancies, fights and foul languages when they were immersed in such perverse larger environments must prove that they either have very good sense or superior tenacity and this is what character building is partly about. Of course, I am not saying that those who are born into good families should feel sorry that their resilience is not put to the test; instead, I am saying that the selection of scholars based predominantly on academic results and given that having monetary resources at one’s disposal can make a big difference to academic scores, raw scores should therefore, not be the only selection criteria and because the Singapore school system is now deliberately shifting from such a myopic focus, it is actually moving closer to its goal of having a diverse education landscape where everyone, wealthy or dirt poor, can maximise his potential and given the opportunity to prove his mettle in the race of life.

At the end of the day, while Singapore has displayed a desire to respect education as a just social enabler and a conduit of knowledge sharing, ‘kiasu’ parents who are insecure and terrified that their children will lose out in the intense competition to succeed in life are still the ultimate greatest obstacles to realising the vision of establishing a more rounded education system in Singapore. PM Lee says that despite criticisms, our education system delivers the results, but we need to be sensitive to the range of results it delivers, and not just accept the best outcome as being representative of the robustness and efficacy of the entire system because it is easy for those who have succeeded in the system to be vocal and to stand out to be the face of this success but not those who have failed. Truly, it is vital that there is a paradigm shift in Singaporeans’ psychology that besides having a good degree and a well-paid job, life is also about picking oneself up after failures, team-work and having a noble desire to better the world through one’s merits and gifts. They say that there is ingenuity in all works of life and Singaporeans really need to learn to appreciate that and cultivate a genuine sense of gratitude for the little things in life while embracing the larger vision that every individual makes up the cogs that turn the wheels of life. Becoming overly-competitive and seeing things only in relative economic terms will only reduce us into rats moving frantically on an unstoppable treadmill and in the long run, cannibalises our own dream of being free and happy. After all, one of the practicalities of the paper chase is to empower the person with more choices in life and a greater sense of dignity but looking at the spiralling trap of paper chase today, are we really freer than yesterday?

Writer / Catherine Ang

Photo credit / National Institute of Education Singapore