Why Tiny Singapore Is at Top of the Class
It has outscored the world in math and science by
believing education means survival. Its school system is based on two simple
things—competition and government control.
By RICHARD LEE COLVIN, Times Education Writer
SINGAPORE—Slouching as only adolescents can, the 1,000
students of Damai Secondary School hang out in ragged rows, awaiting the ritual
that starts every day.
"Keep still," Principal James Ong urges them
over a loudspeaker as they assemble in front of the school. "Hurry
On the dot of 7:25 a.m., one student shouts,
"Attention!" and they snap to. Straight-backed, hands on hearts, they
sing the national anthem as the red-and-white flag of Singapore is raised.
Only then does Ong dispatch them with a nine-word command:
"You may go back to your classes, squarely now."
Away they go, silently and in single file, a disciplined
young army ready to clobber the world in educational achievement.
Last fall, this tiny island dominated the 41-nation Third
International Math and Science Study, far surpassing even the vaunted schools of
Japan and Germany.
Other countries have the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.
Singapore has 210,000 children a year who earn "Young Scientist"
badges for collecting bugs or composing poems with scientific themes.
President Clinton has challenged America’s schools to
match the scores of Singapore. The U.S. is only so-so internationally—in the
middle of the pack in science and in the bottom half in math. Clinton has used
that showing as a rallying point for national academic standards and tests,
declaring that a world-class school system is as much an element of national
security as tanks or bombers.
So if we were to crib from the valedictorian of nations,
what would we find?
A school system based on two credos: one very
American—competition—and one unimaginable in the U.S.—total government
For students, this means high-pressure exams at the end of
grades four, six, 10 and 12 that help determine not only what classes they take
but, ultimately, whether they will wind up as doctors or cabdrivers. For
schools, the pressure is to attract the best students—who have their pick of
Then there is:
- A national curriculum. In Singapore, there are road
maps for instruction at every level, molding tests, tutoring and teacher
training. The documents are amazingly concise—eighth-grade math is covered
in 10 pages, listing 19 topics within algebra, geometry, etc. (Students, for
example, must be able to calculate the "volume and surface area of
sphere, pyramid and cone.") By contrast, American eighth-graders race
through 30 or more topics, learning them so superficially that they have to
be repeated over and over.
- Involved parents. Here, that doesn’t mean just
showing up for Back to School Night. Parents get on waiting lists for the
best tutors, who charge $300 a month. They buy two sets of books to ensure
that one is always available for homework. Hundreds pay $300 to attend 30
hours of weekend training so they can understand changes in math
instruction. "As parents, we think of always buying the best computers,
giving them the best tutors, to play it safe, you know, so they can score
high on their examinations," says Siew Yok as she purchased software so
her 12-year-old daughter could cram to qualify for prestigious Raffles Girls
- Targeted spending. While California Gov. Pete Wilson
made a splash last month by announcing a $50-million down payment on a state
computers-in-the-schools drive, here the government is spending $1 billion
over five years—in a school system with fewer pupils than Los Angeles’.
That will buy computers for every school and equip after-hours centers to
serve youngsters who don’t have them at home. Singapore is spending even
more to reward "senior" teachers and build or upgrade 57 schools.
When Americans hear of such success stories elsewhere,
they are characteristically wary. Intrigued, sure. Then, "Yeah, but . .
Yeah, but Singapore is so small, only 3 million people.
Yeah, but Singapore is an insular society, without waves
of immigrants filling schools with kids who don’t speak the language.
Yeah, but . . . remember the caning?
The level of discipline in Singapore’s schools, as in
its society, would be unthinkable in the United States, as shown in 1994, when
American teenager Michael P. Fay’s hide was tanned for spray-painting cars.
Although some envied Singapore’s response, most back home made Fay a cause
celebre, a victim of an overreacting oppressive nation.
Criticism like that bothers Singapore not one iota.
A glass case at the entrance to the Damai school displays
news stories about the Fay incident—along with a piece of cane.
Principal Ong has his own in his office. You don’t have
to be caught fighting to sample it. Merely disrespecting a teacher will do. Mom
won’t get a call first.
"We do not seek permission from parents," Ong
says matter-of-factly. "We will cane first and inform you later. Parents
must trust us to give the child a good education. We have the welfare of the
children in mind."
What everyone in Singapore tells you about education is
that it’s not merely about learning, nor about serving individual students’
needs. It’s about survival.
Although Singapore is the ninth-richest country on earth,
its citizens see themselves as geographically and economically vulnerable. The
nation—which gained independence from Britain in 1959--lacks oil, minerals,
land to grow rice or even sufficient drinking water. Its natural resources,
then, are a deep-water port and a skilled work force.
Those workers have achieved an economic miracle, creating
a high-tech hub. Today, 90% of Singaporeans own homes. Mercedes—a pricey
$200,000 due to government fees—jam the parking lots of the humblest duck rice
shops. One of the most frequently heard gripes? How their Filipino maids are
But officials worry about competition from nations such as
Malaysia, where wages are lower and natural resources plentiful. So improving
schools remains atop the national agenda.
"We are constantly being drummed with the message
that we cannot take our survival for granted," says Tan Teng Wah, principal
at a school for 16- to 18-year-olds. "Human nature is such that students
will take the path of least resistance."
That is why education is made so
competitive—intensifying the value already placed on learning by a dominant
As in the U.S., wealthy parents buy homes near top
elementary schools. Others join a specific church to get into an elite mission
school run by the church but 95% funded by the government.
After primary school, however, it is test scores that
determine where you can enroll. Because the country is so small, students can
apply to any school. But only those with top scores are accepted by the
top-ranked schools. So obsessed is Singapore with comparisons, the schools are
ranked not only on academics but by the percentage of students who are
obese—fitness, too, is national policy.
"If students are not fit, they won’t cope with
their studies very well," explains Kwek Hiok Chuang, principal of Anderson
Secondary School. He has pudgy students work out with a "trim and fit"
club during recess.
In the U.S., a kid might run home crying and his parents
would hire a lawyer. Worrying about hurt feelings is one reason competition in
the schools has fallen out of favor in America, even while it is touted in the
"I don’t think [the U.S.] is ready for the type of
formal, controlled system of Singapore," says Boston College Prof. Albert
Beaton, who headed the recent 41-nation study by the International Assn. for the
Evaluation of Educational Achievement. "The U.S. has to examine its own
values and decide whether it wants to be No. 1 in the world that badly."
Singapore does—and trusts the educational marketplace to
do the trick.
That puts a school like Damai at a disadvantage.
To an outsider, that’s hard to fathom. It is a sparkling
beige-and-green palace of learning with a dozen science labs, a plethora of
computers and a second-story library overlooking a lake.
The problem is, Damai opened just four years ago. Its
first class has not graduated 10th grade, when students take the
exams that determine whether they continue toward a university. The school thus
has no track record of high scores. Until it does, the best students from even
its working-class neighborhood—the sons and daughters of food-stall hawkers,
truck drivers and electronics assembly line workers—will go elsewhere.
To Principal Ong, the challenge is clear. "Since the
first year, I’ve been trying to make the atmosphere one of urgency," he
says. "My kids cannot compare to those at the top schools so I have to push
them very hard."
Ong insists that students bow to all adults and address
them as "sir" or "ma’am." Boys must keep their ties tied
and collars buttoned, although the school has only ceiling fans to combat the
Last fall, having decided that students weren’t
progressing fast enough, he extended classes two weeks—into Christmas
"The teachers had no complaints because we understand
his intentions," recalls Rose Chen, who heads the math department.
"If this batch of students does well, better students
will come in," says An San Kheng, who chairs the science department,
"and we won’t have to work so hard."
Perhaps. But for now, Damai, like the country, is in
Done with the patriotic recitations in front of school,
the 12- to 15-year-olds march to class. When a teacher arrives, they stand to
say, "Good morning, ma’am."
The day starts with 20 minutes of silent reading. Then
come nine periods, 35 minutes each. All students take math, science, physical
ed, English and "mother tongue."
Bilingualism is exalted. Although the population is 77%
Chinese, 14% Malay and 7% Indian, schooling is in English. But students are
required to become fluent in their ancestral language, even if their family
never speaks it at home.
Electives range from history to design and technology.
The kids spend most of their day in one concrete-floored
classroom. For efficiency, it’s the teachers who move from room to room.
Classes in Singapore are large by American standards,
averaging more than 40 students even in elementary grades. That is one reason
the nation spends less than half what the U.S. does per pupil through 10th
grade, despite the millions devoted to facilities. The cost of elementary school
here is as low as $2,000 per pupil.
The large classes are made possible by the discipline.
Teachers never have to tell the kids to hush.
When a teacher pauses, the only sounds are from the
whirring fans overhead and birds chirping outside the open-slatted windows.
Math teacher Wong Lai Ying writes on the chalkboard a
problem involving Venn diagrams—the circles that show the overlap between two
or more sets of numbers—for a group of advanced 16-year-olds.
"These are questions that came out in this past
year’s O-levels," the 10th grade exams, she tells them.
"All you need to do is look for the correct region and shade."
Wong moves on to finding the cube root of 150--without a
calculator. She reminds students to write down their calculations, because they
must do so come test time "so the examiner knows how you got the
American educators might condemn the lesson as
"teaching to the test." But Damai’s teachers make no apologies.
"If you do your O levels well," one reminds students, "you can
get a better job."
That doesn’t mean, though, that students only memorize
facts and formulas. In fact, officials here attribute some of the success in the
international rankings to a seven-year, island-wide effort to make science more
"hands-on" and math more than just rote calculations.
Just as in the United States, teachers are letting the
students work in groups to "discover" math concepts and even—now and
then—let them play games. But math is still math, not math appreciation. And
no one loses sight of the fundamentals.
Yes, students can use calculators, although not on exams
until the seventh grade. But they are also being trained to use the ancient
abacus, so that they can do most number work in their heads.
Now, it’s 1:40 p.m. and the students have had only one
recess. The students have 20 minutes to eat noodles and steamed vegetables from
the open-air "canteen."
Many then study until 3 p.m., when they go to an activity
club or sports team. That too is required—to make sure they are, as parents
used to say, "well rounded."
Some stay after hours. "If you are not doing OK, you
can ask the teachers and they’ll help you," says Alvin Ong, 13. Last
fall’s study found that Singapore’s teachers also spend more time than any
in the world planning lessons and grading homework. The students, in turn,
devote more time--4.6 hours per day—to homework.
To be fair, that’s not all they do. The survey found
that the Singapore youths find nearly three hours to watch TV or videos and 36
minutes for computer games. But how students describe their non-study time is
"We do activities like watching television or
listening to music," says ninth grader Betty Kang Peh Fang, "to
Explains Chee Wee, a 17-year-old whose hard work paid off
with top scores on the O-levels: "The main thing is, we’ve gotten used to
this kind of system . . . so we don’t find it’s an overload; it’s normal.
If we have more things to do, we just have to sleep less."
An outsider can quiz dozens of students, waiting for
gut-wrenching confessions: perhaps a low achiever envious of the elite or a
high-flyer beaten down by the strain. Instead, what you hear is Sim Shin Chiet,
15, the son of a shoe factory worker: "When the government gives us the
opportunity to study, we should treasure it. . . . Our success will contribute
to the growth of the nation."
What, then, can America learn from a place that is so
After all, the strong economy here means there isn’t the
poverty that grinds down U.S. schools in inner-city and rural areas. Drugs are
not a problem in a country where dealers are executed. Neither are guns or
Tight immigration policies mean that foreign workers
cannot enroll their children in schools.
But Singapore does have ethnic issues: While a quarter of
Chinese students make it to the island’s two universities, only 10% of Indian
students qualify, and 4% of Malays.
The country is making progress, though. In 1995,
two-thirds of Malay students passed their secondary school math exam, double the
rate of 15 years earlier.
Part of the credit is given to a practice that is in
disfavor in America:
Routing students based on past performance is seen in the
United States as anti-egalitarian, even if it’s widely practiced.
In Singapore, "streaming" begins in fourth
grade. After sixth, students are put in four "streams"—normal
technical, normal academic, express and special. All study the same basic
English and math curriculum. But the "express" and "special"
streams get the material in far greater depth.
Some educators are a bit uncomfortable with the finality
of the system. A math professor noted that Albert Einstein, who did poorly in
school, might have wound up working as a technician.
But they believe it is better than the alternative,
especially for low achievers. Before tracking, a fifth of all students dropped
out, about the same as in California.
Now, only 4% leave early. It is not because of dummy
courses. Students not headed to college are getting first dibs on
computers—each will soon have his or her own machine, along with a printer and
training in spreadsheets. After all, that’s where the jobs are.
"To keep them in school we need to have a curriculum
where they can experience success and feel like they are learning something
which is significant," says Ursula Quah, the education ministry’s deputy
That may sound like bureaucratic rhetoric, but consider
this tidbit from those math comparisons: Singapore’s two lowest tracks of
students were still above the world norm—and ahead of the average American.
Why, then, does Singapore worry?
In part because it is not blind to the features of its
system that make many Americans cringe, such as the unrelenting pressure on
parents and children.
"I would prefer a slower pace," admits Jack
Cheng, a machine parts salesman whose daughter is a student at Raffles Girls
School. "But if you stand still you are lagging. You have to pay a price
for progress. Nothing is for free."
Cheng was among a three-deep crowd plunking down $750
recently for an Internet course to help his daughter. He already has taught his
5-year-old son to read and use an abacus. If kids can’t read by age 4, he
says, "I don’t know how they can survive."
The pressure has some parents enrolling their 2-year-olds
in "play school," as in Japan. It also leaves 17-year-old Simon Ng
Hong Chye disappointed because he earned one A-minus with his seven A-pluses on
the crucial O-levels. "It took me quite a while to be able to accept this
fact," he says.
So you don’t see smugness in Singapore.
You even see some envy of American education.
Although Singaporeans believe our schools are undemanding
and allow too much freedom, they admire the creativity that results. They
especially exalt American universities, sending their best students there. USC
is a favorite.
Educators in Singapore acknowledge that a system built on
fear of failure, which controls what students read and study, may not be good at
producing adults who take initiative, who follow an inspiration wherever it
"We can’t produce people like Bill Gates,"
says physics teacher Christopher Chionh. "We just don’t have that type of
But would they scrap a K-12 system that has brought
Singapore from 16th in science a decade ago to the top of the world?
Not if it means being "infected by the
philosophy" of the West, as education minister Lee Yock Suan puts it, a
philosophy that thinks "children will learn if they are left to explore on
their own, with little homework and few examinations."
No, this island nation cannot risk such wishful thinking
or value systems, agrees Quah, the deputy minister. It won’t do to worship
"being able to score with the opposite sex or [being] the top football
player or being rich."
"Self-esteem," she said, "comes from good
performance in school."
* * *
Singapore at a Glance
Population: 3 million
Ethnicity: Chinese, 77%; Malay 14%; Indian 7%.
Official languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and
Literacy rate: 92%; in two or more languages: 48%
* * *
Parliamentary, with a president and prime minister. The
People’s Action Party, headed by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, has held power
since 1959, when Singapore gained its independence from Britain.
* * *
Growth in gross domestic Production: 8.8% in 1995
Largest sectors: Finance, banking (27%); manufacturing,
Home ownership: 90%
Ave. monthly income: $2,700
Average monthly savings: $560
Pager users: One in three
* * *
Enrollment: 454,000 through 10 grades—the formal
education system. Another 75,000 attend a two-year junior college to prepare for
university training, a three- or four-year polytechnic course to study careers
such as marketing or nursing or a one-year technical training.
Spending: Up 30% in the last five years to $2,000 per
pupil in the first six grades; in the upper four grades, about $3,000. Schools
also impose fees on parents who can afford them, as much as $200 per month for
top semi-private institutions. Spending on 16-to-18 years olds, in polytechnic
and junion college programs, ranges up to $5,600.
Copyright Los Angeles Times