Reflecting on 16 Years of Education in Singapore

Musings / Monday, April 2nd, 2018

A day shy of turning 24, I collected my Bachelor’s degree certificate.

I wandered into SMU’s campus – the second home that I had spent so many hours at (My classmates and I used to joke that we ought to change our delivery address for our online purchases to the Li Ka Shing or Kwa Geok Choo library in SMU).

The campus was both familiar and alien to me. While I knew the entire campus like the back of my hand (especially the library), new cafes had popped up, and the familiar Kou Fu had received a face lift.

The Registrar’s Office is not tended to by a receptionist. Instead, you ping a bell on the counter and a staff will attend to you. Right after I pressed the bell, a lady appeared, asked for my name and student card, and fished out my degree. It was encased in a large, white envelope.

“Check if your name and degree class is correct ah. Also, your transcript is here. Check, and if correct, sign here,” she pointed at a long list of names.

My eyes glazed over my cert. After all, I had received several email reminders to check my English name, my Mandarin name, my IC, my address, my hand phone number, my grades etc. prior to collecting my cert.

I signed where I was told. The lady grinned, “Congrats!”, before disappearing back into the office.

I stared at the white envelope.

So, this is it?

Was I finally at the finish line, having completed all my years of formal education (sans the bar exams and any further education that I *may* wish to pursue in the near and not-so-near future)?

It is no surprise that the country (Singapore) is a frequent stop for policy-makers and other visitors all over the world wishing to understand and even emulate the secrets to its success. – Tan Tarn How, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

The Singapore education system is, for the most part, highly lauded worldwide (As with its Number 1 Changi Airport, Number 1 SQ Airlines, Number 1 Most Expensive City in the World, Number 1 Least Corrupt Country in the World … OK, you get the picture). Singapore often tops OECD’s Programme for International Assessment (PISA), ahead of Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea. Furthermore, the subjects that Singaporeans tend to excel in are Math, Science and Reading.

Yet, the issue that has surfaced and has been frequently brought up in newspapers, online forums, the corridors of HDB flats as well as in Parliamentary debates is the cost at which this academic excellence comes at.

Like it or not, Singapore suffers from a tuition syndrome. Driven by a culture of kiasu (Singlish for “afraid to lose”) and/or kiasi (Singlish for “afraid to die”), children are sent to a whole host of supplementary classes/workshops/boot camps before and after school to better augment and consolidate the concepts taught in school and learn new, more advanced concepts ahead of their peers. Because almost everyone (70%, to be precise) goes for tuition for one subject or another (usually for several), the few who do not may feel that they are at a disadvantage.

For the non-Singaporeans, each phase of a student’s life (prior to Poly/Uni) is usually marked by a great, big, scary, (potentially) life-determining exam. The peak season for tuition comes about 6 months to 1 year before these big exams (Sorry, who am I kidding? Tuition season is all year round.).

Primary School – Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE)

Secondary School – GCE O Levels (4 year programme), N Levels (5 year programme)

*Several schools have moved onto the Integrated Programme (IP) where students prepare solely for the A Levels at the end of 6 years.

Junior College – GCE A Levels

**Instead of JC/Poly, some may choose to attend NITEC/ITE instead.

Consequently, students feel highly anxious and pressured to do well. There is a premium placed on attaining good grades and the need/desire/fear/pressure to do well comes at the expense of learning for the sake of learning and enjoying the process of learning.

My most poignant memory of education as a child is one that involves my mother. While I will not go as far as to label her as a Tiger Mom, I would admit that her notion of parenting and educating, was that of tough love.

As an 8 year old, Chinese was a subject I loved in kindergarten (because it was fun and I loved to collect colourful, glittery stickers from acing my 听写 (spelling test)) but slowly grew to dislike in primary school because it was not cool enough (for some context, you may wish to read this).

When I did not do well for a Chinese test, my mother was furious. She made me stay up late and forced me to write “白云” (Mandarin for “white cloud”) over and over again. It was a quarter to midnight, and my father was concerned about me staying way past my usual bed time (At 8 years old, a 9PM bedtime feels like punishment. At 24, a 9PM bedtime is LUXURY. But I digress!). Then, I painstakingly wrote the same two characters over and over again, with the foolscap paper slowly soaking up the tears that represented my defiance.

I believe that my experience was not unique. My friends have shared similar, albeit possibly less dramatic, experiences.

It was my first brush with “punishment” for not doing well in school, but it was then that my young mind recognised the importance of obtaining good grades. My Mom wanted me to recognise the importance of doing well in school, because, generally speaking, good grades = good job = good life (Although, what is “good”? Bahaha, let’s not go there).

I resented my mother for a long time after that, but 16 years on, I am deeply grateful. I credit her (and God) for all that I am today. She instilled a sense of discipline, diligence and humility that I take with me to school and work.

However, while I took pride in my work thereafter, and was ecstatic when I did well in school, I will not deny that my deep desire to shine academically was derived from a cocktail of fear and pride with a dash of genuine joy for the few subjects that I truly enjoyed (If it is not evident by now what my favourite subjects were and still are, they are – English/General Paper, Literature, History and Economics).

Hence, the kiasu/kiasi culture. The paper chase. My mantra for most of my formal education was “Do or die”. 

Education, the great leveller.

I did not understand it then, but I soon came to realise that my Mom wants the best life for me, and to her, Education is the safest way to a better, more comfortable life. Singapore is a meritocratic society and those who work hard tend to reap the fruits of their labour. (Yes, I recognise that those who can afford tuition and a million other supplementary scholastic and non-scholastic activities/lessons/workshops are more likely to be better equipped than those who cannot, and so the playing field is not as level it may seem to be, but this is another discussion for another day.)

In any case, I moved onto secondary school and JC with pretty much the same “Do or die” mantra.

Am I happy with how things turned out? Definitely.

Do I wish that my educational journey as a child could have been slightly different? Perhaps.

Would I parent my future child differently than how my Mom did? I doubt it.

Ideally, I would like to learn for the sake of learning and not merely “what is tested” on the exams. I would have liked to not be motivated by the fear of not doing well and to be genuinely curious about the subjects I was taught in school. Realistically, a moderate amount of fear and stress is good. It keeps you on your toes and allows you to continually improve and not lapse into complacency.

Singapore’s education system is not perfect and the tuition syndrome needs to be addressed. However, I will not deny that it is one of the most respected systems worldwide and given the choice, I would put my children through the same education system for their primary and secondary school years, at the very least.

Furthermore, the Singapore government has made several, laudable changes to the PSLE, as many have complained that for the PSLE to determine most of the rest of a children’s educational journey places too much stress on a 12 year old, who should still be playing “Catching” games at the playground. This is a step in the right direction.

Additionally, the establishment of the Singapore Sports School and the School of the Arts affirms Singapore’s commitment to recognising that success, intelligence can come in different forms and are not solely limited to those who major in STEM subjects.

Success is not strictly limited to “Doctor”, “Lawyer”, “Accountant”, “Scientist” and “Engineer” etc. (SGAG recently made a new meme which stated that the newest “It” jobs are “Youtuber” and “Blogger”). The sports and the arts are to be equally nurtured, encouraged, embraced and celebrated.

As for those who have yet to enter Poly/Uni, take heart and fret not. Uni will be an entirely different ball game (It was for me, at least). And, it will likely be a THRILLING/FUN/EXCITING/GREAT EXPERIENCE.

In Uni, the mantra was “Work hard, play hard.”

I graduated from SMU Law school (I was rejected by NUS Law after the interview round by the same Professor whom I was the Teaching Assistant of when he later moved to SMU Law (Life comes full circle, doesn’t it?)) and it was the BEST YEARS OF MY LIFE (thus far).

I believe that you bloom where you are planted and boy, was SMU a wonderful, expansive garden for me to explore, learn, travel, cry, fall, get hurt, love, laugh and make the best lifelong friends.

In those 4.5 years, I attended numerous camps, made several friends that I cannot live without till today, picked up Latin Ballroom (and even competed briefly!), hosted some events in Broadcast and Entertainment, acted in a play, travelled to SEA and Europe (oh, glorious, glorious days of wander lusting), made more wonderful international friends (ESADE I love you), frequently pulled all-nighters to complete Research Papers, cried (too many times) and laughed (too many times).

The Pearlynn that entered SMU is very different from the Pearlynn that is graduating from SMU. It is through Education that I am able to expand my horizons (quite literally).

While I like to believe that I retained some of my wide-eyed bushy tailed innocence and naivety in spite of the occasional cynicism that accompanies law school, I feel that I am now better equipped to handle not just working life, but also my life as whole (Sounds like a plug for SMU, but it isn’t!).

I am eternally grateful to my family, friends, group mates, classmates, Professors and copious amounts of skinny Starbucks coffee. And to think I was eager to begin working! I look back on these Uni memories fondly.

Uni, or anywhere for that matter, is what you make of it.

I highly recommend that you grab and create all the opportunities that present themselves to you – be it to volunteer for an additional project, front a campaign, assist a Professor in research, take some modules unrelated to your degree/major (for that cross/inter-disciplinary education), clock in extra volunteer/pro bono hours, travel for that internship stint/conference/competition, sing/play an instrument/dance/perform in front of a large crowd. The list is endless and so are the possibilities. Your experience will be all the more rewarding because you allowed yourself to dive right in with all guns blazing to the School of Life that we call Uni. 🙂

So, this is it?

Well, technically, I still have the formal graduation ceremony to attend (if I am in the country). But as they always say, “活到老,学到老”. While my years of formal education may be formally coming to a close, I will not cease to learn. I have so much more to learn and I want to be a Student of Life!



P.S. To some, possibly the non-Eastern readers, it might seem appalling to have children write the same phrases over and over again. It does smack of route learning and memorisation, which is not universally encouraged by all schools of thought with regards to educating children. However, in Asian cultures, or at least in my personal experience, it is the most effective, most commonly used and the quickest way to learn the Mandarin language. This is because the characters are not easy to remember and there is a certain order to the way the strokes are written in each character.

P.P.S. While my Chinese is not as good as it should be (I am working on it as we speak, albeit in very small ways), I am pleased to report that I graduated from writing “白云” to Higher Mother Tongue hahaha. Although I struggled to do well in that subject, I am thankful to my Mom because it is important to not lose touch with your roots!

P.P.P.S. Singapore’s education system is often compared to that of Finland’s. Like Singapore, Finland often tops the PISA. Unlike Singapore, Finland achieves this sans the tuition, stress and suicidal thoughts. For a humourous comparison, you may wish to give this a read.

4 Replies to “Reflecting on 16 Years of Education in Singapore”

  1. While I thoroughly enjoyed going on a journey with you in your piece through 16 years of life, lessons, wisdom and promise, I believe that even the best education systems have an underlying indirect autocracy that very subtly dictates students to be on a path of their (system’s) choosing by celebrating success more than masterfulness (There is a very clear thin line of difference that they tacitly exploit). So, more often than not, the inspiration to choose a direction is driven more by stories of success than by stories of passion. If you come from a place where I come from(our system suffers from the tuition syndrome too), your family could feed into it and the student then goes with the option-designate, probably with a touch of uncertainty which he or she confuses with nerves.

    I understand that education must fulfill a purpose, be it economic, social or cultural, but it is sad that some of us look back and see education to have been a policy we just subscribed to, Education in my opinion should be unfettered and multi-dimensional given the amorphous reality our future generations would most likely face.

    Albeit, a very insightful read. Keep writing.

    1. “Education in my opinion should be unfettered and multi-dimensional given the amorphous reality our future generations would most likely face.”

      Thoroughly enjoyed reading your comments, and I am heartened that you took the time to read my lengthy post. I agree with you, and I hope that our children will have rich, rewarding childhoods with education that will prepare them well for this Brave New World.

  2. Can I just say what a relief to seek out somebody who really knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You positively know how you can deliver a difficulty to gentle and make it important. Extra people have to learn this and understand this facet of the story. I cant imagine youre not more widespread because you positively have the gift.

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