Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Pros of Education in Singapore

I want to follow up on Tony's post regarding educational opportunities in Singapore by listing some pros and cons, based on my own experience studying there. I'll be speaking on education at the O and A levels (equivalent to our SPM and STPM) since that's the extent of my exposure to the Singapore education system. I studied in Raffles Institution for my O levels and in Raffles Junior College for my A levels under the ASEAN scholarship program. Tony was my senior by 4 years under the same scholarship program but unfortunately, our paths didn't cross.

I'll start with the pros in this posting and then move on to the cons in my next posting.

Pro 1: Education system entirely in English

Except for your second language (Chinese, Malay, Tamil or if you're daring enough, French, German or Spanish), the education system in Singapore is entirely in English. This provides an excellent opportunity to prepare oneself for an overseas undergraduate education. I thought that my English was pretty decent (by Malaysian standards) before I went to Singapore. But I soon discovered that my writing and reading skills left much to be desired. I found that the standard of English at the secondary school level was surprisingly high. I guess that a large part of this was because of the substandard level of English being taught in Malaysian schools. Many of my ASEAN scholar friends from Chinese schools in Malaysia struggled mightily especially for English and English Literature. I would like to think that my English improved substantially after my Singapore stint although I'm still prone to errors (like 'irregardless'). I don't want to think about how bad it would be if I hadn't go to Singapore.

It wasn't just having to learn the entire syllabus in English but also being forced to read novels such as 'To Kill A Mockingbird' or Shakespeare. I would never have picked up such books had I stayed in Malaysia. My Singapore experience evoked an interest in reading literature beyond Enid Blyton, Sidney Sheldon and Jeffrey Archer.

I was also inspired to order a subscription to the Economist when I was taking an 'S' paper in Economics during my A levels. I've been an avid reader of the Economist for the past 15 years. Again, I don't think that I would have had that kind of motivation had I stayed on in Malaysia.

Pro 2: Excellent facilities

When I first entered Raffles Institution, I thought that I had mistakenly gone to a country club. I studied in La Salle PJ, supposedly one of the better schools in PJ in terms of infrastructure, but RI and LSPJ were worlds apart. RI had just moved to new grounds which included a synthetic track, air-conditioned lecture theatres and clean toilets! Since my departure from RI some 13 years ago, they've added a new hostel, a synthetic hockey pitch, a swimming pool, a second library, 2 basketball courts and they've recently announced a $36 million (Sing dollar) facelift.

The other thing that I found amazing was the level of maintenance in RI. Toilets in Malaysian schools are notorious for being dirty, wet and smelly. Toilets in RI were fantastically clean and seemed never to run out of toilet paper. And it wasn't as if there were an army of cleaners maintaining the place. Perhaps, the propensity to destroy school property wasn't at the same level as that found in Malaysia.

The excellent facilities and amenities can be found in all of the top schools in Singapore (and there are quite a few). Almost all the top schools in Singapore have moved into new buildings in the past 5 to 15 years. ACS, SCGS, RGS, CHS, TKGS are some of the secondary schools which have new buildings. Raffles Junior College recently moved to Bishan, to be located alongside RI. NJC and Hwa Chong Junior College had new buildings in my final years in Singapore. There are literally hundreds of secondary schools which have facilities and amenities that few schools in Malaysia can aspire to. The only schools in Malaysia which have comparable facilities are private schools - Garden International or ISKL.

Pro 3: High level of competition

I went from being a top 10 student in my whole form in LSPJ to the middle of the pack in my class in RI. My class was half Malaysian, half Singaporean. All the Malaysians were ASEAN scholars, supposedly the best brains picked from Malaysia. And because classes were streamed, the Singaporeans in my class were supposed to be among the best students (in the Express stream) in that cohort.

It was a bit of a culture shock to go from being one of the top dogs (academically speaking) to being one of the chasers in the pack. It was a humbling experience indeed but one that was necessary. I have never been as intimidated as I was in that class in RI and I have never since been as intimated in subsequent academic settings including at LSE, Cambridge and now at Duke.

The level of competition continued to be high in Raffles Junior College, where I did my A levels. To put things in perspective, I took 4 A level subjects and 1 S level subject and got A's in all of them plus another A in GP (General Paper) giving me a total of 6As. I was placed at around 100 out of a class of approximately 800 students. The top scorer in my cohort had 9 As - 4 A level papers, 3 S level papers and GP and 2nd language. 50% of my cohort had 3As or more. By comparison, most students in Malaysian A level institutions would be content with taking 3 A level papers. I probably would have placed in the top 5 or 10 in an A level program like Sunway or Taylors.

In a competitive setting like the one in Singapore, you really have to work your butt off to even be on sparring terms with the best. In Malaysia, one would be pretty happy to end up in Cambridge or Oxford but in RJ, you stood out only if you got into the top schools in the US - Harvard, MIT, Caltech, Princeton, Yale, Stanford (By comparison, Duke is relatively easy to get into). I have said before and I will continue to say, if you can make it through the competitive pressures in a top school in Singapore, you will be able to excel in any of the top universities in the world. I'm not sure if I can say the same about Malaysian schools.

I'm not 'dissing' those who have excelled within the context of Malaysian schools. I think that there are many, many students who have gone through SPM and STPM who are world class brains and have gone on to some of the top universities in the world and done well there. But personally, I think I would have gotten less out of the system had I stayed on in Malaysia instead of going to Singapore. There are, of course, shortcomings in the Singapore system, which I will discuss in my next posting, but given a choice on whether to repeat the experience or not, I would choose to go to RI for my O levels and RJ for my A levels, in a heartbeat.

(I've left out, for the sake of brevity, other pros such as better trained teachers, a more flexible and expansive curriculum, a better support system to apply for top universities overseas, just to name a few)


Anonymous said...

The difference between our education system and that of Singapore's is simple; they are focussed on gaining that competitive edge x number of years down the line while ours is a perpetual struggle to mend problems and leaks in the system and fulfiling the racial quotas by any means. To understand their success, we have to look at the leaders qualities and mindset.

The Singaporeans are so hell-bent on tapping the best talents and their single-minded quest already started in the early years of LKY laying the foundations to effectively benefit from technology transfer during the industrialisation days of the 70's, '80s and '90s. The latest example of this foresight is the creation of the Biopolis, the centre of all bio-related technologies. They started promoting their bio-tech courses at polytechnic and university level 10 years ago and now have a pool of graduates who are now engineers, research assistants and employees at the centre, learning and gaining from the guidance of the top scientists and researchers brought in by the government.

Now, they have gained a firm footing in biotechnology, stem cell research, biomedicine placing themselves on par with countries like the US. They have even moved on to be able to spend huge amounts of money on developing the arts, hiving off mass-production, mid-level technology activities to lesser economies.

BG Lee said this during his National Day speech: "that at one time Singapore were cheaper than the first world nations and more technologically advanced than the third world economies. Now the technologically advanced countries can find ways to manufacture cheaply while the cheaper countries are more technologically advanced, eroding their advantage. If we do not move on we will be trapped!"

And I remember one of LKY's speeches some time ago about the government being proactive:"that the current Singapore government is pro-actively strategizing to meet the challenges they expect to face in 5-10 years time. The current challenges were thought of and plans were put in place to overcome them, 5-10 years ago."

Another edge the Singaporeans have is that they are willing to put their money where their mouth is. Spending on education is a large part of their annual budget. They already had their computer labs in the elite schools long before we were TRUMPETING about our "smart schools". Now their computer infrastructure has filtered into their neighbourhood schools while ours are still floundering with bad planning, bad-implementation and even with buildings on the verge of collapse.

Can we ever catch up with them? The political cost is too high.

Anonymous said...

sometimes i dun really see the point of incessant complains by a bunch of frustrated people...

if our neighbour is so good, why dun u make a move?emigration...as you said singapore welcomes talents!

generally speaking, most probably, you all are just not good enough to get a PR...

Anonymous said...

That right
we jz not good for PR

That doesnt means that we have to leave our country to rot.. that y we r complaining.

Well if u like to live in a rubbish dump suit urself.. But I am not.. I am going to complaint about the stench..

It is about the stench ..!

Anonymous said...

friend u got me wrong...i am working the hell out of myself...

what's the purpose?to make myself more qualified to leave!

is being a superd complainer helps u in being more qualified?

think again!

Anonymous said...

Singapore has shown us that if the govment people plan properly and harness all the human talents and resources, a small country without much natural resources can be better than a big country with lots of natural resources.

We all started equal, MR1 = S$1, but see what happens now. MSA = MAS and SIA. See the difference?

If we continue to ignore human talents and resources, by 2020, the two countries will be even further apart!

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Unknown said...

Dear noneedname, clear, yoy, lion and samp,

I appreciate you guys writing at this blog. However, I realised that whatever you have posted here has already been posted many times in the other entries of this blog. Why is there a need to copy and paste again and again and again?

Also, it seems that you are more interested in your own rants than a fruitful discussion on the relevant topics which has been posted, which obviously does not help constructive discussions. It doesn't matter if I'm writing on "kindergarten classes", and you'll still be posting on emigration and NEP.

Hence I think, at this point, to prevent further such abuse, I've made the decision that if the comment has been posted anywhere else on this blog earlier already, I will delete any subsequent copy and paste postings, starting from this post.

We'd appreciate it if you do not abuse this blog any further.

Are you the same person by the way?

Tony P

Anonymous said...


I agree with you.. I have discovered this some time...that some postings here mere repetitions..

Why dont you trace the IP address..to see if they are the same person..

Anonymous said...

If I have anything to add to this topic, I would say 6+4+2 education system..

I always feel the secondary education in Malaysian system takes
too long...

A survey around some countries like Taiwan and Japan should testify that 6 years of secondary education is enough..

If we still insist to have form six in Malaysia, then we must adjust our lower and upper form to 2 years for PMR level and 2 years for SPM level...

any takers ?

RC said...

Our current education system changes almost every two years.

I do not know whether it is for the good or worse. There are so many 'A' achievers than before. There are also so many unemployed graduates than before. Does that mean our education is better than Singapore?

Look at the nature of our work force in Malaysia. If I am not far from wrong, many of us irrespective in Sales, Accounts, Purchasing, Mfg Dept, we are very much into paper work, ie keying in datas in to the computer system day in day out, year in year out.

How are we to compare with other countries if there are so limited roles in wider competitive perspect while the small sized or medium sized companies are struggling to meet month end cash flow?

Come on ! We are not even in the position to even compete with Singapore, our companies are taking time to even put their foot firm on the ground before even look forward to compete with the other foreign companies, which have set their base in Malaysia !

With my at least 8 years working experience, all I can say is that the role I can gratefully contribute is my ability to coach junior staff and to encourage them to achieve their personal best. That's how local Malaysia companies can mould us into. List the companies around your corner that have the strategy to compete against the world companies, and you will find there are so minimal of them, unlike Singapore !

The only way we can improve is to set high standards ourselves and progress from thereon. We cannot simply depend on companies to do us this favour. There is simply little exposure for us to explore in Malaysia companies.

On the other hand, Malaysians can still live happily without starving.

Anonymous said...

I'm from Raffles too. I'm afraid the implimentation of the Raffles Programme (RP) 2 years back is eroding the once wonderful system. The competition is just over the top.