On Education and Exams

I was part of a program on Channel 5 last night called VoicesTODAY and shared some of my views and experiences about education, exams in particular, in Singapore. You can watch the whole show online here.

In my last post, I said that Heng Swee Keat should have pushed the envelope more. In part that stems from a conviction that our education system has some big flaws that need fixing fast and from the conviction that education shapes society and vice versa. Hence those with the clout and vision to drive societal change and education change need to have the courage and leadership to push ahead with their vision.

It’s too big a topic to cover fully right now but let me summarise my thoughts:

1) Examinations should exist primarily to test progress/knowledge and should not be used to impart value/rank

2) Our current system of exams plus streaming creates elitism, stratifies society and demoralises/devalues much of our human capital

3) Since only 1% of the PSLE cohort do not progress to secondary school, we do not need the PSLE for promotion purposes (we may still need it to full places, but that is a different barrier to be broken). We can look at through-train programmes to Sec 2 (year 8) or something.

4) Teacher KPIs should not weigh significantly on exam results

5) We need to lower the stakes of major examinations by relaxing cut-off points for schools,

6) Change philosophies about the value of non-academically inclined students

7) Since all schools are good schools, we should pro-actively begin to dismantle the concept and influence of “elite” schools, starting by bringing the SAP, GEP and IB programmes (or elements thereof) into all schools (or a very significant portion of schools).

8) There are alternative ways to fill posts in secondary schools

9) Restructure education so that the wealthy make only marginal/high risk gains from investing heavily in education

10) Fix teacher workloads, drastically increase supply of allied teaching professionals

11) Allow technical education to lead to degrees, or diplomas

12) Skilled craftsmen and artists should have a separate basic qualification before moving on to tertiary

13) Lower the cost of national university education further



    1. The government’s rationale for co-payment is fair enough: there must be some cost borne by the student so that education (or the provision thereof) is not taken for granted.

      Still, the amount shelled out by the individual should not be out of reach of anyone – I think limiting a semester’s tuition to about $2,000 is good. This way, organisations can step in easily with bursaries and scholarships, or else the student can manage to pay his own fees with part-time work.

      This way, almost anyone should be able to afford a university education. Students who are not supported by their families may even be able to work to pay for living expenses on top of uni fees.

      This also keeps student loans small, freeing up graduates to think about family and entrepreneurship.

      Now if we could only fix the supply/demand disconnect.


  1. Last I checked subway still pays five dollars an hour even on a full eight hour shift and a six day week, comes up to $960 per month before cpf deduction. Over a semester a student can earn $2300 after cpf. But has nothing to live on and probably has no time to study because of the eight hour shift.


    1. I’m sure undergrads can do better than Subway. Still, at $2000/sem there will be more grants/bursaries, and a full student loan (say $16k for a Hons. programme) can be paid back easily within 1 or 2 years.

      I’m shooting for the $2k mark because polytechnic fees are currently about $1200 per semester (after subsidy). I guess there is room to go down to $1500. In the end the number is semi-arbitrary. It has to be cheap enough to be able to afford without being cumbersome.


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