What are some flaws which makes the Singapore education system so stressful?

There has been a lot of talk and concern about the inherent flaws of the Singapore education system which cause it to be too stressful for our children.

Earlier this week, there was a CNA video of the life of a primary 6 student preparing for PSLE that went viral with over 11,000 shares on Facebook.

Another blog post that went viral was titled “What are we doing to our children?” written by Blogger Ian Tan. He shared his concerns about this worrying trend and hoped that for the children for our next generation, we will not “inculcate in them that a person should spend his life obsessing about results, money or what people think of them via status symbols”.

I’d be worried too if I look at the statistics.

In 2015, a Household Expenditure Survey revealed that families here spent $1.1 billion per year on tuition. This is almost double the $650 million spent 10 years ago and one-third more than the $820 million spent just five years ago.

While many were quick to blame the parents for being “overly competitive”, I disagree. I do acknowledge that there are some parents who are being unnecessarily ‘kiasu’ and using their child’s accomplishments to boost their own self-esteem or lack thereof.

However, I believe that the stressful Singapore Education System is a bigger contributing factor.

As someone who just graduated from university and entered the workforce, let me share my insights on why:


1. Grades are important for the biggest employer in Singapore

No matter how our government tries to appease the masses by saying things like “every school is a good school” and “grades are not the focus”, it doesn’t change the reality about Singapore that grades are extremely important for some jobs in the future.

Just take the civil service for an example which is the biggest employer in Singapore.

When one applies for a government job, you will be asked to list your O and A level results and the specific grade you got for each subject. This is despite the fact that such exams are taken really long ago like when one is 16 and 18 respectively. Not only that, you have to bring photocopies of these documents on your first interview.

The civil service also perceives the level of honours you get as an important factor in deciding whether or not to hire you and promote you in the future.

In fact, if you’re from a private university like the SIM Global Education program, your chances of qualifying for the civil service is lower than those from NUS, NTU and SMU.

In contrast, most companies in the private sector especially the leading ones couldn’t care less about your O level and A level scores.

Times have changed and when hiring fresh graduates, many of the top firms prefer to focus on other more important factors such as internships, community service, overseas exposure etc.

I’ve been to a few interviews and not a single employer asked for my GPA, much less my O level and A level results. In my first job at a British MNC, the HR department didn’t ask for my degree till there was a recent degree scam incident in Singapore earlier this year.

Sadly, the civil service is the main and biggest employer in Singapore. Thus, their hiring practices no matter how ridiculous would influence the mindset of the youth.


2. The Bell Curve System

In Singapore’s education system today, it is not enough to just do well in your grades. You have to do better comparatively to others. This is due to the bell curve system.

Say if you get 85/100 for your test but majority of your classmates get 90/100, you will probably end up with a B4.

Thus, in order to out-compete their child’s classmates, Singaporean parents spend money on tuition to help their child remain competitive. It is like an arms race where one is forever trying to be in the top ten percentile. Those whose parents can’t afford tuition will get left behind.


3. Competition from foreign students

Perhaps there was a bell-curve system in place during the 80s and 90s. However, it was a lot less stressful as kids just have to compete with Singaporeans.

The children today are competing with hordes of talented and bright students from ASEAN, China and India.

In 2012, there were 51,000 foreign students in government-run schools and institutions. This makes up roughly 8 percent of all the students here.

These students tend to be extremely hardworking because in general…

  • They may come from a poorer country and have to make the most out of educational opportunities they’ve gotten
  • They are also not obliged to spend time with family given that their family is not in Singapore
  • Their education system is better than Singapore in some ways. For instance, China’s education system is more advanced in mathematics and Mandarin than in Singapore. Thus, they can tackle these subjects easily here.

Since we have the bell curve system, local students must thus work harder to keep up with new ‘foreign talents’ in order to get a distinction. This is because the presence of foreign competition is significant enough to affect a child’s grades. For example, a student who might have gotten an A without foreign students now gets a B.

A good example will be my personal experience. When I was 16, I took Higher Chinese and my grades were moderated with students from China. As a result, I got a D7. In contrast, my friends taking Higher Malay and Tamil didn’t have this disadvantage given that there was no competition from Tamil Nadu etc.

One year later, I took A level Chinese. I scored a distinction easily without even putting in extra effort. This was because I was competing with Singaporean students and not the top ones from China.


4. Tuition centres teach exam hacks which schools don’t 

As someone who had tuition for a few subjects in school, I personally believe that the materials and teaching from tuition centres are sometimes better than those offered in school.

Firstly, while schools teach content, tuition centres put a lot more effort on exam hacks, teaching you how to game the system and score more with less effort.

With Economics tuition from Caravan Tuition at Novena, I scored an A for and was second place. This is because while others spent time studying the content, I placed 80 percent of my time on studying how the marking process worked and what type of answers examiners wanted from

This is because while others spent time studying the content, I placed 80 percent of my time on studying how the marking process worked and what type of answers examiners wanted from specific type of questions which helped me get an A.

A tuition teacher often has many contacts and can get notes and materials from top junior colleges and secondary schools. So for instance if a neighbourhood secondary school student may not receive very good guidance in his school, he can benefit from tuition as the teachers would be able to share resources and tips from better schools with him.

Thankfully, we’re seeing the rise of apps like Snapask. These apps allow students from secondary school and junior colleges to take photos of questions they find difficult and get answers.

I think this disruption in the private tuition is positive because it ultimately levels the playing field. Students from poorer families who can’t afford so much private tuition now can find a cheaper method of getting help for their exam preparation.


5. The Singapore education syllabus is getting harder each year 

For some strange reason, the syllabus is getting tougher and tougher with children being made to learn content that is way beyond our years.

We already have the most challenging syllabus globally. Why do you think our kids do so well in the International Baccalaureate (IB) compared to the rest of the world?  This is because our formal education system is much harder than the rest of the world and our GCE A levels and O levels is much tougher than the ones the British take.

However, the Singapore education system seems to be becoming harder and more stressful for the sake of it without any consideration as to how it can benefit our youth in the future.

Does introducing so much content and such a level of difficulty in our subjects really improve our workforce and build leaders of tomorrow? I disagree.

Instead, I believe the free time could be spent on developing soft skills and inculcating creativity instead. Scientific studies have shown that a relaxed mind is absolutely necessary for developing creativity.

As Jack Ma said “I told my son: you don’t need to be in the top three in your class, being in the middle is fine, so long as your grades aren’t too bad. Only this kind of person [a middle-of-the-road student] has enough free time to learn other skills.”

True enough, with the exception of Baidu’s Robin Li, many of China’s top internet executives achieved their success despite not having been “top three”-type students.

If you look at the corporate world in Singapore, it is mostly the people from Western countries who are on top. Why? Other than the fact that  many of our local people somehow perceive westerners as superior, these guys generally also possess the necessary soft skills for thriving in the workplace.

Heck, most of them are not even from schools that are ranked as highly as NUS or NTU.


The state of education in Singapore is worrying. As mentioned in my previous article 5 Differences between neighbourhood and elite schools, it is not equitable and no longer facilitates social mobility like how it used to.

Also, the Singapore education system is not delivering what the job market needs. Why is it that when Singaporeans emerge from this education system and enter the workforce, they are deemed as not having the right set of skills? That is like making students go through so much hardship with little rewards in the future in proportion to the effort they put in. Is it smart to leave it in the hands of bureaucrats who have little or almost zero private sector experience to know what the market wants?

If you agree with the analysis here, like this post and share it with your friends. What are your thoughts? Share your views below!

In Singapore’s education system today, it is not enough to just do well in your grades. You have to do better…

Posted by Jeraldine Phneah on Saturday, 28 May 2016


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