Last Updated on July 13th, 2019 at 8:30 AM
When I was growing up in Singapore — I migrated to the U.S. when I was twenty — what caused me a lot of grief was the education system.
I don’t have a vendetta against the schools I attended. Some teachers really cared about students, in a way which went beyond how the students were performing academically.
It is the education system itself which I don’t remember fondly.
I always feel disheartened with reports in the establishment media that paint a rosy picture of Singapore’s education system (like here, here, and here). Few of them give a comprehensive overview of the real effects of the system.
Such reports do not dilute the clear memory I have — through direct experience — of the disadvantages of the aforementioned system.
2. Is there Elitism in Singapore’s Education System?
Despite a lot of talk about “meritocracy” being a core tenet of Singapore society, I distinctly remember a very pervading sense of elitism and privilege as a student.
Schools like Raffles and ACS were (and still are) considered elite schools. The students were considered smarter and therefore had a brighter future, as if grades were the only thing that determined a person’s chances of success in life!
Sadly this was the perception when I was a student in Singapore, and in some ways it still is part of the road to success if you’re sitting squarely in The Singapore System.
On a more personal level, if your boyfriend or girlfriend was from one of these elite schools, it raised the perception of your social class or status in the eyes of your peers. They were definitely seen as a “quality” date, regardless of any big character flaws or incompatible traits the person might have.
Even though the Raffles principal has tried to downplay the institution’s association with elitism, it doesn’t erase the fact that the school has had a history of defining its students as a group of elites. The curriculum and communications of the school also emphasise that students are the future “leaders and thinkers” of the nation.
It isn’t rocket science to assume or deduce that this breeds a belief that this group is “better than average,” and thus entitled to govern and be in positions of power.
There’s nothing wrong with a group of people that has above average intelligence or greater skill and talent than the average person. It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to be average or super-smart, and I have had some friends/crushes/acquaintances from said elite schools who are well-rounded high achievers.
The problem is the entitlement (i.e. having a right to something) and privilege that often accompanies an elitist mindset. In a real meritocracy, an elite group of people progresses because of their ability and talent instead of class privilege.
It recalls Former Foreign Minister George Yeo’s words about remembering one’s “place in society” before engaging in political debate, and reminding people not to take on “those in authority as ‘equals’.” Does this sound like meritocracy and democracy?
For more information, check out The Ruling Elite of Singapore, academic Michael Barr’s book on how personal networks form the true core of power and influence in Singapore.
3. “You’re Throwing Away Your Future!”
Photo by Caroline Chia/SPH
I did quite well throughout most of my years as a primary and secondary school student in Singapore (Katong Convent Primary School and St. Anthony’s Canossian Secondary School, respectively). I attended Temasek Polytechnic for 1.5 years (I was enrolled in mass communications).
I switched from the pure science stream to arts stream when I was in Secondary 3, by choice, because I preferred the arts curriculum and the subjects there.
I didn’t hate math or science — I just had a higher level of interest in history and literature instead of a triple science combination (physics/biology/ chemistry).
Some of my fellow schoolmates at the time were shocked beyond belief that I made that switch.
Schoolmate #1: “But you’re the smartest student in the whole level!” (I was the top student for two years.)
Schoolmate #2: “OH MY GOD. What are you doing? You’re throwing away your future!”
I just kept quiet at the time as I thought to myself:
Dudes, all I’m doing is switching from the pure science to arts stream BECAUSE I want to study subjects I’m actually interested in. How is this going to limit my future? If things are really so confined or restrictive, I can seek out other avenues later, even if it means checking things out in another country if the situation is so bad that I have to extricate myself from it entirely.
Turns out that I did end up removing myself from the situation entirely. Why? Because (many years later), I realize the value of being capable of independent thought, instead of having to conform to a system.
Now I don’t mean the exact opposite, where systems are completely useless because everybody should be “free” to do what they want (and that’s coming from somebody who’s a self-described author/artist/non-conformist).
But when there is a problem, or problems, with a system, then it is in everybody’s interest that those points be made clearly and factually.
4. The Real Truth of the System’s ‘Mantra’
The extreme “rote learning” method in Singapore forces students to score well for the exams by memorizing and regurgitating facts.
The only time I started to enjoy reading and writing Mandarin was once I was out of school — because, hey! Things were actually more interesting (songs, comics, films in Mandarin), as opposed to the memorization of words/characters/vocabulary without the slightest element of engagement or fun.
“Just memorize, get good grades, and you’re The Perfect Role Model Student.”
Never mind if you can’t think for yourself or have no interest in formulating your own opinions on what is right/wrong, on what you like/dislike, on what you really want to do or be in the future.
“Work hard, study hard, get a good job (in the following lucrative sectors: banking, law, medicine, engineering, accountancy) — and you’re set for life.”
THAT was the real mantra of the Singapore education system, when I was a student in it for 12 years straight.
Notice that it is elitist in principle (the narrowing down of certain sectors that are “better” than the rest — and “better” solely because they are the traditionally financially lucrative industries).
There’s no room for any creativity or anyone to pursue their passion if it falls outside of what is deemed to be “good.”
The real truth is that it’s not what’s necessarily good for you — it’s what’s good for the Singapore economy (with citizens having been referred to as actual economic “digits”).
5. Stress, Homework, Suicide — And More Stress
I wasn’t ever miserable as a student to the point of suicide, though it has driven many others over that edge.
But I remember the dreariness of school holidays, which weren’t vacation time at all, due to the loads of homework designed to keep students “industrious.”
And if homework wasn’t enough, there were the tuition/supplementary lessons as well as extra-curricular activities which literally ate up any remaining free time I had.
Now that I think about it, I think the loads of homework were partly designed to keep me from having “free thoughts” about anything else apart from being a good student (refer to “the real mantra” in above section).
Kids and teenagers shouldn’t be growing up in a pressure-cooker environment that stifles their minds, on top of having their voices or opinions silenced and/or not valued.
Yes, there should be some limits. For example, if a student was expressing him/herself rudely, or being violently disruptive for the sake of being rebellious.
But in an education system that equates “stress” with “industriousness,” and anything that doesn’t neatly conform to it as “rebellious,” it’s easy to “feel like an outcast even if one is desperately trying to fit in” (I read that description off a friend’s blog ‘about me’ page when we were 17).
6. The Turning Point for Me
I quit my polytechnic course halfway because I didn’t feel particularly motivated, inspired or engaged with the course material.
Now again, I was enrolled in a mass communications course.
I didn’t enroll in that course because I had aspirations to be a deejay or TV news anchor. I enrolled because I had an interest in media and society, and maybe journalism, since everybody in Singapore told me that that was the field I should look into because I liked to write (dismissing the fact that what I like to write is fiction!).
There were several things that eventually made me so dissatisfied and disillusioned, that withdrawing from the course (with no backup plan or ANY idea what I was going to do thereafter) was still a better option than completing it just because I had to.
I remember one instance very clearly during my first year there.
During a journalism class, the very nice/friendly lecturer said with a compliant smile:
“Guys, as we all know, this is Singapore [so there are just some things you can and cannot say in the media]…”
My classmates were cool, friendly, and smart.
But I remember how everybody just took what the lecturer said — with no protest, no questions, no nothing. It was a very uninspiring moment because I was secretly expecting more.
While I admit that I didn’t do or say anything at that point either (I was a very quiet, unhappy mass comm student), that was the moment which made my 16 or 17 year-old brain “wake up” to the fact that I really wasn’t happy, with my life, situation, everything, and that I had to do something about it instead of being crippled by indecision.
Instinctively, I just felt it was wrong that it was accepted practice that nobody could really “speak their mind” in my country of origin without any serious repercussions (these articles on Gopalan Nair, Chee Soon Juan, and the late Jeyaretnam show the kind of treatment that “the opposition” has to go through).
7. I’m A Human Being, Not A Digit
As a student, what I really wanted to be educated on was how to be a happy, purposeful and productive HUMAN BEING (not a “digit” for the economy).
I wanted to study subjects I had a real interest in, in the hopes it would help me identify my potential areas of skill and expertise so that I could eventually make a living from doing something I enjoy.
What kind of message is the system giving, when generations grow up in a stressful environment where you’re separated into “elite” or “non-elite” schools, instead of being part of an environment that endeavors to identify and bring out the best in each student (not all of whom have solely academic talents!!).
The following paragraph from a perceptive article says it all:
“The views of some of Singapore’s ‘elite’ students are revealing and disturbing. . .While the education system can produce excellent engineers and scientists, can the same be said of raising potential leaders who are sensitive to society’s needs?”
(Seah Chiang Nee, The Star Malaysia)
To me, one of the primary purposes of education should be to enable students to become capable, global-minded citizens, who have some kind of mental/spiritual/emotional involvement with their chosen line of work because of the contributions they can make to society, big or small.
An education system which suppresses independent thought, discourages the act of questioning, and dismisses this thing called ‘passion’, is not going to produce ideal human beings.
Here are the things the system does promote the development of.
It fosters apathy. It fosters inarticulation (“uh, ah, um, hmm“). It fosters subordination to the system’s one and only goal.
It produces people who are afraid to think, unable to question, and uninspired to seek out the truth.
Perhaps most disastrously, it fosters the belief that any kind of change is impossible. Heck, even the thought of any kind of change is an unwelcome thing (think of all the trouble you’d get into!).
But change is possible (which is what really scares the ones who are most invested in not disrupting the status quo).
People are not being delusional when they say:
“Every single action we take, however small, does have an impact on change…if we have the means to contribute, like with writing skills, it would be a pity not to use it.”
(Gopalan Nair, Singapore Dissident)
I published this blog post because like many other people who express similar views, what I’m interested in is The Truth.
That is just one of my many interests I developed outside of the education system that has been the focal topic of this article.
Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to share their informed thoughts with others.
* * *
Websites With More Information:
(1) The Fascism of Singapore (by an Israeli Math PhD who studied in a Singapore university)
(2) Singapore Education Producing Timid, Robotic Minds (online political activist)
(3) The Educational System in Singapore (concise forum post on an overview of the system and what can be done to improve it)
(4) Singapore Schools Shaping Elitist Mindset (article by The Star)
(5) Observations on Elitism in Singapore (by a former teacher of an ‘elite’ secondary school, with a mention on how wealth can be a handicap)
(6) Why Do We Do This To Our Children? (on young students in Singapore committing suicide over examination stress)
(7) Celebrities leave Singapore because of kids’ education (The Online Citizen)
22 thoughts on “Singapore’s Education System – The Truth Behind The Myth”
A dreadful condition
This is from an email from my good friend in the UK.
He shared his thoughts on what a good education should consist of.
“…Academics can be a bit isolated intellectually, which is ironic. They can be very insular.
There are many strands in a successful society that need to be encouraged in varying measures. Some of the top ones are.
1. The creation of wealth
2. The pursuit of knowledge, especially the sciences
3. The nurturing of the arts
4. The distribution of wealth and the provision of welfare, education and vital services
Just as there is a balance to be struck in society, there is a balance for individuals too. If you are clever and healthy you should be able to support yourself financially. You should never stop learning. You need to make time to nurture your creative side and you should look after your mental and physical wellbeing.
Everybody should be taught maths and money management, I think, as they are fundamental life skills and a lot harder than they seem. You need more than common sense.”
Sorry leh, yr schools are juz OK schools. Not gd schools, let alone elite schools. So can’t say you had gd results. On a serious note, the S’pore system is equivalent to training for military units like SEALs, SBS, SAS, Delta Force etc. Not everyone aspires to be one, let alone have the capability to pass such training. Taz the problem with the system. Even within the elite schools, there are those who can win scholarships, and the others who can’t win scholarships to save their lives (like me). Taz life. Talk of rote learning, etc are red herrings because the scholarship kids often do well at Harvard, Stamford etc.
@atans1: I enjoyed the friendships with my classmates very much. I could have chosen to go to a “more elite” secondary school if I wanted to (I made my selection based on other factors).
P.S. You are the exact “product” of the system that I wrote about in this post. Try to expand your mind a little bit in future. And spell properly ;)
This is so so true Jess. I am British but I have witnessed this second hand from my Asian cousins. I am now on a mish to change the Woman’s Charter which is molding & encouraging Gold Diggas. My bf is in a situation where he has to pay half of everything he owns and works for to his ex wife when SHE cheated twice and kidnapped
their son ( you can’t say this in court as it may ‘upset’ the woman). The saddest thing of all is she forbids him to see him. It is paradise here but only through post cards x x
Best wishes with your mission :)! Such cases can be very selfish and ugly.
I guess no country is absolutely perfect. But there are some basic civil rights that matter a lot to me on a personal/psychological basis (like freedom of speech, a system of checks and balances to help protect citizen’s rights, etc.)
Come on, I felt something is wrong when they tried to teach us to sing the song ‘its okay to be nobody’ (小人物的心聲) during music class in primary school (6th grade).
Thankfully, I wasn’t taught that song (LOL!)
I’m one of the guys you linked to in this article.
I went through the education system 20 years ago when it was pressurising but maybe not as pressurising as it is now. I think it was possible for people with genuine creativity to come up in that system.
I did not like the undue emphasis on rote learning in the school and I went away to the US for university. But I’d say that the Singapore system did its job and prepared me well. I didn’t feel that stifled, maybe I was good at different things and it was still possible to learn how to be creative. Yes, we were a bunch of guys who had a lot of fun gathering around to bitch about the system, which was healthy because it made us think hard about the system.
Life in Singapore is pretty good if you’re not so sensitive and you can afford to not give a shit about what people think. Anyway the truly creative people aren’t that sensitive. They can always handle a little bit of being stifled. When you grow old you will know that it is a bit like being taught how to be a rebel, it is a blessing in disguise.
The fact is that it’s not just Singapore. Nobody really likes creative people. It’s not easy to be a rebel. You have to be a bit more sneaky, a bit more daring, a bit more thick skinned. And Singapore’s as good as any other place to learn that.
I was a science student and I did a lot of mathematics, so I never really thought the system was against me. But at the same time I never felt that my artistic streak was being neglected. I was never short of opportunities to grow in that direction either.
The Singapore system has its faults but it’s not so screwed up that you can’t make the best of what’s given you. It’s just like any other system in that some types of people will benefit from it more than others.
I guess it depends on the company one keeps (re: nobody really liking creative people).
I suppose the Singapore system is good if people don’t question it.
As a journalist wrote: “It is said that Singaporeans learn from a very early age what is politically acceptable to say in public.” (Mumbrella Asia)
There are good parts about the Singapore system. If you’re lucky you’ll be trained to be good at critical thinking. And then you don’t really have to be political before JC2. You can always rebel later because you’re already trained to think properly.
I have to qualify that I was in a politically permissive environment, even though that environment existed in a school that one normally wouldn’t think of as being politically permissive.
Even creative people don’t really like people who are different from them, so if you want to break out from your company, it will still be a struggle. If you’re comfortable with the people around you then you will ipso facto be less creative.
Love this post too much. I’m a student taking O levels this year and I can never finish my homework. Really feel that we need to speak up. :(
Good luck with your O levels — there is life beyond examinations!
I enjoyed this recent post on CCA stress in Singapore schools:
Fellow Singaporean here. I know this is like more than 1 year later from your original post but I just came across it while researching for an assignment, and I’d just like to say how much I agree with you.
I actually went through almost exactly the same thing as you, just that I wasn’t really a top student in my class or school. I faced the same criticisms as you did when I decided I wanted to pursue the arts instead of things like science or business, even from my very own family. But I fought for what I wanted because I wanted to do what I wanted and not what others wanted, and I wanted to be myself. And the part about being told to do journalism even though I preferred writing fiction was totally the same haha.
I went to a JC, didn’t do quite well for my A levels as I sort of gave up due to too much stress towards the end, so I didn’t do well enough to get into a local university. It didn’t really bother me much though, I enrolled in a local-based international school, and even though most of the lecturers are Singaporeans, I’m glad to say that their mindset is less Singaporean-teacher like, although once in a while the typical Singapore education mindset would appear. And I’m glad that at least my lit teachers in JC, as well as the lecturers I have now, encourage us to think differently and not conform to the common ways of thinking. We are taught to approach things in other ways and perspectives, and that there is no right or wrong answer, only how well you are able to explain your way of thinking.
So to everyone who feels restricted by the Singapore education, and wants to be different, I just want to say: go ahead and be different. All you have to do is really believe in what you want to do, and nobody can stop you. You’ll be able to find a way if you trust in yourself.
hi Rubyfur, thanks for your comments!
looking back, i guess i was fortunate to have several teachers that were a bit more “liberal” (while working within their limitations as educators in SG). and i’m in a bit of an ironic situation right now, as my “left brain” seems to be having more influence over my work/career choices at the moment.
i guess it was the rigid structure of the SG education system that caused me a lot of grief. it works well for people who can conform, but i felt i had to ‘exit’ the system in order to really cultivate and/or pursue my interests, which kind of defeats the (ideal) purpose of a real education.
i am thankful for my literature teacher / course during my secondary school days as well. it was a breath of fresh air amidst the other subjects because of the expressive and critical thinking combination.
great to hear about the positive experiences with your current lecturers :)
it is indeed true that there are lots more choices “out there,” whenever one feels restricted by something. it would have been nice to have had this fact reiterated during the stress of feeling restricted while in the system, lol! but in true lifelong learning fashion, i guess one can learn something new everyday…
Very insightful thanks. when I visited Singapore last year I chatted with so many locals about the aducation system.
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Hey Jess! This is really an interesting article that touches on the education system in Singapore. I noticed that you’ve highlighted several key points in the article.
Firstly, different perceptions that separates education level
Secondly, stress factor on students
Thirdly, teaching style in educating
However, every sides have it’s story. In every point, there’s pros and cons. In recent months, the Ministry of Education have been fighting tooth and nail and make improvement and adjustment to change the perceptions of Singaporeans on the different type of schools – It seems to be the distinct line drawn between elite schools and neighborhood schools. This can be evident from the Ministry of Education website, “Every School A Good School”. [Reference : http://www.moe.gov.sg/initiatives/every-school-good-school/%5D
Secondly, stress factor does not comes from outside but within. To fully understand what does ‘stress’ means, it is essential we know the definition of ‘stress’ and how it can be achieve by a human being. In the process of ‘stress’, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones – including adrenaline and cortisol. Therefore, stress cannot be determined and measured by how much homework or test we are given. Stress is ultimately the way we respond to situation. Thus, rather than looking in terms of “how stress students are”, we should look at what are given to students in school (for instance CCA, etc) and how achievable it is for the student.
Thirdly, style of teaching is taught in a way to ‘memorise’ due to how the examinations are set. However, this does not means that by memorising the whole textbook, you’ll ace the subject. An examination makes up of several components. For an example, in secondary school, there’s definition questions in written paper, applications questions in written paper and even SPA practical exam.
In conclusion, I strongly believe that there’s always pros and cons to every situation. There seems to be no clear and distinct answer. It is through different perceptions, we see different opinions. I’ve been through the system and I know how it feels. That’s the main reason why DirectPoly was created – to help students with their direct polytechnic admission at http://directpoly.com
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