Primary School

The Education Minister said so and the Prime Minister agreed with him as he advised parents not to regard the PSLE as “the be-all and end-all”. What do parents and students think?  I had a chance to find out when my wife and I attended our son’s primary six graduation day at Tao Nan School last week. Beyond the exchange of greetings, I could notice the expressions of anxiety on the faces of parents and students when the conversation shifted to choice of secondary schools for the children. The popular names were heard but sadly they could be counted on the fingers of one hand. It was not the case during my time in the sixties.

I recall that mentioned in the same breath as RI and RGS, were schools like (in alphabetical order) ACS, Anglican, Catholic High, Chinese High (now Hwa Chong), Chung Cheng, Dunman, Katong Convent, Methodist Girls’, Monfort, Nanyang Girls’, River Valley, St Andrew’s, SJI, St Patrick’s, Singapore Chinese Girls’ and Victoria. There were a lot of good schools to choose from. Choice of school was usually dictated by closeness to one’s home (many of us were poor and could not even afford bus fares), so we went to neighbourhood schools which got their fair share of good students. Those who lived in or near Hougang/Serangoon went to Monfort or St Andrew’s, Kallang to Victoria and so forth. RI was a brisk 5-minute walk from my house and I ended up there.

But Rafflesians did not take their pre-eminent position for granted; we fought hard to uphold it. There were serious and formidable challengers every year and in every field, academic and non-academic. Many of us erstwhile school rivals won government scholarships to study at overseas universities, some even together in the same universities and became life-long friends. So it did not matter which school we came from as differences were nuanced and not great. Today, one or two schools are streets ahead of the others, most of whom ( including those mentioned in the above list) are now in the second tier and some even in third tier. This is a shame as it does not do justice to their rich history and the many illustrious alumni they had produced. The widening gap between the top and other schools mirrors the increasing income disparity in Singapore. When wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, it reflects an unequal society that is harmful to its long term development. Similarly when talent is retained in just one or two top schools rather than spread among many schools, the development of our young becomes lop-sided and works against a balanced and holistic development of society.

Is every school a good school?  It should be but it is not. This statement is not to demean the enormous hard work put in by school principals and teachers to help their students but is an indictment against the education system made bad by wrong policies. Much needs to be done policy-wise before every school becomes a good school.  The first step for the education minister to take is not to pretend that every school is a good school.  He will then re-discover what his school teachers used to tell him and what teachers everywhere tell their pupils, that honesty is the best policy.


Tan Jee Say

* Jee Say was a Presidential candidate in the 2011 Presidential Election. The article first appeared on his facebook: