Singapore's Education Landscape

(This article by local blogger Seamus Low first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 27 June 2014.)

Singapore's education landscape is one that seems like the envy of people outside of Singapore, as schoolchildren are told on a daily basis, however, in Singapore, there exists an ever-growing sentiment of resent towards our very own education system.

Singapore's education system claims to practice meritocracy, and this claim can be backed up with the rigorous system that the MOE has implemented, which places a huge emphasis on written examinations. However, in the year 2014, such a rigid system is certainly outdated, and I believe that a major overhaul of the education system is long overdue.

Landscape in Primary Schools

In primary schools, children have been trained to compete with each other and see who can attain a higher score in examinations. That itself leads to an extremely unhealthy and competitive mindset in young children. The PSLE also causes a lot of unnecessary stress on young children, and it is an extremely inaccurate representation of the child's academic ability, as at the age of 12, most young children are not emotionally mature to cope with such stress, and neither should we expect them to have the emotional maturity to. While most children below the age of 12 are enjoying their childhood in many other first-world countries all over the world, Singaporean children have to spend the time that they should be using for leisure and play to prepare for tests and examinations. For children that are academically weak, any spare time they have left will also be spent on attending tons of remedial and supplementary lessons after school. Therefore, it is hardly surprising to hear that children under the age of 12 are jumping off buildings to end their life, as they lack the capability to deal with the stress that is induced by the system.

As the saying goes "Children should be children", and before the age of 12, they should not be burdened with mindless slogging away at their desks to study for tests and examinations. Children should be allowed to develop and learn through exploration and play, not through the excessive cramming of textbook information into their brains. At primary school age, it is also extremely selfish to educate young children about meritocracy and pitting friends against each other in competing for better grades. It is also very cruel to put children through the ordeal of punishing them for attaining bad grades. What sort of parent would want a system that causes young children to break down and cry if they failed to achieve their parents' target?

In my opinion, a radical overhaul of the way primary school education functions is desperately needed. All tests and examinations in primary schools should be obliterated. While Singaporeans might argue that such an overhaul will go against meritocracy, sometimes, it is extremely vital to forsake a principle, especially if this principle is causing undue and unnecessary resentment against the education system.

Landscape in Secondary Schools

In secondary schools, the huge emphasis on Mathematics and Sciences over the Arts has caused a major effect on Singapore. Singaporeans have been generally criticised for lacking any creativity, innovation and originality, and secondary school education plays a major part in that.

Parents are always telling their children that they have to do well for their examinations at the end of Secondary 2, in order to qualify for the Science stream, as going into the Arts stream will mean that they have no future. This sort of mentality is also perpetuated in school by teachers. When students are streamed at the start of Secondary 3, the class with students who are taking "Triple Science (Biology/Chemistry/Physics)" will be considered as the "better class", whereas classes with students who are taking Arts subjects such as Art and Literature are deemed as the "weaker class".

Also, the amount of subjects that secondary school students are allowed to choose and study it for 'O' levels are extremely miniscule. Subjects that are offered at the age of 15 in many other countries worldwide as an 'O' level subject, such as PE, Political Sciences and Philosophy, are not offered in any secondary schools! These subjects hold far more relevance to our daily lives than subjects like Mathematics and Chemistry. I really cannot comprehend how is Mathematics a more important subject than Philosophy, when philosophical branches, such as epistemology, in prevalent in our daily lives, whereas you do not utilize your trigonometric knowledge at all in your daily routine!

Subjects like Political Science and Philosophy are subjects that require lots of critical thinking, and these are subjects that are impossible to improve by mere "practising", whereas Mathematics require lots of practice and understanding, but not necessarily critical thinking. While Singapore pays lip service to the importance of critical thinking, it seems like schools are not doing their best to adhering to it.

In secondary schools, the compulsory CCA obligation is also a burden on many students. With the intense competition among students in terms of academic results, students are also exposed to such competition in their CCAs, fighting over a promotion to a higher rank in their CCAs. CCAs also take up a lot of the time of students. While it is argued that CCAs will provide a "holistic education" to students, that is based on the assumption that all students will not pursue their own interests in their own leisure time, and require the implementation of CCAs in order to persuade them to pursue them. That itself is a very flawed way of thinking. Also, not all schools have CCAs that cater to every single student in the school. What if the student does not like any CCA that is offered by the school? People might argue that that is impossible, but speaking from experience, it is not only possible, but extremely common as well!

I suggest that CCAs should be made non-compulsory and all examinations should be abolished until Secondary 3. I think it is extremely unfair on students who attain poor results in Secondary 2 and fail to be allocated their preferred subject combination, as the allocation of subjects is based on "meritocracy" as well. It is extremely ridiculous to force a student to pick up a subject that he dislikes, just because of his grades in the year before. I also suggest that more subjects that are related to the Arts be implemented, as Singapore's lack of creativity and innovation is really stifling. This can only be resolved by implementing subjects such as Philosophy that will allow students to be inquisitive, creative and linguistically proficient. Employing teachers who have a passion for the Arts should also be a priority.

Landscape in Polytechnics

As I chose the Polytechnic route, I will not be able to comment on life in a JC, as although I do have a lot of stories to tell, they are not from my own experience, and hence I am not in the position to give an accurate representation.

In polytechnics, there is no way that you can rest on your laurels and pull yourself over the line at your last, and most important examinations, as every single test that contributes to your GPA starting from Year One will affect your cumulative GPA at the end of Year Three.

If you plan on choosing the polytechnic route, it is of paramount importance you manage to successfully enrol yourself in the course of your interest, or else you will have a torrid three years. I did very badly for my Sciences for my 'O' levels, and as such, I had a very limited amount of courses to select from, and ended up in a course I hate with every fibre of my being.

I find the landscape in polytechnics extremely different from primary and secondary schools. The amount of projects that you will have to undergo is staggering, but these projects do actually students with more freedom instead of strictly adhering to a timetable. The "75% attendance" policy will also give room to students to skip a few lessons, especially if they are already very knowledgeable on a particular module and see no point in attending the lectures.

What I particularly dislike about polytechnics is the giving of "hints" for examinations. Lecturers will always set aside one lesson before the examination to give out "hints" to the students, and more than 90% of the time, all the hints are directly related to the questions in the examinations. Students will find no motivation to fully understand the entire module, but to only cram information if the lecturer "hinted" that is important. Such a "hinting system" eventually produces extremely dependent students who will not bother to fully understand everything that the module has to offer, as there is no reason to.

The internship requirement of most diplomas is the most daunting one of all, in my opinion. While internships do "prepare students for life in the world of work", most companies do not actually teach the interns much of note, but see them as cheap labour to help out with paperwork and administrative duties. Most companies are also extremely inflexible, and quelling the students' creativity and innovation.

I feel that the an overhaul of the internship system is necessary, and all internships should be limited to only half a semester, as opposed to a full semester in most diploma courses. This will allow students who really dislike their internships to get out of it as soon as possible. Students who do enjoy their internship can choose to extend their services for the latter half of the semester, whereas students who do not will be required to take up elective modules for the second part of the semester to compensate.

About Myself

My name is Seamus Low and I go by the alias, Jay The Revolutionary on my blog.

I was a student in Clementi Town Secondary School from years 2007-2010. From a young age, I have developed a very keen interest for writing and I started to be very interested in politics around the age of 14.

I am an atheist, and I believe in a state with no military forces, I am strongly opposed to the military and war. I also believe in socialism and workers' welfare, and I believe that strong trade unions are necessary for the good of society. I believe that work we produce should serve to better society, and not the profits of company shareholders, like what most people working in the private sector are doing.