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Japanese Education at the Crossroads (XIV) - Singapore's Educational System -

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In April 1998, I went to Singapore to conduct a study of the educational system there. One of the things that I wanted to find out was the secret of its success. This was because since the 1970s, Singapore, along with South Korea and Hong Kong, as key members of Asia's new industrial and economic sector (NIES), has achieved rapid economic growth and even when other Asian nations suffered a currency crisis, it maintained steady economic growth. Furthermore, its 2nd-year secondary school students came out first among 40 countries in math and science in the 1994-5 International Educational Achievement Study. (Students from South Korea were second and Japan placed third, with the United States, England, and Germany ranked in the middle or lower.)

For many years Singapore was ruled by Britain as part of Malaysia, but it became independent from Malaysia in 1965. Radical educational reforms were enacted under the Lee Kuan Yew administration, and a system was established, modeled on the one that existed in Britain until the 1970s, that streams students according to their learning ability. The following are its salient features.

With multiculturalism and bilingualism as a fundamental policy, the language of instruction is English but the native language of students is also a required subject. The six years of primary education and four years of secondary education are not compulsory, but almost all children are enrolled in school. At the end of the fourth year of primary school there are common exams on language (English and native language) and mathematics, and from the fifth year, students are placed in one of three streams, EM1 (15%), EM2 (72%) and EM3 (13%), according to the results of this exam. Secondary schools are comprehensive, but there is a Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE, corresponding to the 11-Plus exams that were held in Britain until the 1960s) that students take upon graduation from primary school. Based on the results of this exam, students are placed in one of three courses: the Special Course (10%), the Express Course (50%), and the Normal Course (25% in Academic, and 10% in Technical). Pupils in the Special and Express Courses take GCE (General Certificate of Education) "O" Level examinations at graduation (as in Britain) and go on to 2-year junior colleges (25%) or 3-year polytechnics (40%). Pupils in the Normal Course take GCE "N" Level examinations, and can enter either 3-year vocational schools (25%) or apprenticeships (10%). Graduates of junior colleges take GCE "A" Level examinations and can enter university. Outstanding graduates of polytechnics can also enter university, and the rate of graduation of these two groups combined comes to 22%.

This school system is thus a multitracked, "streamed" system where opportunities of advancement to higher schools is limited depending on the secondary school course, and is a completely meritocratic system where selection and tracking of pupils begins from the stage of primary school examinations. It is also worth noting that the school systems of the three countries that came out on top in the International Educational Achievement Study (Singapore, South Korea, and Japan) are all characterized by examinations that measure scholastic ability.

And so the question arises, hasn't the examination system caused any harm? In Japan it is often said that bullying, school violence, and truancy are consequences of standardized education and the exam system, and there are also frequent incidences of bullying and school violence in South Korea, but if this really is the case, one may wonder whether Singapore doesn't have the same problems.

Since I was in Singapore for only a quick five-day study, I cannot make a definite statement, but what can be deduced from my observations and interviews is that, unlike in Japan and South Korea, bullying and school violence show no sign of becoming worse. On the contrary, children at all levels from primary school through to post-secondary schools (junior college, polytechnics, and vocational courses offered by the Institute of Technical Education) were extraordinarily well-mannered, and I cannot say how surprised I was at how dedicated they were to their studies. In primary schools, students who passed by me without exception stopped and greeted me with the words, "Good morning, sir," and when we walked into classrooms at junior colleges and in vocational courses, the students all rose to their feet, and greeted us in unison with, "Good morning, sir." In Business English class in a vocational course, 30 young men gave their serious attention to their slight, forty-year-old female teacher. How is this sort of politeness and dedication to study cultivated? And how best can it be evaluated? I will address this question in my next article.

[Source: This article was originally written for "Shinken News" June, 1998 issue published by Benesse Corporation]
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