How Is Singapore’s Education System Unequal?

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said at the National Day Rally 2013 that the PAP government will, “do more to keep paths upwards wide open to all. Keeping paths wide open has been a fundamental principle for Singapore for a very long time. It is how we have enhanced our human potential. How we have created hope for every Singaporean and is especially true in education and that is why we have invested in pre-school, adding 20,000 places in the next five years as I said just now in Chinese.”

He also said that, “Whichever school you go to, whichever class or principal you have, you will get a good education. And we give every school the teachers, the resources, the backing. We help many of our schools develop niches of excellence. We make sure that the whole system is of a high standard. Every school is a good school.”

This was also echoed by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat in parliament, when he said that it, “is also MOE’s concern (that all children should be given equal and good opportunities in education). That is why MOE is committed to providing a high quality of education in our schools for all our students.

How true is this? Let’s take a look at the statistics to find out. In the comparison statistics below, I have included the countries of a similar high-income level to Singapore, as well as the countries which have done well in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings, an international survey which evaluate education systems worldwide.

It was revealed in parliament that, “Expenditure on education has increased over the past 5 years by 40% – from $7.5 billion in FY2007 to $10.5 billion in FY2012, equivalent to 3.1% of our GDP, and accounting for more than 20% of government expenditure.

But do you know that as compared to the other high-income countries, Singapore’s expenditure of 3.1% of GDP on education is actually the lowest, and has been the case for the past few years (Chart 1)?


Chart 1: World Development Indicators

But when you look at Chart 2, you can see even though the PAP government spends the lowest % of GDP on education, they actually spent the highest % of total government expenditure on education – more than 20%.


Chart 2: World Development Indicators

Why is this the case? According to Mr Heng, he explained that, “While OECD countries and other top performing education systems (as measured by PISA) spend between 4 – 7% of GDP on education, but because their governments tax and spend more as a percentage of GDP, expenditure on education makes up, on average, only about 13% of their government expenditure – significantly less than Singapore.”

The key phrase is this – “their governments … spend more”. In the other high-income countries, because their governments spend more money on their citizens, even as the expenditure on education is high, it still makes up a smaller proportion of the total government expenditure, as compared to Singapore.

But the issue isn’t in so much as to how much the government spends on education. The issue is whether the money is fairly distributed to Singaporeans.

Take a look at Chart 3 – Singapore actually spends the lowest % of GDP on primary education.


Chart 3: World Development Indicators

We also spend the lowest % of GDP on secondary education (Chart 4).


Chart 4: World Development Indicators

However, when we compare with the other high-income countries, Singapore actually spends a relatively higher % of GDP on tertiary education (Chart 5).


Chart 5: World Development Indicators

And if you look at it in nominal terms, you can see that Singapore spends one of the lowest on primary education – at PPP$5,879 (Chart 6).


Chart 6: Global Education Digest

We are spend the one of the lowest among the high-income countries on secondary education – at PPP$8,948 (Chart 7). Most of the rest of the countries which spend a lower amount are the Asian countries which have a significantly lower national income than Singapore.


Chart 7: Global Education Digest

But again, when it comes to tertiary expenditure, Singapore spends a relatively higher amount – at PPP$14,676 – as compared to the other high-income countries (Chart 8).


Chart 8: Global Education Digest

But why is there such a discrepancy? Why are we spending so little on primary education, but investing more significantly on tertiary education?

It might not be immediately apparent that the spending in Singapore is uneven and results in an unequal education system. So, let’s take a look at more statistics.

Do you know that when compared to the other high-income countries, Singapore has the one of the highest pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) in primary education (Chart 9)? This means that if you look at Sweden, for example, there is one teacher for every 9 pupils. However, in Singapore, there is one teacher for every 17 pupils – which means teachers are more stretched in Singapore. Does this has anything to do with how Singapore spends the least on primary education?


Chart 9: World Development Indicators

Singapore also has one of the highest PTR in secondary education (Chart 10). In Singapore, there is one teacher to 15 pupils, whereas in some of the other countries, there is one teacher to 10 pupils. Again, is this because of the low expenditure on secondary education?


Chart 10: World Development Indicators

It was also updated in parliament that the, “PTR has improved from 26 in 2000 to 18 in 2012 for primary schools, and from 19 in 2000 to 14 in 2012 for secondary schools.

But don’t just look at things on the surface.

The PAP government goes on to say that, “a PTR of 18 in our primary schools does not mean that our class sizes are 18 in our primary schools – it simply means that we have one teacher for every 18 students”. They add that, “The same PTR can result in different class sizes – as it depends on how we deploy our teachers.” The government goes on to say that, “if we choose to deploy our teachers in classes of 18 students each, it would imply that all our teachers would have to be teaching a class all the time”. They claim that, “This is clearly not tenable.”

So, what is the truth then?

This is the truth: “Most primary and secondary schools have classes of 40 students or fewer, while Primary 1 and 2 classes have 30 students or fewer. We plan on the basis of 30 students per class at primary 1 and 2 and 40 students per class at the other primary and secondary levels.

You see, what’s the point of saying that we have a PTR of 18 in primary schools when each class doesn’t actually have 18 students? It is very different when each class actually has 30 to 40 students – which is more than twice the PTR of 18. The amount of attention that the teacher can give to each student is thus much reduced.

But what is more glaring is that when you compare our class size of 30 to 40 with the other high-income countries, you will see that none of them have class sizes bigger than 30 (Chart 11).

photo 1 (24)

Chart 11: OECD How does class size vary around the world?

The question we have to ask is, what effect does this have on our education system? What does it mean when we spend so low on primary and secondary education? How will that affect the progression of our students?

As such, when you compare our primary school students’ progression to secondary school, what is shocking is that Singapore actually has the lowest proportion of primary school students who actually progress onto secondary school (Chart 12)!


Chart 12: World Development Indicators

Does the fact that our students are not able to receive adequate attention from the teachers – because of the huge class sizes and the lack of financial investment – a key reason as to why this is so?

Not only that, there are other statistics which exposes the inequality of the Singapore’s education system.

When compared to the other high-income countries, the “advantaged schools (in Singapore) are more likely to have more or better resources” (Chart 13).

photo 4 (15)

Chart 13: OECD Programme for International Student Assessment

The advantaged schools are also more likely to have a higher proportion of teachers with university-level education. They are also more likely to have a higher quality of educational resources (Chart 14).

photo 2 (26)

Chart 14: OECD Programme for International Student Assessment

In fact, if we adjust the PISA reading performance for the socio-economic profile, you can see that the PISA score for Singapore would have the greatest improvement (Chart 15) – which shows that we probably have one of the highest inequalities.

photo 3 (19)

Chart 15: OECD Programme for International Student Assessment

Finally, when you look at the difference in standards between the schools, you would see that Singapore actually has one of the largest differences between the schools (Chart 16).


Chart 16: OECD Programme for International Student Assessment

So, PM Lee might have said that, “I believe we can make every school a good school and we have done a lot of that to ensure that every school provides a good education for the students. We give them the resources, we give them the good teachers, we emphasise values and we have made a lot of progress towards this goal.”

But is this the case? The “advantaged schools” are able to receive more and better resources and have better teachers. As such, this has caused the standards between the schools to have huge variations.

PM Lee might say that, “we value every child and that we want to give every person the best possible chance to start off well in life”. But has this been the case?

It is all well to say that they believe that every school should be a “good school”, but is this just lip service? Clearly, the statistics are showing vast differences in the standards between our schools. Clearly, not every school is given adequate resources to become a “good school”.

In fact, we have to question – Singapore has a very low level of investment in our primary and secondary education. Is this also the reason why our schools have become so unequal? Are resources unevenly distributed such that “advantaged schools” are able to get ahead with more investment? Should the PAP government increase its financial investment into our primary and secondary schools?

Perhaps let me take you through a few more statistics to let you have a better understanding of how unequal our education system is in Singapore.

Some background first: The PAP government has created schemes such as the Gifted Education Programme (GEP), to cater to the “intellectually gifted”. They have also created the Integrated Programmes (IP) for the “academically strong”. The GEP and IP are essentially similar programmes as the Ministry of Education (MOE) had said that ,”the secondary GEP organised by MOE was integrated into school-based programmes in the Integrated Programme (IP) schools which were hosting the GEP.”  MOE had also said that, “Since the introduction of Integrated Programmes (IP) schools in 2004 and the establishment of NUS High School of Math and Science in 2005, MOE-organised GEP has ceased as such schools could cater to the learning needs of GEP and other high-ability students through school-based programmes.

According to the MOE, there are only 9 primary schools which offer the GEP. There are only 18 schools (including the NUS High School) which offer the IP.

And when we drill down into the statistics, this is when we would see how unequal the education system is.

“Advantaged Schools” Receive More Resources

As mentioned, the “advantaged schools” are given more and better resources. Indeed, do you know that for the primary schools which offer the GEP, they are “provided with additional teachers” and they also also given “an annual programme grant of $53 per pupil“.

According to the MOE, “The Edusave Entrance Scholarships for Independent Schools (EESIS) is given to the top one-third of pupils who are posted to Secondary One in independent schools, based on their PSLE results.” Again, you would see that the students who enter the “advantaged schools” would receive more resources – over the past five years, 78% of the students in the Independent Schools were given the Edusave Entrance Scholarship.

As such, do students from the “advantaged schools” progress more easily? According to the MOE, “Over 90% of GEP students score among the top 10% of PSLE candidates.” It is easier for them to apply to the schools that they would want to go to as, “On average, over the past five years, more than 80% of each GEP cohort, or around 400 pupils, entered secondary school through the (Direct School Admissions) DSA exercise.” And once they go to the IP of their choice, “Of the 94% of the IP students who went on to complete the IP and sat for the A Levels or equivalent qualifications, almost all qualified for publicly-funded universities in Singapore.

And thus, when we look at the students who are able to eventually end up in the public universities in Singapore, “From AY2007-2009, over 70% of the applicants to the National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (YLL SoM) obtained 4As or better in the GCE ‘A’-level examinations.” (Chart 17)


Chart 17: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

So, where then does this leave the other students who choose to go on the other pathways?

Let’s take a look at how the polytechnic students would fare. According to the MOE, “Over the past ten years, about 200 local polytechnic graduates have been admitted to the Architecture, Dentistry, Law and Medicine undergraduate courses in NUS and SMU.” In 2012/2013, there were 741 students who were admitted into these courses at the NUS and around 133 students who were admitted into SMU – a total of 874 students.

So, if 200 local polytechnic graduates were admitted to these courses over ten years, this means that on average, about 20 local polytechnic graduates were admitted every year. Of the 874 students who were admitted, the local polytechnic graduates would thus represent only 2% of the total enrollment (Chart 18)!


Chart 18: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

Indeed, when we look at the admission of local polytechnic graduates to law courses at NUS and SMU from 2007  to 2012, there was only an average of less than 2 students from the polytechnics admitted every year (Chart 19)!

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Chart 19: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

There were around 384 spaces in 2012/2013 at NUS and SMU, which means that polytechnic graduates would make up less than 1% of the new admissions every year (Chart 20)!


Chart 20: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

Is our education system equal then? Students from “advantaged schools” are almost guaranteed a pathway to “success” whereas the fate of other students are unclear. And if you are from a polytechnic, chances are very slim. If it’s already so slim for a polytechnic student, you can imagine what the chances are for a student from the ITE.

Indeed, the household sizes of the students from the “advantaged schools” would also give you a very good indication as to the inequality in our education system.

Of the students who had attended Raffles Girls’ Primary School, Methodist Girls Primary School, Henry Park Primary School, Anglo Chinese Primary School, Nanyang Primary School and Tao Nan School (schools which offer GEP), only 40% of these students live in HDB flats. This is compared to the “80% of all primary school students reside in HDB flats” (Chart 21).


Chart 21: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

Also, “Among the Secondary 1 students who enrolled in Integrated Programme (IP) schools in 2009, more than half live in HDB flats.” This is similar to in 2002, where, “About 50% of Singaporean students in Independent Schools live in HDB flats in 2002. (Chart 22)”


Chart 22: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

It was also revealed that, “About 17% live in 4-room HDB flats or smaller.” However, there were about 56.5% of Singapore residents living in 1- to 4-room flats. Yet, only 17% of the students in the Independent Schools live in 1- to 4-room flats (Chart 23).


Chart 23: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies, Household Size and Structure

Finally, there were only “One in eight undergraduates in our public Universities come from households who live in 1- to 3-room flats” – which is about 12.5%. However, there are 24.6% of Singapore residents who live in 1- to 3-room flats (Chart 24). Shouldn’t there be more students from the smaller housing type, and from the lower-income group who should be attending university, but are not, or might not actually be able to?


Chart 24: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary RepliesHousehold Size and Structure

Perhaps, the table below would give the most evident illustration of the inequality in Singapore’s education system.

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Chart 25: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

Of those who had entered Primary One in 1990-1992, only 40% live in 5-room & exec HDB flats, or private housing. But of those who entered university, this rose to 55%. On the other hand, there were 23% of students in Primary One who live in 1, 2, 3-room HDB flats. But of those who entered university, this was reduced to 13% (Chart 26).


Chart 26: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

What happened?

PM Lee had said at the National Day Rally 2013 that, “we value every child and that we want to give every person the best possible chance to start off well in life.” He had also said that, “I believe we can make every school a good school and we have done a lot of that to ensure that every school provides a good education for the students. We give them the resources, we give them the good teachers, we emphasise values and we have made a lot of progress towards this goal.”

He had said that the PAP government should not breed elitism because, “Outstanding students must always be able to make it to the top to get into these institutions and you cannot have a closed, self-perpetuating elite.”

But, from the statistics that we have seen so far, is what PM Lee saying true? Does the PAP government truly doesn’t believe in promoting a “closed, self-perpetuating elite”?

More importantly, is the Singapore education system equal and do all our children really have a equal start in school, and most importantly, in life? Are some of our students damned to a certain way of life, precisely because of the education system in Singapore?

PM Lee might have said that, “I think it is also good that we have top schools nationally, schools which are acknowledged as outstanding, so long as we keep our system open. The system has to be open, meaning there cannot be barriers to entry.”

But what do you think? Is Singapore’s education system open? Or is our education system unequal?

Do you know that of the “93% of each Primary 1 cohort progressing to post-secondary education”, 30% went to the junior colleges, 40% to the polytechnics, 20% to the ITE, and 3 to 4% to the private education organisations?

If 60% of the polytechnics and ITE students can hardly make it to the public universities and the rest have have to enter private education organisations, with only 30% in the junior colleges who have the most likely chance of entering the public universities, how equal or “open” is our education system when it favours only 30% of the students in Singaporeans, while the rest of the 70% would be disadvantaged by the system (Chart 27)?


Chart 27: Ministry of Education Singapore Parliamentary Replies

How is every school a “good school” and how equal or “open” is our education system when the education system is already structured to marginalise the large proportion of Singaporeans?

If the PAP government is sincere in creating an education system which is open and ensures that all schools are “good schools”, is this the way to do so? It is one thing to say that they want all schools to be “good schools”, yet say that even if you are in a “good school”, you might not be good enough to enter the local public universities. This is as well as saying these schools are not good enough.

Quite certainly, the PAP’s pronouncement of all schools being “good schools” cannot be backed up by how unequal and unfair the education system in Singapore evidently is, and only further entrenches the inequality in Singapore. Such a system that baits our students and Singaporeans into discriminated pathways early in life should be treated with abhor and Singaporeans must rise up and stand up against such discrimination and inequality. 


If you are inspired to want to discuss more about how we can change the education system in Singapore, you can join other Singaporeans at this upcoming workshop to design solutions to make the education system more equal in Singapore. 

For more information, you can visit the Facebook event page here

Towards a Better Education System The Heart Truths Blog Poster 1


  1. Opinion

    Good article. Education should be seen as a social leveler. University representation should ideally have equal number of poor students proportional to the number of poor people in the country, then you know that your system is working to help everyone, not only the rich. However, your article does have some flaws. You cannot compare JC and poly students like that. Apples and oranges. A top poly student might not be of the same caliber as a top A level student. Right off the bat, there is a higher proportion of students in JC scoring 10 and below for their L1R5. It’s close to 50-60% if you look at the number of JCs that require 10 and below. And also including those top students that go to neighborhood JCs as well. This disproportionate amount of smarter students choosing the JC route will only mean one thing, more JC students will qualify for public uni than poly students in the end. You have to take that into account as well. On top of that, you chose to focus on just the ‘elite’ courses when poly courses are not directed to law and med, more towards engineering and more hands on courses. If you looked at the intakes as a whole, you will see a much better poly student representation in local universities. And the reason why’re is spent on tertiary education is due to the HEAVY subsidies of university fees for local students as well. We Singaporeans pay very little in terms of uni fees as compared to foreigners in UK and US. So the discrepancy could be that.

    Economically, the gov believes hag it would be wiser for them to take in more JC students than poly students. If a JC student loses a uni place to a poly student, you will have a degree holder and a useless JC grad contributing to the economy. However, if you take in the JC grad, you will have one degree holder and one diploma holder contributing to the economy instead. This is morally wrong however, everyone should have an equal opportunity and not be discriminated.

    On a final note, I agree that our government should spend more to uplift the educational standards of the lower income groups. They are severely disadvantaged. Just look at the abysmal representation of low income groups in local universities. More must be done to help low income groups to achieve higher education standards, only with a good education can they pull themselves out of poverty and close the widening income gap.

  2. Roy Ngerng

    Hi Opinion,

    Whatever is in this article are the available public statistics. I do not have further information because the other statistics are not released, and I cannot make a comparison.

    If someone could advocate for a Freedom of Information Act, we could perhaps be able to request for more statistics for analysis.



    • Cal Elyzea

      Hi Roy,

      Apologies for a reply on such an old article. Nevertheless I think your comment of advocating for freedom of information act is important. I agree that we should advocate for the freedom.



    • Charlotte

      Hi there.
      I realised that even though Roy’s article does have some element of truth in it, it is not entirely accurate in a students perspective. Perhaps, yes, all the statistics point towards how PAP is flawed in that sense, however, his argument is just not right. Statistics can merely act as evidence, yet not substantiation for people in the society who have been through this education system, statistics are just numbers, but not an accurate measurement of what education in singapore is really perceived as. I do respect his opinion but yet I do not agree with it.

      Firstly, I personally feel that this argument was written in an accumulated feeling of hatred and injustice for the PAP and he had an edge of unhappy experiences that brought out this ideology. I am definitely not stating that PAP is perfect in my eyes, of course, there are many things that can be changed, but let me ask you this, do u think a mere flood of statistics and flawed argument will change the minds of the masses? Frankly, no.

      Now, before we begin, does everyone really believes that EVERY school is a good school? Wow if that happens , wont singapore just be a land of utopia with good schools, good teachers, good resources? That sentence is pure bullshit and you know it. It is NOT possible to reach that stage ANYWHERE, there will be black sheep and other external factors so yes, STOP with that extremely flawed ideology please, everyone.

      The closest we can get is the fact that every school has their own unique traits and characteristics, thus producing students of different calibers and methods of learning. PLEASE clear the “every sch is a good sch” misconception.

      Next, roy stated his distress because he feels higher income families tend to get a pathway to success, as they are able to make it to “brand name” schools.

      Coming from a “brand name” school myself, I have just 3 words, YOU DONT SAY? Higher income families will indeed have more money to send their children to tuition and enrichment classes, so obviously the students in brand name schools will have a greater advantage in Singapore’ s one way rigid system..

      Well, the world isnt fair. The rich wins. The poor loses. But what can we complain now? Start a communist world?
      What we can do now, instead of constantly sitting in front of the computer calculating statistics and going against the government, is to CHANGE YOURSELF. If u want a better life, start now, start studying and getting a good job and getting a good spouse and having a good life.

      This is called BEATING THE SYSTEM. good day folks.

  3. Pingback: PM Lee: Every School Is A Good School? Really? (This Will Disgust You) | The Heart Truths
  4. No scandal

    For a moment I thought Roy Ngerng was railing against something meaningful like how Singapore students at the primary and secondary level were underperforming their peers in other developed nations., (Pg 6) “At the other end of the proficiency spectrum, an average of 7.6% of students attain Level 5, and in Singapore, New Zealand and Shanghai-China the percentage is more than twice the OECD average.”

    I guess all he was railing against was average 15 y.o. Singaporean student being ranked in the top 5 countries of the world and the government getting better bang for the buck.

    • Roy Ngerng

      The fundamental question is this – should we have an equal system where everyone benefits, or should we have a closed system where a select group of people benefits more over others.

      • gobbledygook

        That’s more of tired political rhetoric than the fundamental question. While we all agree that equality is fundamental, the problem is how this should be interpreted and achieved. Discrimination against the high-achievers just because they come from a well-off background does not make the system any more equal. We achieve equality by leveling the playing field for everyone to have equal chances of success (and indeed more needs to be done), not through burgeoning of those who succeed just because they benefit from their success.

      • Roy Ngerng

        Hi gobbledygook,

        May I remind you and I put this affirmatively – that in no way is the article meant to discriminate any student for the hard work they have put in to achieve what they have – in spite of the system.

        This article is a direct critique on the education system as created by the PAP government.

        Perhaps the discrimination you perceive is one of your own inner perception – and if so, you would have to question why such a perception has taken root within your mind.

        As a society, we have to celebrate those we have achieved, academically, and those who have achieved otherwise, for all achievement, in whatever form should be respected and honoured.

        And I state clearly that this article is a critique of the system and how the inequality that has taken root is through the divisive mindsets that the policymakers and the PAP government has used in sculpting these policies.

        Thank you.


      • gobbledygook

        Dear Roy,

        Your charts 21-26 raise several good points and I largely agree with your arguments here. As I have acknowledged, more can be done to help the poorer students realise their full potential, so that the clearly university-bound students can be identified regardless of their background. I am also glad that you pointed out correctly that “additional grants” being channelled to GE schools undermines equality and smaller class sizes across the board are warranted.

        The crux, however, is that poorer parents find it harder to squeeze their children into GEP, IP and JCs (either because they are inherently unsuitable for these programmes or due to imperfections within the system), but not that university students come more often from GEP, IP and JCs. The effect and the cause should not be mixed up, lest the discussion degenerate into irrational rants.

        Following your logic, therefore, it remains unclear how the fact that GEP/IP and JC students stand better chances of entering “Architecture, Law, Dentistry and Medicine” courses reflects PAP Government’s “divisive mindsets”, how the system is “closed”, and much less how it is unequal that they “benefit more”.

        These are the students that have demonstrated good suitability for the said courses, and as you admitted, “should be respected and honoured”, regardless of how rich their parents are. In fact this is not just an issue of respect, but more importantly, rational allocation of educational resource for everyone to excel in the field that he/she is best suited for. I believe you would also agree that it is absurd to put a NUS Medicine student in an ITE course and vice versa. This would make neither of the students better-off in their working life, and the society would lose both a good doctor and say, a good technician.

        In addition, allow me to point out that is insensitive to say “60% of the polytechnics and ITE students […] and the rest have have to enter private education organisations […] would be disadvantaged by the system” just because they do not further their education in universities. Many of these students are enthusiastic about the knowledge and skills they learn, and indeed contribute to the society meaningfully. Many of them better realise their full potential and lead more rewarding careers than university graduates.

        Thank you.

      • Roy Ngerng

        May I please remind everyone again that this critique is a critique on the system and in no way diminishes the effort, hard work, passion and commitment put in by the students to achieve what they have, in spite of the inequality of the system. To read it otherwise would have misunderstood the intention of the article.

        Again, the aim of the article is to point to the inherent inequalities that exist within the system that puts out children on different starting points.

        Whether or not this is a purposeful and intended policy decision to demarcate our people, only the PAP government and the policy makers would know, and I believe the vice-principal of Jurong West Secondary School has given us some insight to this.

      • gobbledygook

        Thank you for your response, but it seems that you have misunderstood my purpose instead. I am well aware that what you wrote is a “critique” and you do not have to reiterate that. Still, while some of your points do make a lot of sense, the latter part of your piece is riddled with sensationalist, over-simplistic interpretation of data and rather misguided views. I agree with your intention, but not the way you put it across.

        I am commenting because I was expecting discussion, not that I take personal offence at your remarks. With all due respect, I genuinely do not think any high-achieving student of that calibre would be disturbed by your points, for the obvious flaws in the underlying reasoning, despite the good efforts you have put in.

      • Roy Ngerng

        You and me, as well understand that the critique is aimed at the system, and as you have suggested, a student which have the clarity of the situation of Singapore’s education system would have an accurate and clear understanding of the inequality of the education system, as I am assured from the responses from the students here.

  5. Andy

    The best students from secondary schools regularly choose junior colleges over polytechnics. Lawyers, doctors and dentists are some of the most demanding professions, and that a high level of ability is required from students of such subjects. Even within the junior colleges, where most of the students with better grades go to, it is extremely hard to get into one of the said courses, is it really fair to say that there is inequality when polytechnic students do not get into these courses in as high a percentage as junior college students? If the admission process is truly one based on academic ability, then the perceived “inequality” could very well be justified.

  6. Eugene

    Hi Roy,

    While I concur with the main thrust of your argument that there is inequality in our education system and I acknowledge that this piece is a critique of the system, I would like to respectfully disagree with the way you are presenting your argument.

    Firstly, if I am not mistaken, one of the arguments you mentioned and supported with statistics was how most students from good schools come from higher income households (private housing, larger flats etcetera) and that this showed inequality in system where top schools favoured the rich. However, it is quite apparent that the cause and effects are not as black and white as you posit. Generally, school admission has absolutely nothing to do with income levels. While there is some controversy concerning primary school admission, the rest of the education tract does not.

    Next, you cited a large amount of statistics to show that GEP students eventually go to IP and henceforth and that this was somehow, in your opinion, a sign of “inequality”. How is that the case? Enrollment into GEP or IP programmes is based on academic and intellectual capabilities. As you yourself mentioned, academic excellence should be celebrated. Why then do you seem to believe that such programmes and their resultant successes are a result of inequality?

    Also, you cited how we seem to spend more on tertiary education instead of on primary and secondary education in relation to other countries. Again I do not see the issue. The only possible conclusion from these statistics are that Singapore has a well-funded and top-notch tertiary education? How does that reflect inequality in our education system in terms of admission or standard of schools? While some might claim to see some correlation between how our GDP expenditure on different levels of education in relation to other countries reflects inequality in standard of schools, it is much too vague to be conclusive or even remotely suggestive.

    Lastly, you also noted how a very small percentage of polytechnic and ITE students make it into local universities. At the risk of sounding repetitive, I again do not see how this shows that we have inequality or disparity in our standard of education. This is merely meritocracy at work. Now, I’m not discrediting poly or ITE students; many of them are smart and hardworking individuals who deserve to succeed in life. However, coming from a purely statistical standpoint, MOST poly and ITE students enrolled at their respective schools because they did not perform as well in the Olevel examinations as their JC counterparts. Call me discriminatory or judgemental or a hater, but see the facts for what they are. Many of my best friends are from ITE and poly, and some do choose to go there because they have already formed strong interests in particular fields, but the average olvl scores of JC students are better than that of other tertiary institutes. From there, extrapolation clearly shows why more of them end up in local universities.

    In the end, I must concede that I agree with you that there is a problem with our education system. But my problem with it is different from yours. I feel that the main issue is not differing standards of education in different schools, but the difficulty in trying to “jump up a notch” once one is enrolled in a less prestigious school. This however, is a problem that extends inexhaustively in meritocractic societies. What must be done should not be trying to “make all schools of equal standards”, but to ensure that, minimally, the standard of education received is optimal for each student’s academic abilities and that no “late-bloomers” are left behind. I believe your spite is directed at how meritocracy works and not how our education system works. You might also want to read up on how to properly use statistics, correlation and causation to support arguments.

    Eugene Lau

    • Roy Ngerng

      Hi Eugene,

      Your questions have been addressed in my comments above.

      Again, this analysis is based on the only public data available. Please speak to the government for more open data.


      • Samuel Tay

        Replying to a critique on your argument by saying that “this analysis is based on the only public data available. Please speak to the government for more open data.” is simply rude. Eugene points out the flaws in your argument and you say that it is the government’s fault? Expected of a stereotypical government-hating
        antiestablishmentarianist. Learn to take a balanced point of view and stop making more people angry with your sensationalism.

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  8. Opinion

    I don’t think you can criticise universities for not taking in more people from other educational backgrounds such as polytechnics. A university’s goal is pretty straightforward in wanting to improve the quality of both undergraduate and graduate students. They will not on purpose, take in a lower quality student body over a higher quality one. Hence, the reason why polytechnic students are not getting a place in a universities is because they are just not up to par. Or at least, the local universities deem that they are not good enough, you cant blame universities for wanting better students. If poly students are of better quality, universities will have no problems in accepting them.

    We must acknowledge the fact that poly students may not be learning enough, or the curriculum is not rigorous enough such that universities do not want to take in such a large proportion of them. Only then can we take steps in improving both the quality of polytechnics education as well as the academic rigor.

    • Roy Ngerng

      If polytechnics are “not good enough”, as you’ve said, then the question to ask is – why did the policy makers make them “not good enough”?

      What happened to what PM Lee had said, where “every school is (supposedly) a good school”? Then, if it’s not, who’s telling the truth?

      • rex

        simply put – there are not enough graduate jobs to allow all polytechnic students to get a degree job. imagine if all poly engineering students proceed to NUS/NTU; the number of engineering grads will jump by twice. Do we have enough MNCs and SMEs to create jobs for all these engineering grads? Look at China, engineering grads end up working in garment factories. EDB is already trying very hard to persuade MNCs to invest in Singapore.

      • Opinion

        Why? Because they might not be capable enough, they might not be adept. Polytechnics, ITE and JCs are all being adjusted to match the capabilities of students. O-levels and A-levels are getting easier after each year. Look at the syllabus 10 years ago and compare it to today’s O/A-level standards and you will know what I mean. Our education system is getting complacent, they want to serve the hordes of whiny parents and students who complain that such standards are too tough. The system cushions the blow at each level and when it comes to universities, we are disadvantaged because our foreign peers learn more and are just academically stronger. Not only that, when it comes to work, our supposedly skilled poly and ITE graduates can’t match up to industry standards. Policy makers must stop trying to please the masses and get our students to buckle down and work hard.

        This mentality that PSLE too hard, everything too hard, this mentality has to stop. What’s the point of making everything easier and in the end we just have academically weak students? And we all know PM Lee is not telling the truth la. If my child could go to RI, I would send him there without a second thought, so would anyone. I wouldn’t send him to a neighbourhood school if I could help it.

      • Samuel Tay

        Exactly. Why settle for the lowest common multiple when some have the potential to do so much more?

  9. Opinion

    And you said it yourself, poly grads are not being paid enough right? There must be a real reason as to why this is true. In other countries, graduates from vocational schools earn much more than what our poly/ITE grads here earn. It could be that our polytechnics/ITE are just not as good as we think.

    • Moko

      O/A Levels are actually getting harder year by year. Content wise, it may be less than in the past, but depth is very much the emphasis now. Less content being taught and more difficult thinking questions being set. They are indirectly telling the students to “figure it out” themselves. Actually having someone teach you the conetent vs having to “figure it out”. Which is more difficult? (Pardon my simple use of language here)

    • Engineer

      Hi they can earn enough because grad from viet/Myanmar/Philippine can undercut by taking few hundreds dollar less, but yet still earning 7-8 times of few grad pay in their origin country.

    • Engineer

      Hi they can’t earn enough because grad from viet/Myanmar/Philippine can undercut by taking few hundreds dollar less, but yet still earning 7-8 times of few grad pay in their origin country.

  10. Roy Ngerng

    “The fiercest criticism came from Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, who attacked the senior Tory’s “unpleasant, careless elitism” and accused him of talking about people as if they were dogs.

    “I don’t agree with Boris Johnson on this. Much as he is a funny and engaging guy, I have to say these comments reveal a fairly unpleasant, careless elitism that somehow suggests we should give up on a whole swath of fellow citizens,” Clegg told LBC 97.3 radio.

    “To talk about us as if we are a sort of breed of dogs, a species I think he calls it … the danger is if you start taking such a deterministic view of people because they have got a number attached to them, in this case an IQ number, they are not going to rise to the top of the cornflake packet, that is complete anathema to everything I’ve always stood for in politics.”

    Clegg said he believed children developed at different paces and should have access to a culture of opportunity, aspiration and hard work.

    His remarks were echoed by David Lammy, the Tottenham MP who is considering a bid to run as mayor of London for Labour in 2016, who said the remarks were worse than careless. “I don’t think that’s just careless. I think it’s an insult,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One. “It’s an insult to cleaners in London, to people who are home carers in London, people who are minimum wage, giving them the suggestion that they are sort of bottom of the cornflake packet. That’s not the sort of society I thought we wanted to live in, particularly when the mayor has supported the London living wage, which is about saying we all ought to be in this together.

    “It’s extraordinary for a mayor, who should be for all of London, to think it’s all right to glorify greed – a greed that has brought a banking collapse and caused misery and hardship to many Londoners, particularly to young people who can’t get on the housing ladder.”

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  14. Lee S.H.

    PISA published statistics which showed Singapore out of all OECD countries surveyed to have the highest quality of education. PISA said: “PISA has consistently found that the amount of resources spent on education
    – including financial, human and material resources – is only weakly related
    to student performance. For example, among the PISA-participating countries
    and economies whose cumulative expenditure per student between the ages
    of 6 and 15 is below USD  50  000, the larger the  amount spent, the higher
    the students’ average score in mathematics. But among high-income countries
    and economies, including most OECD  countries, other factors are better at
    predicting high scores in PISA. What this tells us is that, beyond a certain
    minimum level of expenditure per student, building an excellent education
    system requires something more than just money.” (PISA, Pisa in Focus, page 1) (
    “Of this group, the countries where more students
    attend schools whose principals reported adequate
    educational resources, including Australia,
    and the partner countries Singapore and Qatar,
    show very different levels of equity in the allocation
    of those resources, from high equity (Singapore)
    through moderate levels of equity (Qatar) to low
    equity (Australia).” I cannot paste the graph here (I tried to do so), but, on the last page of the document cited, PISA depicts Singapore as the most far-right, compared to the other countries, on the spectrum where the right side is marked by “Higher Quality” in terms of educational resources, whilst on the vertical axis, the topmost corner marked by “Higher Equity”, Singapore ranks just below the mean. This was in 2012, when Singapore spent only $10.6 billion on education. This year the nation spent $11.4 billion.

    Since socio-economic equality is indicated by the amount spent per student, taking this into consideration, we note that Singapore is one of those countries PISA referenced where, despite the presence of some socio-economic inequality, educational resources have been well distributed, resulting in the highest quality of education among all the countries in the OECD report. Socio-economic inequality is, therefore, as suggested by the report, not a deciding factor in the quality of education that students in a country receive. That, I believe, is true for education in Singapore, given the objective information thus available to me.

    Hence, I felt that some of the information presented in this blogpost was misleading, as I felt it particularly apparent that GDP spending is from the beginning no clear measure of what individual students, such as you once were and I now am, glean from their personal educations. That Singaporean students rank among the top consistently in the world goes beyond the mere statistics – think of them as the people they are. That Singapore’s education system has been found, by the external and objective body PISA, to be highest in quality (educational resources-wise) in 2012, but two years ago, among all the other nations PISA assesses, speaks volumes of the efficacy and productivity of the education system here. Though the input has not been as high as that of countries like the US, the educational output – the results on unbiased, external international tests conducted by the likes of PISA – have been utterly exemplary and laudatory. Humbly I present these facts to the public in the hope that there may be a more nuanced, unbiased view of education in Singapore – thus preventing myopic stands.

    To reiterate what I found from PISA’s studies, socio-economic inequity is by no means a clear indication of the allocation of educational resources or, more importantly, individual student performance itself. It is, in fact, as PISA put it, “weak”. Let us not unnecessarily gripe over surface problems in the education sector. Productivity is most important – whether one makes the best use of the resources allocated him, as long as those resources meet a certain standard of quantity, which Singapore’s clearly surpasses.

    Yes, there are problems in Singapore, problems that every country mulls over. There are major discrepancies in income inequality, and one solution to that is to set up a minimum wage. Unfortunately this idea has its accompanying disadvantages and was thus duly rejected by Labour.

    The government doesn’t know all things. Neither do you nor I. We shouldn’t fight against the government for the sake of provocation or on incendiary terms, which, when reading some of the comments people make on TODAY news online articles, I feel, some people do. You and I could, to be of better benefit to our people, cultivate a deeper genuine respect and love for all people. We must stand for truth. Let us have more empathetic consideration for everyone and anyone. When we push for good changes, if we truly have kind feelings for all men, and that includes our government, our political opponents, our enemies, then our motivations will be in the right place. This is the way by which Singapore shall prosper and progress longer. While I do not support any one side, I was particularly struck by the humanity inherent within a debate between PM Lee Kuan Yew and Opposition member Chiam See Tong. PM Lee spoke gently, almost with brotherly love, with reason, while Chiam See Tong earnestly listened, as do friends. I was also struck with the gracious, earnest effort I could see Chiam making to see if he could agree with PM Lee’s position – he was not waiting to strike back or hastily strike down PM Lee’s argument. They did not recite speeches. They spoke to each other in conversation. It was right after the war, when both men – and many more – having witnessed destitute and imperiled plights, being unified in brotherly kindness, understood the sanctity of human life, the need to treat others with respect, the need to reverence their views with kind consideration. We need more of that today. This is how Singapore will grow – through constructive, earnest listening, kind debate. Our political climate is too insidiously concerned with tripping up the other party – even outside parliament, on the ground. Contention stymies, not liberates. We must tread with care and concern for the rest.

  15. Glinda

    Fantastic blog you have here but I was curious if you knew of any message boards that cover the same topics discussed in this article?
    I’d really like to be a part of group where I can get advice from other knowledgeable individuals that share
    the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know.
    Thanks a lot!

  16. Economics Tuition in Singapore

    This is a good article no doubt. This post would be crucial in improving the career prospects of the students as it can effectively help in corporate integration. And I think education is the thing which is needed to be equal for each and every person. Therefore, each student must need to receive unique individual attention.

  17. sleepy

    I must confess that I am too tired right now to understand this article fully. Too much stat.But is the author trying to show that :
    Equal education = spend as much as other countries in $$$$.
    Equal education = all student can get into local University? Regardless of individual academic strength?

    What is deem “equal”? same as the other countries? average of top 10 countries?

    Can we forget about stat? At the end of the day, success of an education system is not $$$, or whatever nicely dress up number chart. A competency workforce requires more than education. …………..

  18. csl

    What’s the point of taking the historical data of statistics to query about the education reform which take place in 2013 for Singapore, what you can prove is before the reform there is inequality in education system and not really going the rebut the PM speech on the National Day Rally. You should present the fact of what will happen after the reform. But does inequality equated to not a good school. No really, the real world is never equal, the mind set should not be on how the world being unequal, but how can the world treat me unequally. Instead of complaining how the education system is skew towards the JC in preference to enter U, one should have the mind set of how can I get into the JC.
    But for the education reform, I do have big concern which is the education focus on creating self-interest in learning and praising instead of punishment, encourage instead of scrutinise …This is totally different from the competitive world outside, can this lead to even worst tolerable level of the work force? Do you think the boss will encourage you when you fail to perform or give you an envelop and ask you to go some other place? Whether the education is fit for purpose after the reform to enable the student to survive in the even more competitive world?

  19. TuitionBean

    Thank you for sharing your research on Singapore’s education system.
    In this competitive field of education, beyond the government, parents must be take up an active role in assisting their children as well. This include getting proper study resources, consultations with teachers or hiring of home tutors.

    Good Read!

  20. Economics Tuition

    Thanks for sharing such kind of information about education System and also at the main time this Post is very useful for the Singapore understudies. Thanks author for your valuable information.

  21. Hardeep Saini

    Hi Roy
    Another well thought out and analysed report on what is going on ( or is not going on ) in Singapore.
    As always, the usual PAP lakkies are attacking you for your excellent effort.
    They can’t do the type of research and analytical thinking that you can do because they are just like the new breed of MPs, intelligent, stupid and clueless.
    Whatever these idiots may say, there are others who find your articles enlightening and the readership of these articles is steadily increasing.
    For every new reader, even if you are able to convince one out of every 10, you would have persuaded this new reader to now make an informed decision come the next GE.
    All these attacks on you will have no effect and I can now predict conclusively that the percentage of votes for the opposition will be increasing, thanks partly to you.
    And I now await patiently the full on attacks on me for having the guts to write this.

  22. Pingback: The Inequality that PAP Created Has Resulted in Social Problems in Singapore | The Heart Truths
  23. Education

    Our education system is becoming more unequal, not purely because of government spending but also 1. Environment students grow up in 2. The billion-dollar tuition industry. These are two main reasons why the students from more affluent backgrounds tend to do well. There is a chance for people from middle and low income to take a shot and enter elite programmes like the GEP, but the margin is narrow.

  24. Pingback: “New” PSLE Education Scoring System: Does it Change Anything? | The Heart Truths
  25. Realist

    If you want to succeed and do well in school, just do it. Stop blaming others and stop putting the onus on someone else to fix a problem you can fix on your own.

    Yes, even if Roy proves that the system is unequal, guess what, when these students graduate, they go out to an unequal world.

    Roy, I know your heart, I know your good intentions, but until you sit and work with incompetent co-workers who got to where they are simply because the system deems that it’s fair for them to be there, you have no idea what really happens when your ideal egalitarian system is implemented.

    Yes, your ideal system is fair, just and equal, but what happens when people abuse your system? While we might all like to think that it is always the rich, and the privileged who abuse, and benefit the most from an unequal system. Do you not think that the poor, the shrewd and the opportunistic would abuse your ideal system?

    You know what we will get, and this may be an exaggeration, but I do not discount the possibility of you lying an operating table with a low-calibre doctor because of affirmative action, or you sitting in court with a low-calibre lawyer because of affirmative action.

    You want to know something funny, all of us say we want justice, we want fairness, we support affirmative action, but until you put your life and your freedom into the hands of a doctor or a lawyer whom you know is there simply because the system put him there, you better appreciate the system we have today.

    The funny thing is, we all want affirmative action, until the consequences of our choices become real in our lives. You might support affirmative action in principle, in your mind, in your heart, in your blog, but until you put your life, your freedom and your happiness into the hands of those who passed the education system because of your proposed affirmative action, I say, you think twice first, before going further with your idealistic views.

    The rich guys are not always the bad guys. The poor guys are not always the good guys. The bad guys are always the bad guys, and they are everywhere.

    Let’s be real for one second. Many people who didn’t pass the elitist system are not victims. They didn’t pass for a good reason, to protect the rest of us from them taking up high-stakes jobs, and putting everyone else’s lives at risk. The question is not whether we want fairness or not. The questions are, “Fairness for who? And at what cost?”

    It’s funny, Roy, if you were in court, sued for defamation, and you are given two lawyers to choose from, and cost would not be an issue, who would you choose? Lawyer A is the best lawyer in defamation suits, who clearly benefited from this allegedly elitist system, he was born and raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. Lawyer B is an ordinary general litigation lawyer, he’s not too bad, he passed the Bar and he does general litigation work ranging from personal injury claims to traffic accident cases, but the reason he’s there is because of affirmative action. He took up the opportunity because it was a way to increase his social status and to get to a better future. Who would you pick, A or B?

    Many people say they support affirmative action, but when the day comes, most of them will pick Lawyer A. But until you say you would pick B over A, I don’t believe a word you say.

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