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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Thank You Chua Mui Hoong!

Journalist Chua Mui Hoong penned the following words in brown HERE... in The Straits Times 22 September 2013. I have interspersed my own additions in black.



There was widespread incredulity last week when Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah declared that tuition is unnecessary.

Responding to a question in Parliament on the "shadow education system" and its impact, she said: "Our education system is run on the basis that tuition is not necessary. Some parents believe they can give their children an added advantage by sending them to tuition classes, even though their children are doing reasonably well. We cannot stop them from doing so."

MY THOUGHTS: After 4 years of observing MOE press releases and spokespersons, I get a sense that the MOE's best minds are incapable of thinking outside of the box they've grown up in. The visionary leadership of LKY is gone from the government. If the current MOE were sent back to the 1960s, they are likely to say "Singaporean parents are uneducated. They can't partner us in teaching the children. We cannot make them do so. Hence, we cannot train a skilled workforce." The NOTHING CAN BE DONE attitude is too prevalent in MOE.

Parents: Textbooks are poor.
MOE: It won't be easy to change textbooks.

Parents: Classes are too large.
MOE: It won't be easy to have smaller classes. There are costs.

Parents: There is a gap between what is taught in class and testing standards.
MOE: It's parents' fault. MOE is forced to test hard because parents enrich their kids, and hence we need to set more difficult exams to differentiate the A from the A*. There is nothing we can do.



The parents who spend US$680 million (S$848 million) each year (according to a 2012 Asian Development Bank report on tuition) on private tuition for their children here clearly think that tuition isn't unnecessary. Various polls suggest tuition prevalence here as anything from nearly half of households (a MasterCard survey on spending in April) to over 90 per cent of students (the Asian Development Bank report).

But in a way, Ms Indranee's view is internally consistent: the Ministry of Education (MOE) does not consider tuition necessary, so it designs its curriculum accordingly, and its teachers are expected to teach like there is no such thing as private tuition. Thinking within the box that says tuition is unnecessary leads to this rather ostrich-like way of tackling the issue: not needed, not an issue, go away.

I completely agree with Chua Mui Hoong. Important issues are swept away and ignored. Perhaps this protects some individuals' egos,  careers and livelihoods. Meanwhile, the issues continue to hurt masses of families. Here are some examples of "not needed, not an issue, go away".

Parents: Textbooks are poor.
MOE: There is no need to improve textbooks because kids are supposed to engage in external learning via iPADS and trips to the library.

Parents: Classes are too large.
MOE: There is no need to have smaller classes because it's not class size that is important. It's the quality of the teachers.

Parents: There is a gap between what is taught in class and testing standards.
MOE: There is no need to bridge this gap because we need to differentiate A from A*. If teachers taught everything, then the children would all know everything. We need to test things that we've not taught so we can tell the A from the A*. The A* students will naturally know.



How different it would be if the ministry could get out of its self-imposed box to contemplate: What is it about the education system that is making so many parents send their children for private tuition? In fact, this was precisely what Nominated MP Janice Koh asked in Parliament: Whether more should be done to make tuition "less necessary and desirable" in Singapore, and if the ministry had data on tuition.  

If the ministry took the issue of tuition seriously, its thinking might go this way: "We think it's unnecessary, but many parents and students clearly think otherwise. 
(1) Is there something we're missing? 
(2) In fact, how prevalent is tuition? 
(3) Maybe we should study this, and see what students have tuition in, how much is spent, and if tutors are qualified. 
(4) "Better still, let's study if tuition is effective, for different groups of students: the weak, the average and the academically strong. 
(5) "Do some of MOE's existing policies create conditions that fuel demand for tuition? 
(6) Could large class sizes result in weaker students needing personalised attention from tutors?
(7) Could our move to grade exams on raw scores rather than in broad bands compel students to get extra coaching to chase up every extra mark to get ahead of others? 
(8) "Could our marking and grading system fuel hyper-competitive behaviour and lead to an arms race in grades and tuition? 
(9) What can we do to reduce these effects?" 

What lovely questions Ms Chua Mui Hoong!


As Singapore undergoes significant shifts in policy, and its leaders try to recalibrate a new bond with the people, it is vital that the Government discard the old mode of responding to criticisms - or questioning of its policies - by ignoring them out of existence

What an apt way of describing what MOE officials have been doing for the past 10 years in the face of parental feedback.


I have interviewed and spoken with many senior civil servants in both formal and informal settings and know most of them for a thoughtful, serious-minded bunch. I would be extremely disappointed if the questions on tuition I can think of, off the top of my head as I write this article, have not occurred to them in the course of their work. I am sure ministry officials, and educationists, have studied these issues and come to some conclusions. But when the discussion is kept behind closed doors, out of sight and hearing of the public, it might as well not have taken place. 

When all the public sees are pronouncements that defend the status quo and ignore the shadow system beneath, it begins to think that either the Government doesn't know what's going on, or doesn't care, or is powerless. It can erode the Government's credibility. Start with the shadow education system. 

Exactly! It is this issue with the shadow education system that is causing many parents, previously supportive of the PAP to question whether this government knows, cares... and whether it leads the civil service or are civil servants the true leaders and our politicians are figureheads?


The best way to remove a shadow is to bring it into the light, not dismiss its utility.

Many have applauded Lee Kuan Yew for his ability to face tough problems. Within MOE, I don't see that at all. I see the spirit of denial, self-congratulation (The No Need To Do Spirit) and an attitude of helplessness (The No Can Do Attitude). Thank God the MOE spirit (or lack thereof) and attitude was not prevalent in government under Lee Kuan Yew. If that had been so, I doubt the Singapore miracle would have happened. We would still be a mosquito people living under zinc roofs today.

Sometimes people will respect you more if you emerge steely eyed, admit there is a problem, define the problem and lay out steps to do something about it. Deny problems long enough and one day, you won't be in a position to solve them. Someone else, with a more can-do attitude who cares more than you do will step into the void of your helplessness.

Simply test to the levels you can comfortably teach to and parents of good students will have no reason to buy tuition.


1 comment:

indecisivelyindecisive said...

The problem arises when people become over reliant on tuition. I know a few families for whom tuition has become the first port of call at the first sign of a 'problem' (and I use that term loosely). This is a generalisation, I know, but I feel that many students these days are no longer required to figure out different ways of studying or find their own information and 'help' themselves, because at the first sign of grades slipping, parents start to panic and immediately send them for tuition. And I'm not just talking about kids who are below average, either. Gone are the days when tuition was just for the academically weak students. Now all and sundry, GEP included, have tuition.

When does it end? Kids have tuition for primary school to do well in PSLE, and then continue in sec school to do well in O and A levels. But what happens when the child goes to university and finds it hard to cope with independent study because they've had the tuition safety net all their lives thus far? Would they need tutors to help them get their degrees? (I'm not even sure such services exist, but if this tuition craze continues, then I won't be surprised if it does in the near future!)

The thing is, the Singapore education is often touted overseas as one of the best in the world, as the academic standard is often two or three years ahead of their peers in Western countries. But if you take away all the external help, will the standard remain as high? Can it? To me, that's not the mark of a good education system. What's the point of having such high academic standards if kids are not able to achieve on their own, based solely on what they learn at school?