Copying Singapore’s education: are Americans foolish too?

Singapore Educational Consultants FactoryI have written a few posts warning my friends and readers in the countries around Singapore, like Indonesia and Thailand, not to blindly ape Singapore’s much vaunted education system. I have warned about looking at Singapore with rose-tinted glasses. I have argued that Singapore does not have an education system. What Singapore possess is a huge test prep system. Everything that is done in the test prep centers (they call them “schools” in Singapore) is geared towards preparing students to pass those high stakes examinations. I have also written about how foreign observers are eager to praise and copy the Singapore system. Even Barack Obama has mentioned how “well” Singapore’s “education” system is during his campaign trail.

Some readers may argue that there are schools that are skipping traditional examinations like the GCE O levels but they forget these are only for the elite top schools in Singapore. Why is this not the norm in Singapore? I have argued passionately that the examinations system is out of date and is one factor for the disconnect that affects many teenagers in schools in Singapore.

Yet, the Singapore system is being imitated by schools in the Southeast Asian region in countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, and even as far away as China. Today, we see this trend being followed eagerly by Obama‘s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. To quote Gerald Bracey:

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants a longer school day, a longer school week, and a longer school year and national subject standards, which will inevitably lead to one national test. Duncan wants to institute merit pay, which is a euphemism for paying teachers to produce higher test scores. Such merit pay, combined with national academic standards and one national test, will inevitably continue to transform our public schools into test prep factories. Thus, more and more of the same old industrialist factory model of education. All we need to do to improve schools, says Duncan, is intensify the command-and-control model of education.

Do all these sound familiar to Singaporeans out there? Is it a surprise that Arne Duncan wants something akin to what Singapore has now? TIMSS has caused American bureaucrats and politicians to panic. They fear that the dragons of the East will leave America in the dust with the dragons’ consistent high rankings in TIMSS. But they forget that it is precisely America’s lack of centralized control that has allowed it to produce the world’s most creative talents in all fields that has powered America’s ascendancy in the world today.

Yet, even in Singapore, the Ministry of Education (MOE) is trying, probably reluctantly, to move away from the traditional examinations mode because it recognizes at least officially, that there is a need to change the schooling experience to reflect the 21st century needs. But the change is only for the elite schools. But as Bracey puts it:

“Shouldn’t every child have an education like the President’s daughters?”

Bracey was of course commenting on Arne Duncan’s reforms. He was highlighting a clear contradiction between what the Obama Administration intends for education for the rest of America, and what the President’s daughter receives. In Singapore, what the “elite” receives, is different from that of the lesser mortals too. The elite in Singapore, like Obama’s daughters, will get schools that are not factory-like in nature, boasting of enlightened approaches to education. The rest of America, like the rest of Singapore, will get the rags and the factory assembly line which is indicative of where the powers-that-be think such students should be heading for.

“The working, the working, just the working life.”

- “Factory” by Bruce Springsteen


  1. Any suggestion where the Singapore education be geared towards to?

    Let’s say we break the whole system down into pieces all over again, where then do we start to create Brilliant Minds.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Fadzuli. Just read my blog posts. You will find my ideas (not necessarily original) all over :)

  3. Hi Amran,

    As usual you are slaughtering the Singapore education system :)

    Anyway, sine I have not experienced it, I shall keep my words shut.

    But, in terms of role-model education or schools systems, what do you think of Finland (where teachers are required to have a Masters), or Korea (where you got to be within top 5% graduates to teach)?

    I really enjoy your posts, but it would be wonderful if perhaps we could forget Singapore for a couple of posts, and then explore some of the best role-models we have in the world :)

    Personally, I would love to read how Singapore could improve, and how other nations have successfully revamped the school system to fit today and tomorrow’s learning needs and requirements.

    Thanks again for all your ideas and efforts :)

    Warm Regards,


  4. Thanks, Zaid. I appreciate the feedback. Lucky you that you didn’t experience the Singapore model. Yes, I have been “slaughtering” the Singapore system as I am very concerned about the transfer of that system to Singapore’s neighbors. The Singapore-brand is used more as a marketing gimmick then anything else. I am just raising awareness that a “cut-and-paste” approach, which some Singapore consultants have done, is detrimental. Sometimes some of these countries are trading their magic lamps for shiny, useless ones.
    I like the Finnish system. It is a lot more humane and teachers are not pressured to prepare students to pass high stakes written examinations. I will take up what you say and write about it. I have mentioned in my blogs about what I think the direction should be.
    I do not pay too much attention to teachers’ qualifications. What is more important is the attitude and skills that the teacher brings into the classroom. While all things being equal, perhaps a higher qualification is better, I have seen too many mercenaries and teachers with Masters degrees who can’t teach. So educational qualifications isn’t high on my list of concerns.
    Thanks again, Zaid. Really appreciate the feedback :)

    PS. I would love to talk about educational technology too but I find that if the goals are not clear, educational technology is not going to lead to any significant changes. But I may come back to it some time :)

  5. Come to think of it, I have made a small comparison between Singapore and Finland. See

  6. “The elite in Singapore, like Obama‚Äôs daughters, will get schools that are not factory-like in nature, boasting of enlightened approaches to education. The rest of America, like the rest of Singapore, will get the rags and the factory assembly line which is indicative of where the powers-that-be think such students should be heading for.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I feel indignant about this and yet the so-called promises of meritocracy will be hurled back at you like some sort of catch-all rebuttal. Is there hope in Singapore of change? Moving away from high stakes exams? Focusing on the student instead of the teacher? If teacher themselves have never experienced student-centered teaching, they will be hard-pressed to be student-centered themselves.

  7. Thanks, Sherrie, for the comments. I have for quite some time felt that the schooling system in Singapore only help to entrench the ones who are already successful. It is a system that perpetuates its own kind.

    I also agree with you that teachers who have themselves never experienced student-centered teaching and learning, will be hard pressed to change their teaching approaches. Teachers tend to teach the way they were taught unfortunately. They just cannot visualize a different way of teaching and learning since they themselves are generally the more successful product of a particular way of learning.

    Is there hope for the Singapore system? I think the more important issue is can we continue the way we do things in schools, especially that silly emphasis on high stakes, written examinations?

    Thanks again for your comments.

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