Tuesday, January 25, 2011

More Hard Truths About Education In Singapore

In a new twist to his graduate mother policy, Lee Kuan Yew is blaming parents for the difference between "brand-name" schools and neighbourhood schools. He observed that 72 per cent of Raffles Girls' School pupils have fathers who are university graduates while it was 9 per cent at Bukit Merah Secondary. The disparity is similar across the schools in terms of educational profiles of mothers. He urged non-graduate parents to bring their children to the library from an early stage, "They must get their children accustomed to ... acquiring knowledge by themselves and not be spoon-fed by teachers."

We know how "brand-name" schools end up with the graduate parents. 18 year old Wong Zheng Kai explained it clearly and patiently to the slow learner: "Hwa Chong's fees would be too taxing on my parents." While the monthly fee at Dunman High is $37, it is $300 at Hwa Chong. Grossly out of touch, Lee was still thinking meritocracy alone determines placement in secondary schools when he posed his question to her earlier, "What made you choose Dunman High? Which schools did you try to get in but couldn't? Let's not be shy."

Let's not be shy. There are the poor who need a leg up to level the playing field (Recall the education of rookie MP Michael Palmer: "Before I joined the grassroots organisation, I never knew there were poor people in developed countries"). Northbrooks Secondary principal Janet Oh told MediaCorp it was not easy to "just encourage parents to support their child's learning" when their physical needs are not met. Northbrooks encourages students to stay back for two periods after school to build up the habit of doing homework, but "Many of them don't stay back after school because they have no money for lunch." This school provides money for lunch and recess. Thank you, principal Oh.

About the spoon-feeding by teachers: A Norwegian lady friend doing her doctorate here sent her two daughters to a neighborhood school because she didn't want them to be pampered by the likes of the American School (who bent the rules for Lee's autistic grandson). Her personal observation after 2 years was that the teachers here don't cover all the syllabus material in class, and the kids are expected to have tutors to make up the shortfall. Needless to say, the poor can hardly cough up the extortion money charged by tutors these days. Someone who emigrated to Canada also noted their kids studying there have no homework - the teaching and learning are completed during classroom hours.

Some schools require a PSLE score of at least 265 before doling out the financial assistance. Kids who don't do well academically because their parents can't afford the "books and all the paraphernalia that makes for a learning child" mentioned by Lee, end up spiralling deeper into the poverty trap. And into the tentacles of the local street gangs. At least some of those guys are more genuine in offering a helping hand than the MOE officials.


  1. I have taught in a few neighbourhood secondary school. In neighbourhood schools, it is impossible to cover the syllabus materials for the following reasons:
    (1) Students' discipline is so bad that it is very difficult to even conduct a proper lesson (Most students have absolutely no respect for authority, since they are also beyond parental control. In addition, teachers' hands are now tied by many MOE's rules in disciplining them.)
    (2) The students' command of the English language is so poor that they have difficulty understanding even simple terms, so it would take a lot of time to even cover one chapter of the syllabus. And there is only so much time available in school. (Most students also would rather not stay back in school for extra classes.)
    (3) Given their family background, only a very small minority of students is motivated enough to want to learn in school. The rest are just marking time in school.

    Why can't our local media do more investigative reports on the REAL situation of Singapore's educational system, rather than just keep coming up with feel-good pieces? Many teachers would be very happy to share the truth with them.

  2. Writing from the states, we pay no school fees ($300 Hwa Chong) for K-12. Schools provide subsidized and free lunches, even during summer break, to needy kids so that they can learn with a full stomach. There are tutorial sessions staffed by teachers after school everyday for anyone who wishes to attend. The school district provides textbooks to all students. There are also free school bus rides to take children to schools. So the cost to parents is minimal. Of course the money has to come from somewhere, and in this case, the taxes we pay.

    Many private and charter schools also provide some financial aids to help families. Some highly sought after private schools actively seek out poor students to diversity the student body and to give them extra opportunities.

    Where we live, public schools are quite good. Our children attend public schools. (Money was not an issue in our case.)

    I hope Singapore will look at the operations of successful public schools here and learn some lessons from them.

  3. @3:19, this only happens in the States. Never in Singapore. The authority in Singapore knows what ought to be done but have consciously decided not to do it. It's the society of the rich looking after the rich. Keep the underclass where they are to reduce competition and provide ample cheap labour. Don't ever for one moment think Singapore is a First World country but in name only. Or at least the government like to think that it is one. Many in Singapore are living in the Third World.

  4. @7:05, I agree with you that Singapore can do a lot more to help its poor. The sooner it stops to operate as "Singapore Inc," the better for its citizens.

    Internet has had some influence on policies, however miniscule. It was not long ago where public discussions were not even possible. So there is hope for change for the better, especially for the under-privileged.

  5. Education is no more a level playing field. Graduate couples can afford to send their primary school kids to $70-$100 an hour tuition/enrichment classes. Normal salaried couples cannot afford to do so. Granted that you still need some brain juice to get there but you cannot deny that it is an unfair allocation of resources. These middle/upp class families are also the ones adding pressure to scholarships for prestige reason. And do not forget we have numerous scholarships for foreign students, ex PRCs on chinese related scholarships (ironic), to squeeze out the poor fellas.

  6. Dear writer from the States,

    I think it is fair to say that you live in a good area in America.

    Go to any inner city and you would find that schools would be less well run than an average Singaporean school.

    My understanding is that American schools are very uneven in quality given that their resources are tied to municipal taxes.

    Is that correct?

  7. Yes, many of the American public schools are really bad, because student and their families who go there do not have resources to have better facilities, books, libraries, staff, etc. And in the US, you don't pay school fees, but you pay a school tax, which differs depending on which area you live in. so, good public school = paying high property price and high yearly property tax.
    singapore has a lot of work to do, but to their credit, they send good teachers to both neighborhood schools and brand-name schools.. elsewhere, the schools are on their own.

  8. Writer from the States1/26/2011 3:15 PM


    I live in a major city. Yes, many inner city schools have significant challenges but there have been concerted effort to raise public school standards via "No child left behind" and other federal/state mandate and funding.

    One needs to compare Singapore to a similar major city, not some inner city, as it is not.

    The average state funding per student in the US is about US$9000 a year. In my state, K-12 education consumes over a quarter of the state's revenue! So you may want to quiz your MP about government spending per student as compared to other developed nations.

    I disagree with anon@12:16 that many American public schools lack resources as you can see from funding data above. Property tax is a major source of school funding. But it taxes the rich proportionally more; more so if they send their children to private schools.

    I hope this helps.

  9. Dear Writer from states

    Unless you are in Manhattan area/Sonoma Valley/Orange County, the public school funding in the states are definitely below par.
    Even for those good areas, as if there is no competition to go to the best elite schools which charge an arm and leg.
    Is the same thing is it , that people need to pay, however, what you forget to point out that the rich district school tax can only be utilised for the particular district,so what fairness is that.

    The Singapore public school system (up to Sec School) may be bad in terms of creativity or rote learning but in terms of funding and school facilities/teachers to kids, I would say its significantly better overall than any major US/UK/Aust.

    There may be disparity in terms of kiasuness and hence at end of day, what is needed is parent involvement.

    Further, Singapore schools most have libraries for its own students and also computer facilities, it may not be the latest, but still available.

    Not only that, considering , the renewal of books and upgrading of facilities , no child is left behind if they make the effort.
    However, in terms of soft skills, more can be done or the tertiary sector.
    I am not interested in the rheotoric but the practicality.


  10. The old man, the elite, the education ministry and the media likes to concentrate on the success stories.

    They are merely repeating the mistakes of an entire generation of Western education experts who till the beginning of the last century, failed to realize that poverty plays a huge part on how a student performs in school.

    That is why I sneer at LKY and his "hard truths". Set in the mindset of only seeing what was in front of him and failing to comprehend the circumstances which created his "hard truths". His "hard truths" have already seen the govt throw taxpayer money after people who are already well poised for success while viciously stomping on those who struggle to uplift themselves from poverty.

  11. This whole topic is a red herring, a gigantic smoke bomb, a non-issue designed to deflect attention away from major mistakes, in light of the coming elections.

    Why else would the old man suddenly be spouting a lot of shit nowadays?

  12. weapons of mass distraction?

  13. Writer from the States1/27/2011 1:08 AM


    Do you have Singapore government spending per student (K-12) to show that it is "significantly better overall than any major US/UK/Aust.?" In the US, it is about $9k per student.

    Yes, there are sub par public schools in the states due to the financial situation of the locality (e.g. Detroit.) But Singapore is no Detroit. It needs to compare to similar regions based on income and wealth.

    I encourage you to learn more about other developed countries' education funding and discuss with your MP on ways to ensure that education opportunities are available to all, especially the under-privileged.

    I shall stop here. Thank you.

  14. i think it would be quite curious to find out and compare the percentage of people in so-called upper class, middle class and lower class schools attending tuition...
    it would also be quite interesting to survey various sectors of industry (business, media & entertainment, sales/promotion, education, etcetc) or management positions in a business and see if there is correlation between types of jobs/job positions and education background. a lot has been said about education, but anyone looked at implications of the kind of education received on jobs yet?

  15. Having been living in UK for the past 8 years with my wife and 4 children, I’m shock to know that Hwa Chong is charging $300/month and Dunman High is $37/month.

    Our children’s education and medical care are provided free by UK government, free does not equal to inferior standard, my eldest son is studying in one of the Grammar Schools (age 11 to 18) in UK, and the school standard is quite similar to Hwa Chong, the only different is ‘free’. My eldest daughter had also studied in one of the Grammar schools before and is currently doing Bio Medical Sciences in University and do note that her PSLE result was only 217 points and the result could only bring her to a neighbourhood Secondary school express stream at that time, we left Singapore when she was in Secondary one. She is a late bloomer and her dream profession is to become a doctor and she is working very hard to achieve her dream provided she could get a Second upper which I think she is able to, I wonder what would become of her if she were in Singapore.

    Some of my son’s classmates are from poor background and they were given free lunch in order to keep them in school (since education is free in UK and the class starts at 8.45am and end at 3.35pm), please also take note that the class ratio is 1: 25 or fewer and is only single session in every state school. The UK government is trying very hard to help these children to achieve academically or to master a skill after their GCSE.

    The youngest two are in year 6 and year 5 respectively, public school as well, the elder one is going to take his grade 5 violin in March and the younger one is doing grade 3 as well. The elder one has taken the entrance examination in one of the top Grammar Schools in UK, the school admitted only 112 students every year and 28 of them went to Oxbridge last year! The principal mentioned this to all parents during the open day: I urge all those who can afford to go private school please give the chances to those who can’t! I like and admire this kind of attitude from this sort of principal, a true educationist! Compare the scenario in Singapore, everything is measured in dollars and cents, will the poor be able to get out of the poverty trap?

    May I suggest this to MOE, Singapore is rich enough to provide world class education to all our citizens, we can afford to have a single session for each and every public school, cut the present ratio of teacher to students to 1: 25 for secondary school and sixth form, 1: 30 or fewer in primary school with teacher cum an assistant teacher. Provide free education include text books to all poor students (in UK text books are provided free to all students), the rich can go to private school like Hwa Chong, cut the funding to this elite school, but keep those good public schools and make sure the poor are not being rejected to these school because of lack of monies, assist them to get into these school, as education is the only way to eradicate poverty in society!

  16. Scholarships for local students should be adjusted, by percentage of funding, selection criteria or otherwise, to provide opportunities for bright students from under privileged backgrounds. I know too many scholarship holders who live in landed/private parents who can afford their studies overseas without a sweat. And what do they do after graduating from ivy league unis and oxbridge? Work for a few years, then break their bonds. Govt should really look into these statistics. After all it's also taxpayers money.

  17. "I urge all those who can afford to go private school please give the chances to those who can’t!"

    Assuming that the above statement is accurately quoted by the principal, let's compare it with the old man's hard truth that he prefers his grandchild to opt for a state scholarship knowing full well that his family could easily afford it. What does this tell about this person with such selfish intentions ? Don't he feel awkward or embarassed for even for a moment ?

    And what about all the rest of the PAP Ministers, MPs, bureaucrats, lawyers, doctors, etc. who do likewise ? Don't they feel shameful as well ?

  18. Meritocracy is a joke. It has been so distorted into the idea that "if I am rich, I must deserve all this". That is not true meritocracy. That's just elitism, and breeding a society of individuals who feel entitled to everything without sympathy or empathy for the less fortunate.

    All this is leading to the widening social disparity that is going to rip the nation apart one day if we allow this to keep going on unchecked.

  19. @kirsten

    To me, it's more like, "they weren't good enough, so they don't deserve all this".

  20. Reading the comments from various bloggers, it appears there are common points on what ought to be done to make access to education more equitable in Singapore. The question is how do we use our so called democratic process to compel the government to give what the people want. Then again, do we have true democracy or just an election every 4 years. And one more thing, I don't buy that our very own Asian value democracy crap.

  21. I've friends who went to secondary school and JC for Lee's autistic grandson, and I was in the same primary school as him

  22. Decades ago, 90% of UK students who got into Oxbridge and Russell Group Universities were mainly from private schools, in order to rectify this situation the Labour and conservative government spent substantial amount of money to assist state schools to narrow such gaps, check this link below and you can see what are the progress Grammar Schools have made for the past few years:

    Please note Colchester Royal Grammar School was only at the top notch for the past 3 to 4 years (can’t remember the exact time). The quote "I urge all those who can afford to go private school please give the chances to those who can’t!" is nothing but the truth, as the initial intention is to assist children who are from lower socio-economic backgrounds to get into Oxbridge or The Russell Group Universities (similar to the Ivy League in USA).

    Where there is a will, there is a way! There is nothing Singapore government can’t do, if only if this government have the determination to help the poor to get out of this poverty trap. The only problem is they choose not to listen, and if they choose not to listen, ‘What can we do?’ my father-in-law asked me the other day when I was in Singapore to pay them and my parent a visit, my reply was, ‘Use your vote to warn them, this is the only way!’ He looked deep into my eyes and kept quiet for a period of time. Well, he is a hard core fan to PAP after all!

  23. @ 5:08 AM
    "Well, he is a hard core fan to PAP after all!"
    With all due respect, he may know only of Singapore's golden years, and have not been updated of today's issues. Your contribution will go a long way.

  24. Dear Writer from states

    If you want to look at funding, see the MOE statistics, further compare the funds of % of funds per Budget.

    For K12, they spend in excess of S$10K per pupil,so how does that help.

    The key issues is that is there equal spending by the govt of the day and adequate facilities.

    Further, this is irrespective of locality of schools unlike the States etc.

    In addition, whilst compensation can always be improved, at the least, the teaching profession is always being reviewed.

    For the secondary and below, it is difficult to find fault other than stress or for greater soft skills.

    However, for tertiary, more can always be done but dependent on budget on not creating a situation similar to USA/Phillipines where only ivy league or close to ivy league schools create value for its graduates but in preference to the German system.

    Further, Friedman has just blasted the assumptions made in your response.


  25. The cost of raising a child.


  26. @Anonymous

    Singapore GST: 7%
    UK VAT: 20%

    Free education? And that is why your taxes are so high, waiting list for "free" healthcare so long. And your economy in actual fact, shambles (been there too, if you know what i mean).

  27. @Anonymous February 11, 2011 10:58 AM,

    For goodness sake, you need to add indirect taxes imposed on you by PAP government, COE, ERP and many more...(you know more than me).

    A 5 rm flat (99 yr lease) in Sengkang cost about S$500,000 which is about £245,000, with this amount of money I can buy a 4 room house (freehold) in either Romford or Dagenham near London!

    By the way, the waiting list for free health is 'long', dun you think it is better than you rather die than get sick in Singapore, right?

    FYI, VAT does not tax on necessities such as milk, bread, rice and children's products (age 16 and below etc (too many items to add on the list). Have you heard of any Brits complain about the VAT is too high? NO, why not?

    One last thing for you to ponder, the competition among supermarkets in UK has pushed the prices low enough for the lower income group manage to have a decent living in UK.

    Frankly, you need to live long enough in UK to know what I mean!

    From Neville (SG in UK)

  28. Which sch did his son, lee hsien loong, tried to get imto? Dun be shy. Mayb, he tried raffles, hwachong, dunman, all rejected. So go cat high lor

    1. How can Raffles reject a Prime Minister's son, pls use ur BRAIN!!!!!!!!

  29. Hwa Chong is cheap with scholarship! :D

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