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Musings, The Straits Times

Singapore’s Education System As An Overheated Pressure Cooker

Singapore’s education system has traditionally been extremely demanding; a meritocratic framework that pushes stakeholders to achieve academic excellence, so that students can be moulded into productive units of labour in the future. From the strict design of pedagogies and curriculum to the series of standardised examinations, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has undergone great pains to not only make ten-year of basic education compulsory for all Singaporeans, but also to maintain the reputation of a premier teaching-learning hub. The entire organisation calls for individuals to consistently do their best year after year; through which the crème de la crème would be sieved out.

And the sacrifices have paid off. Even though there have been controversies over our students’ true linguistic abilities, Singapore’s overall literacy rate is one of the highest in the world, students excel in international rankings and universities, and the workforce is generally well-equipped with the fundaments and the relevant knowledge required. Nonetheless, all this assortment of benefits blind many to the real question that should be asked of the administration: at what costs are we enjoying these takeaways?

The recent deaths of two junior college students have once again highlighted the primary ramification from a highly-competitive and rigid education system: tremendous stress and pressure. Many might conveniently brush off such assertions as ludicrous, establishing the opinion that kids need to get used to stress sooner or later, and that they should be taught how to manage such pressures per se, instead of being lulled into false senses of comfort. However, when this stress originates from rote-learning, memorisation and the regurgitation of facts for the sake of acing examinations, where exactly are the positives? Most students who have experienced multiple major examinations should share the sentiments of painful preparations in the hope of fulfilling expectations from within and without: parents and teachers who expect nothing but the best.

The school needs to be more than a place for the dispensing and dull feeding of information; it needs to be a platform for students to shine in their areas of expertise, providing channels for questioning, interaction and discussion. How often have we felt that we were fed up with school: it had taught us how to read, write, think and analyse – so was there really a need to pedantically cloud our mind with information and textbook narratives that we may never come into contact with ever again?

With the evolving global landscape, it would not be soon before pure academic excellence and mere superiority within a school-based sanctuary would cease to be the accepted recipes for success. People who would truly find joy and triumph in life would be those who have stuck close to their passions regardless of the peripheral pressures, moving beyond the antiquated notions of traditional Singaporean pragmatism. Parents too must accept that there is no fixed script for success; failing an examination would prove to be insignificant if their child can dedicatedly find a way to make things work.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


20 thoughts on “Singapore’s Education System As An Overheated Pressure Cooker

  1. Your observation is correct. The current Singapore Education System is largely unchanged from when Singapore inherited it from the British. Since then, we have augmented it and introduce more testing and streaming for younger students.

    The current system needs to be reformed. If not, it would remain an overheated pressure cooker further damaging our youth and our future generation.

    Changes over the past few years have been only skin-deep, full of promise and hype. But, falling short of the stated objectives. The most substantial “changes” implemented under the previous Education Minister (Mr S), do not go far enough. While some pressure may have been released, today the pressure cooker is still overheated.

    The most recent changes (or attempts) are far more superficial in effect – such as doing away with exams for only primary 1 students and replacing it with an all-round assessments. Why do this only for primary 1 students? The failed attempt to reduce weightage for MTL is another failure to reduce pressure on our young students. Have we not accumulated enough evidence that males are worst off in linguistic abilities early in their lives? Even the “leaders” admit that being effectively bilingual is difficult to achieve. So, why then continue to put the majority of students under unrealistic pressure to be bilingual?

    This brings to question why research and studies on education are not brought to bear on reforming the education system in Singapore? Are these being suppressed or is MOE being suppressed?

    Why a first world nation does not have enough facilities to cater to single session primary schools? Why do young children have to wake up at 6 am or earlier to get to school?

    As parents of students under such intense pressure, we must not emphasize grades. We must place priority on ensuring that our children enjoy going to school everyday regardless of how well they do at school. We must be prepared that they may not fit into the school curriculum and plan for alternatives. We must find and nurture their passion and talent. We must not measure their performance based on what we have achieved during our times. We must not expect our children to enter into one of the few esteemed professions when the odds are low. We must not overload our kids with more workload through tuitions, etc., in pursuit of higher grades.

    Parents can only do so much. The reforms must come from the top. Are there listening?


    Posted by PARENT | July 21, 2010, 5:11 pm
  2. Another cost worth considering is the dearth of creativity among Singaporean students. Most of my peers who have studied in America noticed that while Singaporeans do very well on average in their formal coursework in American universities, Americans tend to excel more on creative pursuits like research. Given Singapore’s push into industries like research and media, this is a non-trivial problem with the Singapore education system.

    The other problem which almost never gets any attention (probably because it’s not perceived to contribute to ‘pragmatic’ goals) is the complete lack of development of critical thinking skills among Singaporean students. I disagree that Singapore schools teach us “how to read, write, think and analyse” — no doubt there exist exceptional classes in which that happens, but as far as I can see the vast majority of Singaporean students do not learn this. They are unable to read texts critically, offer charitable interpretations, construct good arguments, and write clearly. If Singaporeans knew how to read, we would not be seeing even ‘elite’ JCs enforce compulsory reading periods to force their students to read. We would not have agonising GP classes in which attempts to stimulate discussion are like pulling teeth.

    Posted by twasher | July 22, 2010, 4:34 am
  3. Does academic excellence produce creative , practical people . There is a big difference in being academically excellent and actually being
    good and usefull in the workforce . Also the education system should teach people to be curious and inventive all their lives , not just at school . If the Singapore system was that good why do many go abroad to study , and why do you have to look for talent world wide . There are big contradictions in what is said and what actually happens .
    And the last myth is all Singaporeans speak good English , in fact large numbers of Chinese speak better English

    Posted by PG | August 23, 2010, 1:18 pm
  4. Nice blog!I like your writing way. I also love Singapore. I hope i can study Information Technology here in next year.

    Posted by Du hoc Singapore | December 7, 2010, 5:58 pm
  5. There are three learning experiences a child goes through during his lifetime. They are:
    1. Parental
    2. Education
    3. Society

    Learning the 3RS is the most important period of his academic experience.

    “Singapore’s education system has traditionally been extremely demanding; a meritocratic framework that pushes students to achieve academic excellence, so that students can be moulded into productive units of labour in the future. (Yawning Bread)

    A child gets ten years of basic or formal education which is compulsory for every child in Singapore. (except for his play days at kindergarten level).

    Learning by rote to simply pass examinations is not the main objective of education.

    Our current education system is non-innovative and dull.

    All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. This is the internet age and children are much more intelligent now having been born with a much higher IQ than their predecessors born one or two decades ago.

    The Singapore education system is highly competitive and extremely challenging which places immense pressure and stress on our young.

    Cramming knowledge into a child is unwise and futile because the child will end up learning nothing. Also, giving excessive homework will prove negative. There is a time for work and a time for play. We will never be successful in producing an Einstein using such an outdated educational infrastructure.

    To master the English language – in writing, speaking, and listening – parents should encourage their children to read more.

    Education is now much more challenging for the young; having to learn and master the English language which is a foreign language. In addition, he has to take up a mother tongue subject like Mandarin, Malay or Tamil in addition to his heavy work load.

    Many parents have resorted to spending huge sums of money in paying for private home tutorage hoping to meet the insurmountable challenges to enable the child to excel in his educational pursuit,

    While the intention is good, giving the child a clutch will negate his educational pursuit and makes the child more reliant on the clutch instead of using his intelligence in self-learning.

    Singapore education has a class size of 40 pupils. This is too large a number for a teacher to handle. He or she couldn’t possibly pay proper attention to every child, especially the slow learners.

    Class size should not be more than 20-25 pupils per class to enable the teacher to give proper attention to every child.

    Streaming and separating the brightest and slower learning students; after a student has completed his PLSE’ is flawed. In a class where you have a mixture of bright and slow students, the slow students can learn from the brightest students through interaction in the class and during playtime.

    So, express and normal classes should be discontinued and only implemented after the child has completed his basic education. The brightest students are allowed to proceed to a tertiary education while others can proceed to complete his education in technical schools to provide a technical base for industries after completing his GCE exams.

    Like many other old relics in Singapore, it needs swift reform and formulation of new direction as it has remained unchanged for many decades.

    Posted by John Wang | June 6, 2011, 6:49 pm
  6. Hi I am a JC student and just want to say that I really agree with what you said. I personally also feel that we are crammed with so much information to hardly have space to breathe, much less ponder and think through what we have learn which I believe can bring in new insights.

    Posted by hui min | March 5, 2012, 5:48 pm
    • Hi there!

      I think preparation for the examinations – at this point of time – is inevitable for you. I feel you could bear three things in mind: i) some of this information that you are processing (especially foundation ones) can be helpful in the future; ii) take the opportunity to get out of the classroom and school to explore areas of interest / passion; iii) don’t treat examinations as the be-all and end-all, but do take them seriously at the same time. All the best!

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | March 5, 2012, 6:13 pm
  7. what is the teaching -learning materials in singapore? and philippines? what their similarities… pls help me to answer this……

    Posted by lea | October 8, 2012, 4:57 pm
  8. Nice blog, I enjoyed reading your blog about Singapore education system.
    I am a patient and dedicated math tutor offering Individual or Group Tuition.
    Have a nice week ahead.

    Posted by mathtuition88 | May 4, 2013, 7:49 pm


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