Getting into this box is what's best for both of us. During your time in the box, you will learn so much, and yet experience so little. It's a wild ride, my friend, one well worth the time spent...and let's face it, you don't have much to do these days anyway.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

The Singaporean education system - free-market mechanisms in a publicly-funded industry.

(Apologies if I sound like an idiot in this post, but I'm explaining this from a layman's point of view. As I said, my formal grasp of economics is only from a from an eighteen-year-old or freshman student might have, so excuse me if I make any bloody errors in my writing.


Education, the Singaporean government likes to tout, is our big thing, complete with the whole "our people are our only resource" mantra. Of course, the government has just been a wee bit short-sighted in raiding our capital goods resources in order to produce more consumer goods - the figures that came out for this year's fertility rates are abyssmal - about 1 for both Chinese and Indian ethnicities, and 1.6 for Malays. But that's not what I'm going to be talking about today.

The Singaporean government is very big on education - it's the second largest item on the budget after defense. Education is massively funded; for example, I'm now benefiting from a government grant for all Singaporeans who wish to pursue higher education, that pays $15,000 of my $18,000 per semester for my Chemical Engineering degree for the whole of my course of study. Foreigners can benefit from this grant, too, with the caveat that they agree to stay and work in Singapore for a number of years (depending on the amount paid out by the grant. This is the most in medicine, middling in engineering, and arts...they get the least, as should be when someone decides to major in puppies and unicorns. I'd personally divide it further into puppies, which are at least somewhat useful, and unicorns which are useless, and defund the latter completely. Then again, I'm not God-Emperor of Singapore).

We pay for our schools. We pay for our teachers. We don't pay for school lunches and supplies, though - the needy in those areas are handled by private (or at least, government-linked) charities such as the New Paper Pocket Money Fund. But despite all the government largesse being lavished on the Singaporean education system, it still does a decent job at its job of education the populace, at least where basic functionalities (such as reading, writing and maths) are concerned - things like thinking for, that's another matter. Who needs real dissent and thinking when the purpose of education is to turn you into happy worker for glorious city-state?

Why does this happen?

As we begin to peel back the layers, an interesting phenomenon pops up: if you're a top student in any of the national exams, you're a fucking celebrity for your 15 minutes of fame. A small example:

Damn, I'm SMRT! Drink this and you'll be SMRT like me!

I don't think there's any other country in the world that turns its top students into goddamned national heroes, even if only for a little while. Your name gets into the newspapers, on the telly. You're used to sell health supplements. People talk about you and your fellow ubersmensch for the next two weeks or so after the examination results have been released.

And more importantly, they talk about your schools. And the schools get into the media, too. It used to be more competitive in the past - schools used to be ranked according to the national examination results of their students and this information made available to the public, but I hear it's been scrapped since I left the system seven years ago.

Nevertheless, it's easy to see here that the currency being used in the "market" of Singaporean schools isn't so much money as in dollars and cents, but rather, prestige. Schools supply education to the students, which in turn provide the schools with prestige in accordance with their achievements. Walk by any school in Singapore, and in all likelihood they'll have somewhere on their outer fences/walls a number of banners extolling their achievements in the academic, atheletic or other senses. "Produced top "N"-level student!" "5 sports gold medals this year!" "We did lots of stuff, so put your kid in our school and they will get smart!" If you're lucky, they'll even have a trophy cabinet displayed somewhere prominently with all their trophies up for everyone to see and admire.

There are three general types of schools in Singapore:

1) Normal schools. These are commonly found in neighbourhoods, and typically serve working-class to middle-class children. Fees are almost completely paid for by the government (a secondary education might be $15 per month), and the school is expected to abide by the Ministry of Education's school syllabus and educational policies. Note that when it comes to Singapore, though, spartan school facilities can still be pretty extravagent when compared with other countries - even in a low-status school, one can reasonably expect to find a library, a computer lab, and either a basketball court or football field.

2) Autonomous schools. There is some overlap with the former category ("neighbourhood schools" certainly provide examples of both), but these are generally identified by greater decision-making ability when it comes to things like additional stuff to the curriculum and building new facilities.

3) Independent schools. These are typically high-class schools with (compartively) long histories, all of which are in high demand by the populace when it comes to vacancies. Independent schools are able to set their own school fees (for example, $240 a month for the one I went to) and have some say in what they teach and go about, although they still have to follow the educational syllabus and policies as set out by the Ministry of Education. Such schools are the province of the local elites' children, but can serve as low as the upper edges of the middle class. As such, though, they have plenty of rich alumni willing to throw money their way, which results in

So here we have an odd situation. One would expect that with all the funding in the world, there would be no price signal for Singaporean schools to up their ante when it comes to providing good education (for the government-approved value of "good", anyways). Yet in the absence of mundane price signals thanks to massive government funding for education, another system has sprung up in its stead to regulate it in a manner akin to free-market mechanics. This way, our schools never quite get de-funded, and yet at the same time there's this rabid incentive to one-up all the other competitors and prove themselves the ultimate provider of education.

Interesting, innit?

Factors unique to Singapore

The Education Culture

I've touched upon the national obsession with education in one of my previous posts, so I won't go over it again in detail, save one salient point: we Singaporeans are fucking obsessed with the thing. Part of it's due to traditional Chinese culture in which scholars were venerated as being the top of society, and another part's due to our government pushing the idea on us top-down, especially for the other ethnic groups. Hey, they managed to get us to stop speaking Chinese dialects and effectively stamped most of them out in the middle and upper-middle classes through national campaigns and the schools; what's a little social engineering like this to them if they can do that?

Academic success is the be-all-end-all of one's childhood in Singapore. If you get your ass booted to the Institute of Technical Education, the perception is that you're forever stuck as one of the working classes. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, really, bar a few exceptions, and it's one that fuels the madness.

In addition, this education culture encourages the spread of information about schools, not just in the form of official reports and statistics, but also by word of mouth and anecdote. It's not perfect information, but it sure is a whole damned lot. If a school has a bad reputation (I.E. it cannot offer the students prestige), then one can expect the demand for its services plummet like a stone. During my years in secondary school, there was a case in which several sportsmen beat up a student, took down the whole event on video with their mobile phones (yes, some of those had video capabilities even back then) and the video went out on the internet. They weren't expelled (by virtue of being bloody sportsmen), but when the issue got out to the media, the principal made a very pointed...well, point of warning the student population not to talk to any media representatives about the issue. Essentially, the whole school went into information lockdown on the topic, and when the incident did come out as a half-page article in one of the local tabloids, it didn't mention our school by name (for doing so would have ruined it).

Geographical Happenstances

One important thing to note is that Singapore is a small country. Counting the main islands and all the little islets we lay claim to, we're about 650 square kilometres in size, and it takes about two and a half hours to drive from the east end of the country to the west (or a one a a half hour train ride, take your pick). Parents have been known to move homes for the sole purpose of being within the 1 kilometer radius of a good primary school, which increases their chances of their children being successfully accepted into said school.

This is very important, as it means no one school can have a monopoly on an area by sheer dint of it being the only school around. Students are free to pick and choose from practically any school in the country to attend (this is doubly so for secondary education and up, which has nothing to do with geographical location when it comes to admissions) as they can travel from home to school in a reasonable amount of time. The number of competitors for students is always high, and schools need to be kept at the top of their game.


A small side note to this topic that I feel needs to be gone into. An interesting thing about Singapore is the absolute lack of unions. A bit of history here - during the 1960s, the local unions were a bit of a problem with their pro-communist riots and terrorism, so the government did something which I don't think would work anywhere else: all unions were nationalised by bringing them all under the umbrella of the National Trade Unions Commission (or NTUC) for short.

Now there's only one official union in Singapore, and the NTUC is often seen as a puppet of the government - or at least, known to serve the government's interests, which is in keeping in the theme of what would be lobbyist groups in other countries turned into arms of governmental control in Singapore.

But yes. No teachers' unions leading to teachers needing to pull their own weight. No salary by results leading to artificially inflated grades, or all that bullcrap coming out of the US of A, for example. For better or for worse, teachers aren't a protected class of worker in Singapore, and it leads to less of the "overpaid babysitter" syndrome that Cappy Cap refers to. Despite being regulated and trained by the Ministry of Education, as far as I can tell, teachers are essentially like any other worker when it comes to hiring/pay practices, regardless of their status in society. Maybe that's helped things along, I don't know.

Can this be applied elsewhere?

Sadly, I don't think the Singaporean education market can be applied to a whole lot of other countries, for the geographical reasons, if nothing else. From my understanding, schools are a lot more widely spread apart in other nations than they are here, allowing some of them local monopolies - which breaks the whole of the second point. I'm not sure how willing people are to relocate in other, bigger nations just so their kids can have a good education, but my guess is that it's certainly much less than here in Singapore, considering the opportunity costs involved.

Of course, there are also the other factors I've mentioned, and I'm sure that I've left out a lot of points that someone who isn't a layman could cover in more detail, too. But what I'm getting at is that the Singaporean education system does fall in nicely with what a lot of people are saying about free market education, only the free market here isn't determined by dollars and cents.

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