It’s a strong foundation that counts

This letter is a follow up from my original letter “Standards are unrealistic” and a response to the Ministry of Education’s quotes in Today’s news story “Primary school maths: A vicious circle”. I have sent this to Today Voices editor, hopefully it gets published  and it has been published here.

Dear Voices Editor,

I refer to the story “Primary school maths: A vicious circle” (Today, 8 May). I thank the Today team for following up from my original letter and sharing a range of views on the issues in local education.

After my letter was published, it was shared widely on social media channels and I took some time to read through the numerous responses from other parents. What was disheartening to read was a common thread that our opinions would fall on deaf ears.

The Ministry’s responses ranged from (I paraphrase) “PSLE  mathematics has not gotten more difficult” to “subject syllabi is regularly based on widespread consultation”, driving home the point that Ministry may not have grasped our grievances and is all too quick to dismiss public feedback.

Now, it would be challenging for the layman to dispute the Ministry’s stand that mathematics standards have not changed over the years, given that we are not steeped in pedagogical methods. What we do see clearly is a gradual destabilization of the education system as it shifts responsibility for learning from schools to tuition centres. This opens up a massive divide between those who can afford tuition, and those who can’t.

Such a situation can’t possibly be meritocratic in any sense.

I do not disagree with providing a small proportion of challenging problems to help determine the cream of the crop. I have aced my studies, won a scholarship and taken on numerous challenges with the relentless drive to become the best in my cohort. I know what the MOE is driving at because I am a product of its system (and my mum’s constant nagging).

However, I do remember being drilled with a strong foundation in the basics in primary school. The glaring difference today is that so much emphasis is placed on learning how to answer the “tough” questions, the students end up with shaky basics in arithmetic, grammar or second language.

If you look at the English curriculum, students are encouraged to memorize and use flowery, pretentious sentences simply for the sake of doing so. As an ex-journalist with a decade of professional writing experience, this goes against every principle of concise communication skills. There is no point writing a dozen complex sentences when you can express the same idea with one simple phrase.

A local university professor remarked to me recently that the standards of his students’ communication skills have actually dropped over the years. How did that happen?

As a parent, I can only hope that the MOE is able to accept our honest feedback and be willing to take a good, hard look at the system. I do fear for our children as they get haplessly caught in this vicious circle that has no end in sight.


Ian Tan Yong Hoe

26 Replies to “It’s a strong foundation that counts”

  1. Apart from Mathematics, I echo your view about English writing. I must also point out that it is the same for Chinese composition writing too. Yes, “flowery” is exactly what I had in mind when 2 of my kids in primary explained to me what is expected of them in both English and Chinese compositions. “One bright and sunny afternoon…” gets you no where while “… the scorching sun shining like a fireball in the bright cloudless sky blah blah blah…..” gets good marks. True enough as I refer to a few “model compositions”, they all have this “exaggerating” themes.consistently. Some even spent an entire paragraph describing the day in all sort of poetic terms that makes the day appear so unreal. I was disgusted!

    The world is complex enough and adults are trying to find ways and means to simplify it. MOE on the other hand is trying to get kids to make things unnecessarily complex and superficial.

    1. The funny thing is that when these Pri 6 kids graduate to Sec 1, they will find that such flowery writing gets marked down, leaving behind a whole load of confused kids on what they should be doing to get better marks.

  2. I agree 1000% and I think all the “hot” issues about housing and transport also has the same root problem.. The government is merely reacting and NOT LISTENING. When I was discussing issues about why Singaporeans are unhappy with the government with my 7 year old son, even him with his very little understanding of politics and the world asked me why din the government conduct a meeting and allow Singaporeans to talk to them…so that everyone can be happy…. I pray the govt will quickly get wisdom and wake up tomorrow understanding that all we want as citizens of Singapore is for them to listen with their heart and really care…

    1. It’s about MONEY and PROFITS. Sad to say. Their bonuses and salaries are ‘somehow’ magically tied to the GDP. And yet ministers are highest paid, IN THE WORLD. Currently it is about USD$62,000 per person in Singapore. Is it true? Really, that each and every employed single human being in Singapore is making SGD$6,613 per month??

      To listen to citizens would mean to spend money. Or to lose money. Such as minimum wage, less ERP gantries (why they even have ERP when we LEAVE TOWN, is beyond my understanding – don’t we need to leave town to go home?
      Beyond my understanding, but clearly about $, one would suspect), we would also ask them why would a Riverpark up North would cost $2 Billion and why would Temasek Holdings…. with only about 350 staff…. would rack up $8 Billion in ‘Admin costs’ in 2009. That sum would have enabled Singapore to build more than 2 Marina Bay Sands, without the need to invite huge foreign conglomerates to come in and outbid each other. We would also ask them why are their salaries so exhorbitant while denying basic healthcare coverage to the poor and saying no to minimum wage for the poorest of the poor, how did $8 sugery for Khaw take place when even a Polyclinic visit (one that would have you waiting for 2 hours to meet a doctor behind gloves and a mask, where you are simply patient 0129 and the obstacle between the doctor and her lunch break), we would also ask them why are they spending millions of OUR money on welcome parties for foreigners who become new Citizens without our permission… and why they deny locals scholarships while granting them freely to foreigners, why our MBA classes are 95% foreigners, why so many Medical School positions are open to foreigners instead of locals (probably only 1-2 Singaporeans in a class of 50), and then continue to import a lot of foreign doctors to band-aid over the problem that they created.
      These, and many questions that will never be answered. Because they cannot account.

      The govt is AFRAID of its people. That is why they don’t dare to engage us. And don’t dare to hear us out. Your 7 year old son is aboveboard and has nothing to hide. Of course he would suggest a fair meeting to air things out. How about the SG government? Quite the opposite. The govt has lost its trust that the people had. And they know this. Instead of NURTURING and supporting, they are only concerned with their own pockets, bank accounts and hold of Power that they opened the floodgates to import new, grateful voters. At all costs, secure their positions of power. This govt no longer cares and sadly for the country, it may be past the tipping point.

  3. Dear Ian,
    I share your view and I will glady support any initiatives to further bring across the point to MOE. I am a late bloomer and I am not shy to admit it. I was lucky my dad funded my overseas studies with his CPF funds. It’s in Canada where I bloomed because the lecturers and tutors drilled us on basic concepts and it’s only in year 3 and 4 where application of concepts came in.
    It’s only in my Uni year 1 I learnt how quadratic equation came about and how important this equation is to work on optimisation models in Econs.
    Today, using a Singapore yardstick, I think I am considered to be successful. But I fear for my daughter’s future. This is also the reason why we decided to have only 1 child

  4. Oh just wait till ur 2 kids get to upper primary levels. My daughter has completed primary school education and it was such a great relief when she did so. However the situation in school has just got a whole lot worse for my son who’s in P4. We’ve had to cope with pregnant class teachers who go on medical leave 3 days of the week for 3 terms without being replaced leaving the class behind in their syllabus. It seems that teachers these days are more concerned about advancing their careers rather than do their jobs which is fundamentally to teach. They set the hardest questions just to maintain the so called standards of the schools. Principals too hardly bother about what goes on in schools letting some crazy teachers verbally abuse their students on a daily basis. The Minister of Ed has said before, our children dont need tuition, but with the state the schools are in is he going to eat his words?

  5. wait till you have to drill kids in PSLE problem sums. tat is the ultimate killer. foundations are crucial, it’s like kung fu or boxing. foundations won’t necessary win u a match but it can save u from getting badly bashed up when u get into the ring. we all agree that we need some form elitism, but are we overdoing it?

  6. Thanks for raising this issue and keeping it in the public eye, Ian. I do hope that the discussion will continue and that some change will come about.

    I wasn’t a good product of the education system, I hated school and went straight to polytechnic in the late 90s – at a time when polytechnics didn’t enjoy the ‘higher status’ it does now. Not an opinion I agreed or agree with today, but those of us as students or adults in the 90s would probably notice how differently people view polys today in comparison…anyway, I digress.

    Studying design in poly turned out to be one of the best times in my life. For the first time, I met people like me – kids who couldn’t bother to sit still in academic classes, but loved the challenge of creating, making, being challenged to think outside the box and produce ideas – lots of ideas. I loved it, and I think many of us did. It helped me grow in a way I was never allowed to in secondary or primary school. More importantly, the teachers and system (many of whom were creatives themselves) allowed our creativity to flourish.

    I worry for the kids today and the kids I will have in the future. I worry for their creativity – I have no idea whether schools today are as schools were in the 90s, but what I can see I do not like. I worry that this most vital element will be crushed without the proper environment for it to grow. I always shake my head when I read about ‘teaching creativity’ – you can teach techniques to encourage creativity, but you cannot teach creativity itself, it is a way of mind which only responds to nurturing, encouragement and opportunity.

    1. Hi Alvin

      I only started to mix with poly guys in the army, and what a blast it was versus the homogenous A-level crowd I grew up with. Always street smart, always grounded. They taught me plenty in how to be a better person, and to be less obsessed with “achievements” that nobody really gives a hoot about.

      Am with you on creativity – I was gunning to do Art at O-level, then my school said I was doing too many subjects already. “But I don’t need to study for art!” The reply was that I would end up dragging my score. What they really meant was dragging down the schools’ grades. I never became the graphic designer I grew up wanting to be, but I ended up in the Xbox business instead. Life is strange that way 🙂

  7. the fact that teachers admit that tuition these days is a necessity says everything abt our system these days..

    if you can recall, TNP a few weeks back reported stories about tuition supplementing the kid’s schoolwork and kiasu parents getting a second tuition centre to supplement the first tuition… and also hiring tutors to do homework for the kids because they cant cope… its so ridiculous and its crystal clear that something is really very wrong.

    lets be honest abt it: if you need tuition to supplement school work, the school teacher is clearly not doing their jobs… not the other way round…

    1. I personally do not like tuition and do not recommend it. When parents ask, I always give the advice that it depends on the child. Some do need an adult to sit down next to her to guide and explain in detail. If the child takes on the responsibility to seek her teachers to clarify her doubts, then I do not see a need for tuition which only places undue financial burden on her parents. The child may not even understand let alone empathize with her parents.

  8. Yes I do agree that the schools are shifting its responsiblities to parents who then are forced to enagage private tutors for their children. Years ago when my daughter was in Junior College, her teacher called me and warned that my daugther did badly in 2 of her subjects and that if she done barkup she will not be able to get into university. The teacher knows jolly well that my daughter is already a teenager, at a rebellous age and there is not much I can do in terms of helping her improve her grades so why inform me about it. It them daunt in me that they want me to get a a private tutor. I later found out that for the 2 subjects most of my daugther’s class mates did badly and she was amongst the better ones.

    1. I cannot speak for the teacher who called you. Perhaps her intention is what you have claimed. Perhaps she genuinely wishes to keep you informed of your child’s performance and hope that the parents can monitor and support the child at home. I believe it is reasonable to hope that the child’s parents are able to communicate well with their child. The teacher herself probably has more than a few of such kids to handle. Also do note that there are parents who will turn around and accuse teachers of not doing their part to keep parents informed about their children’s progress in school. It is indeed a thankless task – getting flak for keeping parents updated or not doing so.

      1. I make it a point not to email my kids’ teachers unless it’s really really critical, but there are teachers who respond so sourly to email enquiries that you know they’re really unhappy in their job. Teachers have a thankless job, yes, and I do feel for them (hence you see my letters have never targeted teachers, but MOE policies). But I also say that if you don’t like the occupation, take time and effort to explore other options rather than doing a half-baked thankless job.

        Still, there are many people who no longer feel passionate for teaching, but remain in it because they don’t make the effort to change their own status quo. The ones who bear the price of this inertia are their students.

  9. MOE should seriously look into this issue and not sweep it under the carpet. I know of schools who set really tough Mathematics papers, perhaps to show the world that their papers are of a certain standard. This is done at the expense of those weaker kids who struggle with the subject. The following three questions are three of the “killer questions” set by a so called top primary school in the west. They were set in a Primary 2 Maths Mini Test (Diagnostic) this year. Pupils were given 1 hour 15 minutes to complete 37 questions comprising 16 Multiple-choice questions, 16 short questions, some of which aren’t really short, and 5 word problems.

    The first question is a 2 mark question where as the second question is a 3-mark word problem question and the third a 4-mark word problem question.

    Some passengers were in a bus when it left the bus interchange. At the first bus stop, 5 passengers got down from the bus and 7 passengers got up the bus. At the second bus stop, 10 passengers got down from the bus. There were 12 passengers in the bus then. How many passengers were there in the bus when it left the bus interchange?

    David has three pieces of ropes of lengths 9m, 7m and 5m. What is the minimum number of cuts he needs in order to get a rope of 3m without using any measuring instrument like a measuring tape or a ruler? Show each step clearly.

    Caili and Aini started playing a computer game with the same number of points. In Round 1, Caili gained 10 points and Aini lost 20 points. In Round 2, Caili gained 70 points and Aini also gained some points. After Round 2, both girls had 130 points each. How many points did Aini gain in Round 2?

  10. Hello Friends………

    Great information.Thanks for sharing this useful information with all of us.Keep sharing more in the future.

    Have a nice time ahead.


    school erp</a

  11. I think it’s a very accurate reflection of Singapore…you don’t need substance (despite what many want to think), all you need is to project the IMPRESSION that you have substance. Your letter is a microcosm of what Singapore is truly like these days. Sad, awful, but true.

  12. The fact is children are not supposed to educated the way “NORM” are pushing.
    I know at school and at home in Singapore, they are told to “be competitive”, “get better marks”, “work longer hours”, “do many things as much as possible” and they are hit with CANE if they do not obey the ORDER!

    This is ALL DECREASING and DESTROYING the ability to THINK and LEARN for FUN.
    STUDY is a life long tool to improve own skill and should not be FORCED.
    Our study never end until we die.

    All children born with special skills and abilities but they NEED own different time to UNDERSTAND and EXPRESS OWN IDEA especially at the beginning of their life.
    All parents, educators and society are suppose to give them a TIME until they DISCOVER OWN THEORY and LOGIC.

    PATIENT and OBSERVE is the KEY for the best brain development for human.
    If human cannot obtain such a skill by 12 years old, they are only able to FOLLOW the ORDER and NOT able to THINK and cannot make a DECISION by themselves.

    Proper brain development only works when children are given COMFORTABLE and SAFE environment and allow to explore and learn with/from NATURE.
    NATURE teach the most important things for HUMAN.

    If you watch nature, we are able to see nothing can be rushed.
    NATURE heal the Human since Human cannot live without NATURE.
    NO water, soil, air, sun, tree, insects, animals and etc., will kill human life but current education do not teach the importance of this relationship.

    Elite based education is collapsing and end result is collapsing as well.
    Just recently many banking employees started talk about how banking industries are stealing people’s money, ID and wealth.
    And here is what really happening in Singapore which local Media would not publish…

    You really have to ask what is the purpose of human life…

    If anyone has willingness to learn, there are many free materials available all over the world.
    Example: 450 FREE Online courses from TOP UNIVERSITIES

    Learning is not matter of how much money you have or get marks in school.
    Happiness is also not how much money you have but how to enjoy own life with own skills.

    “NORM” group of people just FEAR to accept those FACTS.
    But I am sure they all know from bottom of their heart that it is something wrong with their life since they just cannot satisfy or feel emptiness in their heart even they become so rich and correct all the junk around them to satisfy them.
    Materialistic life will never satisfy human.

    Living with HARMONY with others and nature with RESPECT, WORK HARD, SHARE, COMPASSION and LOVE do satisfy human.

    I just hope adults stop DESTROYING the children’s ability.
    All of humans are born with talent.
    No one should be labelled or categorized based on the system which were made by CORPORATION and GOVERNMENT and told that is the “NORM”.
    And they are truly nothing to do with our talent….

  13. I researched what Singapore government has been doing and I found below:

    Sir Ken Robinson was adviser to the Singapore Government for its strategy to become the creative hub of South East Asia.
    And here he talks about education and creativity.
    —> It is completely opposite what Singapore doing to children….???

    Also Chris Thompson was worked for a number of academic/government boards and advisory committees including the Singapore Media Development Authority, Nanyang Poly (SG), Temasek Poly (SG) and the Institute of Technical Education (SG).
    And he now made GREEN SCHOOL in BALI which encourage children to interact nature more so children can learn to make sustainable future and planet.
    —-> Mr.Thompson left Singapore and moved whole family to Bali. His children are studying at this school …???

    Government had great advisors from all around the world but I feel they are somehow not really listening and more likely ignoring.
    Homeshoolers are also given hard time and there is no one Free school in Singapore.

    Here is good example of REAL Free school graduate from Summerhill England and he was not pushed to taught read and write…

    I truly feel the trust and patient of adult made him into a professor and a person who are willing to do more community based work now.
    I wonder how many Singapore children will become like him and willing to do community work and use his skill or think about sustainability of this planet.

    1. Instead of a free school, I would think a waldorf grade school is more suited to the concept of freedom(let the child be the child) and learning stages(hands heart head). Still researching 🙂

  14. I am a former secondary school teacher.

    I was a Physics major when I was in university. When I was teaching in secondary schools, I taught a gamut of subjects – Chemistry, Physics, History, Geography, Social Studies, Literature and English Language.

    Some people might think, ‘What is a Science/Physics person teaching so many other subjects?’ I wondered the same myself too. However, I took my job really seriously. Whatever I had to teach, I would read up and consult the HODs and senior teachers, to ensure that I did not teach the wrong things. I ended up in the last 3 years of my teaching career as an English Language teacher, teaching graduating classes.

    I must agree that students’ communication abilities are spiralling downwards. The one thing that I felt I needed to do when I took over any English class was the amount of unlearning I had to go through with my students. Usually, I had to take at least one semester to knock the things they learned at the lower levels before I could teach them who to read for understanding and write to communicate. It was always an uphill battle. Yet in the end, my students always did well – much better than expected.

    Here are some things I feel that a lot of people are unaware:
    1. Many teachers are not familiar with the syllabus – they do not read the syllabus documents and examiners’ reports.
    2. Many teachers are still stuck with the old syllabus – even though the new syllabus is to be implemented, a lot are still teaching according the syllabus prior to the current syllabus.
    3. Some teachers are not good speakers, readers and writers themselves.
    4. Most teachers have poor understanding of language pedagogy and assessment – I’ve seen a lot of attempts to set new syllabus English exam papers but most, if not all, had missed the point.

    There are a lot more things I can go on about, but I have made enough ‘noise’. No one is listening… At least no who is in position to do something is willing to listen…

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