Direct school admission: Everybody decline to give statistics?

(This post by Mr Leong Sze Hian first appeared on his blog on 23 February 2016. It is reproduced with permission.

I refer to the article “Fairly diverse group gains direct school admission, about 60% live in HDB flats: MOE” (Straits Times, Feb 22).

81% reside in HDB flats?

It states that “About 60 per cent of students who secured places in secondary schools through DSA over the last five years live in HDB flats, an MOE spokesman told The Straits Times. In comparison, as of last year, 81 per cent of Singaporeans reside in HDB flats.

Declined to provide details?

MOE declined to provide details on the proportion of DSA students in IP schools who reside in flats. It also does not track the household income of DSA students.

Declined to share students’ socio-economic makeup?

IP schools contacted such as Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) declined to share the socio- economic make-up of their DSA students.

Declined to give % of students?

MOE declined to give the percentage of students who enter schools under the academic category in direct admissions.”

Why everybody decline to give statistics?

Why is it that so many parties have declined to give the statistics?

Why is there no breakdown as to the types of HDB flats that the students come from?

The last time we had detailed statistics?

It reminds me of the last time arguably, that very detailed statistics were given on the “socio-economic” statistics in education that gave me a rather hard time analysing them.

I am reproducing the article which I wrote in September 2013 below for your reading pleasure.

“Embracing diversity, redefining meritocracy?"

I refer to the article “Public Service ‘embracing diversity, redefining meritocracy’” (Today, Sep 18).

It states that “Reiterating that a decreasing proportion of PSC scholars hail from academic powerhouses Raffles Institution (RI) and Hwa Chong Institution (HCI), the retired top civil servant also spoke at length in an open letter about how the PSC, which oversees the appointment and promotion of key public sector leaders, is “redefining meritocracy” and guarding against elitism — familiar themes leaders, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, have publicly touched on in recent months.”

Its not just which schools they come from?

Whilst I applaud the move to have more scholars from the heartland schools and less emphasis on academics, what is perhaps more important is to look at the diversity in terms of the socio-economic background of the scholars.

What about socio-economic background?

In other words, its not so much from which schools the scholars come from or the extent of their academics’ emphasis in the selection process, but the household incomes, type of housing and education level of the parents, that they come from.

Shift from elitism, but without statistics?

Therefore, we need the statistics in this regard.

Otherwise, as the previously publicly available statistics may seem to show was that scholars were predominantly from more well to do families.

In this connection, in the meantime, in the absence of any mention of such statistics which I would have surmised may have been obvious to anyone in a major national discussion on a shift in elitism in education – allow me to revisit what was I believe the last major Ministerial statement in Parliament in 2011, on the subject issue of elitism in our education system.

Misuse of statistics in the debate on elitism?

I refer to the articles “School system ‘still best way to move up”, “MPs speak for kids from poorer families” and “New chapter in the Singapore story” (Straits Times, Mar 8, 2011).

These articles were page after page (four pages) of statistics cited by the Education Minister to more or less dismiss MPs’ concerns that kids from poorer families were disadvantaged. I do not think I have ever seen so many statistics given to support a position in a Parliamentary debate.

Unfortunately, I could not find a single statistic which in my view, is “statistically” relevant to the debate.

Irrelevant Statistics

Statistics that are quoted, by themselves, may be quite meaningless, unless they are on a comparative basis.

To illustrate this, if we want to say that Group A (poorer kids) is not significantly worse off than Group B (richer kids), then it may be pointless to just cite the statistics for Group A, without Group B’s.

Let me now get into the specifics of the statistics cited:

“How children from the bottom one-third by socio-economic background fare: One in two scores in the top two-thirds at PSLE”

“One in six scores in the top one-third at PSLE”

What we need to know for comparative purposes, is the percentage of richer kids who scores in the top two-thirds too.

“How children from 1 – to 3-room HDB flats fare: One in five scores in the top one-third at PSLE”

We need this data for different time periods, as the proportion of those living in such flats had changed over the years. What we need to know is has this proportion who score well, changed in the last 5, 10, 20, 30 years, etc.

“… one in five scores in the top 30% at O and A levels… One in five goes to university and polys”

What’s the data for richer kids?

Since the proportion of the entire population going to university and polys has increased substantially, this clearly shows that poorer kids are worse off.

“These figures have remained constant even though the number living in 1 to 3-room HDB flats has fallen sharply over the years”

This statement may be “statistically” irrelevant, as all it may indicate is that the lower-income’s chances of performing better, on a relative basis, has remained stagnant.

“Top PSLE pupils- The top 5% come from 95% of schools… Every primary school has at least 10 pupils in the top third of the cohort”

This may be “statistically” of no relevance to the debate, as logically every primary school is made up of both poorer and richer kids.

Citing individual examples?

According to the articles:

“Education Minister Ng Eng Hen calls Hong Siang Huat “a living example of social mobility”. He came from a poor family but is off to Britain on a government scholarship.”

The Minister was quoted as saying:

“My parents had six children. My first home as a young boy was a rental flat in Zion Road. We shared it as tenants with other families”

Citing individuals who made it, may be of no “statistical” relevance, as what we need are the statistics as to the proportion of poorer kids to richer kids, who get scholarships, proportional to their representation in the population.

“More spent on primary and secondary/JC schools. This means having significantly more and better teachers, and having more programmes to meet children’s specific needs”

What has spending more money, which what most countries do, got to do with the argument whether poorer kids are disadvantaged?

I think Straits Times journalist, Li XueYing put the crux of the debate in the right perspective:

“Dr Ng had noted that ensuring social mobility “cannot mean equal outcomes, because students are inherently different”, But can it be that those from low-income families are consistently “inherently different” to such an extent?”

Relevant statistics

Perhaps the most damning statistics that poorer kids are disadvantaged was the chart from the Ministry of Education (provided by the Straits Times), which showed that the percentage of Primary 1 pupils who lived in 1 to 3-room HDB flats and subsequently progressed to University and/or Polytechnic, has been declining since around 1986.

The statistics cited by the Minister Mentor, that in top schools like Raffles Institution, more than half of the students had fathers who were university graduates, in neighbourhood schools the figure hovered around 10 per cent, etc, was perhaps clearer statistical evidence, that the odds may be stacked against poorer kids.

As to: “… now ITE students in the bottom 15th percentile income bracket (per capita household income of up to $300) will receive $1,000 a year, up from $800 a year”, how significant is this extra help of about 55 cents to a total of $2.74 a day, for a student whose family is clearly struggling on less than $300 per person per month?

In summary, if not for the Straits Times’ reference to the MOE tertiary and Minister Mentor’s data, the entire debate may arguably be a good lesson on statistics for Parliamentarians, on how to try to win a debate with entirely “statistically” irrelevant statistics.

Few needy students get aid?

Another example in this connection – according to the article “Cost of medical education, financial assistance and medical school demographics in Singapore” by Ng C L, Tambyah P A, Wong C Y (2009) – “21.9 percent (of medical students) came from families with a monthly income of less than S$3,000, with another 26.2 percent from families with monthly incomes of S$3,000–S$5,000″ but only “14.6 percent received scholarships or bursaries”.

Why is it that the percentage who received scholarships or bursaries was so low, relative to the percentage of lower-income families?

‘Groupthink’ in action?

Finally, the fact that a major shift in policy on elitism in education, has arguably ignored the socio-economic statistics that I have cited above, may perhaps be the best indication of how our elitist environment has failed – in a sense so aptly put by the remarks – “Among other things, he pointed out that a diverse Public Service is needed to “avoid ‘groupthink’ and to appreciate the needs of a diverse Singapore population”.

“Acutely conscious”, but yet no statistics?

This may be further underscored by the remarks – “Mr Teo also said that the PSC is “acutely conscious” of the need to have public servants coming from all socio-economic classes, “lest we end up breeding a class of elitist public servants who lack empathy” – which perhaps brings up the obvious question as to how we can say that we are ““acutely conscious” of the need to have public servants coming from all socio-economic classes” – and yet ignore the statistics on “socio-economic classes”?

Maybe its just symtopmatic of our elitist environment that such a farcical attempt to trumpet a (“real”) shift in elitism can happen by stating and yet ignoring the obvious, at least from a statistical perspective.”



Leong Sze Hian is the Past President of the Society of Financial Service Professionals, an alumnus of Harvard University, Wharton Fellow, SEACeM Fellow and an author of 4 books. He is frequently quoted in the media. He has also been invited to speak more than 100 times in 25 countries on 5 continents. He has served as Honorary Consul of Jamaica, Chairman of the Institute of Administrative Management, and founding advisor to the Financial Planning Associations of Brunei and Indonesia. He has 3 Masters, 2 Bachelors degrees and 13 professional qualifications. He blogs at


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