Published in the ST: The Future of Singapore’s Education System

I was glancing through the papers this morning and got a little bit of a shock when I saw that my letter to the Forum editor had been published – “Students with different abilities make for a class act” ! (*Disclaimer: I did not come up with the title, I promise. Trust the Straits Times to try (and fail) to make a pun out of it…) I had written in last Friday in response to an article defending Singapore’s meritocratic system (“How not to dismantle a meritocratic system” , by Calvin Cheng). As the letter to the Forum was limited to 400 words, I was only able to raise my objections to Mr. Cheng’s article, but I do agree with him on some counts – he’s right in that we shouldn’t overhaul our meritocratic system and “dumb down” examinations.

Mr. Cheng’s article made me think about how I got to where I am today – and I owe a lot to Singapore’s meritocratic system. Both my parents came from relatively poor backgrounds, and through the benefits of the meritocracy, they become the first of their families to graduate from university. They worked hard to make a living and to provide the best for my sister and I. They enrolled us in music, drama, singing and enrichment lessons, and encouraged to pick up sports like swimming and tennis. They brought us all over the world to Europe, America, Russia, Australia, (and countless other places) to cultivate our understanding of different cultures.

Needless to say, my sister and I grew up in a very privileged environment. We owe our academic success (and much more – but since we’re talking about academics here, I’ll just stick to it…) to the opportunities that our parents have provided us. This would never have been possible if it weren’t for Singapore’s meritocratic system. I haven’t been the greatest supporter of the education system here, but despite all of its faults, I still believe it far surpasses that of most countries. The question at hand now is how to preserve this culture of meritocracy in our education system, without neglecting the less privileged students. How do we maintain social mobility in a developing society, where unequal opportunity inevitably exists?

It’s education that’s meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp. – Ken Robinson

I’ve always been incredibly passionate about education, because it’s education that shapes the future. I’m certain that education is the most important issue we will face in the 21st Century, and thousands of educators around the world are continually searching for the best ways to teach a child, whether in or outside the classroom.  When it comes to the question of how to structure an education system, however, things get even more complicated. After all, finding the best way to manage hundreds of public schools is a very different problem to constructing the “ideal” education. There are numerous things to think about – the funding, the number/quality of the teachers available, the class sizes, etc, etc. Of course there’s always room for discussion, and room to improve – but when people talk about educational reforms, where does one start? It’s not easy to build a good education system, and much harder to try to maintain one.

Lately there has been a lot of talk about streaming, as well as the doing away of the PSLE (a mandatory, nation-wide exam taken by all local students at the end of Primary 6, at age 12). I never took the PSLE as I was still living overseas in Primary 6, but I’ve seen firsthand how straining and pressurizing the entire ordeal can be on 12-year-olds. I personally find it ridiculous to put children through that sort of unnecessary stress and academic pressure. There simply isn’t a need for it – my sister only took the PSLE last year, and basically spent the entire year doing past papers and exam-oriented assignments in preparation for the exams. (Note: She did exceedingly well, topping her school – and I’m so very proud of her! But her score doesn’t, and shouldn’t, define her.) These children are at an age where they should be exploring their interests (whether academic or social), not buckling down for standardized examinations. I remember when I was 12 – that was the age I discovered my love for writing, sitting down in front of my laptop for hours to ramble on about dragons, fairies, princes, and princesses; that was the age I realized there was so much more to math, discovering a fascinating new world of problems after coming across a little book on Fermat’s Last Theorem in the library one afternoon. It was a time of self-discovery and exploration.

Having to study for an examination that apparently will determine your secondary school, and therefore post-secondary school, and therefore university, and therefore your career, and therefore the course of your life (as parents and teachers sometimes tend to over-exaggerate) means that there simply isn’t any time for this sort of exploration. Not only does it cause undue stress, it actually stymies real learning. What’s the point in the PSLE? Why do students have to be assessed on their academic ability through standardized examination so early on in their lives?

Don’t get me wrong. Of course we still have to have tests like the ‘O’ or ‘A’ levels (or the IB) to measure academic ability – to rip apart the entire basis of measurement in our current education systems would be disastrous. But is there truly a need to start rigorously assessing children so early on in their education?

Some people say that this sort of assessment is essential so that we can “stream” students based on ability, in order for them to learn efficiently. For the reasons outlined in my Forum response, I don’t think that streaming is necessarily a good thing. I do believe that streaming for certain subjects like Mathematics or foreign languages is useful, since these classes may be better taught to students of similar ability. But there’s no need to stream students into different schools, or different classes, simply based on their overall academic score.

The truth is, good students will thrive anywhere. A motivated, intelligent student won’t suddenly stop doing well just because she isn’t surrounded by a high concentration of similarly driven peers. Of course, it’s beneficial for well-performing students to engage in some healthy competition with students of similar (or higher) ability, but ultimately, I believe that working together with students of different academic strengths is more rewarding.

On the other hand, if you clump all the weaker students together in one class, you limit what they can achieve. Not only do they start to underestimate themselves, they aren’t actually able to learn from the better-performing students. What then, is the point in streaming?

We live in a society that is so quick and eager to classify students based on measurements of their academic ability. Whilst doing well in school is surely important, we should finally begin to acknowledge that grades and exams aren’t the be-all and end-all. Perhaps then, and only then, we can begin the conversation on how to change our education system.

Added – Take part in the discussion!
Straits Times Facebook post
Forum response to my article

Published by ruruhoong

Part-time economist, writer, tanguera. Full time glutton.

3 thoughts on “Published in the ST: The Future of Singapore’s Education System

  1. Hello Ruru,
    I just read a couple of your articles and I love them! I like the insightful content, the flow of your writing and the inside jokes inserted here and there. My most favourite aspect of your writing is the innocence and logical supporting detail given – marvelous! Keep up the good work.

    I’m Nivetha and I studied in Singapore till Primary 4, after which I continued my education in India. I’m currently 15 and will start my IB course after finishing the IGCSE examinations this month. Do contact me whenever you’re available – my e-mail: and website:

  2. Having an unified examination is necessary, statements like gold will always shine are true but they are not for all kinds of ‘Gold’. They need to be mentally strong and extremely determined when their surroundings are bad. And some gold will become dime and some will turn into rock. And a unified examination will help with the streaming and make you surrounded by people who share similar ambition and attitude. Some more, the unified examination will not determine your whole life in Singapore. You are able to change school or work harder to get better score in next unified examination which leads you to a better environment. Thus, the meritocratic system is better than what you may thought.
    P.S. Just some thoughts, No offence

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