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Dealing with two paradoxes of Singapore's education system

There is no contradiction between meritocracy and fairness, nor reducing inequality and raising Singapore’s collective standards, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Wednesday (July 11), adding that this is why the Republic should continue its efforts to uplift those at the bottom. Speaking in Parliament during a debate on a motion on "Education for our future", he added that it is important for Singaporeans to have broad agreement around these fundamentals in developing an education system to better prepare children for the future. Below is an excerpt of his speech.

Mr Ong Ye Kung says there are so many opinions on education because it is close to Singaporeans' hearts and it affects the closest people in our lives – our children.

Mr Ong Ye Kung says there are so many opinions on education because it is close to Singaporeans' hearts and it affects the closest people in our lives – our children.

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There is no contradiction between meritocracy and fairness, nor reducing inequality and raising Singapore’s collective standards, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Wednesday (July 11), adding that this is why the Republic should continue its efforts to uplift those at the bottom.

Speaking in Parliament during a debate on a motion on "Education for our future", he added that it is important for Singaporeans to have broad agreement around these fundamentals in developing an education system to better prepare children for the future. Below is an excerpt of his speech. 


Last week, Mr David Brooks (New York Times columnitst) wrote a piece called ‘The paradox of the gender divide’.

He observed that in the Nordic countries, where gender equality is the highest, many women exercise their choice and opt out of the corporate rat race.

So, the greater the gender equality, the fewer the number of female corporate managers. And that’s a paradox.

In education, we encounter similar paradoxes too. There are at least two. The first paradox is that of meritocracy.

Meritocracy recognises talent and ability, over wealth and circumstances of birth. It motivates society to work hard, it encourages us to develop our talents, and put our talents and strengths to good use.

This approach has uplifted many families over the decades. Many members of the House have benefited from this approach and this philosophy.

And as families do well, they believe in meritocracy and therefore, they spare no effort investing in the next generation, including enrichment classes from a very young age.

Hence, children today from more affluent families are now doing better that those from lower income families in school.

Unlike the first generation of Singaporeans where students are mostly from humble backgrounds, the next generation is pushing off blocks from different starting points, with students from affluent families having a head start.

So, meritocracy, arising from a belief in fairness, seems to have paradoxically resulted in systemic unfairness. And that’s a question we all ask ourselves.

There’s a second paradox and that is of inequality. When I was young, most of my classmates, including myself, we were all from humble backgrounds.

So, just by the sheer law of probability, some of us ended up as top performers in schools. But that’s sheer law of probability.

Today, the percentage of students from similar backgrounds are much smaller, and it continues to shrink.

Ten years ago, about 20 per cent of our employed households had an income of S$3,000 or less, at $2017. Today, that has gone down to well below 15 per cent, and I think it will continue to shrink as we continue to uplift families.

So, this is a happy outcome. But as we successfully uplift more poor families, the smaller group of families that remain poor are facing increasingly difficult challenges.

Their challenges are also translated to their children’s performances in school.

So, as we uplift poor families, the greater the achievement gap between the rich and poor in school. And that’s the second paradox.

As we confront these paradoxes, we question if our policies and approaches have run their course, and perhaps it is time to slaughter some sacred cows and take a fundamentally different approach.

It depends on which cows you are thinking of slaughtering. For some, ‘maybe’, for some the answer is ‘no’.

Paradoxes make us think hard about our challenges and our choices. But we can resolve these apparent contradictions.

You take the gender divide debate in Nordic countries. They provided more equal opportunities to men and women, but women chose not to be like men, and so there is no contradiction in both greater equality and fewer female corporate managers.


How do we deal with the two paradoxes I mentioned – that of meritocracy and that of achievement gap? Let’s start with meritocracy, which is in danger recently of becoming a dirty word.

A couple of education-related controversies arose in the US recently. The first was a law suit was filed against University of Harvard for systemic bias against Asians over the years.

It was alleged that Asians who tend to score highest in the admission tests for Harvard, they were marked down by the University on soft criteria, such as personality.

So, it’s not just Singaporeans who are ‘kiasu’ and study a lot. Asians overseas, in the US, they too study very well and aced their exams. Apparently, Harvard did this to preserve ethnic diversity in the University.

The second controversy was the mayor of New York recently suggested to scrap the highly competitive admission examinations for eight of the city’s specialised public high schools.

Sixty two per cent of the students in these schools are Asians, who tend to perform well in these examinations. So, this move by the mayor of New York will reduce the number of Asians, and increase the number of black and Hispanic students being admitted into the high schools.

Some ideas that we have come across in recent weeks – not in this House – but what we read are along the lines of what the US schools are doing.

There was a suggestion that we set a quota for low income students in popular schools. I am not in a position to comment on the admission policies for US schools.

But Singapore’s circumstances are different and unique, and we cannot assume that we will have to eventually do what other countries like the US have done.

Many of our popular schools are already making extra efforts to attract eligible students from low income families, encouraging diversity amongst the students and mingling of students from different backgrounds.

And we should encourage them to do more and try even harder.

But setting a quota sends the wrong signal. I don’t think it is aligned to our societal ethos. And it can even be seen as patronising.

Another common suggestion that was raised is to scrap the PSLE, one of the sacred cows.

I will admit that PSLE is far from a perfect system and it does add stress, a lot of stress sometimes, to some parents and students, and the Minister too.

But it happens also to be the most meritocratic, and probably the most fair of all imperfect systems.

If we scrap it, whatever we replace it with to decide on secondary school postings, I think is likely to be worse.

I came across two alternate systems recently. The Swiss – I was in Switzerland last month – do not have the equivalent of PSLE.

But neither do students have a choice on what secondary school to go to or to work towards to go to – they are simply assigned to the school nearest to their homes.

I visited one of these schools and spoke to the students, and they all go home for lunch, because they say it’s 10 minutes’ walk, five minutes’ walk, different directions, and they come back to school.

They didn’t have a choice where to go to. However, in Switzerland, the affluent have a choice, because they can pay for their children to attend private schools.

And in Switzerland, 7 per cent of students attend private schools today.

(There is) another system in Hong Kong, which I visited earlier this year.

Some years ago, they did away with its equivalent of PSLE. But in its place, Hong Kong uses the school examination scores in Primary 5 and 6 to decide on secondary school postings.

Because the primary schools have different standards, they devised a tool to harmonise and normalise the scores. So the stress is somewhat transferred upstream.

And like the Swiss, there is also a thriving private school sector in Hong Kong, which accounts for nearly 30 per cent of the student intake.

The Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC), a self-help group, has a Supervised Homework Group programme.

Here, young volunteers spend several hours a week tutoring and helping students from low income families with their homework.

On the surface, this is to help them with their homework, but the unspoken objective is for the volunteers to act as role models for the kids.

I thought the volunteers would be a very suitable group who should have their opinion heard, and so I asked if they think PSLE should be scrapped.

They have no vested interests, have gone through the education system themselves, and they are now helping poor students cope with schoolwork.

So, I thought, let’s hear their opinions. On the education system as a whole, they have many different views, but on PSLE, the great majority disagreed with scrapping it.

Why? The common reason they cited was that they felt that PSLE can in fact motivate these poorer students to work hard, and there are resources to support poorer students.

One expressed frankly that we can complain that PSLE favours the rich, but the rich are better poised to prepare their children in whatever alternate system that is in place.

They said support the weaker students more, but don’t take away PSLE.

So, I think it’s not a straightforward matter. This sacred cow survived for some very valid reasons.

But what I think we need to do, we must do, is to reduce the stakes of this examination.

Make it a less a do or die examination that is so important as if it will determine your whole life, which it doesn’t.

And there must be many other ways that we can do this, to reduce the stake of this examination.

One way I always talk about is to ensure a broader definition of merit.

One that does not focus too narrowly on past academic scores, but recognises a broad meritocracy of skills, given the various strengths and talents of our people. That, at the core, is the objective of SkillsFuture.

That is why pedagogy is changing in schools. It is more experiential, more applied and more exploratory.

There are many more pathways in the higher education sector, leading into lifelong learning.

We can’t change the fact that the starting points of each child is different, but our system can ensure that all of them can run a good race and finish well.


Now let’s talk about the second paradox, which is that of the achievement gap.

The easiest way to close the gap is to actually cap the top. Some of the suggestions raised in public, such as banning tuition and enrichment classes, redistributing resources from popular to less popular schools, are pointing in that direction.

Excessive tuition to the point of causing undue stress and killing the joy of learning is not good for the child.

But I don’t think capping achievements and limiting opportunities is the right approach either. It runs against a very fundamental philosophy of our education system.

As the educators in MOE will say in Chinese – 保底不封顶 – don’t cap the top, uplift the bottom.

Indeed, a good proportion – about 7.5 per cent – of students who live in one to three-room HDB flats emerge as top PSLE performers every year.

And there are many others with great non-academic strengths and talents and we must continue to strive to help them develop their strengths to the fullest.

MOE’s resourcing of schools reflect this approach.

The highest level of funding, about S$24,000 per student goes to the Specialised Schools – Crest Secondary School, Spectra Secondary School, NorthLight School and Assumption Pathway School.

The next highest levels of resourcing, about S$20,000 and S$15,000 per student, goes to Normal (Technical) and Normal (Academic) streams respectively.

A student in other courses in Government and Government Aided schools, and in Independent Schools, attracts under S$15,000 of resources per student.

In addition, MOE regularly rotates and ensures that our good performing teachers and principals are well spread across different types of schools.

Beyond resourcing of schools, further assistance is granted to students from lower income households.  They come in the form of financial assistance schemes, bursaries, school meal programmes, and the Opportunity Fund.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) also reaches out to students from different schools, in a quest for diversity amongst Government scholars.

It has been paying special attention to applicants from lower income families.

Students from two JCs – RI and Hwa Chong – used to dominate the scholarships awards. But the situation is improving.

In 2007, over 80 per cent of PSC scholars were from these two JCs. In 2017, the percentage has come down to 60 per cent.

The PSC is also adjusting its interview techniques.

They recognise that students from poorer backgrounds tend to be less articulate, so the Commission is assessing candidates beyond their communication skills, but instead looking at the substance of what they say, their ideas and thinking.

As a result, we continue to see President’s Scholars who come from humble backgrounds or outside of the most popular JCs.

In 2016, LTA Natasha Ann Lum Mei Seem became the first President’s and SAF Scholar from Pioneer JC. She is now studying in the US and she is an AirForce C3 Officer.

At last year’s President’s Scholar award ceremony, I sat next to Mr Lee Tat Wei and his parents. His father is a taxi driver and his mother is a part-time sales assistant. Tat Wei is also studying in the US and will be joining the Foreign Service.


Our approach of lifting the bottom has other significant outcomes.

First, what we used to regard as opportunities only available to students from more affluent backgrounds are now broadly accessible.

For example, most schools now organise overseas learning experiences.

Schools are offering a wide variety of CCAs – Tanglin Secondary School has fencing as a CCA, Kent Ridge Secondary School offers sailing, North Vista Secondary offers string ensemble and NorthLight School has for many years run an equestrian programme.

The Junior Sports Academy (JSA) is another example. It is a two-year free sports development programme for talented and interested P4 and P5 students.

The Academy does not scout for high performing sportsmen and sportswomen.

They look for raw diamonds – students with good motor skills and hand-eye coordination abilities, and then help them develop their sporting skills through professional coaching.

Since 2017, we have doubled the capacity of the Programme to about 800 a year.

Some students from the Programme have gone on to gain places in secondary schools through the Direct School Admission system and they did not have to go to those expensive coaches with high rates.

It’s done by the JSA, free of charge. MOE is now in the initial stages of developing a similar programme for the Arts.

It is a good example of the alternate system we discussed and what will happen if we don’t have the PSLE.

You have an alternate system, DSA is an alternate system.

Mr (Ganesh) Rajaram has accurately pointed out that the affluent, they always have a way, whatever system it is, to make better use of it.

But in this case, that system also serves those from humble backgrounds and we are able to train them to enter the top and popular schools.

So, we ask ourselves, are we better off with or without this alternate system.

And I think we may well be better off having this system that enables students from humble backgrounds to enter popular schools, notwithstanding that affluent students will also be able to make use of it.


The second significant outcome is smaller class sizes for the weaker students.

The additional resources for Specialised Schools and students in Normal Streams come partly in the form of additional teaching resources.

In Crest Secondary School, Spectra Secondary School, NorthLight School and Assumption Pathway School, the typical class size is 20.

In lower primary, Learning Support Programmes are done in groups of 8 to 10.

Many Normal (Technical) classes are now taught in sizes of 20 or in a class size of 40, but with two teachers.

In many Junior Colleges, consultations between students and teachers are often one-to-one.

For sessions with an education and career guidance counsellor, students meet one-on-one or in small groups.

There is sometimes still the perception that students study in one class and it is of a certain size.

The reality, and the living experience of students, is that they now regularly move around and join different groups and there is no single class size.

Let me put MOE’s position on this straight: with good teachers, smaller class sizes help the students. Our teachers can attest to that through first-hand experience.

In fact, there was a suggestion by Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin to do a study. Actually, we are convinced. With good teachers, smaller class sizes help the students. It’s quite clear.

Why then is MOE cautious on the issue of class size? Because how it is implemented makes all the difference. Let me cite you the results of a few studies to illustrate this.

They are done in overseas context, but nevertheless these are scientific studies and we should take note of the results.

In 2009, Hong Kong did a Study on Small Class Teaching in Primary School.

It put about 700 classes through an experiment over three years, varying their class sizes along the way.

The study found that however they vary the class sizes, there were no significant differences on performances compared to the territory-wide averages.

What Hong Kong did find was that where an experimental school or class did significantly better, it was because the principal was more experienced, took an active role in developing the curriculum, developing the teachers, and involved parents in the education.

Those were the key drivers of better performances.

Another study was done by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel and results was published in their 2016 Annual Report.

Unlike the Hong Kong study, the Taub Center did not conduct an experiment.

They gathered a large volume of data on students’ results, and did a multivariate analysis on the key determinants of the results, with a specific focus to find out if class size made a difference.

The conclusion was in the first page of the report on the study, which said “No significant relationship was found between class size and achievement.”

However, the study did find that for learning of Hebrew, the larger the class size, the better the results!

The third study was done in 2011 by the Center for American Progress, and the results were particularly insightful and shed light on the results of the two studies I just cited.

The US study observed that smaller class sizes was a popular idea, but after tens of billions of dollars were spent across states, particularly in California and Florida, it did not affect results in a statistically significant way.

One reason was that in the US’ context, smaller class sizes meant hiring of many new teachers, who were inexperienced and yet to be effective in the classroom.

The report said “The evidence on class size indicates that smaller classes can, in some circumstances, improve student achievement if implemented in a focused way. But class size reduction policies generally take exactly the opposite approach by pursuing across the board reduction… (They are) also extremely expensive and represented wasted opportunities to make smarter educational investments.”

When I was in Finland earlier this year, I visited a secondary school, and Finland has a very good education system.

I asked the teachers for their opinion on class sizes.

They told me that different political parties in Finland and each one has a position on the issue of class size and they all have different class sizes.

And whoever is elected would then legislate that class size and put it into law.

The teachers said ‘We would rather not have that rigidity. Grant the school the teaching resources, and give them the flexibility to configure class sizes for different groups of students, for different subjects.’

This is what Singapore has been doing.

Let me summarise. Earlier generations of Singaporeans have worked very hard to uplift their lives, and education played a major role.

But success creates new problems. The doubts of many Singaporeans – whether meritocracy still works, whether inequality is worsening – are paradoxically the results of our policies succeeding and improving the lives of Singapore families.

That is why I said tackling inequality is unfinished business.

But I stress there is no contradiction between meritocracy and fairness, nor reducing inequality and raising our collective standards.

Instead, we should double up on meritocracy, by broadening its definition to embrace various talents and skills.

We should not cap achievement at the top, but try harder, work harder to lift the bottom.

I wanted to set out these fundamentals, because it is important to have broad agreement around them.

If we have, we are in a much better position to develop the education system to better prepare our children for the future.

As to what exactly we need to do in terms of programmes, initiatives and policy reviews, MOE will take in all the views and suggestions raised inside and outside of this House and consider them. Some we will implement, some we will take time to implement.

Others involve trade-offs and we may decide not to implement them for the time being.

The Speaker asked two questions – he asked what is the most important school you attend and who are the most important teachers.

And my answer is this: The most important school is family, the most important teacher are our parents.

Of course, it takes a village to raise a child, but the home, the parents, is one of the most important education experience all of us will have.

So, imagine if a family is a school, and parents are the teachers, it makes the job of MOE complicated.

Because between the parents and the child is a complex relationship.

As parents, we know that.

There are expectations, love, respect, hopes, fears, worries.

It’s a complex relationship and MOE is in the middle of it.

But it also means that being an educator is a great privilege, because you get to educate a child, which is the most cherished, valuable to the parents.

Mr Darryl David mentioned that being a teacher is unlike all other professions, unlike a lawyer or a pilot, where nobody questions you how you do your job.

But when it comes to teachers, parents will question, because parents too are the most important teachers to the child.

And it’s a complex relationship between a mother and child, father and child.

There are so many opinions on education because it is so close to our hearts because it affects the closest people in our lives – our children.

It also means discussions on education can be frustrating and sometimes end up in a stalemate.

Parents will say ‘MOE, you better change; MOE says ‘Parents need to change’. 

Sometimes, we point fingers at each other.

The children don’t say it, but they look at you and probably think – “you both better change.”

The truth is, we are all in this together, as partners to build a better future. I feel optimistic and hopeful, because through all the speeches made today, we may appear like we have different views, but I think underlying all that, there’s consensus on the direction ahead.

I don’t think we ever had such a strong chorus of voices in the House, emphasising on the importance of joy of learning and cautioning against excessive tuition and relentless chasing of academic results.

I believe this is a view that will reverberate beyond this Chamber.

MOE and all our partners, we will work together.

It’s not an easy job, but MOE with the resources, with the policy levers, we will be the initiator of the changes.

We can be the system integrator. Work together, bring about improvements and change.

All of us cannot fail the young people of Singapore, and we cannot fail our society.

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