The Octant Explains: Singaporean Education (Advanced Level)
story | Harrison Linder, Staff Editor
photo | Elesin Teo, Head Photographer
In the last issue of The Octant, we gave a basic overview of the structure of the Singaporean education system. Now, we hope to give you a more nuanced understanding by providing a commentary that covers some of the significant issues, topics, and debates surrounding education in the country.
It is vital to note here that it is impossible to cover every facet or important issue present in the Singaporean education system, and that this article will inevitably miss out on some noteworthy topics. Therefore, we have tried to align our coverage with some of the issues that have been under the national spotlight in recent times. The commentary will include and rely upon testimonies from Singaporeans we have talked to for their experience in the Singaporean education system.
Last week, we gave a brief overview of the various academic tracks in the Singaporean education system. You may have noticed that at every level, students are frequently sorted — or “streamed”, as it is popularly understood — by their academic abilities and achievements, which are usually assessed by their test scores. Examples include the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and the N-Levels and O-Levels in secondary schools, where a student’s performance in these exams often determines their placement in the next tier of their education.
This arrangement is closely tied with Singapore’s belief in meritocracy. Labeled by a former academic as being “as close as anything gets to being a national ideology,” the basic idea is that high-performing students should be rewarded for their effort and talent, and therefore given the best positions and resources — even long after graduation. Prestigious government scholarships such as the President’s Scholarship and the Public Service Commission (PSC) Scholarship highly reward the top few achievers in each national cohort, putting them on a path to leadership positions in the public service. Even one’s grades or degree’s honors levels in college can significantly impact their wages if they join the public sector, as The Octant recently found.
Some have raised concerns that with this intense focus on merit, the education system is increasingly stratifying society, creating divisions between each educational “track” as those in less exclusive tracks are seen to be inferior compared to those in more exclusive ones.
For example, Lim Weida ’21 said that people clearly view Junior College (JC) as “better” to Polytechnic at the post-Secondary education level, as they tend to have higher O-level requirements and are thus seen as more challenging to enter.
Lim also noted that even within each system, “There are tiers; the type of school you attend affects the kind of opportunities you get.” For example, he said that at Raffles Institution, one of the top JCs, the Model United Nations team goes to the United States to compete every year, while teams from other schools at best get to travel somewhere in Southeast Asia to compete.
Even at the primary school level, a similar hierarchical treatment can be seen in the Gifted Education Programme (GEP). The GEP is an academic program that uses two rounds of tests to identify the top 1% of students in each national cohort. Syafiqah Nabilah ’20 went through the GEP. She said, “I remember being nine years old and having teachers tell us that we were going to be the future leaders. Looking back, it seems kind of ridiculous.”
While the level of intensity varies, many Singaporean parents care deeply about their children’s grades, and put tremendous pressure on their children to succeed. While this pressure in aggregate may be attributed to the country’s good academic performance, the psychological toll that it takes on many young students is palpable.
In 2016, the value of pressuring children was brought into question after an 11-year-old student took his own life out of fear of showing his parents that he had failed Higher Chinese and Mathematics subjects. National statistics indicate a similar trend, with the number of suicides between 10-19 year olds that year standing at 27 deaths, the highest in 15 years.
Recent efforts by the Ministry of Education (MOE) have also indicated some recognition of the problem of academic stress: a raft of measures have been introduced for primary and secondary school students, including cutting mid-year examinations for certain levels, introducing two grade-free years for primary schools, and removing a student’s class position from their report books. MOE said that the intention was to “move away from the narrow focus on grades and help students discover the joy of learning.”
As students get older, many no longer experience as much pressure from their parents, but rather pressure themselves in harmful ways.
Nabilah, who studied at Raffles Girls Secondary School and Raffles JC, said: “Many of my classmates seemed to develop mental illnesses during secondary school. People glorified not eating and not sleeping, and everyone was comparing themselves to each other in a way that made us all feel bad.” She said that this was in spite of the knowledge that historically, most students at her school ended up in the top few universities anyway.
Many older students also have to deal with examination pressure. Multiple students shared their A-level experiences with us. “I took A-level [Geography], where they expect a ridiculous amount of writing for the time given. [A] bunch of my friends and I tied erasers to our pens as weights to train the muscles in our arm/hand for writing [quickly],” said Leanne Tan ’20. “One of my friends tied an entire stapler to her pen. It helped a lot in writing speed, but in hindsight this was just sad.”
Tuition, or paid private tutoring, is a SGD 1 billion industry in Singapore. It is not uncommon to see families splurge hundreds or even thousands of dollars per month on tuition for their children, whether out of concern for their weak academic performance or to help them get a leg up over their peers in the fiercely competitive education system.
It also functions as a microcosm of the issues raised above. The extreme demand for tuition, for instance, reflects the high expectations from parents and families, which are often cited as being a big source of stress for students.
Some people have also argued that tuition further entrenches the socio-economic inequalities that are already present in the education system, as wealthier families are much more able to afford them. We discuss this further below.
Socioeconomic and Racial Inequalities
Meritocracy as an ideology and system has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. As wealth inequality continues to widen in Singapore, there is growing concern that meritocracy privileges students from higher socioeconomic statuses.
One of the more recent commentaries on the subject comes in the form of the book This is What Inequality Looks Like, written by Associate Professor of Sociology Teo You Yenn from Nanyang Technological University. The book describes the mix of economic inequality and early differentiation that undermines meritocracy within the education system.
Ms. Teo writes that most middle class and upper class parents view parenthood as having certain prerequisites. They feel that every other parent is planning to spend a certain amount of time with their child on homework, as well as a certain amount of money on tuition and other amenities. Therefore, parents believe that it would be irresponsible to have a child without doing the same because their child would have an unfair disadvantage.
However, the issue is that not everyone has the means to provide all these resources. Ms. Teo points out that if lower class families had the same criteria for parenthood, then they would never have kids because they cannot possibly afford the same amount of time or money that middle class parents find necessary.
One example of the impact from these inequalities is that students from
There are also clear racial inequities in outcome. For example, Nabilah explained to us that she was the only Malay person in her GEP and IP classes despite Malays making up over 13 percent of Singapore’s population.
While she never experienced discrimination from her teachers or peers, there were things that poignantly showed that she and other non-Chinese were a very small minority. In her GEP class, because there were over 50 Chinese students and only 4 non-Chinese students, the GEP Chinese students had their own GEP mother tongue instructor while the 4 non-Chinese students had to take mother tongue classes with other non-GEP students. This also meant that during GEP Chinese mother tongue classes, the 4 non-Chinese students would sit in a classroom with an instructor, who kept them busy by teaching them philosophy — which is not part of the normal curriculum.
Beyond primary and secondary schools, Malays are also underrepresented at the tertiary level. A 2010 report showing that only 6.8%
While we have attempted to cover some of the important issues and topics in Singaporean education, we also stress again that this is an overview and cannot cover everything sufficiently. We hope that this article and its predecessor will serve as a useful starting point for you to engage further.
- The Meritocracy Trap: Required Reading for Anxious Elites - July 3, 2020
- Leones Luminantes: A History of the Secret Society on Campus - March 27, 2020
- Have Some Selective (Self) Empathy: Lessons from Nas Daily - October 21, 2019