The edited version of this article was published by Singapore’s Chinese newspaper, Lianhe Zaobao, in its bilingual column, in 2001.
A recent Straits Times survey reveals that more than one-third of Singapore’s school children (including kindergarten kiddies) rely on private tuition to enhance their grades. This phenomenon is not peculiar to Singapore; it is also widespread in the other East Asian societies like China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea. A common thread that binds these countries is their Confucian heritage, which places learning and scholarship above all other pursuits in life.
In Imperial China, scholars were the elite of society. Hence, the most glorious calling was to be civil servants who were recruited from amongst the top candidates under the rigorous public examination system, which dates back to the 6th century. The passing of the competitive examinations was the prerequisite to an illustrious career in officialdom. Many candidates spent years, and even decades, to pass these examinations. Those who excelled would bring prestige and honour to their families and clansmen. China’s traditional regard for learning has percolated beyond its shores, and is firmly rooted in overseas Chinese communities and in other East Asian countries. Against this historical background, the reliance on private tuition would not appear strange to East Asian parents, most of whom passionately share the Confucianist emphasis on education. What better testimony to this than the flourishing tuition industry, one of the most dynamic throughout this region of Asia?
In Singapore, the Government and people are imbued with the Confucian reverence for education. Large amounts of public funds have been expended in enhancing our education system. Schemes are formulated aimed at encouraging continual educational improvement, such as the unique scheme for utilising the CPF savings for higher education. While Singapore’s civil service is a legacy of its colonial past, the Confucian influence has helped make it one of the best in the world. It attracts a good proportion of the nation’s limited talent pool into its ranks annually.
A foundation of the Republic’s economic success is the Government’s extensive scholarship scheme, based largely on the examination results at the pre-university level. Scholars(including recipients of the President, SAF and Overseas Merit awards) are groomed for key positions throughout the public services, in particular the elitist Administrative Service. The brightest of each cohort are given accelerated promotions and regular job moves in order to monitor their suitability for greater responsibilities. Those who can stand up to the scrutiny are promoted permanent secretaries, generals or even government ministers. This effective scholarship network, which has antecedents in the Chinese examination system but has been continually refined to meet the challenges of the information and technological era, has enabled Singapore to uphold meritocracy in its public administration.
Private tuition thrives here because parents know that academic achievements will give their offsprings a head start in life. No sacrifices are too great if they can get them into a university locally or abroad. The competitiveness of our schools has made Singaporean students world-renowned for their academic prowess, especially in mathematics and science.
While I am not against private tuition per se, over dependence on it, unfortunately, has exerted undue pressure and stress on our young, who are always exhorted to deliver results and to live up to their parents’ high expectations. Consequently, the quality of school life is inevitably affected as numerous students struggle to cope with the burden of additional subject learning outside the class room, instead of enjoying their pet interests after school and during vacation in order to broaden their horizons. In some cases, this could lead to health hazards. Moreover, it would surely defeat the quintessence of education which is to open up one’s mind so as to develop potential and creativity, and not merely to slog relentlessly for better grades at all costs.
The purpose of this commentary is not to offer up a solution to this problem, but to stimulate public discussion in the Zaobao columns on a topic that is close to the hearts of a large number of Singaporeans.
Lam Pin Foo