Photo of Ng Chee Meng and Ong Ye Kung from scoopnest

In a media interview to his survey on PISA ranking of students, National University of Singapore (NUS) economics lecturer Dr. Kelvin Seah revealed that students with “better-quality” tuition perform better. With better quality of course comes with a greater price, a luxury only rich families can afford.

“For students whose families can afford better-quality tuition and enrichment, it could be a big part of why they continue to do well.”

The bottom 20 percentile of the population takes home only a household income of S$2,000. With tuition costs averaging S$150 a month per subject, a secondary school student in Singapore will cost at least $300 a month on tuition to catch up on 2 of their 7 subjects. According to a research paper by Blackbox in 2012, 51% of the households spent above S$500 a month on private tuition per child. The most common subjects to be tutored are English, Maths, Science and Chinese.The private tuition industry is now valued at S$1.1 billion in Singapore – no thanks to the Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE). MOE has been actively cutting on funding for students who do not perform well – typically from poor families or also known as neighbourhood school students – in the name of meritocracy. In Dec 2015, 7 neighbourhood schools were closed down due to “poor demand”, MOE claimed. Already laden with huge classroom size with low teacher-to-student ratio, neighbourhood schools already have not enough funding to provide learning excursion trips and co-curricular activities for their students. The shabby treatment of neighbourhood schools greatly contrasts the luxurious budget allocated for elite schools like St Andrews and Raffles Institution with their own private swimming pool and rugby field.

Teachers in neighbourhood schools are not spared. While trainees and inexperienced teachers are often sent to neighbourhood schools, the experienced ones are not given promotion or pay raises despite seeing increasing workload. Neighbourhood schools are unofficial “dumping ground” for teachers, who are unlikely to see promotions to principle-level or any management positions within the Ministry. Unlike their counterparts in elite schools, many Singaporean teachers quit and turned to private tuition.

Just last month (Nov 2016), Minister of State for Education Dr Janil Puthucheary – an ex-Malaysian who never served National Service – denied media reports that Singapore teachers are overloaded. The Minister blamed teachers for their “perspectives” and claimed that teachers are well-paid with 4%-9% salary increment a year.The Singapore education system has been lauded by many as one of the best in the world but foreigners do not get the full picture of the actual corruption in work. In 2016, two students committed suicide due to academic stress. In May, an 11-year-old student jumped to his death from his HDB block as he performed poorly in the newly-formatted exam. In Dec, a 16-year-old student similarly jumped to his death on the day he is collecting his N level results.

Singaporeans may be products from the “world’s best education system” but their employment prospects are not as bright. In fact, Singaporean employees are not as employable as foreigners even from regional Asian countries with one the worst education systems like Philippines, China, Malaysia and India. The only disconnect is the propaganda churned out by the Singapore government, which often praises for the education system but exhorts employers to open up to “foreign talents” and blaming Singaporean employees for having a “crutch mentality”.

The problems of Singapore’s education system are further compounded by appointment of inexperienced Education Ministers, who see the Education Ministry as an express ticket to promotion because it is an “easy profile”. In fact, the “easy profile” is now under-taken by 2 newbie Ministers – one a former army general and the other a hardcore ruling party supporter grassroots leader. The Education Ministry is able to free-wheel without any intervention, and the two Ministers had a good ride drawing political salaries of S$1.1 million a year.

STR Editor