It is common knowledge that Singapore’s young school children are burdened with excessive private tuitions, in addition to loads of school home work and extra-curricular activities which form an integral part of its highly competitive education system. Many also have tuitions for piano, violin, ballet or judo usually at weekends. One can well imagine how hectic their young lives can be! For those who are enrolled at the prestigious schools the pressure exerted by both the school and the parents to do well is even greater. It is also common knowledge that many teachers would encourage the academically weaker pupils to go for private tuition in order to catch up with the school subjects. It is estimated that about 50% of the Singapore school children, both the smarter and the more backward ones, are receiving private tuitions in one or more school subjects. The private tutor’s main task is to go through the school subjects with those under his charge and help them to improve their academic performances and grades. In the past decade, it has become more widespread for many parents to resort to private tuition as a way forward for their children. Increasingly, many over-anxious parents would even subject their three to five years old kids to private tuition too so as to prepare them in advance to cope with their first year of primary schooling, which begins at the age of six. In the more extreme cases, some kids are attending two kindergartens, one in English and the other in Chinese, to set a bilingual foundation for them in multicultural Singapore. All these tuition costs are quite substantial especially for the less affluent parents, who, perforce, will need to cut back their spending on the less essential expenses. No sacrifices are too great for the future of their children because Asian parents are convinced that a sound education will ensure a head start in life for them.
The private tuition fever for the younger kids in Singapore, especially the pre-schoolers, has become a national issue requiring the Singapore Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, to specially highlight it in his annual National Day Rally speech (Singapore’s equivalent to the United States President’s annual State of the Union speech), which was televised live to all Singaporeans recently. The PM commented that Singapore’s young kids are being subjected to too much private tuition which would deprive them of a happy and balanced childhood. He warned that this may be detrimental to their mental well-being as they grow up. Mr Lee had this advice for the over-zealous parents: “While some parents want their children to get a head start, it is important not to over-teach them. Pre-school is to teach the kid certain skills which are best learnt at that age-language and social skills, basic motor skills. It is not meant for you to prepare him for a Primary 1, Primary 2 textbook and to drill the kid at three or four years old so that by the time he goes to school, he already knows what the teacher is supposed to teach him”. The PM emphasised that “research by child development experts has found that hot-housing pre-schoolers may be harmful to them. You turn the kid off, you make his life miserable. Please don’t do that. It’s good for young children to play.”
Are the parents alone to be blamed for generating this tremendous work pressure on their own kids? Are there other contributory factors, such as the inherent structure of Singapore’s school education system? If you pose this question to the parents, especially where both of them work full-time, they would invariably point to the education system as the main reason why private tuition has become so necessary for their children despite the high costs involved. One university-educated working mother pointed out that her very demanding job leaves her with no free time and energy to supervise the home work of her two children, aged 7 and 10 respectively. Both are from a leading school. Her younger child, in Primary 2, has assessment test several times a week while her Primary 5 brother has unending home work on various subjects which even well educated parents will find it difficult to help them. The only practical and sensible alternative is for their parents to engage competent private tutors to help them keep abreast with those subjects where they need augmenting. She believed that, without private tuition, many Singapore primary school pupils will either find it extremely hard to cope or to achieve decent examination results which are a prerequisite for admission to a better known secondary school later. This problem is quite familiar to most working parents. To prove her point, this working mother showed me samples of their children’s home work and I was amazed at the high standard expected of the pupils nowadays, much higher than when our own children were in primary schools a generation ago. Many other parents with young children that I spoke to echoed the sentiments articulated above. In a nutshell , these parents believe that Singapore’s education system is overly achievement oriented and, consequently, a lot more is expected from the schools, teachers, pupils and parents to play their respective parts in meeting the aims and objectives of the education model which has greatly contributed to that country’s internationally admired economic and scholastic eminence.
Private tuition in Singapore does not cater mainly to the less able pupils who need it as a remedial measure to cope with the school work; many brighter students also have private tutors so as to propel them to be among the best in their class and, ultimately, to excel in the all important Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), which all pupils must take in order to get into a secondary school. The better they do in this demanding test, the higher are their chances of getting into an elite secondary school of their choice, otherwise they will be allotted a place in a lesser known school. It is obvious to say that the competition for admissions into elite schools is razor-sharp. Furthermore, If one excels in one’s secondary school career, one’s chances of getting a place in an equally competitive local university or at a renowned overseas university will be more assured. Those who score the highest marks in the pre-university examination may be awarded a coveted Singapore Government scholarship which will enable them to have a career in the prestigious government services and who will be groomed for the top echelons of these services. In short, a good educational qualification will open more doors to a brighter future.
So prevalent is private tuition in this tiny island state of a little more than five million people that many retired school teachers, particularly those who teach languages like English and Chinese, mathematics or other science subjects, will have no problem earning a comfortable income as a second career by giving private tuition in these subjects either from the comfort of their own home or at the home of the pupils. Former teachers from the named schools are particularly sought after by parents. Weekends and public holidays are usually the busiest times for these tutors and parents are willing to fork out the higher hourly rate payable. I know of a retired teacher specialising in teaching English and mathematics and working a 10-hour day at the pupil’s places can earn at least S$1000 (about US$800) a day. Not bad at all. At the other end of the tuition industry, music, piano and dance tutors can also earn a handsome monthly income by giving lessons at the pupil’s homes or at dance studios.
No one in Singapore can deny that its education system is fiercely competitive and achievement oriented and the authorities concerned will strive ceaselessly to make it one of the best in the world. In this regard, the Ministry of Education will push the schools very hard to ensure its fruition. The school principals will, in turn, push their teachers to work towards achieving this national goal and to stretch the students to the limit of their potential. The end result is that students are pressurised in their studies by both the teachers and parents to do well in their school work. Those who can take the heat and excel will later perform well academically at universities locally or at famous overseas universities such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Cambridge and Oxford. The academic superiority of bright Singaporean students in overseas educational institutions is well known and many have secured top honours there year after year. Even the less bright Singapore pupils whose parents are posted to work overseas or migrating there are likely to be among the top-tier in their class there.
On the other hand, many Singaporean parents whose children simply find it beyond them to fit into to the rigours of Singapore’s education model have the options of switching their offsprings from an ordinary local school to an independent non-government funded local school, which has its own syllabus and mode of teaching, or to an international school there, where the school fees payable are at least S$30,000 a year which is much higher than the fees payable to the local universities. Some parents will even emigrate to a foreign country whose education system is more relaxed, like Australia or New Zealand, for their children’s future well-being.
What are the general reactions of Singaporean parents to the PM’s call to moderate their children’s private tuition needs in order to cope with their school work? A common reaction is that, without such additional coaching, their own child would definitely”lose out” to those who do. While they agree with the PM that excessive tuition is not good for the young one’s development, they are not prepared to take the risk of reducing their child’s tuition unless other parents would also do likewise. This sentiment is endorsed by a newspaper’s random poll which also reached the same conclusion. Other parents who have no strong objections to the Singapore education system tend to take the realistic view that as Singapore is their home and a good place to bring up their kids, they have no choice but to accept the competitiveness of the system and do what they believe is best suited to advance their children’s potential and future there.
Following the Singapore PM’s above advice to parents, the Ministry of Education, in a move to reduce the anxiety and pressure for parents to secure a place for their child in a renowned school regardless whether or not it is a good fit for him, immediately abolished the current banding system which ranks schools according to their established reputation and academic achievements aimed at assisting parents on the schools of choice for their kids. Henceforth, the Ministry will ensure that all schools under its purview will be good schools for Singaporean Children. Hopefully, this will lessen the vigorous competition among parents to place their kids in the better known schools regardless if they will suit their children’s learning abilities. Whether this new government policy will work better for the pupils and allay the anxieties of their parents, only time will tell.
Many concerned parents, supported by a ruling party’s younger Member of Parliament, believe and have urged the Government to go one step further by scrapping the nerve-wrecking and highly stressful PSLE which all pupils must take in the final year of their primary school education in order to get admitted into a preferred secondary school based wholly on their examination results. This vital examination is seen by most parents as one of the main factors for the widespread need for private tuition for the school children in Singapore and consequently parents there will want to prepare them well in advance academically so that they will stand a better chance to do well in this crucial milestone examination. There are many cases of working mothers giving up their jobs in order to provide a more stable home environment which would help their kids to prepare and to perform well in this vital examination. The response of the Government was swift and decisive.The Prime Minister has declared that this important national examination cannot and should not be abolished altogether as it is still needed to assess pupils’ educational standards and to provide a fair basis on which secondary schools decide on their admissions. However, he assured parents that his Government will fine tune its existing structure aimed at making it a less stressful experience for both the pupils and the parents who consider this as a “do or die” examination for their children’s future. It will take sometime to come up with an improved model which will lessen the stress and anxieties articulated by those affected by it and still retain the high academic standard which will set a solid foundation in the pupil’s secondary and post secondary education.
For the record, private tuition has always been a feature in Singapore’s education system even long before Singapore became an independent nation in 1965. However, it was then resorted to by parents who could afford it mainly as an aid for their children to improve their performances in subjects where they had fallen behind their class, and not excessively like today where even bright pupils would want to have it in order to out perform the other bright students in their class. Take my own case as an example. The World War II years in Singapore (1942-1945) had delayed my schooling by more than three years, I went to school for the first time in 1946 at the age of nine as an over-age pupil compared to my younger class mates who were not so affected. However, as a more mature pupil, I managed to complete my primary school education in a Chinese language school in four years instead of the normal six through double promotion twice from one level to the next. In doing so, I needed private tuition in one or two subjects initially in order to catch up with the standard required by my school for these subject. Through sheer slogging and perseverance, I succeeded in catching up with my classmates in good time and my private tuition was immediately discontinued by my parents.
I subsequently switched over to a reputable English medium secondary school after completing the first year in a Chinese secondary school. I had, perforce, to be enrolled in a lower form than the higher one for my age because of my inadequacy in the English language. Again, I was the oldest in my class. I suffered in the process initially but somehow managed to fare reasonably well without the help of private tuition through diligence in adjusting myself to the new language learning environment. I subsequently completed my pre-university and tertiary education in the United Kingdom.
One generation later, my wife and I decided to send our three children to a reputable Chinese language school of long-standing, which teaches English as a second language to a good standard not far below an English language stream school. Mindful that English was, and still is, the dominant working language in Singapore and therefore of great importance for their future well-being, My wife was most fortunate to have secured the services of Mrs Joyce Sundram, a resident native English teacher and a qualified speech trainer, who is married to a Singaporean lawyer, who was able to inspire our two older boys to build up a very strong foundation in the correct usage of the English language and speaking it as well as an abiding love and appreciation for the English literature. After several years of tutoring by Mrs Sundram, our older children’s standard of English compares favourably with those of their age groups in a good English language stream School. As my wife and I are firm believers in bilingual education, even before it became the official education policy in Singapore, and being strongly supported by Mrs Sundram, we decided to let our older children complete their secondary school education in a Chinese language high school before enrolling them in an English language stream pre-university junior college prior to their going to an overseas university. They did well and completed their university education in one of the best universities in Britain and United States respectively. My wife and I and our two boys are forever grateful to Mrs Sundram who and her husband left Singapore on retirement to her naive England. After so many years have lapsed, we still keep in touch with her even now.
Our youngest son, too, went to the same Chinese primary school that their older brothers attended but switched to a top English language high school later on the merit of his PSLE results. Like his two older brothers, he too, kept up with his knowledge of Chinese with private tuition during the last two or three years of his secondary school education in order to round up his bilingual education. He completed his university education in a reputable US university.
Both my wife and I and our three children have benefitted from Singapore’s education systems at different times of our life and circumstances. Our grandchildren, two in Singapore and one in the US, are coping quite well under their two differing education models, one more intense and competitive and the other more easy going and enjoyable. Our grandchildren in Singapore, who come from an English-speaking home and social environment, do require private tuition in Chinese as they are attending a success oriented primary school with a high standard of teaching the Chinese language and whose course requirements are approximating the level of a good primary school in China itself. They also have their weekly swimming lesson as well as violin tuition. In addition, my granddaughter goes to a ballet class after school. Their Chinese language tuition continues during the school vacations without let up.
My wife and I see our Singapore grandchildren only weekly and they seem to have adjusted themselves quite well to their school environment and have never complained to us for being unduly pressured by their school work and their language tuition outside the school hours. To our surprise, they have told us cheerfully that they enjoy going to school and having many friends there. This is quite a refreshing change from the unhappiness that we have often heard from many parents and grandparents bemoaning and lamenting Singapore’s overly competitive education system. Nonetheless, I do hope that our Government will soon come up with significant refinements to the existing highly competitive education model so that we can spend more leisure time with our grandchildren and watch them grow up healthily and happily despite their very demanding school work and their other outside school activities.
I would like to share with my readers another article on this subject which I wrote in 2000, the edited version of it was published by Singapore’s Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao’s bilingual column. I now attach the original version of it which appears immediately after this article.
Lam Pin Foo