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Is our education system fit for purpose?




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By Khush Chopra

No it’s not. Our system emphasises academic excellence but at what cost?

Singapore, it appears, must have the highest per capita spending on private tutoring in the world. 7 out of 10 parents here send their children for supplemental classes after formal school. We now spend S$1.4b dollars a year on tuition classes for our kids.

(Tuition has ballooned to a S$1.4b industry in Singapore. Should we be concerned?)

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There is therefore a parallel education system supplementing the government sponsored one whose significance and long term implications should not be underestimated.

I will sketch out briefly three important implications of this shadow or parallel education system.


The first implication of the billion dollar tuition industry is to bring to sharp focus to what we obviously think is the end goal of education and what it should be.

There is an obvious mismatch between the things you learn at school and the skills required to lead a meaningful life.

The fundamental purpose of education must be to deliver life experiences that are a composite of all the skills necessary to get on in the real world.

In fact the most important life experiences are only learned through failure and the obstacles of life. Failure itself is a great teacher and life experience.

This father who wrote the article here is so right. The competition for grades has an opportunity cost in terms of time for a more holistic development of our children.

“Education must balance between pragmatism and idealism. It ought to ready our youths, or whoever avails himself or herself of the education system at whatever age, for working life. But it also ought to be formative: Forming our students as whole human beings, as socio-cultural and political beings, beyond being mere economic agents.

True, Singapore is reforming the education system by moving away from rote learning, de-emphasising examinations, and tweaking how we stream students. But the deeply-embedded societal operating system based on competitiveness is difficult to uninstall.”

Our competition for grades does indeed take valuable learning time away from soft skills like emotional intelligence and to hold a conversation and other important development priorities like a more balanced education in terms of the humanities, musical appreciation, sports and physical development and other life skills. These are skills that high-paying Fortune 500 companies value above all else.

The fundamental purpose of school must be to prepare our children for the real world; to succeed and otherwise cope with failure. We must ensure that every Singaporean child has an equal shot at future success, regardless of whether his family can afford tuition.


Another implication of our parallel education system is as to examination grades.

Firstly, we can fairly say that Singaporeans are paying for grades. It is a case of more tuition = better grades.

While comprehensive research is required to prove this assertion, anecdotally our kids are doing better at exams in tandem with the burgeoning spend in tuition classes outside the school system.

In fact, the tuition industry is in many ways a damning indictment of the Ministry of Education’s failures.

Progress in schooling is measured by examination grades and scores. Increasingly this progress is being determined by the parallel tuition based education system.

The Government and the public education system therefore most certainly cannot today take credit for educational outcomes in Singapore.

Secondly, we need to ask if our incredible spending on tuition to get better examination grades for our children is money well spent.

While exam results certainly appear to determine success in life in Singapore, it is certainly not supposed to as is clearly the case elsewhere.

This explains the paradox of our success in many areas such as the efficiency of our bureaucracy and failures in others such as entrepreneurship and innovation.

Academic grades essentially measure obedience, knowledge or intelligence which most certainly open career doors but do not teach kids to identify or seize opportunities or have the grit and determination to persist or struggle to succeed.

Rebellious kids who exhibit a willingness to resist authority apparently grow up to out-earn rule-followers.

A study published in the journal “Developmental Psychology” found that it was not grades or obedience that determined success.

“Rule breaking and defiance of parental authority was the best non-cognitive predictor of higher income after accounting for IQ, parental socio-economic status and educational attainment,”

(See: Rule-breaking in children predicts future success)

Exam results are perhaps not as important as passion, drive and determination for success in life. However in Singapore we place greater unfortunate importance on a culture of compliance and obedience.

Very often those who get poorer grades are more successful than those with the best grades. Our Polytechnic students are a great case in point. They have blazed the trial in many industries.

Thirdly, the over-emphasis on exam results leads to a “pressure cooker environment” with students finding it difficult to cope.

The ill effects of this relentless competition for grades can be seen in the stresses and strains that affect our students resulting sometimes in the extreme of mental illness and even suicide.

Clearly the more we emphasise academic success and push our children to succeed in examinations per se, the worse it is for our students.

It should be about doing your best not getting A’s. Big ideas from the big disciplines not big grades.


Meritocracy is Singapore’s main principle of governance and our system of education is supposed to be the great leveller in which this fundamental tenet of governance is supposed to find expression and meaning.

Another implication as to the amount of money we spend on tuition as a society is therefore how it affects the meritocracy imperative.

Our system of meritocracy has become a game with loaded dice. Money and not hard work or talent is now the currency that enables the gaining of an advantage through the exploitation or manipulation of our “meritocratic” system.

There is no meritocracy in Singapore. Only “moneytocracy”. Success and failure in Singapore lies within the system of meritocracy as it operates today. It is no longer meritocracy but “moneytocracy” that determines success of the young in Singapore.

The Minister for Education himself has recognised the meritocracy paradox that lies at the heart our education system that is supposed supposed to recognise talent and ability, over wealth and circumstances of birth when in fact these attributes are interrelated and hence in themselves a paradox. (See Ong Ye Kung’s article “Dealing with two paradoxes of Singapore’s education system” in the “Today “ paper dated 11 July 2018.)

Our education system does not facilitate social mobility but rather entrenched the social divide through endemic “moneytocracy” favouring those with the most to outdo those with the least.


Singapore students top global surveys on education but at what cost in terms of mental health and a carefree childhood? What are the financial and emotional costs arising from the stresses and strains in competing for grades through tuition classes?

Academic excellence is very important but a more balanced and rounded education that develops our children holistically and frees up time for family bonding and reduces stresses and strains on child and family is more important.

We must overhaul our education system to set new priorities to meet the real needs of the people.

It’s not grades but passion, drive and determination that help you succeed in the real world. The ones who have poorer grades and who in fact fail that end up being the most successful.

What’s the point of students with good grades if the students are stressed out and unhappy?

Rich country, stressed kids. ??

A version of this article first appeared on Khush Chopra’s Facebook page and is reproduced here with permission.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore.

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