SCHOOLS AND SCHOOL LIFE IN SINGAPORE

SCHOOLS IN SINGAPORE

Schooling is virtually free at government schools where all Singaporean children go. International schools are restricted to foreigners, with few exceptions. Singapore students are required to sit for major two exams -- during primary school and after secondary school. The aim of many parents is to get their children into one of the top five junior colleges in Singapore---Raffles, Hwa Chong, Victoria, National and Temasek—which are viewed as stepping stones to getting into a good university.

The British-inspired education system includes six years of compulsory primary school, four years of secondary school, and two years of junior college for those aspiring to higher education. All children between age six and 14 are required to attend school, and school attendance in 2005 was almost universal at both primary and secondary levels. English is the primary medium of instruction. [Source: Library of Congress, 2006]

In 2003 Singapore claimed 175 schools, 299,993 students, and 12,025 teachers at the primary level and 162 schools, 206,426 students, and 10,830 teachers at the secondary level. At the postsecondary level, Singapore maintained two centralized institutes with 851 students and 103 teachers and 16 junior colleges with 23,708 students and 1,956 faculty members. Postsecondary education also includes Singapore Polytechnic, which in 2004–5 had 13,738 full-time students; the Institute of Technical Education with 21,796 students; and the National Institute of Education with 5,092 students.

As of June 1987, there were 229 government and government-aided primary schools enrolling 266,501 students. Government-aided schools originally were private schools that, in return for government subsidies, taught the standard curriculum and employed teachers assigned by the Ministry of Education. There were 157 secondary schools and junior colleges, enrolling 201,125 students, and 18 vocational training schools, enrolling 27,000 students. The 15 junior colleges operating by late 1989 enrolled the "most promising" 25 percent of their age cohort and were equipped with computers, laboratories and well-stocked libraries. Some represented the elite private schools of the colonial period, with their ancient names, traditions, and networks of active alumni, and others were founded only in the 1980s, often in the centers of the housing estates. In 1989 the government was discussing the possibility of permitting some of the junior colleges to revert to private status, in the interest of encouraging educational excellence and diversity. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989]

School Life in Singapore

The school year beings in January. Schooling is available in all four of Singapore’s languages but is mostly conducted in English. Children begin their formal education when they are 7. Many children take after school classes and have lots of homeworks. Cheating is reportedly not uncommon and there is an underground trade in old national exams.

The schools operated a modified British-style system in which the main qualifications were the Cambridge University-administered General Common Entrance (GCE) Ordinary level (O level) and Advanced level (A level) examinations. Singapore secondary students took the same examinations as their counterparts in Britain or in British system schools throughout the world. All instruction was in English, with supplementary teaching of the students' appropriate "mother tongue"--Malay, Tamil, or Mandarin. The basic structure was a six-year primary school, a four-year secondary school, and a twoyear junior college for those preparing to enter higher education. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989 *]

As part of the effort to reduce the dropout rate, some students progressed through the system more slowly than others, spending more time in primary and secondary school but achieving similar standards. The goal was that every student achieve some success and leave school with some certification. Both primary and secondary schools operated on double sessions. Plans for the 1990s called for converting secondary schools to single-session, all-day schools, a measure that would require construction of fifty new schools. *

Obedience has traditionally been an important part of Singaporean education. The school day begins (or at least it used) with students lining up like soldiers for morning assemblies, and reciting the country's pledge and singing of the national anthem. Students have traditionally been told what to think and not question it.

In accordance with a national dress code students are required to attend school in a school uniform, in most cases standard-issue pinafores, and wear their hair to conform to strict codes. One principal who sent home students who colored their hair said, "We want them to be proud of the hair color they were born with. We also want to stress discipline and conformity."

During the recession in the early 2000s, some parents kept their children out of school because they said they could not afford the school fees.

Important Tests in Singapore Schools and Their Impact on Students

Singapore students are required to sit for major two exams -- during primary school (Primary School Leaving Examinations, PSLE) and after secondary school.

AFP reported: “High scores in the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) -- arguably the most dreaded acronym among Singaporean parents -- can clear the path all the way to university. Those who don't get into university settle for polytechnics and vocational schools, which will likely lead to lower-paying jobs, or cost their families a small fortune in overseas education. Following a review, the education ministry decided in July that children who enter the first year of primary school from 2013 will not have to sit for regular exams during the school year. But the dreaded PSLE stays in place. [Source: Agence France Presse, August 8, 2010]

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “In general, Singapore students are hard-working, probably among the most diligent in the world. It is partly caused by a system that rewards high grades - and these come mostly from rote learning and plenty of homework. Over the years, many teachers from the top schools have mastered the art of identifying exam questions and hard-working (not necessarily intelligent) students benefit from it. And, of course, pressure from parents and grade-conscious teachers contribute to it. The result is enormous pressure on the children. More and more pupils, as young as kindergarten and primary classes, are seeking help from psychiatrists for study or exam blues. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, December 2, 2001 >>>]

“The competitive workload and exam system has resulted in Singapore students producing the highest scores in the world in Science and Mathematics. Parents play a major role pressuring - or trying to bribe - their kids to perform. The richer ones buy condos close to premium schools to meet residential qualification. Others contribute to school funds hoping to get in. Thousands of dollars are spent on private tuition, grooming classes, music lessons and holiday study camps. Some parents promise their children monetary incentives to get good grades in school or, at the lower level, a toy or a meal at the child's favourite restaurant. Some find this reward scheme a good way to motivate a student to work harder. Others condemn it as inculcating materialistic values on their young. "These kids may or may not be engineers or doctors one day, but they certainly will grow up to become materialistic citizens who won't do things without being paid," said one counsellor. Someone posted this online warning: "Parents, beware, you are in danger of raising a generation of disgruntled, unappreciative and potentially arrogant snobs." >>>

School Lunches in Singapore

According to Associated Press: “Most schools in tropical Singapore have open-air lunchrooms catered by up to a dozen different private vendors selling a variety of foods from their stalls. This allows kids from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds with varied dietary restrictions to choose between Chinese, Muslim, Indian or Western-style meals. About three-quarters of Singapore’s 4 million people are ethnic Chinese. About 15 percent are Malay Muslims, with the rest mostly of Indian descent. [Source: AP, October 5, 2004 ><]

A vice principal at oen school “Ng Sock Hua says no more than two of 10 dishes served to the children are preserved, or canned. “No deep frying, only grilled food allowed,” she declares. “And I’ve asked them to hold back on selling caffeinated and soft drinks.” But reality isn’t exactly as Ng describes it. As she gives a tour of the canteen, she notices with some surprise that students are lining up for plates of french fries and chicken nuggets, and snapping up cans of Coca-Cola at the drinks stall. She has a stern word with the stall-owners about the rules then walks away. “We try to monitor the vendors but it’s not easy to ensure that they’re selling the right things,” she says, shaking her head. “They tend to provide the food that kids like to eat.” ><

“Unlike the tight controls it places on many aspects of everyday Singapore life, the government issues recommendations rather than regulations about the food sold in school cafeterias. In turn, the school passes down the instructions to canteen operators but checking on them is sometimes sparse. ><

In 1979. The Singapore government launched a campaign to promote Mandarin to unite under one language Singapore's disparate Chinese communities that spoke a multitude of dialects passed on by their ancestors who came from China in the 19th and early 20th century. Unifying the Chinese majority in a country with sizeable Malay and Indian minorities was a priority and in the early days the Speak Mandarin Campaign discouraged ethnic Chinese from speaking the dialects that prevailed such as Hokkien. [Source: Reuters]

The campaign to replace the Chinese "dialects" with Mandarin, called the "mother tongue,” was the most ambitious aspect of Singapore's language planning and attempted social engineering. The Speak Mandarin campaign began in 1979 as a PAP project and was subsequently institutionalized in the Mandarin Campaign Secretariat in the Ministry of Communications and Information. The promotion of Mandarin as a common Chinese language dates back to the early years of the century, when it was associated with the rise of Chinese nationalism and the foundation of Chinese schools. Learning Mandarin would, it was argued, permit all Chinese to communicate in their "mother tongue," be useful for doing business with China, and, perhaps most important, promote traditional Chinese values. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989 *]

All ethnic Chinese were required to study Mandarin through secondary school and to pass examinations in it for university admission. Chinese civil servants took a required 162-hour conversational Mandarin course, and the Mandarin Campaign Secretariat coordinated the annual Speak Mandarin campaigns. Mandarin classes were offered by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry and by some native-place and clan associations. All Chinese television broadcasting was in Mandarin, as was most radio broadcasting. Radio programs in Chinese dialects were limited to 9:00 P.M. to midnight on the same station that broadcast Tamil from 5:00 A.M. to 9:00 P.M. In 1989 members of Parliament complained that some residents were tuning in to Cantonese opera broadcast by television stations in neighboring Malaysia. By late 1988, some 87 percent of the Chinese population claimed to be able to speak Mandarin. People did not agree, however, on the appropriate social contexts for use of what was for everyone a school language. As a result, people tended to use English or their native tongue on most everyday occasions. During the late 1980s, the Speak Mandarin campaign attempted to persuade people to use Mandarin when shopping and targeted taxi drivers, bus conductors, and operators of food stalls as workers who were to use Mandarin. *

The goals of the Speak Mandarin campaign included improving communication between Chinese speech groups, teaching people to read Chinese, and promoting Confucianism. Some critics argued that children were expected to learn two foreign languages in school (English and Mandarin) and that for some students the result was fluency in neither. The official response was that the problem would be avoided if people would speak Mandarin at home. Some educators questioned whether a sufficient level of Chinese literacy could be achieved with the amount of time the schools devoted to Chinese, a point that was indirectly supported in August 1988 when Brigadier General Lee Hsien Loong, the minister for trade and industry and son of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, urged Chinese newspapers to use simpler language to attract younger readers. Some academics questioned the restriction of Chinese values to Confucianism and recalled that in the 1950s and early 1960s Chinese was the language of radicalism and revolt rather than of loyalty and conservatism. The necessity of learning Mandarin to conserve traditional Chinese culture was not obvious to those Chinese who felt that Chinese culture had been transmitted for centuries through Hokkien, Teochiu, and Cantonese. They pointed out that the colloquial speech of modern Beijing (upon which Mandarin is based) was as distant from the classical Chinese of the Confucian texts as was colloquial Cantonese. Giving up the dialects implied a major transformation of the social structure of the Chinese community, because the associational and commercial structure of Singapore's Chinese-oriented society rested on (and reinforced) dialect distinctions. *

Sara Webb and Richard Borsuk wrote in the Asian Wall Street Journal: The “Speak Mandarin campaign was meant to both unify Singapore's Chinese community and to further Singapore's business ties with mainland China, in recognition of China's importance in the region... But learning Mandarin proved quite a struggle for many Singaporeans, since it meant they had to study an extra language on top of English. [Source: Sara Webb And Richard Borsuk, Asian Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2000]

Concerns Over Learning Mandarin in Singapore Schools

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Setting it off was the Education Minister’s remarks that a lower weighting for the second language in primary schools was being considered. A segment of Chinese reacted with emotional disapproval, seeing it as a possible downgrading of their language in future. The government has firmly denied any intention to do away with bilingualism, which remains society’s cornerstone. But it said the mother tongue would be taught differently to cater for students with difficulties. These students number by the thousands, including many who are excellent in science and maths, who try as they may but just cannot cut the grade in the mother tongue. Most hail from predominantly English-speaking homes. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, May 15, 2010 /*/]

“A few are brilliant scholars and definitely not lazy who end up being sent abroad to avoid failing in Chinese. About 60 percent of the Chinese and Indian kids who enter Primary One come from homes that speak English. The percentage for Malays is lower. Hardly any one of these children can do without additional private tuition, where fees are rising. The Government’s assurance came only after an outburst from many Chinese, especially the traditionalists, teachers, clan associations and Chinese media. /*/

“As the debate on mother tongue rages, some observers see a broader reason for the erosion of interest for learning the mother tongue among the young. As Singapore globalised, more and more of its youths embraced international values and Western norms. According to Dr Rujaya Abhakorn at Chiang Mai University, this trend also describes much of South-East Asia today. He blamed it on globalisation which was driving people to acquire language skills “not in many, but in one language – English, seen as the key to success in the globalised age”. /*/

“The rising disenchantment in Singapore stems from frustration at being forced to learn – often by memory – a language that they feel is less useful in preparing them for the new high-tech world. Although Singapore is predominantly Chinese, many young Chinese seem to be becoming more enamoured with Western or international values, than their own traditions. There is one big consolation, though. Few Singaporeans, if any at all, want bilingualism to end and most want the teaching of mother tongue to continue in order to preserve the culture. What they dislike is letting their future to be too dependent on Chinese grades. A friend who has operated a successful public relations firm told me: “For years I had laboured nightmarishly to pass Chinese with the help of tuition teachers. This knowledge is of little use to me now. Even in China, my clients usually insist on using English.” /*/

For thousands of students with difficulties the status quo of their present dilemma is intolerable. Their problem led to a lightening of their burden and exam pressure in a 2005 review. For example, 12 year-olds were allowed to bring the dictionary into the exam hall and use it. More emphasis was placed on reading and listening skills rather than on writing and memorising words and phrases. An explanation came from Lee (now Minister Mentor) last year when he apologised publicly for wrongly assuming that people could simultaneously learn two languages equally well. “Successive generations of students paid a heavy price, because of my ignorance by my insistence on bilingualism,” he said. /*/

Supporters of Learning Mandarin in Singapore Schools

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “To put it in perspective, Mandarin remains widely used by the Chinese among themselves, more so than English. (Lee Kuan Yew, the then prime minister ended the use of dialects years ago). Some Chinese are fearful that any effort to lower the standard of teaching may lead to its erosion in the face of an increasingly English-speaking environment. A large rally was organised week for which the organiser explained online: “Mother-Tongue is as dear as mother, and should not be discarded (or) avoided. Avoidance will eventually lead to it being discarded.” [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, May 15, 2010 /*/]

“Under decades of bilingual education, society has virtually erased the distinction between Chinese and English-educated as in the past. This explained why some of the protesters were from English-speaking families, too. They feel that in simplifying learning, the Government is pandering to the whims of a minority of weak students. They do not want to see this international hub turn into a society without character that is neither Asian nor Western. /*/

“Economists are also concerned about the possible dilution of Mandarin in Singapore, where standards are already low, in the face of a powerful China. (A BBC programme said that by 2050, Chinese is forecast to become the second most powerful language next to English and its share of Internet content will rise to about 40 percent.) “Many Westerners are learning Chinese to seek opportunities there, so it is suicidal for us to drop it,” said a businessman. “One day our people may have to go to China to look for jobs.” /*/

Singapore Schools in the 1990s: Teaching Kids to Think Independently but Not Rebelliously

Dorinda Elliott with Newsweek, “At the Crescent Girls School, clean-cut teenagers in neat yellow shirts and navy blue skirts sit at computer terminals at the cybercafe in the canteen. In a sparkling new science lab, girls cluster around more terminals, researching the cardiovascular system. The teacher is hard to find. Unlike the schoolmarms of old Singapore, who rigidly stood at the front of the room, she moves from monitor to monitor, advising students. We are trying to encourage a less frontal approach to teaching, says Cheryl Ng, who heads Crescent's information-technology department. This is much more fun than the old way, says student Amanda Bae, 14, as her friends all nod, because we can pick up things at our own rate. [Source: Dorinda Elliott; With Mahlon Meyer, Newsweek. September 6, 1999 |=|]

“It's the makings of a revolution. Until recently, Singapore embraced the discipline-oriented, Confucian approach to governing its people and educating its children. Like a nanny, the government preached about everything from who should have children to how often to flush the toilet. Teachers lectured students on the right answer to every question. There was little room for debate. But two years ago Singapore's leaders saw a crisis heading their way: though Singaporeans were becoming proficient at manufacturing high-tech goods, few people seemed to know how to even think about creating new technologies. Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew worried that lack of creativity would prevent the country from joining the Information Age. He launched a reform program and, without even a hint of irony, instructed schools to start being more creative. |=|

“The paradox is almost comical: a government known for its lack of tolerance for dissent was almost ordering people to loosen up. With thick packets of directives on how to teach creativity, officials promoted methods like teamwork, brainstorming and problem-solving in the classroom, getting away from the idea that there is only one correct answer. The top-down approach is on its way out. We must get away from the idea that it is only the people at the top who should be thinking, and the job of everyone else to do as they are told, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said at a Conference of Thinking in 1997. The government aims to teach children to think independently--but not rebelliously. To some, it seems an iffy proposition. The minute you teach people to think for themselves, they're not going to think the way you want, says one leading businessman. |=|

“It won't happen overnight. Singapore's students are still stressed out. Streamlining education by providing better facilities for brighter kids winnows out the losers as early as the age of 12 and students struggle with a crushing workload. Students' schoolbags are so heavy that the government created a task force a few years ago to recommend ways to lighten the load. One suggestion: pack fewer pencils. Educators are planning to introduce exams based on American SATs, which test analysis rather than knowledge. Spending on education has risen more than 30 percent since 1992 to almost $3000 per secondary student. The government is investing $1.2 billion in computers; by 2002, classrooms will have one for every two students. |=|

“That's the easy part. We are good at transmitting knowledge of technology. But how do you match technology with opportunity? says Education Minister Teo Chee Hean. Educators and entrepreneurs have drawn up a plan to cut students' workload by 30 percent. The key thing is to make more time for our students, says Teo. Time to think and play, the government hopes, will help students one day develop into creative workers. |=|

“The aim, above all, is to raise economic competitiveness. The government has established five new programs with US universities--engineering with MIT, medicine with Johns Hopkins and management with Wharton, the University of Chicago and France's European Institute of Business Administration (Insead). Singapore hopes they will help spread innovative thinking to local schools, too, and wooed the universities aggressively. The University of Chicago considered setting up in Hong Kong until Singapore offered tax-free status and funding for start-up costs. |=|

“A year from now, Singaporean students will start studies in the University of Chicago's tile-roofed, Chinese courtyard house, carefully restored to its original ornate style. But inside, the classrooms will look exactly like the American business school. Small teams of students will brainstorm in intimate classrooms built to teach people how to think, says Bill Kooser, associate dean at Chicago's Graduate School of Business, not what to think. |=|

“Demand for the creative approach is burgeoning. Peter Low, a crusader for reform, teaches at primary schools, colleges and major corporations. In his classroom, earnest businessmen listen intently. Creativity's not just for the guy in RD, says Low, jabbing the air and cracking jokes throughout the class. He arranges marbles on a projector tray into a circle. The goal of our education has been to form our thoughts into a pattern, he says, scattering the marbles. Our goal is to try to come up with a pattern no one has ever seen before. |=|

“Those marbles could one day haunt Singapore's leaders, who have built the city-state's economy with a successful combination of development and authoritarian rule. Skeptics think tinkering with education just to create a more productive society is missing the point. This very economic definition of education [undermines] any real attempt at creativity and maximizing one's ability, says Chua Beng Huat, a sociologist at Singapore's National University. |=|

“Singaporeans say they don't want to lose the discipline that has helped their students shine. We want to become a knowledge-based economy, says Teo, the Education minister. Some people think that light only emerges when there is chaos. I don't think so. If we are completely uncontrolled, then we are not going to get ideas. Can the government produce creative thinkers who are also obedient? At Crescent School, the squeaky-clean girls jump to their feet respectfully when a visitor appears; embarrassed administrators wave to them to continue with their studies. Who knows, Singapore's future graduates may one day outgrow their nanny.” |=|

Reforming Singaporean Schools in the Early 2000s to Put Less Emphasis on Rote Learning

In 2001, Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Singapore's pressure-cooker, rote-learning education system is being revamped to turn out workers who can compete in the world of ideas and technology. "Remaking itself" to avoid being overwhelmed by cheap, large economies like China and India is a phrase often heard - and taken seriously - in Singapore these days. To succeed, the republic has to discard many of its past low-risk policies that ranked obedience, efficiency and long working hours just as highly as the Japanese - with similar results. Singapore now wants its people to not only be engineers and scientists but gain entrepreneurial and creative skills, too - starting, of course, from the schools. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, December 2, 2001 >>>]

“It is easier said than done. Standing in the way is a centuries-old mindset among parents and teachers who define a good student as an unquestioning, hard-working youth with top exam grades. He is someone who listens and does what the teacher says and sticks to a set programme of studies - no "ifs" and "buts." >>>

“In recent years, Minister of Education Rear-Admiral Teo Chee Hean has been steadily making radical changes, adapting many of America's methods of promoting critical thinking in schools and universities. At this start of the 21st century, more fundamental changes are being considered -- urgently. They range from doing away with "O" and "A" level exams for top students to allowing private schools to operate. Pre-university students may have to do more community service and original research work. There is already more emphasis on projects than on tests on memorising data. >>>

“In university, more of its grading will be open, in which a student is tested on his ability to use - not memorise - data. In fact, 25 percent of entry scores will be based on America's SAT system with its emphasis on interpretative skills. Not well-versed enough with the new direction, parents are still putting pressure on their children "to study hard" - not read more, debate more or think more about creating things. >>>

Changes in Singapore’s Primary School Education System

In 2009, Channel News Asia reported: “Changes will be made to Singapore’s primary school education system, following Education Ministry (MOE)’s acceptance of recommendations by the Primary Education Review and Implementation Committee. Some of the suggestions include doing away with examinations in primary one and two, moving all government primary schools to single-session by 2016, and recruiting only graduates as teachers by 2015. But as the Education Minister Ng Eng Hen pointed out, these changes will not happen overnight, but will take time. [Source: Channel News Asia, April 15, 2009 /+/]

“MOE will be spending about S$4.8 billion over the next ten years to implement the changes. Primary one and two students will eventually not be required to sit for big mid-term and year-end examinations. And over the next 10 years, more content-rich assessment techniques will be adopted. Dr Ng said: "If you give a mark, say 60. What does that mean? It doesn’t give feedback. The proper feedback to the pupil or to the parent is to say what (the student) was weak in and what was (the student) strong in." /+/

“Experts believe bite-sized assessments will give pupils more confidence and help them become independent learners. "We should not let the students have an exam culture shock -- in lower primary, they’re on a honeymoon period, and when they start going to the upper primary, they will not know how to adjust," said a mother of a primary two student, Rosita Lea Sharif. /+/

Principal of Greenridge Primary School, Chew Lai Mun, said: "I will not say that there will be no assessment. What we’re looking at will be pen—and—paper testing, different alternative ways of seeing how students relate to each other in class. We also look at how students learn, given a project." /+/

And come 2016, all primary schools will go single-session. For parents who are concerned that single-session primary schools will mean fewer places for their children, MOE says it plans to build 18 new schools and upgrade 80 existing ones. A mother of a primary five student, Pauline Yap, said: "I think it’s good for the whole family to start the day together as well... hopefully (the students) can do most of the things they need to do in school during the weekdays, and at least during the weekends, we can have more family time." There will also be a 20 percent increase in the number of teachers. By 2015, MOE intends to improve the pupil-to-teacher ratio in primary schools from the current 21 to one, to 16 to one. /+/

Making Singapore’s Primary Schools More Applicable to the Real World

On the changes mentioned above, Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “The revamp is aimed at making pupils adept at not only Science and English, but also at thinking and communicating. 16, when enough buildings and teachers are in place – all Singapore primary schools (attended by thousands of foreigners) will introduce full-day sessions. More importantly, they will do away with mid and end-year exams in Primary One and Two, and only graduates would be allowed to teach. The future classroom will introduce 7 and 8-year-olds to outdoor education, where music and visual arts will be given as much importance as traditional subjects. “For kids of this age, exams will not figure at all,” one official said. They will be replaced by assessments of a student’s progress. Thirdly, children will be encouraged to take up co-curricular activities (CCAs) from Primary 1. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, November 21, 2009 *-*]

“On the longer hours, a senior official said: “We are not adding on academic content to make it a burden to students; we’re trying to build their life skills as well as values, … rebalancing the focus of our system.” These changes, to be extended later to secondary schools, will in part end a system inherited from the British that emphasised exams and rote learning. *-*

“In my course of reporting in recent years, I have frequently heard executives of multinational corporations complain that our data-skilled workers lack initiative and require hand-holding. This is what the new education system hopes to rectify. The result so far has been impressive. One neighbourhood primary school has infused robotics into its science teaching, with students designing simple robots and learning about their inner workings. Thousands of students at another school are taught not only to identify a healthy, nutritious meal, but also to cook it. Others require their pupils to write compositions on a tablet PC, using PowerPoint for images and colour fonts. At Hougang Primary, seven-year-olds share their classrooms with an assortment of insects, plants and skeleton frames. *-*

“The secondary schools are even more into the game, including practising entrepreneurship. At a premium school they ran an art gallery carnival, drawing up proposals for manpower costing, concept plans and profit margins. These experiments are not confined to the top schools. Many “unbranded” ones also excel in them. One of them has allowed students to operate a general store that sells products and services (like photocopying) to other students. In Jurong Junior College and Fuchun Primary, students can buy shares in businesses in their schools. *Junior college students have met to tackle Singapore’s declining birth rates, while polytechnic youths created a new fragrance and began marketing it to romancing couples – and invented a health-food chocolate for sale to the public. *-*

“The strategy is to develop students who are not academically inclined but skilled in other areas like IT, music, sports or designing. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said Singapore’s economy needs all kinds of talented people. “We now have to try and bring up people who do not necessarily do well in the universities, but who will do well in life,” he said. On the weaknesses of the current system, one blogger said it successfully produced many A-grade students who were unable to put knowledge to good use “like starting a business.” *-*

“Not everyone believes this change can be achieved soon, at least not until the government relaxes its control on this regulated society. Some do not think it can be – or need be – done at all. Parents who have a fixation on exams and high marks are among the biggest stumbling blocks. A prominent blogger quoted from a speech given by Sir Ken Robinson, an expert in creative and cultural education, who said children had no need to be taught to be creative. The reason: they already are creative, and often it is the schools that are educating them out of their creative capabilities, he said. On the subject of feared failure, Sir Ken said: “Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. They’re not frightened of being wrong ... “By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies this way. We stigmatise mistakes,” he added. The determination of Singapore’s mothers to fight for their children’s high grades has played a major role in the nation’s education. With the new strategy, it could prove negative for their kids when they fail to re-adapt.” *-*

“School Refusal” and the “Monday Morning Blues” in Singapore

In 2001, AFP reported: More and more are stricken at the start of each week with an illness identifed simply as "school refusal." Pupils are increasingly complaining of stomach aches, headaches, nausea, fever and dizziness, according to KK Women's and Children's Hospital research published in the Straits Times September 26. [Source: Agence France Presse, September 26, 2001 ==]

“Even though the children are not physically sick, they are so desperate to avoid school that the symptoms of these ailments appear on Mondays. Five percent of all pupils in Singapore are now said to suffer from "school refusal," and the health ministry has brought in an Australian expert to study how Singapore's school system impacts on the health of children. ==

“Doctor Jill Sewell, a child health specialist at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne will spend a week visiting hospitals and talking to children before making recommendations to the ministry. "These (school refusal) pains can be very real. But underlying these physical symptoms is deep anxiety," Sewell said. She told the Straits Times that pediatricians in Singapore have identified stress and competition as the real problems among school children. ==

Two Singaporean Girls Jumps to Their Deaths Because of School Pressures

In August 2001, a 10-year-old Singaporean student jumped to her death from her fifth floor apartment at the start of term as she could not cope with her school workload, the Straits Times reported. According to AFP: “Top student Lysher Loh committed suicide on June 25, the start of the school term after the mid-year term break. Her father Loh Cher Beng said his daughter had been disappointed with her mid-year examination results and had found the workload heavy. [Source: Agence France Presse, August 22, 2001 |::|]

“Classmates also recalled Lysher joking she would kill herself if she did not do well at her mid-year examinations. Lysher had told her maid Lorna Flores two weeks before her death she did not want to be reincarnated as a human being because she never wanted to have to do homework again. |::|

In 2001, a 12-year-old girl jumped from her 12th floor bedroom after failing to win a place in the higher stream of the secondary education system. AFP reported: “The Dec 30 Straits Times reported that Simran Kaur had jumped as her father was checking her results in the Primary School Leaving Examination with her school. Simran's result meant she was on the borderline between being sent to a Normal (Academic) or a Normal (Technical) secondary school. According to the paper, she had changed her score to make it appear she had gained a place in the Express stream. The case is the latest to highlight the intense pressure on Singaporean children to do well at school. Surveys of 9-12 year-olds have found that one in three them find life not worth living because of the fear of academic failure. [Source: Agence France Presse, December 31, 2000]

Singapore High School Canes 41 Boys Who Skipped Tests

In August 2001, a Singapore high school caned 41 boys for skipping tests, fueling the debate over corporal punishment in schools. AFP reported: “An enraged parent whose son was reluctant to go to school after being caned told the Straits Times: "I believe the school's counselling programme is a complete failure if the principal has to resort to caning." But the principal, Saminathan Gopal, stood by his decision and described the punished students as recalcitrants, adding, "they were irresponsible and did not come for an important test." The education ministry said its guidelines do not specify what offences warrant caning as schools understand the students better and can decide on the most suitable form of punishment. Caning for serious offences is also part of the criminal justice system in Singapore.[Source: Agence France Presse, September 24, 2001]

“Each boy received two strokes of a cane on the buttocks and was sent for counselling later. Another 17 girls were sent for community work for skipping the tests as well. While the education ministry gives principals the discretion and authority to cane students, it allows only a maximum of six light strokes on the palm or buttocks, and does not allow girls to be caned. One parent, Mazlan Mohammad, whose 16-year-old son Del Rasullee overslept and missed five tests, said he backed the school policy. "Missing tests is ridiculous. He should be caned and, if he misbehaves again, he should be caned again," he said. His son now vows to behave. [Ibid]

In 2004 AFP reported: “Seven in 10 Singaporeans support caning wayward students to instil discipline with most also of the view that parents are over-protective of their children, a newspaper poll showed Sunday, May 2. The Sunday Times poll of 358 Singaporeans was carried out following the public furore over a high school principal who slapped a female student with a book last month. The principal who hit his 14-year-old female student with a book has resigned over the accident but 83 percent of those polled by the newspaper felt he should not have stepped down. [Source: Agence France Presse, May 2, 2004]

“Students and parents who credited the former principal for the school's recently improved standards have called for his reinstatement but the education ministry says his act cannot be condoned and has accepted his resignation. Tightly-governed Singapore puts a premium on discipline and schools used to apply corporal punishment on a routine basis, but this is now allowed only in serious cases such as assault. [Source: Agence France Presse, May 2, 2004]

Singapore Hit by Teacher Scandals

In 2011, Heather Tan of Associated Press wrote: “Their affair started with her giving him a copy of the mushy memoir Eat, Pray, Love. It ended with the 32-year-old female teacher in Singapore getting a jail sentence for illicit sex with her 15-year-old male student. The case, which shocked Singapore, was the latest in a string of scandals involving the city-state's educators, who in the past year have been caught embezzling college money, committing lewd behavior, peddling drugs and a couple of times having sex with students. At least 10 such cases have reached the courts this year.[Source: Heather Tan, Associated Press, November 15, 2012 <<<]

“The teacher-student affair was the most shocking. The mother of two cannot be identified to protect the privacy of her sex partner, who is underage. Facing up to 20 years in jail, she was sentenced on Oct. 29 to one year in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of sexual offenses with a person under 16 years of age. In passing the sentence, District Judge Eugene Teo noted that the teacher had "no predatory pedophilic tendencies." "There are no shades of anything in a saga such as this, no justifications; only a clear line not to be crossed," Teo said. <<<

“The court heard that the student was traumatized following a boating accident during an overseas school trip in 2011. He started confiding in the teacher, who had chaperoned the excursion. She then began wooing him with gifts, including a copy of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert that was made into a movie starring Julia Roberts. That, according to prosecutors, led to the beginning of an affair during which she took the boy to her home in December 2011 where she performed oral sex on him with his consent. She took him home again in January 2012 where they had consensual sex several times, according to prosecutors. The affair came to light after the boy's parents became suspicious and lodged a complaint. <<<

“A day after the sentencing, a court started the trial of a former school principal accused of using S$150,000 (US$120,000) from school funds to build a house for his religious order and pay for his tennis coach. Anthony Tan Kim Hock, 65, who retired in 2009 after 25 years at the school, is facing 21 criminal charges. If convicted he faces up to 15 years in prison. Another case involved a 39-year male teacher who filmed a total of 94 upskirt videos of female students in uniform at various locations around Singapore, including at the secondary school where he taught. He was sentenced to nine months in jail last month after pleading in his defense that he suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Another teacher allegedly installed three pinhole cameras in a female toilet in a school where he was teaching. <<<

“Other cases involving wayward educators include: a former school principal caught seeking sexual services with an underage prostitute, a law professor at the prestigious National University of Singapore being accused of accepting sex in exchange for good grades, a 51-year old male private tuition teacher caught sexually abusing seven of his male students and a 55-year old former childcare teacher who helped her boyfriend sell drugs. Earlier this year, a teacher was caught sending lewd text messages to his 13 year old female student and was sentenced to 10 months in jail, while a former Chinese-language teacher was sentenced to 10 years jail and six strokes of the cane for molesting two boys and performing oral sex on a 8-year-old student.”

Private Tuition and Tutoring in Singapore

According to AFP in 2010: “Five-year-old Singaporean Timothy Lee has yet to enter primary school, but even before his formal schooling begins he is already attending classes six days a week. From Monday to Friday he goes to a normal kindergarten, but on Saturdays he takes special classes on phonics and abacus with four other children at an "enrichment centre" to gain a foundation in reading and mathematics. "Learning abacus is good for brain development and helps him in addition and subtraction so that he can get the answer faster," said his mother Lynn, who works as an office administrator. Timothy doesn't mind because everyone else does it. "I don't feel tired. I get to meet my friends and we sometimes play games in class," he said. [Source: Agence France Presse, August 8, 2010 <>]

An education web portal Called KiasuParents.com -- the word kiasu means overly competitive -- allows parents to compare notes on private learning centres, with 21,000 members registered since September 2007. It claims to get nearly two million page views every month from parents seeking the best tutors. The number of such centres reached 679 in 2008, when combined revenues hit close to S$250 million (US$180 million), according to the most recent data from the Singapore Department of Statistics. The figure excludes cash paid to part-time home tutors, another thriving industry in itself. <>

“The centres also offer courses in English and Mandarin, key elements in the national student tests along with mathematics and science."We do get a hard time from parents sometimes," said Tony Tan, director of tuition centre SmartLab, which has nine branches and prepares students with a battery of mock exams. Mark Nowacki, a university professor who runs Logic Mills, a centre providing courses on analytical thinking skills for organisations and schools, said Singapore parents need to relax. "If you're finding that the tuition is killing their love of learning, stop because that's ultimately more deadly than any amount of facts you could cram in their heads," he said. <>

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Private tuition has become a booming industry, probably raking in hundreds of millions of dollars and providing jobs for thousands of people. These figures may be too conservative, if one takes into account what Singaporean parents spend on tuition to give their kids a head start. A reporter who did a random interview with 12 students found that their parents spent an average S$500 a month on their tuition fees. In another case, a Chinese-language newspaper reported a father spent almost half his monthly salary, or S$960, to pay for his son’s English lessons. In this small city of 700sq km, there are at least 500 tuition centres, each with a database of home tutors for parents to select from. The teachers charge hourly rates: S$15-S$20 for Primary 1-6, and S$20-S$28 for secondary 1-4. Some tuition even takes place online, where test papers can be downloaded more cheaply. Some top junior college graduates have taken it further by selling their study notes on the web. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, July 10, 2010 /=\]

“The exact size of the trade is not officially known because the thousands of people involved – especially freelance tutors or test paper vendors – work outside the tax system. With the weak employment market for graduates, this is useful. It has allowed many retrenched professionals and executives to survive the crisis of unemployment. More importantly, the role of the home tutor appears greater than the government is ready to admit. It touches the life of almost every Singaporean. /=\

“The Sunday Times conducted a poll in 2008 of 100 primary, secondary and junior college students and found that only three students did not have any tuition at all. Even some university students have sought special tuition, but the starting age is getting lower. Two in every 10 involve kindergarten kids. Contrary to belief, not all who seek help are students of average or poorer grades. They include straight-A students, too. /=\

“A few tutors “with flair have actually done well enough to make it a career. For example, a physics tutor to 80 students reportedly earns about S$20,000 a month. Even students – undergraduates and Junior College students – are earning good pocket money this way. A lot of this thriving revenue is going to individuals, rather than the Treasury – unreported and untaxed. It is part of the underground economy that no finance minister wants to have. /=\

“Does tuition help to improve grades? The answer cannot be “no” when 97 percent of students have done it. It provides a crucial help to children who are weak in certain subjects, be it English, Maths or Chinese. Singapore schools supply a general education that is quite modern and diverse.

Past Exam Papers Hot Items in Singapore

Cheating is reportedly not uncommon in Singapore and there is an underground trade in old national exams. Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Amid shops selling things like designer bread and wristwatches is a little stall that hawks an unlikely item in most countries except Singapore – school test papers. These bound documents, covering English, Maths, Science and Chinese in the 2009 exam, are sold at between S$30 and $40 per set. There are scores of such vendors all over the city. In two nearby blocks of three-storey buildings in a suburban town centre, I counted no less than 15 tuition centres that offer almost every subject a child faces in the city’s stressful exams. Others teach Life Sciences, Creative Writing or “Preparation for Primary 1”. Two are music centres, one teaches art and another provides Japanese lessons – mostly supplementary subjects. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, July 10, 2010]

“In other countries, old test papers are generally used to wrap fish, but here it provides a living. Why are they so marketable? Exam results that often decide how well people are to live. This is making test papers of top schools a hot commodity. Designed by individual primary and secondary schools to test their own pupils annually, they have long been packaged and sold. The higher ranked the school, the greater the demand.” [Ibid]

Muslim Schools in Singapore

Singapore had six madrasahs (Muslim schools) in the early 2000s. Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, Unlike their radical peers in Pakistan or Indonesia, the madrasahs in Singapore do not teach anti-Americanism or hatred of infidels. Instead, the children – totalling about 4000 – are required to dress in accordance with religious teachings, the girls are separated from the boys, and a high degree of discipline is expected. The curriculum has a high content of moral instruction.[Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, October 20, 2002 *^*]

“Of the 800 applicants last year, only 400 gained entry. Students enrol at seven years and stay on at least until they reach 18. Their popularity has been growing steadily as a parental reaction to the social problems faced by many Malay families. “The community has a higher incidence of delinquency, divorce and drug abuse than others. Many parents have thought hard about issues like lower education levels and therefore poor earning potentials, but still send their kids to religious schools,” said one parent. They view any economic analysis as too sophisticated for families who are besieged with drug-addict sons and runaway daughters here and now. To them, the long view is too long.” *^*

Debate Over Muslim Schools in Singapore

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Privately run, madrasah education is anchored firmly in Islam with very poor grounding in science, higher mathematics, biology and English. There are no proper science labs or sufficient computer equipment. “What roles in modern society can these children play when they grow up?” one Muslim parent asked in a dialogue session. This is where the problem lies: the madrasah curriculum is tailored for a different age, with a lot of Arabic, religious studies and doctrinal content – hardly subjects that fit into a modern job. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, October 20, 2002 *^*]

“Singaporean Muslim children that attend these schools “are coming into the world without the basic knowledge for a proper job, let alone compete with others. According to an Islamic activist who has migrated to Australia, Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff, only 400 pupils will be admitted into Year One at the six madrasah schools.“Initially the government had wanted to scrap the primary madrasahs and allow only the secondary Islamic schools to continue,” Zulfikar said. “But the Muslim parents feared if the primary schools are closed, it will have a negative impact on the secondary intake.” After some debate, he said, the government compromised. They allowed the primary schools to continue but the madrasahs will have to maintain a minimum standard set in the Primary School Leaving Examinations. If they cannot maintain that standard for three consecutive years, the schools will be closed. *^*

The Singapore government “wants these schools to accept government aid and supervision so that they can produce qualified religious teachers and fulfil the needs of the Muslim community. He wants madrasahs to meet minimum educational standards, especially in science, mathematics and English. Singapore is also worried by recent developments involving Islamic extremists in neighbouring countries and wants to “nip any potential security threat in the bud,” a diplomatic source said. Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s repeated calls for Muslims to stop dividing knowledge into religious and the secular are widely reported in Singapore. All knowledge, he said, was faith-enhancing “without which Muslims are going to remain in the modern equivalent of the Dark Ages.” These comments have struck a chord among educationists in Singapore.” *^*

Madrassas in Multi-Ethnic Singapore

In 2009, AFP reported: “Nurlidyana, Darwisyah and Azeera are late for English class but the girls do not seem to mind as they giggle and chat about school and their hopes for the future. Their ambitions vary -- Nurlidyana wants to be a doctor, Azeera a teacher and Darwisyah is still undecided. Yet the 16-year-olds do agree they have gained a good foundation from their school, Madrasah Al-Irsyad Al-Islamiah. [Source: AFP, February 17, 2009 *-*]

“Madrassas are Islamic religious schools that in Pakistan, Indonesia and other Muslim states have sometimes been associated with militancy. But in multi-ethnic Singapore, madrassas -- funded mainly by the minority Muslim community -- stick strictly to the basics, focusing not only on religion but on academic studies as well. Nevertheless, many Muslim parents in the economically-developed city-state are reluctant to enrol their children at madrassas, concerned that the combination of religious and academic studies crowds out broader curricula activities. "I believe a secular school gives more exposure to other cultures and gives (my son) more opportunities to explore other endeavours" such as sports and art, said Juliana Buono, a mother of two. "I want him to go to a good school where it's not all academic, and madrassas have too many subjects," she said. *-*

“Students at Singapore's six madrassas spend six years in primary education and five more in secondary school. They take Islamic studies on top of regular subjects including maths and science, making the school day longer than in regular government-supported schools. But Al-Irsyad aims to lighten the burden using technology. The school recently moved into a new building with the latest technology -- interactive blackboards that react to touch; polling devices that allow students to enter answers for instant review by teachers; school-wide broadband; and MP3 players that aid in discussions and public speaking. *-*

“Still, Nurlidyana and her two friends said they do not plan to continue their studies in madrassas after finishing secondary school, despite their positive experience at Al-Irsyad. "I want to explore more, open up, understand the world instead of just the Muslim world," Nurlidyana said. The chairman of Al-Irsyad, Razak Mohamed Lazim, sees no problem if students transfer to the government system. "Yes, some of them do opt to go to national schools and we usually give them our blessing, because we want to make sure (the students) choose the best for what they want to be," he said. *-*

“Razak said his school's annual intake is more than 200, adding that Singapore's madrassas aim to draw the highest quality applicants in order to produce religious scholars. About 14 percent of Singapore's residents are Malay, most of them Muslim. "We are here not to provide academic education alone to the general public. We are here to develop potential religious leaders," Razak said, adding that madrassas complement government schools. Al-Irsyad's approach of combining academic and religious instruction in a high-tech environment has drawn attention from other madrassas in Asia, he said. Visitors from southern Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia have been impressed with Al-Irsyad's "progressive madrassa model," he said, adding that Indonesia had opened two madrassas modelled on Al-Irsyad. "They have taken lock, stock and barrel our system, the curriculum, and we have also done teacher training to ensure that they know how to run the system that we are running here," Razak said. *-*

“Mariam Sulaiman, a former Al-Irsyad student, said the school's dual emphasis on academic and religious education enabled her to pursue her dream of entering the research and development industry. "I need both, not just the academic side but also the spiritual and moral," said Sulaiman, a biological sciences undergraduate at a local university. The additional religious subjects had helped her develop moral fortitude, she said, adding: "When you're in a madrassa, there is a lesser chance for you to mix around with bad influences like drugs and gangs." For Nurlidyana, Darwisyah and Azeera, the best lesson of the nine years they have so far spent at Al-Irsyad is one they could not get at a national school. "The madrassa allows us to learn the guidelines on how to be a good Muslim," Nurlidyana said as Darwisyah and Azeera nodded in agreement. *-*

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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