Singapore sons and daughters: MOE budget debate and social mobility

9 Mar

Last night, watching and reading the news on the MOE budget debate, I was gladden that MOE is finally, really, trying to make a shift away from school rankings and academic excellence. This would be a slow process, and even as we would want to remake our education into a more wholistic entity, our economy and even some parents would ask us to do otherwise. Again, this is not a situation of 1 and 0, but a fine balance to be struck. 


In Minister Heng Swee Keat’s words, 


Speaking in Parliament on Thursday, Mr Heng said that to prepare our students for the future, education must develop the whole person. 

“It is less about content knowledge, as content will have to be re-learnt and even un-learnt during one’s lifetime,” he said. 

“It is more about how to process information, discern truths from untruths, connect seemingly disparate dots, and create knowledge even as the context changes. It is about developing an enduring core of competencies, values and character to anchor our young and ensure they have the resilience to succeed.”

“Developing the whole child must first begin with instilling the right character and values. We must adopt a student-centric, values-driven approach,” added Mr Heng.


Also encouraging is MOE’s plans to expand the social safety net in schools. With more financial assistance going into the pockets of lower income students, we hope that they would be able to concentrate on their studies with less distractions:


The income limit for eligibility for the MOE Financial Assistance Scheme or FAS will be raised from S$1,500 to S$2,500. 

Besides assessing applicants by household income, the ministry will assess them using a new Per Capita Income (PCI) criterion so that more students from larger families can qualify.

This means that students from households with a per capita income not exceeding S$625 per month will now be eligible.

For example, a family of six comprising two children, two parents and two grandparents living together, with a monthly income of S$3,600 (that is, per capita income of S$600) will now qualify.

Schools will also be given additional annual grants of up to S$15,000 per school every year, for the next three years. 

This will allow schools to provide additional targeted support in specific ways or to students who might have just missed the FAS criteria but are deserving. 

The ministry will also triple the annual funding allocated to the School Breakfast Programme, from S$4 million to S$12 million.


Lastly, with more auxillary education support from the MOE, weaker students and those from lower income families might have a chance to bridge the gap with their more high-flying schoolmates. This is ever more important in Singapore as our Gini coefficient widens, we must safeguard our social mobility and ensure that students from all walks of life have a chance to be competitive and realise their full potential. Failing to do so would mean Singapore as a whole would lose out, we would become less competitive and our citizens possibly leading less than fulfilling lives and having less confidence about their future.   


SINGAPORE: The government will provide academic support through its Learning Support Programmes.

These provide targeted assistance for students weak in literacy and numeracy. And they will also be extended to the pre-school level. Its Focused Language Assistance in Reading programme (FLAiR) will also benefit an additional 2,200 children. The programme exposes children level up, by exposing them to the English language. It has helped some 6,000 students from disadvantaged families to date.


SINGAPORE: The Education Ministry will be increasing the number of school-based student care centres over the next two years. The centres offer after-school pastoral care and a structured environment for students from low-income families to support their learning. By 2014, there will be 70 school-based centres, up from the current 57 primary schools and two special education schools that currently provide these services.


But all is not pink and good…


Social mobility is not dead in Singapore, at least not yet. But if we do not actively safeguard against the robustness of our social systems and to continue to level the playing field, to encourage fair competition, then perhaps the Singapore story would be less successful in the long run. It would be dreadful if small groups of elites entrench themselves in the upper echelons of the society resulting in a disincentive to creatively destroy existing structures for greater productivity and sustainable extraction of resources (no matter how limited they are in Singapore).   


Recent surveys on social mobility in Singapore have shown that youths continue to have the opportunity to do better than their parents in terms of education. But this does not ensure better salaries and livelihood as it is now harder to break into the upper echelons of income levels. Wealth (esp multi-generational wealth) have created high barriers of entries, whether in certain industries or even in education as richer parents are able to employ and utilise resources not commonly available to middle and lower classes. In fact, local law schools have recently wondered (published in ST) if they should change their admission criteria as they see many socio-economic similarities in recent cohorts. 



Indeed we see anecdoctal evidence that the cream of the cream of this society is being less varied. For eg, the economic background of our scholars. Is there at work, a slow process of homogenising the highest pinnacle in various economic stratas? One only need to think of Darwin’s Origin of Spieces and lessons on biodiversity to remind ourselves that groupthink would be to the detriment of our own future. 


Elitist Tuition Centres


One area that MOE might perhaps want to look at is the elitism in tuition centres and their supposed abilities to churn out top students over and above what is normally taught in schools. In other words, most of our top students are attending such elitist tuition centres. It is indeed worrying and a dent on our strong desire that education would be the great equaliser in society. Elite tuition centres have made news recently for the difficult admission tests they set and there is a growing trend that parents are employing tuition teachers to teach what other tutors have gave them. 


A premium local tuition centre is, One should check out their website to understand what it means to corporatise education. Indeed their flagship programme is called “Future Leaders”. It is described as:


This is a key initiative to help our students achieve their academic and leadership dreams as future leaders. It comprises landmark student leadership and academic development events to give your child a headstart in the corporate world.


In fact, in their own advertisments in ST, The Learning Lab have lauded their ability to churn out half of this country’s top PSLE students. 



In PSLE 2011, TLL groomed almost a mind-boggling one-half of the top ranking students in the entire country! This included a clean sweep of the first, second and third students overall. No school I know in the private or public sector has delivered such impressive results! – Gloria Chua, NUS Year 6 



Every year, its students dominate the top scorers charts. The best students in almost every single top-ranked school in Singapore have a link to TLL, although of course many of these students prefer to keep it low. – Desiree Chong, Dunman High, Year 5


To perhaps compile the problem, such elite tuition centres are actually paying their teachers a rather decent salary, not uncomparable to the education service. In addition, teachers employed by such tutition centres would not have to deal with school administration, CCA, and problem kids. 



Even as I urge the MOE to further realise the mission of education as a great equaliser in society, I would also ask parents to groom our future leaders with discipline, drive, grace, compassion and most of all, with less materialism and more socially attuned.  


15 Responses to “Singapore sons and daughters: MOE budget debate and social mobility”

  1. luckytan March 9, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    Hi, I’m Lucky Tan from
    I really enjoyed reading your posting and share many of your
    ideas on education. I too believe that while the MOE is starting
    to move in the right direction but too slowly in light of the fast
    expanding inequality and changes in our society – they have decades
    of education policy to undo to bring about greater equity in education.

    I would like to use some of the news paper cuttings and figures in your posting for a posting in my blog – is it okay?

    • Gintai_昇泰 March 13, 2012 at 10:42 am #

      I thought you said something our WP MPs plagiarize others when they spoke in parliament in your blog? Correct me if I’m wrong.

    • Gintai_昇泰 March 13, 2012 at 10:47 am #

      Oh so sorry Lucky Tan. I got mixed up with another blogger. It’s not you. I withdraw my earlier comment. My apology.

  2. Never again March 9, 2012 at 5:20 pm #

    One to many a deserving student from a poor family who obtained outstanding grades through pure hardwork and determination is denied a scholarship because it’s was given to students who come from rich familes but want the scholarship because of the elite label associated with it. If the PM’s, DPM’s or Minister’s son gets a President’s scholarship, then a cleaner or taxi drivers son will be denied one, unless we have no quotas.
    I have always maintained that if such the rich want such scholarship’s then accept a merit or non-monetary scholarship and still get the elitist label.

  3. Kelvin Tan March 9, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

    Instead of criticizing The Learning Lab, why not applaud it for giving some form of competition to our already heavily monopolized educational sector?

    Imagine if one day, TLL becomes a full school by itself instead of just a part of the shadow education industry, do you think parents will be happier that they now have more choices?

  4. Unbranded BreadnButter March 9, 2012 at 9:30 pm #

    Hi Lucky, I thoroughly enjoyed your blog thru these years as well. Please go ahead. Do drop me a note when it is published. Thanks.

    Kelvin Tan, thanks for your comment. TLL it has every right to run its business in whatever way it wants and I have my right to point out that TLL’s business is unhealthy for our society. I don’t quite get your argument of TLL as a competition in our ‘educational sector’. It clearly does not compete with national schools. TLL is a place for those who can get a place and who can afford it. Also, if TLL becomes a school, how different would it be from other branded schools? Or it would be more elitist than the elite? I look fwd to your reply. Thanks.

  5. Kelvin Tan March 10, 2012 at 2:13 pm #

    First, can you see that our parents and students are basically facing a monopoly when it comes to educational choice?

    Imagine if for food, you are told where to buy the food, you have little choice about the quality of the food, you have to continue buying the same food from the same designated store for 6/4/2 years. You found that the food sold is of poor quality and you are forced to grow your own food. Heck, even the food store employees are all trained in the same manner.

    That is the same situation with our education.

  6. Unbranded BreadnButter March 10, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    Kelvin, so you are advocating rich and poor get to choose their own schools? And by coincidence u find the rich choosing a few schools? And by coincidence u find most of the good teachers being pulled to the better schools who by coincidence are filled with mostly rich kids?

    If feel that current education system is inadequate, u can supplement it with tuition. Nothing to stop you there. I am just pointing out that it can be unhealthy if most of our top scorers are heavily tuitioned and worse come from one tuition centre.

    So what monopoly are you talking about here? I am getting confused. Maybe u would like to write an article and I could consider putting it here. Thanks.

  7. Anon March 12, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

    The troubling truth is that selective schools and in this particular case tuition centres like TTL help to perpetuate the deep inequities that define our society, not just failing to make things better but actively making them a little worse.

  8. Prata Bob March 13, 2012 at 1:32 am #

    Touche! TLL and elite tuition schools! Elitist tuition centres perpetuating elitism and the gap between kids who are better off and already in branded schools, and kids who are just left behind, rather than education being the equaliser. The well-off and privileged would just shrug and say, “That’s life! Suck it up”. (Although nothing wrong with being well-off IMHO).

  9. Issus March 13, 2012 at 9:48 am #

    Good read and example with the law profession. I bet there is a similar co-relation between socio-economic statuses and branded schools (rich can buy/rent place near branded schools, and thereafter entrance to law and medicine, the atas schools of universities.

  10. jc economics tuition September 20, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    We are a group of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community.
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  1. Daily SG: 9 Mar 2012 « The Singapore Daily - March 9, 2012

    […] 2012 – Unbreaded Bread and Butter: Singapore sons and daughters: MOE budget debate and social mobility – Diary of A Singaporean Mind: Dyslexia, Streaming and Inclusive Education…. – Where Bears […]

  2. Daily SG: 12 Mar 2012 « The Singapore Daily - March 12, 2012

    […] – funny little world: The not-so-fine print behind Education – Unbranded Bread n Butter: Singapore sons and daughters: MOE budget debate and social mobility – 否极泰来 Piji Tailai: Confidence rather than perceptions is needed for neighbourhood schools […]

  3. Are we overdoing elitism in our education system? « Unbranded Bread n Butter - May 8, 2012

    […] The average Joe would probably go to the usual tuition classes at the nearby HDB town centre while those who are economically well off can attend the super elite tution schools that produces almost half of the top 20 PSLE students; provided they can pass the entrance exams to these tuition centres. Read about it in my earlier post.  […]

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