Monthly Archives: March 2012

Education in Singapore, by Eugene Chiong

(Visa: This time the emphasis actually isn’t mine, it’s mostly Eugene’s own. I’ve modified it slightly for readability.)

Having lived in Singapore for my entire life, and currently pursuing a university degree, I have experienced most of what Singapore has to offer in it’s education system, and I have grown to realize that, while Singapore has put an incredible amount of emphasis on education (20% of the annual national budget), there is something fundamentally flawed with the entire system. I’m not criticizing the quality of education that is provided to her citizens, but of the way it is approached in Singapore.

There are many articles indicating that Singapore is one of the best education hubs in the Southeast Asia, ranking 2nd in the world according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. Schooling begins at the age of 4 in nursery, then 5-6 in kindergarten, before proceeding into the more structured primary school system at age 7. Upon clearing the Primary School Leaving Examination after six years, one can proceed to secondary school, going into more advanced schoolwork and preparing for the GCE (General Certificate of Education) O-Levels. From there, the path branches, one of which leads to a Polytechnic, where he/she can specialize in certain areas of study that has more relevance to the industry. Doing moderately well for the O-levels will net a student a place in a Junior College, which will prepare him/her ultimately for the next and final phase of schooling, university.

Looking at that, it does seem that Singapore has in place a very well structured system that will provide for a child’s learning all the way from 4 years old till he/she turns into an adult. Almost everyone I know has followed this system, and so have I. So what is so flawed about this system?

The rigidity. The suppression of creativity.

Singapore has invested so much money into its education system, no one wishes to make any major changes to it. People follow it because everyone else does, and whoever does not fit into the system is usually labelled an outcast. Those having an interest in something they loved since young have their passion stifled because the schools do not have anything to nurture the creative thinking of their students, and the workload from school occupies most of the free time they have to do what they truly love. I have seen many teachers discourage thinking out of the box – they would rather have the students learn what is set by the school’s subject departmental heads in order to score well for the next test or exam. Those who do not fare well in class because they spend their free time pursuing some interest of theirs get scolded by their teachers, and in turn, their parents, for not doing well in their studies. Is it their fault that they are forced to learn something they have no love for?

Schools in Singapore boast a holistic education, which is another word for having a well rounded education. There is no fault in being well rounded, but another way to view it would be that the system is training us to be a jack of all trades, therefore a master of none. Since young, we delve into mathematics, into science, then further into the social sciences, geography, literature, and other subjects. We learn a bit of everything, but there is nothing we are really good at. On the other hand, schools in the United States are more dynamic; they still teach sciences and math at the lower levels, just like ours do, but the student can choose his/her choice of study in high school, which allows them to specialize in what they wish to learn, preparing them for university. In those high schools, creativity is generally encouraged, many good schools there nurture young talents by having their teachers recognize some special skill or passion the students have, and give them the necessary opportunities to develop that. With their teacher’s backing, their fear of pursuing what they really like is vanquished, leaving no barrier for them to take the road less traveled.

Having talked to several friends of mine who study in the US, I realized that is what Singapore needs in her education: educators should encourage students and give them space to find and chase their interests. In the US, there can be adults who do not even know basic math that we learn in secondary school, but they are incredibly good at history compared to even history teachers in Singapore, because they spent their entire schooling life chasing that.

I have observed this flaw since secondary school, the sheer rigidity about our education system. That was when I decided to act upon it, and chase after where my passion lay. I first studied in Jing Shan Primary School, which is a typical neighbourhood primary school in Ang Mo Kio. Scoring a decent 252 for my PSLE, I went on to study in Catholic High School, where I quickly fell behind my classmates as I started thinking of what I wanted out of my schooling, and decided that my current school was not really worth my time as there was nothing much I was interested in there. The only class I liked was D&T (Design and Technology), as I have always loved to do arts and crafts since young. Halfway through my second year of study in CHS, I was told of an upcoming school specialized in mathematics and science, and I knew, straightaway, that that was where I was meant to go.

And so I applied for the school, cleared the entrance exam, and continued my 3rd year of secondary school education in NUS High School of Mathematics and Science. It was there where I knew my interests lay; I loved mathematics and science, and that school was just right for me then. Over the course of 4 years, I learned a great many things that I knew I would not have if I continued my education in other secondary schools and JCs. Rather than pursuing a more rounded education which would include many classes on social studies and the like, I decided to trash that and learn what I really liked. Does that mean that NUS High is a better school than others? No, I’m not saying that. The point I’m driving is that rather than have a more all rounded education in other schools, NUS High offered a specialization in the areas of mathematics and science, and also allowing me to spend less time studying those subjects I have no interest in. I was studying not for the grades (My grades were below average in the level), but to satisfy my thirst for more knowledge in science as well as math.

Upon graduating from NUS High a few years ago, a few things occurred to me. Firstly, from primary school till JC, most students go through the same few things over and over, and all they do every semester is to study enough to score well for the next exam. Most do not care about learning anything outside of their school’s curriculum, what mattered was just their grades. In JC, the two years spent is mostly preparing for the GCE A-levels. Those who strive to do well would spend every ounce of their free time to do past year questions, sacrificing their sleep, social life, and their own hobbies/interests. It was as if grades mattered the world to them. Secondly, it does not help that parents nowadays care only about their children’s grades, not of their actual education. I carefully separate what I mean by what they learn in school, and their education. A child’s education is what he/she learns, just that. It could be some art, some sport they pick up, in their free time; That is all part of their education. What they learn in school, however, is different. Most schools in the US would teach material relevant enough for the students to connect that with their own education at home or in their free time. In Singapore, students do not actually take away much from school. Worse still, to most, their education is bound by their school grades, and hence, every student has learned more or less the same thing, because they do not take the initiative to find our more about anything outside of school.

As the pioneer batch that entered NUS High, there was a small student to teacher ratio as there were very few students then. Teachers had more time to dedicate to us, plus many of them were fresh NUS graduates, so they had with them years of knowledge that they could readily pass to the next generation. Many of these teachers were passionate about teaching, and the more they got to know us, the more they were willing to spend time addressing our endless questions. It goes to show that a more personal relationship between teacher and student lowers many barriers between them, allowing the student to freely fulfill his/her thirst without feeling as awkward.

Luckily for me, I had, in my own opinion, a more proper education, thanks to my father, to which I am very grateful for. His first method of educating me sparked my interest in mathematics, and it has stuck ever since. When I was 5-8 years old, he would go to a convenience store a few blocks away, late in the evening, to buy some snacks back to eat. Being the overactive child I was, I always bugged him to bring me along. So he did, letting me come along in the car wearing my pajamas and driving to the store. And just like most little kids, I always went there to choose a few snacks I wanted to eat. However, after a few trips, he came up with an idea to make me work for my snacks: He would buy me those snacks only if I could calculate the price of everything bought that night correctly.

Rather than be dissuaded, I took it as a personal challenge, and proceeded to add the prices up mentally. The convenience store uncle was a nice old man in his 70s; he enjoyed watching me try and add those prices up (Mind you, adding of values with two decimal digits was no easy feat for someone who hasn’t even started primary school), so he would slowly enter the prices in the register to give me time. After a couple of years, I became so good at it, I could add up prices as fast as he could type it in the register. That was what sparked my love for maths came.

My sister recognized that I had a very inquisitive mind, always asking questions and wanting to know more. For my 10th birthday, she bought me a pocket encyclopedia, which quickly became my greatest treasure and favourite book. I would read it cover to cover, learning all the interesting facts there is to know about the world. By primary 5, I knew how atoms work and interact, and I read about relativity and how time slowed down as we moved close to the speed of light. It was much to the annoyance of my classmates, as I became complacent and began flaunting my knowledge to others.

In Sec 3, I started playing Maplestory, and quickly discovered that their system was easy to exploit. I learned of a forum that people discussed and developed hacks meant for the game. That was where I learned coding, and thus my foundation in Pascal, C, and Assembly. It also sparked my greatest passion in my life, which is to create things from scratch, with naught but a computer and a keyboard.In my entire life, all the inspiration I got to do what I loved, came nowhere from school. Maths from my father, science from my sister, programming from a game I played.

People need to realize that following the Singapore education system is not all that mattered. What matters, too, is to inspire their own children, and let that inspiration drive them, propel their own education. That is what will make them learn better in school, and also gain a proper education. Not force them to do what they have no interest in.

With grades being the sole emphasis and benchmark in “education” in Singapore, I have heard many things students say, or do, which irks me to no limit. A close friend of mine recently told me that she remember nothing from secondary school, because it was not important. All that mattered was to do well in the exam, after which, what was learned could be forgotten since it was not needed anymore. I found that very unsettling. Is that the mindset of students nowadays? Apparently, it is. Actually, that conversation with my friend brought to light something I had observed over many years, but chose to ignore.

Having taught Physics and Mathematics for over 5 years as a tuition teacher, I have come across dozens of students, and many of them seek tuition only to score, and nothing else. All that mattered was being able to do the questions in their assessment books, their term tests, and their exams. Very few sought to understand the basis of what was taught; they cared only if what I told them would allow them to solve the questions posed. Of course, I didn’t buy into any of this bullshit. Those who went through my teachings would have to learn everything from the foundation up, that way, it would be a more complete learning process than what was taught in school. It also brought to my attention that the school teachers nowadays have very low standards. They teach only what was needed to be taught, and anything that was out of the syllabus, they usually would have no knowledge of, and hence avoid off content questions that students ask. That is disgusting.

Being a teacher does not mean you stop learning. If there is something that you do not understand, take the initiative to find out, not wade around in ignorance. Your students will suffer as a result. There was this case where one of my physics student failed his test because he solved the question via a method that the teacher did not understand, and hence was marked wrong. His method was far from wrong; He simply used what he learned from his school and my tuition classes and came up with his own way of solving the question, which was perfectly legit, and was justified. There was no flaw in the way he solved the question, and he got the correct answer as well. I could not let this injustice stand, and hence, I sought out the teacher after my student’s lesson, much to the teacher’s displeasure (That was after my student tried to explain his stand already). He was a middle aged man, and the way he explained his rationale to me revealed his rigid thinking and his adherence to the school’s education system. My patience quickly wore thin, and the discussion started from talk of justice to that student (It was difficult, especially he spoke with an air of arrogance and someone superior) to one of a youth having no respect for someone much older. Exasperated, I wrote a letter to the head of department, and was relieved that my student got what he deserved.

Many of my students don’t bother learning anything beyond their school syllabus. To them, there is no reason to. Why bother finding out why that information given to you works, when you know it works? They just use what is given to them, and they do not question. I do not blame them, however. I personally believe it is the fault of their teachers and parents for not cultivating a curious mind. Due to that, they are blind to anything that is not in school. Some of them (my physics students) tell me all their teachers do is to throw equations on the board and tell them to memorize it. Is that the right way to teach? I have a desire to walk up to each of them and giving them a slap in the face; they do not deserve to teach – they are ruining the lives of a lot of good students.

True, there is definitely much memory work involved in early years in schooling because not everything can be explained at their age (Try explaining Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity to a Sec 3 physics student), but at least give them a general understanding of the concept taught, rather than not explaining, especially when questioned about it. Many a times I have taught a student who was in the Normal (Academic) stream, when they were much smarter than that. After influencing a few of them to work hard and be more curious of how things work, they scored much better and moved to the Express stream. These students turned out this way because no one bothered paying much attention to their education. It is such a great pity that there are so many that are more capable than they realize because they were brought up to believe otherwise.

Even in local universities, the trend is just as obvious. Students study only what is needed, very few go on the pursuit of knowledge on their own volition. They live by the semester; Each semester’s knowledge is lost by the time the next start, because there is not much need for retention. Exams come, and students only care about doing well in the paper, nothing else matters. There is this recent example in one of the modules I took, where the midterm was a 30 MCQ paper. Prior to the exam, I saw a lot of people doing what seemed to be the previous semester’s midterm paper. Since doing past semester papers was a common sight among students here, I didn’t take note of it, only to take a quick glance at a copy of it my friend had out of curiosity.

When the paper started, I flipped the paper to something that appalled me: Every question that I happened to glance from the past midterm paper was in this semester’s paper. Upon further inquiry after the paper, I realized that almost all the questions were repeated from past semesters. This gave students who managed to get their hands on an illegal copy of last semester’s questions (The midterm papers were never returned, therefore the lecturer saw fit to reuse the question) had a huge advantage. Not just that, they do not learn anything from the exam, because they already have the answers. The exam is, at the very least, a gauge of how well we understand the subject, and that past midterm paper undermines that. Obviously, I was not very pleased; this was plain laziness on the setter’s part. Are lecturers so selfish with their own work that they do not care for their students enough to set a new paper? This was a disaster waiting to happen. Luckily for those who were disadvantaged, the lecturer this semester decided to have a re-test to make up for it. I don’t disagree with doing past year papers; I do them too, to get a feel on how the exam is set and how are we tested on the topic. It is the best way to gauge our understanding of the subject/module at that point in time, so there is nothing wrong with doing so. What is wrong, though, is memorizing questions and their model answers so that the student hopefully score on a similar question in the paper.

Nonetheless, this brought to light some issues that local universities face, especially in National University of Singapore, since I have first hand experience of the system here. Many lecturers in NUS teach because it is a requirement in order for them to continue their work. These lecturers have no passion for teaching, and end up doing a sloppy job out of it. Is this their fault? It may, it may not be. It is not fair that this teaching requirement is imposed on them, but then again it is not right for them to do a bad job out of it just because it is an obligation. Thanks to these lecturers, much like the teachers in several JCs and secondary schools, students get a very poor education. It is the same with many of the tutors here too. For one of my modules, my tutor has such a poor understanding of the subject, the class ends up correcting her mistakes during the lesson when she explains her answers.

There is a fair share of good teachers and lecturers, though. From primary school to now, I have been blessed with good teachers most of the way, though there were a few that were just plain lousy. Now in university, I have grown to respect a few of my lecturers that show a very obvious passion for teaching, and their spirit would rub off on the class, motivating us to step outside our comfort zone and try new things. The sad news, though, is that many of these good lecturers are leaving, going for greener pastures outside of Singapore. Apparently, there is not much future left in my faculty, and I am not surprised why.

Thanks to the lecturers leaving the school in recent years, many of the classes that I came to NUS for are not offered anymore. Some good modules are also cut due to a lack of students wanting to take them. Having less students interested in your class due to it’s complexity does not give you an excuse not to teach it. Rather, it’s those students who step out of their comfort zone and take the path less travelled, they are the ones who face challenges head on and will fare well next time. It is these students that truly pursue education as the way it should be, not spoon fed to them.

However, the excuse the school gave was a lack of teaching staff. That is obviously just an excuse. If the staff is incompetent, train them. Don’t let them be a poor example for the students to follow. There being very few students that are passionate about learning more doesn’t give you the excuse not to teach them what they want. A friend of mine studying in Carnegie Mellon University is far ahead in his class, so the professor dedicates some of his free time to personally coach him and satisfy his desire to learn more. I do not see that kind of thing in most of the professors (or school teachers) in Singapore.

In comparison, in schools like MIT, there is a strong presence there for students to experiment and try things outside the school system; many students end up not scoring as well as others because they are too caught up in their own pursuit of knowledge. This culture is one that Singapore needs, albeit a weaker one.

Rather than force knowledge down the throat of students who are not willing, give them a reason to find and chase it for themselves, for that is what education truly needs to be in Singapore. Through that, would we be able to nurture further generations to think creatively, rather than have it quenched by whatever system that is in place in Singapore.


Of course, it is being way too optimistic to talk about changing the entire system. Too much time, money, and effort would be needed. Rather, we should change gradually it by changing ourselves.

Take charge of your own education. Don’t live only by the school system. Learning what is taught in school is important, but what is more important is what we take away from it, after we finish schooling. Grades are important to get you the school/job you want, but your own interest and passion is what will keep you going. Find your passion in life, and take action to pursue it. Choose the path that best further your passion and interest, for it is passion that will keep that fire burning within you.