Is the Singaporean Education System Flawed or Stressful?

When it comes to the Singapore education system, many students in Singapore have a love hate relationship. While Singapore’s education system is touted to be one of the most stressful in the world, it is also one of the best worldwide. There have been many articles expounding on the inherent flaws of Singapore’s education system and the stress it comes along with studying in Singapore. At the same time, Singapore has received much praise for molding students that produce consistent stellar results in international achievement tests. Yes, while it is true that Singaporean students have been topping the charts for international achievement and placement tests, these successes come at a heavy emotional price and scarification. 

Having been through the education system for more than a decade, I would like to share my opinions on Singapore’s education system. To do so, I will evaluate the pros and cons through an objective lens to avoid any biases. 

An overview of Singapore’s education system 

Majority of the students in Singapore are enrolled into government / public funded schools. The government heavily subsidised education fees in Singapore to ensure that everyone has an equal chance to excel academically. Students are required to attend 6 years compulsory education in Primary School, after which they need to sit for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). PSLE is meant to transition students to Secondary School, which is normally 4 years. Students have the option to choose the academic streams they are more suited for in secondary school, namely the Integrated Programme (IP) or the O levels programme. At the end of 4 years, those in the O levels stream will have to sit for the GCE-O Levels nationwide examination. Afterwhich, students have an option to enter a local Polytechnic or a Junior College. Last but not least, not forgetting University, which is the end goal for many local students. 

Flaws of the education system

Most of the time is spent on work

Unlike countries such as Finland that emphasizes the importance of play for students, many educators in Singapore believe in giving more work to help their students. This perhaps stems from the Singaporean culture of diligence and hard work, the belief that practice makes perfect. Oftentimes, students spend their time after school trying to complete a rising pile of homework and projects. This is not to mention that they also have other external commitments and enrichments after school. As such, it is likely that they not only have school work but also tuition work which can be even more challenging to complete. In the end, students have too much on their plate and the workload becomes unmanageable. This can greatly increase stress and even demotivate some students.

Co-Curricular Activities (CCA)

Co-Curricular Activities (CCA) and extra-curricular programmes are a unique feature of Singapore’s education system. In every government public school, it is mandatory to attend CCA. This is in line with the Singapore education system’s goal of creating holistic development for students. Examples of CCAs include ultimate frisbee, basketball, soccer, dance, service learning and ice skating. Such activities can be as frequent as once or twice a week. While such education programmes are commendable, it can be time consuming and deprives students of rest time. Students in school teams can even train as frequently as four times a week in order to perform well for the competition. As such, CCAs can be a contributing factor to students’ stress if it is not moderated.

Results oriented

It is without a doubt that education in Singapore is highly results oriented. Given that it is geared heavily towards high achievement in exams, many students feel the pressure to outperform their peers and attain stellar results. Rote learning and memorisation are common in the education scene as they are key to achieving academic success. Streaming students according to their year end results is a testament of the education system’s emphasis on results. Inevitably, this breeds a highly competitive system in which students outdo each other in order to get into the best class. Parents are also guilty of comparing results amongst classmates which results in unhealthy competition. This pressure translates to Singaporean students feeling significantly more anxious when it comes to grades as opposed to their international counterparts. Learning should be an enjoyable process for students and such immense pressure to outperform others should not even be there in the first place.

Pressure to enrol kids for tuition

Tuition is a booming and fast growing business in Singapore. Given multiple proven testimonies by many parents and students alike, tuition is considered a necessity in order to achieve academic success. A possible reason contributing to the popularity of tuition is that students often have extra materials that schools do not provide. Tuition teachers also have the expertise to impart exam tips and tried and tested ways to beat national examinations. Given their wide connections with other school teachers, tuition teachers are able to obtain and compile materials from other educational institutions to better their teaching resources. As such, their resourcefulness contributes to the overall efficacy of tuition. 

To be able to afford going for tuition is truly a blessing as not all students are able to afford it. This further widens the inequality rift as lower income students are not entitled to such external enrichment lessons. Thankfully, many non-profit organisations and individuals have stepped out to initiate free tuition services for the less fortunate students. For instance, Children Wishing Well provides a wide range of services for children from low-income families. Tuition is one of such services and volunteers are usually student tutors who have the heart to serve and give back to the community. 

Singaporean students feel pressure from foreign peers

Competition from foreign students can pose a great deal of stress to local students. In addition to the current competition from local peers, students have to also compete with other international students hailing from countries such as Korea, China and India. A research by Times Higher Education revealed that international students make up about 25% in top local universities. More often than not, these students are very bright and extremely hardworking given that an exorbitant amount of money is being spent to send them to study overseas or the country they reside in have fewer educational opportunities. As such, there is a need to do well so as to not disappoint their parents and to make the full use of education overseas. 

Foreign students take up spaces in coveted local universities and even opportunities for fresh graduates, which contributes to stiff and intense competition. This unknowingly breeds frustration and dislike towards international students. 

Inequality for different educational levels

This point is something that is highly concerning and more should be done to eliminate such unfair stereotypes against students from local Polytechnics or Institute of Technical Education (ITE). There has been an entrenched stigma that students from ITE are not as capable or intelligent as their junior college counterparts. In turn, such perceptions perpetuate the unhealthy view that scores are a direct correlation to one’s calibre and intelligence level, which is totally erroneous. Students from Polytechnics or ITE should not be viewed as inferior as they might possess highly applicable skills that are sought after by employers. 

In fact, there has been a more positive view towards Polytechnics by parents and students alike. Unlike JC which is more academically based, Polys aims to provide practical and highly specialized courses which integrate students in the real working world. On top of that, Polys provide internship opportunities for students in order to augment their portfolio and increase their employability. In fact, Poly students are deemed to be more work ready and possess relevant skills for employment. As such, the notion that students with good grades will be more successful or even a brighter future is a flawed perception and should be eliminated. 

Strengths of Singapore’s education system

The above points expounded on the inherent flaws within Singapore’s education system. However, every cloud has a silver lining and I strongly believe that there are some redeeming qualities in our education system. Having gone through more than a decade of constant mugging and multiple mental block experiences, I can vouch that there are some pros to the education system.

Firstly, the level of preparation and professionalism of the education system is one of the best in the world. The Ministry of Education (MOE) sets precise education goals and reviews the national curricula frequently. Education is heavily prioritised in Singapore and the level of dedication towards ensuring quality education for all students has led it to become an international success. The findings by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a testament to Singapore’s education system success. Out of 72 countries, Singaporean students are consistently being ranked one of the top for triennial tests called the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

Secondly, our education curriculum is transferable and more flexible than other countries. There has been an emphasis on collaboration and project works as MOE recognises the need to expose students to real world challenges. Furthermore, the Code For Fun programme is a pilot programme rolled out in some primary schools in order for students to thrive in a digital age. These are the steps taken in order to ensure that the curriculum is relevant and to constantly keep up with changes.

My take on Singapore’s education system

Having listed down my take on the flaws as well as the strengths of the education system, it is ultimately your choice to make that judgement for yourself. Nowadays, there are a plethora of options for you to choose from should you feel that you are unable to cope with the rigidity of Singapore’s education system. Going overseas to study is an alternative despite being a hefty one. Alternatively you can choose to take a gap year to get a mental reset and feel more motivated. Other options include homeschooling should you feel that it is better to learn at a comfortable pace.

In my personal opinion, I hold a positive outlook towards education in Singapore. I am beyond thankful for the top-notch quality and rigorous programs that I sat through as the experience is greatly rewarding. There is definitely no one perfect educational model that satisfies everyone and given that the Singapore government is taking concrete steps to rectifying flaws, we should have faith and believe in the good of our education system.