Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Tuition Obsession: A Singaporean Dysfunction

Singapore is in some ways, a deeply dysfunctional society. You know so when you read mind-blowing headlines like this:

Parent pays nearly $6,000 a month in tuition fees

Maureen Koh | The New Paper | Tue Mar 6 2012

Her son is a straight A student in a top boys' school here yet this mother spends $5,800 a month on his tuition.

Her son, who is in Secondary 3, attends classes for English and mathematics at a premier tuition centre in Thomson once a week - two hours per session.

He also takes a 2 1/2-hour weekly Chinese class in a popular language school.

And he gets one-on-one tuition - each for about two hours - for physics, chemistry and biology with a private tutor.

All these classes are on top of the regular supplementary lessons that his school gives.

...To top it off, she pays people to do her son's homework when he can't cope with the combination of school and tuition assignments.

She pays $200 per hour if they have to swing by before midnight and $250 an hour when its later.

The article goes on to describe other parents who spend enormous sums on tuition for their children. A certain Mrs Pauline Soh, spends $4,000 a month on her daughters who are in Primary 4 and Secondary 2. Meanwhile, Mr Franck Chan, spends $2,000 each on his twin sons who are in Primary 6.

It gets more insane. A certain Madam Cathy Ho, spends about $1,200 a month each on her children who are 5 and 6 years old respectively. The reason for spending so much money even before they have entered primary school? According to Madam Ho herself, "When my children make it to a better school and do well, I'll be the one having the last, and best, laugh."

Many children nowadays now work harder than investment bankers or corporate lawyers. They wake up early in the morning at 6.30am to get to school and go to bed around midnight. In addition to their normal school workload, they are sent to 'elite' tuition centers where they receive tuition in every conceivable subject matter. And then after tuition they slog away at piles and piles of homework, which they often don't even have enough time to finish.

Something has gone seriously wrong with Singaporean society. Singaporean parents now look to the academic success of their children as status symbols. The education process is no longer about identifying the talents of children and helping them achieve their potential; it is now an exercise in getting them to acquire as many A's as possible and getting them into branded institutions.

Status anxiety used to be about getting that mercedes benz or that bigger bungalow or that flashier rolex or that hermes handbag. But now it's about which school your kids are going to and how many A's they got in school - and parents will gladly pay nosebleed sums of money and deprive their children of their childhood in order to satiate their pride. Indeed, a multi-million (billion?) dollar tuition industry has been built to help compensate for Singaporean parents' insecurities.

Unfortunately, what these parents do not realise is that getting straight A's does not necessarily correlate with "success" in life. No less than Tharman Shanmugaratnam himself admitted that Singapore is an "exam meritocracy" rather than a "talent meritocracy". While Singaporean students tend to come out tops in terms of academic tests, they significantly underperform when it comes to skills like creativity and innovation, things that are critical to succeed in modern society. The truth of the matter is, in the workplace, nobody gives a damn how many A's you scored in school or which university you went to. The moment i finished my interview, my managers completely forgot which school i went to - all they cared about was the skills and experience i had as it was relevant to my performance on the job.

Nor does getting straight A's deliver that social recognition and peer respect that these parents crave so much. Who really cares about which school your child goes to and how many A's he's scoring anyway? If there are indeed other parents who envy your child's academic "success", that only reflects their own insecurities. And if you're childish enough to want others to envy you so that you can "get the last laugh", well guess what, I bet I can find 100's of other students who did as well or better than your kid or who are going to more "prestigious" schools. When will this rat race ever end?

For goodness sake, Singapore, let's put an end to this madness. Let's love our children for who they are rather than turning them into A-grade machines. Let education be about trying to identify our childrens' unique talents and helping them be the best that they can be. This way, I'm sure we'll have much happier families and our children will grow up to live much more fulfilling lives.


Anonymous said...

Their children may be talented and more tuition won't make them elites if they were born without the right genes. Don't believe? Check out the albino.

Amused said...

A child needs space and time to experiment, discover and grow. All the emphasis in academic grades in Singapore is killing creativity and curiosity. A major part of the problem is the MOE. Until MOE changes the educational system to focus on individuality, parents will continue to push their children to collect as many A's as the system demands. If Singapore is going to lead the region economically, it needs to revamp its education system to produce innovators and leaders, not followers.

The Void Deck said...

Booming tuition industry on the other hand because of this mentality to keep up with the Joneses, Angs and Ahmads. That said, cram schools also common in East Asian societies.

Anonymous said...

i am inclined to believe our so called PM needs space and time to experiment, discover and the expense of everyone on this tiny island...courtesy of one so called mentor.

Anonymous said...

Ironically, I give part time tuition to support myself in my post graduate studies. But I don't support the need to give tuition to A* students. Instead, help should be given to those who really need it. More importantly, education is not about getting good grades, but on the other learning something new and appreciating what they have learnt.

Eddy Blaxell said...

Thanks for writing this; the parents in that article need to be roundly condemned for what they're doing to their children's lives.

Having said that, there's a bigger problem here, and that's the society that's led them to think this is a good idea. The society that sorts people by grades and little else - grades open doors into high school, JC, uni and the top jobs. More grades equate pretty directly to more money. And money is all that anyone seems to want.

Whichever way you look at it it's a pretty awful situation.

spritzeer said...

I have had the similar experience of having copious amounts of tuition even before primary school. They were mostly for subjects that I was really bad at, such as maths, or science, and my parents never ever sent me for tuition in english or the arts related subjects.
I am thankful that they did so, because my grades, which were frequently F became As for my o levels. I promptly dropped all maths/science related studies in junior college though.
But if I did not get tuition for them, I wouldn't have entered JC.

Of course, blanket tuition(ing) in every subject may be a complete waste of time and destroy a childhood. However, tuition can be really useful and should not be condemned categorically.

And I wouldn't say that I have lost all creativity and whatever not. I am currently a lawyer, but in my spare time, I sculpt and paint, and have a great interest in the arts. I also know many other academically inclined people like me who have great interest in the arts.

The MOE's education system shouldn't be bashed, its the parents whom are unable to cultivate interests in their child who are the problem. You cannot expect schools to provide every aspect of a child's education.

Anonymous said...

Great Post!!

Y.Y. said...

I disagree, Eddy.

"The society that sorts people by grades and little else - grades open doors into high school, JC, uni and the top jobs. More grades equate pretty directly to more money."

Landing the top job does not seem to stem directly from having good grades. While it may be just me, but I am hard pressed to effortlessly name more than a handful of highly successful individuals that scored extremely well in school, yet I can easily name individuals who have made it big without having graduated from university.

From experience, more grades do not equate to more money. I know enough, even within my limited scope, that I have peers who draw a significantly higher salary than those with far better grades. Outside of our beloved civil service, nobody really gives a damn whether you met the bare minimum to get a general degree, or made the dean's list.

Ultimately, as Amused so aptly stated, "A major part of the problem is the MOE." If the Primary 1 syllabus is designed to let a child start from scratch, there will be absolutely no meaning to having gone to a fancy pre-school. It is because our Primary school syllabus requires prior acaddemic knowledge to excel that parents are spending even before the child starts school.

Cherlek said...

Ironically or not surprisingly, all the ads in this article are about Tuition:

Home Tuition TEL 63125180 Interviewed by Straits Times ! Rank No 1 home tuition agency Singapore
Tried and Tested Tuition 19th year Primary, Secondary A Level Tuition
Singapore Great Tutors MOE teachers, FT tutors for Maths Science, English Tuition

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing.

Although I run one of Singapore's online tuition agencies, I always tell parents that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So instead of paying for multiple tutors, work on the motivation of the child.