singapore education

By Charleen Chiong, Oxford University

Singapore’s education system attracts great interest from educationalists all over the world. Despite being a relatively small, young country with few natural resources, Singapore – also popularly called the ‘Lion City’ by its politicians and people – has consistently remained amongst the top performers since it joined the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)[1] tests in 2009. The Singapore system has, however, faced public criticism that academic drills and rote-learning are the key elements responsible for its success. As criticality and creativity are increasingly seen as crucial for the 21st-century workplace, how are Singapore’s policymakers preparing students to succeed in changing conditions?

Defining 21st-Century Competencies

Since 2010, the Singapore government has launched a drive to build ‘21st-century competencies’. The ‘21st-century competencies’ are conceptualized by Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) as a diagram with concentric layers:

  • At the center are ‘Core Values’: respect, responsibility, care, integrity, resilience and harmony. These values form the basis for the ‘Social and Emotional Competencies’ the government wishes students to cultivate (the pink layer).
  • These underpin the ‘Emerging 21st-Century Competencies’ (orange layer).
  • Four descriptions are penned along the outside of the rings, illustrating the desired outcome of students in Singapore.


There is no separate subject for ‘21st-Century Competencies’; rather, these competencies are intended to permeate students’ experience of schooling.

The Problem with ‘Complementary’ Programs

The Singapore government has made clear its intention to ‘infuse’ these 21st-century competencies into the core curriculum. The MOE website describes how, for instance, emphasizing an ‘inquiry-led approach’ in science encourages students to conduct their own investigations, reason and make their own decisions based on evidence. In social studies, students are required to engage with multiple viewpoints, critically examine the evidence and make independent decisions.

Additionally, the government aims to implement two programs to develop 21st-century competencies in all secondary schools by 2017: the Applied Learning Programme (ALP) and the Learning for Life Programme (LLP), which will be designed as ‘complementary’ to the existing curriculum. The ALP connects academic knowledge with real-life problem-solving in corporate and industry settings. Through a mixture of additions to the academic curriculum and extracurricular activities such as excursions and community service, students will be exposed to practical applications of the subjects they study in classrooms. These applications range from fields, such as business and entrepreneurship, to engineering and robotics, journalism and broadcasting and literary arts.

In the LLP, students are taught to cultivate character virtues and people skills such as collaboration and leadership. The LLP finds its vessels in Character and Citizenship Education classes, as well as in extra-curricular activities such as outdoor sports, student leadership development programs and uniformed group activities.

The language of ‘complementarity’, however, can be potentially misleading, as it masks the additive properties of these changes to the curriculum. It may be theoretically plausible to argue that new programs and existing classroom learning should possess a relationship so deeply complementary that it stirs students to perceive the relevance of their learning and consequently become motivated to excel in it. This, of course, is the laudable intention of the government. On a practical level, however, pursuing these new policy initiatives will create an added burden on students, families and teachers – if nothing is simultaneously subtracted from an already saturated curriculum. Thus far, the Singapore government has yet to explain how they will subtract curricular elements to make room for the implementation of these initiatives.

What’s Measured, What’s Done

The monster behind the over-burdened curriculum is Singapore’s assessment practices. Choosing new strategies to measure oneself against has a great psychosocial effect on society, because measurement has become public policy’s contemporary tool for identity-making (albeit a rather clinical and contested one).

The Singapore government has capitalized on this to launch the ‘Holistic Development Profile’ for each Primary student. This Profile presents to parents a richer picture of the child’s progress over the year by providing feedback on both academic and non-academic areas. Thus, students are given report cards with not only their grades in math, English and science classes, but also grades for the demonstration of integrity, discipline and being a ‘concerned citizen’ in the community.

But even more crucial to the mission of changing the mentalities of parents and children is the government’s current efforts to tweak the high-stakes assessment criteria at the interface between primary and secondary school. At present, the assessment criterion for entering Secondary Schools in Singapore rests almost fully on a number, reflecting the student’s academic score on the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE). The present system distinguishes between students of up to a 1-point difference in terms of Secondary School admissions – a distinction that is “meaningless, too fine to make”, the Singapore Prime Minister contended. The Prime Minister noted that the government would work to gradually replace these scores with broader assessment bands of A*, A (and so on), similar to the GCE ‘O’ and ‘N’ Levels, to reduce pressure on students and families.

Alongside this category of admissions is Direct School Admissions, which admits students who excel in fields of sports, technology and art to top schools. This category is being progressively broadened to include students demonstrating excellent character, resilience and leadership.

Education Policy for the Future

While still a work-in-progress, the commitment of the Singapore government to build 21st-century competencies in their students is commendable. The government’s main challenge at present is to disturb the centrality, or at the very least, the nature, of the assessment criteria in the Singapore education system. At present, assessment practices (particularly the PSLE) may not only problematize, but ultimately oppose, the drive to make students creative and critical thinkers. Furthermore, it is important for the government to consider reducing curricular content so that programs can be truly ‘complementary’ with the existing system. Otherwise, the government’s efforts may only serve to multiply the already weighty burden on teachers, families and students in Singapore.

If top-down system reform is to be sustained, cooperation is required from families, teachers and students to play their part in the development of 21st-century skills. Paradoxically, introducing initiatives to develop 21st-century competencies may prove a regressive step if these initiatives are added without due consideration for hard-pressed teachers, students and parents.

To change the ways of a lion is difficult, particularly that of a lion that has tasted success. But, even the King of the Jungle must grasp its own finiteness if it is to conquer new territory.

Charleen is a recent graduate in Comparative and International Education from Oxford University. She aspires to research the acquisition of 21st-century skills for children of disadvantaged backgrounds as her PhD topic, starting this October.

[1] A triennial international assessment for 15-year-olds in reading, math and science, led by the Paris-based Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

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