Ex-MOE policy officer explains 3 biggest problems with S’pore’s education system

Possibly the first time we're hearing from someone in the know.

By Jeanette Tan | June 4, 2018

It’s not often we get to hear from government insiders about the workings of policies — many of which affect our lives.

So when we do, it’s usually pretty good. And on Monday, June 4, one Yann Wong did just that.

Identifying himself as a former Ministry of Education (MOE) policy officer who oversaw the ministry’s Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme between 2011 and 2012, Wong took to Facebook with a note expressing his personal views on what he perceives to be the biggest problems with the ongoing discussion on elitism and meritocracy.

This being the fact that however anyone chooses to define it for the purposes of their argument, it isn’t solving the real, deep-rooted problems with the system on the ground and their impact on Singaporean students.

Here are the three main fundamental issues he sees with not just the DSA but also the system as a whole, which impact and influence the kinds of Singaporeans it is turning out:

1. Being “depressed and anxious” has become the norm for what it is like to be a student in Singapore

Wong argues that educators here have become desensitised to the fact that there are a lot of depressed and anxious students in Singapore.

This is so, he says, even though there is extensive public information linking the shaming of children to worrying mental health conditions that include depression, anxiety disorder and aggression.

He explains this is because failure to perform academically in Singapore subjects a student to great shame:

“Even for high performing students, I have observed high amounts of anxiety due to fear of failing to perform (either academically or in CCAs), and this is because our children can only feel validated by their performance, and are seldom, if ever, validated just for being themselves. As a response to their shame, many students develop a sense of neediness where impressing other people (so that they can be validated) becomes the main purpose of their life. For many parents, they label all these symptoms as “stress”, but really it’s much more complex and dangerous than that.”

Wong alleges that this ignorance on the part of educators here goes even further — to the extent that some teachers allegedly even brand healthy and self-assured students as “lacking drive” or “lazy”.

2. The trouble with Singapore’s meritocracy

This has been pointed out before, but Wong notes that while it is a helpful sorting mechanism for students of various academic ability, it also breeds a dangerous narrative.

Wong says meritocracy dictates that if you succeed, it’s because you worked hard and therefore deserve your success. But it also means that the reverse holds true: if you fail, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough, and therefore it is your fault that you failed.

He takes this further by one level: since it is your fault for failing, you cannot blame more successful people for looking down on you and your lot.

In other words, it disregards one’s personal circumstances, which, as we all know, play significant roles in a student’s chances at success in Singapore’s education system, and by extension in a vast majority of cases, life.

Unfortunately, this mentality steeps in Singaporeans the belief that “if I am successful and a winner, I am not wrong for condescending those who are less successful than I am”.

This, he believes, is the reason there continues to be stigma with being from the Normal stream or graduating from the Institute of Technical Education, for instance.

Wong thinks this boils down to Singaporean society’s failure to realise that every person has dignity and value:

“In Singapore, dignity is not a given. It has to be earned, and not every individual is given the opportunity to earn it.”

3. “Critical thinking” can’t happen if dissent is discouraged

Is it more important to think critically, or get the correct answer?

These two objectives regrettably don’t align in Singapore’s education system, Wong argues.

He shares that getting the right answer is in the interest of students, teachers and schools, which he says is the precise reason why the attempt to move Singapore away from an “exam-oriented” system has “largely failed” over the past two decades.

Even though teachers are told that “critical thinking” is an essential skill our students need for their future, Wong said teaching this runs against the grain of our education system because students want to be “correct” and importantly, he asserts, the MOE wants to “perpetuate certain national narratives as unquestionably true”.

This anecdote he shares is particularly telling:

“Once, a fellow middle manager told me (in all seriousness) that she encouraged all her students to write pro-PAP answers in all their Social Studies exams because she fears that the school would get “blacklisted” if students were found to disagree with state-sanctioned views.

The social studies syllabus has since changed (and MOE is experimenting with making examinations increasingly difficult such that only “high level thinkers” may be rewarded) but these mental habits still remain within teachers and education culture.

Do you want students to learn critical thinking for the sake of their future employment? Then you must be willing to let students critically question even national narratives, including politically contentious ones like Operation Coldstore. Is that too dangerous for you? Then stop lamenting that students can’t engage in “creative thinking” or “think out of the box”.”

Wong highlights two dangerous consequences of this situation: one, that we can’t appreciate that for some complex situations, there simply is no right answer, and the other, that we don’t realise that people who disagree with us can still be entirely reasonable and sensible. Understanding the latter, he argues, will go a long way in helping a person avoid solely existing in echo chambers, but that, he observes, clearly isn’t the case for many Singaporeans these days.

He concludes by pushing for “overhauls”, not “tweaks”, urging the ministry to consider its refrain that our system “has served us well”.

Plenty for us to think about here.

You can read the full post here.

Top photo adapted via

About Jeanette Tan

Jeanette takes pride in her ability to sing the complete lyrics to Hakuna Matata and a host of other Disney songs. She holds out hope to someday be talent-spotted to do voice-overs for documentaries, lifts and automated telephone answering systems.

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