What is a good school: What about a good education system?

Photo: fivestarsandamoon.comPhoto: fivestarsandamoon.com

Since we are talking about “what is a good school?” why not also ask “what is a good education system?”

I saw the following remarks in a facebook post by Roy Ngerng:-

“A parent once asked me at a dialogue, “How is MOE going to ensure that every school is a good school?”

As part of my discussion with the parent, I asked his son, who is in a primary school in Sembawang, if he liked his school, if his teachers were good and were helping him to learn, and if he enjoyed going to school every morning. He readily said “YES” to all of these questions. I replied – “Then you are in a good school!” 😀

At the end of the dialogue, the child ran up to me and said “Minister, I feel so inspired after speaking to you. Now I know my school is a good school!”

I shared this story at the Economic Society of Singapore’s annual dinner.

We must remember to define a good school from the perspective of the child.”

My friends said “Since we are talking about what is a good school – perhaps we should also ask the question – what is a good education system?

Well, perhaps we should not have an education system that is arguably, discriminating against lower-income families and contributing to inequality, by having schemes like the Child Development Account in its current form.

In this regard, according to the article “Parents of 4 in 10 firstborns have benefited fully from CDA” (Straits Times, May 21) – “A Ministry of Social and Family Development spokesman told The Straits Times that 42.1 per cent of firstborns since 2016 – the First Step grant was started in late March that year – have hit the maximum government matching contribution. For the second child, the figure is 35.8 per cent, and it is 10.9 per cent for the third, 4.8 per cent for the fourth, and 1.2 per cent for the fifth child and beyond.”

As to “For the 2011 birth cohort, which hit its halfway mark for saving last year, 71.2 per cent of the firstborns have received the maximum government matching contribution, and it is 66.6 per cent for the second child, 38.8 per cent for the third, 23.7 per cent for the fourth, and 9.8 per cent for the fifth child and beyond” – why is the subscription rate apparently quite low?

Isn’t it arguably, a no-brainer to contribute because of the matching grant?

After all, “the money in the CDA can be used for childcare fees, medical expenses and more, at approved institutions.


Is the primary reason for not contributing due to the financial difficulties of the parents?

Why do we continue to have such a scheme which may arguably contribute to greater inequality?

Why do we keep decreasing the government’s share of the cost per university student?

In 1984/85 – the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) tuition fee for the Science Course was only $1,000 or just 6.7 per cent of the average recurrent costs of $14,827 per student.

Does this mean that the government’s share of the average recurrent costs, was 93.3 per cent (100 – 6.7%)?

For Medicine – the tuition fee was only $1,100 against the average recurrent costs of $43,803 – i.e. the government’s share of the average recurrent costs, was 97.5 per cent.

According to NUS’s web site – the tuition fee for normal courses and Medicine will increase to $8,200 and  $28,400 respectively, this year, and the government Recurrent Expenditure on Education per Student for University was $21,853 in 2017.

So, does it mean that the government’s share of the average recurrent costs is now 62.5 per cent ($8,200 divided by $21,853)?

Why has the government’s share of the average recurrent costs decreased from 93.3 per cent in 1984 to 62.5 per cent now?

University tuition fees increased by up to 10.5% per annum, against government spending per university student increasing by only 1.4% per annum?

According to the article “More to be spent on quality in schools” (Straits Times, Mar 5, 1987) – “Government was spending each year $14,400 to educate a student at the university”.

For the academic year 1986/87 – the tuition fee for all courses (except dentistry and medicine at $1,300) was only $1,200.

According to NUS’s web site – the tuition fee for normal courses will increase to $8,200 this year.

6.4% p.a. increase in fees?

Since the tuition fee was only $1,200 in 1987, does it mean that fees have increased by about 6.4 per cent per annum, in the last 31 years or so?

For dentistry and medicine, the fee increase is a whopping 10.5 per cent per annum.

Expenditure per University student: 1.4% p.a. increase?

In contrast, Government Recurrent Expenditure on Education per Student for University was an annual increase of only about 1.4 per cent from 1987 to 2017 (30 years), from $14,400 to $21,853.

2% inflation?

Also, inflation increased by about 2 per cent per annum from 1987 to 2017 (30 years).

So, fees increased about 6.4 per cent per annum, versus Expenditure per Student at about 1.4 per cent and inflation of about 2 per cent?

5% p.a. GDP growth?

Moreover, I understand that GDP growth was about five per cent per annum, over the 30 years, from 1987 to 2017.

Why wasn’t GDP growth translated into more spending on university students?

Is 68% of post-graduate students being non-Singaporeans very high?

I refer to the article “Subsidies for master’s courses to be removed or reduced for foreign, PR students: Ong Ye Kung” (Today, Mar 5).

It states that “From 2011 to 2016, locals formed 32 per cent of the postgraduate intake on average, while international students and PRs comprised 63 per cent and 5 per cent respectively. This was revealed by Mr Ong in Parliament last July.”

Isn’t 68 per cent of “the postgraduate intake on average” being non-Singaporeans a rather high proportion?

Are there any public universities that give such a high percentage to foreign students?

Also, instead of just giving the statistics of the postgraduate intake on average from 2011 to 2016 – what is the percentage now of non-Singaporeans in the total enrolment in the public universities?

Is it higher than 68 per cent?

Was factually.sg correct in respect of foreign students in the public universities?

I refer to the article “186 articles published on Factually website since 2012: Yaacob Ibrahim” (Channel NewsAsia, Feb 28).

It states that “Another online rumour claimed that our public universities had reserved a minimum 20 per cent quota for foreign students when “no such policy exists”, he added.”

In this connection, according to the article “Time for Singapore universities to admit more international students” (Today, Jan 29, 2018) – “The government has capped the number of international students in our universities since Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the move in his National Day Rally speech in 2011.

Mr Lee had noted that some Singaporeans might not have been happy that foreign students could have taken the place of locals in the universities here, but added that in reality, the enrolment of foreign students was not at the expense of Singaporeans as the government had steadily increased the number of places for Singaporeans in our universities.

“By 2015 our universities will take in 14,000 Singapore students, more than ever before. But while we do this, we will cap the foreign enrolment at the present levels and therefore gradually the mix will shift and the proportion of foreign students will come down,” Mr Lee said.

As a result of the government’s policy, the proportion of foreign students in the National University of Singapore (NUS) has fallen from 23.3 per cent in 2013 to 17.3 per cent in 2017. (See table below)

Also, according to the book “The Palgrave Handbook of Asia Pacific Higher Education” – “Enrolling foreign students was also not a new idea in Singapore higher education either.

In the mid-1980s, the government had announced a target of 20 per cent for foreign undergraduate enrollments in local publicly funded universities”.

Also, according to Mr Yee Jenn Jong, Non-Constituency Member of Parliament’s Question (May 14, 2013):

“To ask the Minister for Education what is the current percentage of enrolled students and admitted students in each of our local autonomous universities, Yale-NUS College, and Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine respectively who are Singaporeans, permanent residents and foreigners.


1The vast majority of university places have gone to Singaporeans. In AY2012, Singaporean students comprised 79%, while International Students and Permanent Residents comprised 16% and 5% of the universities’ intake respectively.”

34% foreign students?

However, the percentage of international students is 34 and 33 per cent for NUS and NTU respectively, according to the Times Higher Education Rankings.

Presumably, these statistics were provided by the universities?

So, why are they so much higher than the 21 per cent in the Parliamentary reply?

What is the real increase in starting salaries for graduates in the last decade?

I refer to the article “Higher starting pay for university graduates, more in freelance work: Survey” (Straits Times, Feb 26).

It states that “They took home a median monthly salary of $3,400, up from $3,300 in 2016, according to results of a joint graduate employment survey released on Monday (Feb 26).

The starting pay is also the highest since 2012, the first year of the annual survey of graduates from National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore Management University (SMU).”

According to the Singapore Yearbook of Manpower Statistics 2014 (page H30) – the median gross monthly starting salary of university graduates in full-time permanent employment was $2,750 in 2007.

Graduates’ real starting pay increased 1.3% last 10 years?

Does this mean that their starting salaries increased by about 24.9 per cent ($3,400 divided by $2,750) in the last 10 years?

Since inflation was about 23.6 per cent from 2007 (CPI 79.65) to 2017 (CPI 99.502) – does it mean that in real terms – their starting salaries increased by about 1.3 per cent (24.9 – 23.6%) or 0.13 per cent per annum ($3.58 p.a.) in the last 10 years?

Why do we allow foreign students to apply to become PRs to save on their tuition fees?

I refer to the article “Almost 6,000 foreign students granted PR from 2008-2017: Josephine Teo” (Yahoo News, Feb 7).

It states that “Of the 7,251 foreign students who applied for permanent residency (PR) between the years 2008 and 2017, 5,932 were granted PR status, said Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Josephine Teo on Tuesday (6 February).

Speaking in Parliament, Teo added that of these permanent residents, 1,072 subsequently took up citizenship as at the end of 2017. Eighty-five of them have renounced their permanent residency.”
Why do we allow or encourage foreign students to apply to become permanent residents (PRs)?
Are there any other countries in the world that do this?
The annual tuition fee at the National University of Singapore (NUS) for the academic year 2017/2018 is $37,950 for Engineering/Science/Computing for foreigners, and $11,400 for PRs.
So, does it mean that by converting to a PR – a foreign student may reduce his or her tuition fees by $106,200 ($37,950 – $11,400 x 4 years)?
Wouldn’t it be better not to reduce the fees of so many foreign students, but to channel the sum to help Singaporean students instead,
How many foreign students in total were there from 2008 to 2017, including those who did not apply to become PRs?
How many PRs’ students were there from 2008 to 2017, who paid lower fees than foreigners, and how many foreigners under the MOE tuition grant, graduated to serve their minimum 3-year bonds to compete with Singaporeans for jobs?
Are the annual increase in childcare fees justified?

I refer to the article “My First Skool raises fees – are parents paying too much?” (Straits Times, Jan 25).

It states that “My First Skool, the NTUC-run childcare/infantcare centre and preschool, one of Singapore biggest chains, has raised their school fees yet again, sending new parents into a panic.

The fee increase will be between $6 and $33 a month for childcare and $5 and $20 for infantcare.

Up to $34 a month more may not sound like much at first glance.

But take into account the fact that My First Skool has been increasing their school fees every year from 2014-2016.

In 2013, it was announced that My First Skool would raise fees in 2014 by up to $32.10, as well as remove the sibling discount extended to parents with more than one child enrolled.

In 2015, they once again increased childcare and infantcare fees by an average of $32 a month.

2016 saw yet another fee hike, of an average of $34 per month for childcare and $14 for infant-care.

This means that it now costs about $100 a month more, or over $1,200 a year, to send your kid to My First Skool than it did in 2013.

To put things into perspective, My First Skool’s monthly fees for childcare are currently $712.21 to $770.40 a month, while infantcare fees are $1,356.78 to $1,364.25 for Singaporeans.

The fee hikes since 2013 have thus added up to a good 15 per cent. The inflation rate from 2013 to 2016 certainly doesn’t justify it, while wage increases over the same period have not kept pace either.

My First Skool’s financial assistance programme is only extended to those with a gross monthly household income of $3,500, or $875 per capita.

But at such income levels, these families are usually already eligible for significant Infant and Child Care Additional Subsidies, which means My First Skool won’t even have to fork out much to help them.”

In this connection, according to NTUC First Campus’ annual reports – its surplus after contribution to the Central Cooperative Fund (CCF) and the Singapore Labour Labour (SLF) has been increasing almost yearly by about 203 per cent, from $3.6 million in 2012 to $10.9 million in 2016.

As a social enterprise of the labour movement – is this appropriate?

Why does it take so long for the Ministry of Education to approve any students’ enrolment into private schools?

I refer to Jean Wee’ letter “Why the need for approval to enrol in private schools” (Straits Times Forum, Jan 19).

It states that “I can empathise with Ms Jaspreet Kaur’s frustration over the Ministry of Education’s (MOE’s) delay in approving her son’s enrolment in a private school for a preparatory O-level course (MOE taking long time to ‘approve’ enrolment for private school; Jan 18).

Last December, I withdrew my daughter from her secondary school and enrolled her in an O-level preparatory course at a private education institution (PEI).

The PEI submitted all the required documents to MOE before Christmas, but has yet to receive approval.

When I requested an update last week, the school’s administrators told me that they have yet to receive approval for any of the applications they submitted for course commencement in 2018.

I am puzzled as to why MOE has to approve applications to private schools.”

In this connection, there has been several studies which indicate that our (public) education system is arguably, elitist, has contributed to a “class divide”, the odds are stacked against students who are academically (OECD study debated in Parliament recently) or financially disadvantaged, etc.

So, arguably, what is the Ministry of Education afraid of?

That making it easier to transfer to private schools may further indicate the shortcomings of our (public) education system?

This is probably, not the first time that the MOE has shown that it may be afraid of competition.

If even the venerable Ministry Of Education needs unfair competition against the private sector – what kind of message are we sending to the private sector and entrepreneurs in Singapore?

According to the article “Private pre-schools worry about new P1 admission policy” (Straits Times, Nov 29) –  “Some private pre-school operators are watching the changes in the sector with concern, after the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced on Monday that children in its kindergartens would get priority admission in the Primary 1 registration exercise.

Smaller players are worried about being squeezed out as MOE expands its reach and adds an advantage to attending its kindergartens, though MOE said the move is to better ease children into Primary 1 education.”

Are our students “worse off” or “better off”?

I refer to the article “Disadvantaged Singapore students do better than OECD peers: Dr Puthucheary” (Channel NewsAsia, Jan 10).

It states that “Disadvantaged students in Singapore do better than those of similar backgrounds from other developed countries, Senior Minister of State for Education Janil Puthucheary said in Parliament on Wednesday (Jan 10) in reply to a question by Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim.

Ms Lim had asked if the Ministry of Education (MOE) was concerned that a report by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), titled Excellence and Equity in Education, found that economically disadvantaged students in Singapore were “significantly more likely to underperform in science compared to their OECD counterparts”.

Dr Puthucheary clarified that this was not true, as low-income students still outperform their OECD peers, it was just that Singapore students of higher socio-economic background outperform their peers by a larger margin.

He called Ms Lim’s interpretation “factually inaccurate”, saying students from low-income backgrounds had higher PISA scores compared to their OECD peers in all areas of assessment: reading, mathematics and science.

In follow-up questions, Ms Lim highlighted figures in the report stating that Belgium, Singapore and Switzerland were the only three high-performing countries with a below average equity in educational outcomes.

“There was a table in the OECD report that compared the performance of socio-economically disadvantaged students … and it was stated that the OECD average of disadvantaged students likely to underperform is 2.8 times, but Singapore is 4.37 times,” Ms Lim said.

“Is that not an indication that we have a bigger issue to worry about in terms of equity?”

Dr Puthucheary disagreed, saying: “If one chooses that as the measure of equity, which the OECD has chosen to do, then the mathematical result is as Ms Lim has demonstrated.

“However, it does not mean that our lower socio-economic status students are underperforming their OECD counterparts. That is not the case.”

Still, Dr Puthucheary said MOE is focused on this issue because it is important that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are able to overcome their circumstances and do well.

He also highlighted that the same report showed that about half of Singapore students from the bottom 25 per cent of disadvantaged households performed much better internationally than what their home circumstances would predict.

The report defined students in this category as “resilient students”. Dr Puthucheary noted Singapore’s proportion of resilient students is “substantially higher” than the OECD average of 30 per cent in the study based on 2015 PISA results.”

Let me try to use an analogy to explain – to help you to understand (at least from one perspective) – as to who made more or less sense in the above exchange in Parliament?

If someone tells you that lower-income students have a higher chance of ending up in the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) – but their starting salary in country A is still higher than country B.

So, the conclusion is that students in country A are not worse off than country B.

However – from an equity perspective – what if country A has been ranked as the most expensive city in the world – much more expensive than country B; and the income gap between the “richer” and the “poorer” is very big (A’s gini is the second highest world and B is much lower) – do you not see and agree that the statement that “students in country A are not worse off than country B” – does not really make much sense?

In other words – what really matters, arguably, may be the difference between the “lower” and “higher” students in a country, and not the difference between the “lower” students in two different countries.

ITE starting salary $1,700 in 2016?

In this connection, according to the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) Yearbook of Manpower Statistics 2017 – the median gross monthly starting salary of ITE graduates (Higher Nitec (Engineering)) in full-time permanent employment was $1,700 in 2016.

ITE starting salary $1,500 in 1999?

The starting salary in 1999 was $1,500.

So, does it mean that the increase over the 17 years was only about 13.3 per cent ($1,700 divided by $1,500).


Certification Level

Starting Salaries
( Based on July 1999 survey )

Higher Nitec in engineering courses


Higher Nitec in business courses


Nitec in technical courses


Nitec in Office Skills


(Source: ITE)

Real starting pay down (-20.7%) last 17 years?

Since inflation was about 34 per cent from 1999 (CPI 73.814) to 2016 (CPI 98.932) – does it mean that the real increase was about minus 20.7 per cent (34 – 13.3)?

By the way, the proportion (%) in full-time permanent employment was only 41.8 per cent.

For Nitec (Engineering) – it was only 33.6 per cent, and the Median Gross Monthly Starting Salary was even lower, at $1,545.

Can you imagine how much the other 66.4 per cent (100 – 33.6) who were not in full-time permanent employment (couldn’t get full-time jobs?) were earning?

Are we giving too many scholarships to richer students?

I refer to the article “Making a Mockery of Meritocracy” (The Independent, Jan 6).

It states that “Over the years, how many government scholarships have been gifted to children of those at the top echelons of government and public service? For every one that is given out, another deserving Singaporean loses out – and that Singapore could be in dire need of a scholarship because he or she comes from a not-well-to-do family.”

In this connection, I believe that the last time that arguably – a very comprehensive analysis and commentary on the “meritocracy” of awarding scholarships, was published was in 2008.

There were media reports then, about the break-down of scholarship awardees who stay in HDB and private property.

I would like to suggest again that the percentage of scholars from HDB flats be further broken down to the different flat types, i.e. 1 – 2 room, 3-room, 4-room, and 5-room and bigger. Since the private property data was broken down to landed and condominiums, why not the HDB data ?

I understand that the statistics last reported in the media was that more than 60 per cent of scholars comes from HDB 5-room and bigger, and private property.

According to the Department of Statistics’ (DOS) 2008 Yearbook of Statistics, 69 per cent of HDB flats were 4-room and smaller.

Since more than 80 per cent of residential dwelling units are HDB flats, the proportion of scholars from private property is disproportionately high.

Even the proportion of landed property at 26 per cent is disproportionately higher, compared to the 27 per cent for private non-landed property, as only 29 per cent of all private property are landed.

Another way of looking at it may be that students from private property have about a two times higher chance of getting a scholarship, and those from HDB 5-room and bigger about a one and a half times higher chance.

In this regard, even those in landed property have about a two times higher chance than non-landed.

Clearly, at least from a statistical perspective, the odds may be stacked against HDB 4-roomers and smaller.

What is perhaps an even more important statistic is the breakdown of the household and per capita income.

The type of residential dwelling may not necessarily reflect the financial need and affordability of the scholarship applicant.

If this trend continues, it may lead to a further widening of the income gap. Singapore’s GINI co-efficient has been deteriorating over the years, and is now near to historical highs.

Route out of poverty

Throughout history, I believe the most common route out of poverty has been education.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with awarding scholarships primarily on academic achievement, the current selection criteria and system may be further skewed against lower-income households, as their children may have less in the areas of co-curricular activities, leadership track record, etc, because of their limited financial resources.

This may further stack the odds against the lower-income, who have less resources to access tuition, enrichment programmes, learning aids, etc.

In countries like the United States, many scholarships are awarded based on financial need. Those who can afford get less money, and those who are rich are given a Honour Scholarship, i.e. in name only without money.

I support Mr Philip Yeo’s remarks about his preference to give scholarships to the lower income. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that most bond breakers come from more affluent families. So, the perennial problem and increasing trend of more people breaking bonds may be diminished if more scholarships go to the less affluent.

As to the remarks that the family background of applicants are not taken into account, I would like to ask whether the selection panel are able to see such information. If so, I think those involved in the selection and interview process should not be allowed to see such information.

The issue of elitism in Singapore has been much debated in the media. Let’s try to do something more about it, in the true spirit of one of the five stars of our national flag, which represents equality for all.

Most of the jobs growth in the last decade went to foreigners – is it worth to upgrade your education?

I refer to the article “Institutes of higher learning should offer training for workers: Ong Ye Kung” (Straits Times, Oct 21, 2017).

It states that ” the drive to promote lifelong learning has been in place for more than a decade before the SkillsFuture movement was launched in late 2014.

As a result, the average worker today understands the need for constant upgrading, and is also aware of the rate of technological advancement.”

In this connection, what’s the point of “the need for constant upgrading” and “for more than a decade before the SkillsFuture movement was launched in late 2014” – when apparently, most of the jobs growth in the last decade or so did not go to Singaporeans?

In this regard, from 2004 to 2016 – we granted 555,659 and 228,840 new PRs and new citizens, respectively.

With regard to jobs – from 2006 to 2016 – the employment growth for locals and foreigners was 376,800 and 701,900, respectively.

How many of the 376,800 locals’ jobs were S’poreans?

So, how many of the “locals” (PRs and citizens) employment growth of 376,800 went to Singaporeans, since 467,659 new PRs and 208,840 new citizens were granted in the same period from 2006 to 2016?

So, after reading the above – do you think we have a good education system? 

Leong Sze Hian

About the Author

Leong Sze Hian has served as the president of 4 professional bodies, honorary consul of 2 countries, an alumnus of Harvard University, authored 4 books, quoted over 1500 times in the media , has been a radio talkshow host, a newspaper daily columnist, Wharton Fellow, SEACeM Fellow, columnist for theonlinecitizen and Malaysiakini, executive producer of Ilo Ilo (40 international awards), Hotel Mumbai (associate producer), invited to speak more than 200 times in about 40 countries, CIFA advisory board member, founding advisor to the Financial Planning Associations of 2 countries. He has 3 Masters, 2 Bachelors degrees and 13 professional  qualifications.