Singapore Table of Contents

The School System

The government frequently referred to Singapore's population as its only natural resource and described education in the vocabulary of resource development. The goal of the education system was to develop the talents of every individual so that each could contribute to the economy and to the ongoing struggle to make Singapore productive and competitive in the international marketplace. The result was an education system that stressed the assessment, tracking, and sorting of students into appropriate programs. Educators forthrightly described some students and some categories of students as better "material" and of more value to the country than others. In the 1960s and 1970s the education system, burdened with large numbers of children resulting from the high birth rates of the previous decades and reflecting the customary practices of the British colonial period, produced a small number of highly trained university graduates and a much larger number of young people who had been selected out of the education systems following secondary schooling by the rigorous application of standards. The latter entered the work force with no particular skills. Major reforms in 1979 produced an elaborate tracking system, intended to reduce the dropout rate and to see that those with low academic performance left school with some marketable skills. During the 1980s, more resources were put into vocational education and efforts were made to match the "products" of the school system with the manpower needs of industry and commerce. The combination of a school system emphasizing testing and tracking with the popular perception of education as the key to social mobility and to the source of the certifications needed for desirable jobs led to high levels of competition, parental pressure for achievement, and public attention and concern.

In 1987 some 4 percent of the gross domestic product ( GDP) was devoted to education. The government's goal for the 1990s was to increase spending to 6 percent of GDP, which would match the levels of Japan and the United States. Education was not compulsory, but attendance was nearly universal. Primary education was free, and Malays received free education through university. Students' families had to purchase textbooks and school uniforms, but special funds were available to ensure that no student dropped out because of financial need. Secondary schools charged nominal fees of S$9.50 per month. Tuition at the National University of Singapore for the 1989-90 academic year ranged from S$2,600 per year for students in the undergraduate arts and social sciences, business administration, and law courses to S$7,200 per year for the medical course. The university-level tuitions were intended to induce prosperous families to bear a share of the cost of training that would lead to a well-paying job, but a system of loans, needbased awards (bursaries), and scholarships for superior academic performance meant that no able students were denied higher education because of inability to pay.

The schools operated a modified British-style system in which the main qualifications were the Cambridge University-administered General Common Entrance (GCE) Ordinary level (O level) and Advanced level (A level) examinations. Singapore secondary students took the same examinations as their counterparts in Britain or in British system schools throughout the world. All instruction was in English, with supplementary teaching of the students' appropriate "mother tongue"--Malay, Tamil, or Mandarin. The basic structure was a six-year primary school, a four-year secondary school, and a twoyear junior college for those preparing to enter higher education. As part of the effort to reduce the dropout rate, some students progressed through the system more slowly than others, spending more time in primary and secondary school but achieving similar standards. The goal was that every student achieve some success and leave school with some certification. Both primary and secondary schools operated on double sessions. Plans for the 1990s called for converting secondary schools to single-session, all-day schools, a measure that would require construction of fifty new schools.

As of June 1987, there were 229 government and government-aided primary schools enrolling 266,501 students. Government-aided schools originally were private schools that, in return for government subsidies, taught the standard curriculum and employed teachers assigned by the Ministry of Education. There were 157 secondary schools and junior colleges, enrolling 201,125 students, and 18 vocational training schools, enrolling 27,000 students. The 15 junior colleges operating by late 1989 enrolled the "most promising" 25 percent of their age cohort and were equipped with computers, laboratories and well-stocked libraries. Some represented the elite private schools of the colonial period, with their ancient names, traditions, and networks of active alumni, and others were founded only in the 1980s, often in the centers of the housing estates. In 1989 the government was discussing the possibility of permitting some of the junior colleges to revert to private status, in the interest of encouraging educational excellence and diversity.

Singapore had six institutions of higher education: National University of Singapore (the result of the 1980 merger of Singapore University and Nanyang University); Nanyang Technological Institute; Singapore Polytechnic Institute; Ngee Ann Polytechnic; the Institute of Education; and the College of Physical Education. In 1987 these six institutions enrolled 44,746 students, 62 percent male and 38 percent female. Enrollment in universities and colleges increased from 15,000 in 1972 to nearly 45,000 in 1987, tripling in fifteen years. The largest and most prestigious institution was the National University of Singapore, enrolling 13,238 undergraduates in 1987. Only half of those who applied to the National University were admitted, a degree of selectivity that in 1986 brought parliamentary complaints that the admission rate was inconsistent with the government's objective of developing every citizen to the fullest potential.

The Ministry of Education tried to coordinate enrollments in universities and polytechnic institutes and specific degree and diploma courses with estimates of national manpower requirements. At the university level, the majority of the students were enrolled in engineering, science, and vocationally oriented courses. The Ministry of Education and the government clearly preferred an education system that turned out people with vocational qualifications to one producing large numbers of general liberal arts graduates. The ministry attempted to persuade students and their parents that enrollment in the three polytechnic institutes, which offered diplomas rather than the more prestigious degrees (a common distinction in the British system of higher education), was not necessarily a second choice. In promoting this choice, the ministry pointed to the good salaries and excellent career prospects of polytechnic graduates who were employed by large multinational corporations. Similar arguments were used to persuade those who left secondary school with respectable O level level scores to enroll in short courses at vocational and technical training institutes and to qualify for such positions as electronics technicians or word processors that were beyond the capabilities of those who had been directed into vocational schools after the primary grades. Almost all of the graduates of the demanding four-year Honors Degree Liberal Arts and Social Science program at the National University of Singapore were recruited into the upper levels of the civil service. Many graduates of the ordinary three-year arts, social science, and science programs were steered into teaching in secondary schools.

Education and Singaporean Identity

More clearly than any other social institution, the school system expressed the distinctive vision of Singapore's leadership, with its stress on merit, competition, technology, and international standards, and its rejection of special privileges for any group. Singaporeans of all ethnic groups and classes came together in the schools, and the education system affected almost every family in significant and profound ways. Most of the domestic political issues of the country, such as the relations between ethnic groups, the competition for elite status, the plans for the future security of the nation and its people, and the distribution of scarce resources were reflected in the schools and in education policy. Many of the settled education policies of the 1980s, such as the use of English as the medium of instruction, the conversion of formerly Malay or Chinese or Anglican missionary schools to standard government schools, or the attempted combination of open access with strict examinations, were the result of long-standing political disputes and controversy. In the determination of families and parents that their children should succeed in school, and in the universally acknowledged ranking of primary and secondary schools and the struggle to enroll children in those schools that achieved the best examination results, families expressed their distinctive values and goals. The struggle for achievement in the schools, which often included tutoring by parents or enrollment of young children in special private supplementary schools to prepare for crucial examinations, also demonstrated the system of social stratification and the struggle for mobility that characterized the modern society. It was in the schools, more than in any other institution, that the abstract values of multiracialism and of Singaporean identity were given concrete form.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress