Singapore Education System: What We May Learn From It

The other day I asked Dr. Ricardo Ma. Nolasco, professor and head of the Linguistics Department of the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City, what he thinks about how the MLE issue is handled within the Singapore education system and here’s his response:

(Click here to enlarge the chart below.)

“The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that there is a substantial number of the Singaporean population that speaks English as a first language, a situation that is not present in the Philippines. This is a very crucial element in the equation that must be taken into account. If you have a fourth or a fifth of the class speaking English, the potential for learning English as a second language for the rest of the class is multiplied several times. A second factor is the type of multilingualism in Singapore in which there is a homegrown language that has come into contact with immigrant languages (Indians, British nationals). The motivation to have a common language, a lingua franca, whether homegrown or foreign, appears powerful. It looks to me that the Singapore education model matches well with the demographics of its population.”
While it’s true that there’s a substantial segment of the population of Singapore that speaks English as a first language, we in the Philippines have spawned a generation for whom code-switching (English, Filipino, and the mother tongue, etc.) is common in every walk of life on account of a bilingual education program using English and Filipino as the MOIs, as well as more than half a century of using English as the MOI. A sizable number of parents start teaching their children English at home. Ironically, that was one of the early problems encountered by the MLE advocacy in its plan to use the L1 as MOI from pre-school to Grade 3: parents who would like their children taught using nothing but English as the MOI the moment they start school.
I was of course trying to get some consensus if there’s any in our neighbor’s education system that’s worth a closer look, something that perhaps fits within the purview of the constitution and other laws, orders, etc.,  regarding our national languages and our many regional languages. Of course, it helps to know what Singapore has to enable us to come up with an intelligent evaluation. An excellent amount of information about Singapore’s education program exists in the following websites: Ministry of Education (MOE)-Singapore and Singapore Education-Singapore Government. Here’s what I found:


Singapore has 3 years of pre-school: nursery, kindergarten 1 and kindergarten 2. “Nurturing Early Learners: A Framework For A Kindergarten Curriculum in Singapore” details a comprehensive pre-school curricular formula which former Deputy Education Minister Abraham I. Felipe describes in “Length of Education Cycle and the ‘Quality’ of Education” as potentially a significant difference-maker that helps propel Singapore students to perform at the top of the heap in TIMSS previous tests.  It is interesting to note that one of the 8 desired outcomes of pre-school education is the child’s ability “to listen and speak with understanding” which fosters in the child the disposition and skill “to communicate effectively in English and a mother tongue language” (emphasis supplied).

Primary Education

Singapore’s Primary Education consists of a compulsary 4-year foundation stage from Primary 1 to 4 plus a 2-year orientation stage from Primary 5 to 6. The overall aim of primary education is to give students a good grasp of English language, Mother Tongue and Mathematics. In “Primary School Education: Preparing Your Child For Tomorrow“, Singapore aims to develop the child’s language skills in both English and his mother tongue. This Ministry of Education document demands: “Your child will learn English as a first language in primary school. English is the lingua franca of international business, science and technology. The ability to write and speak English well therefore remains an essential skill to cultivate in our young. Your child will learn his Mother Tongue Language (Chinese Language, Malay Language or Tamil Language) as a second language… enabling them to connect and tap into opportunities in the global environment.”

Secondary Education

Secondary Education in Singapore places students in the Special, Express, Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) course according to how they perform at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). In addition to these traditional routes and also depending on the student’s performance on the PSLE,he has other options such as the (a) Integrated Program that combines Secondary and JC education [4 to 6 years], (b) Specialized Program to develop the student’s talents in specific areas [4 to 6 years], (c) Privately-funded School programs that determine their own curriculum and provide more options for Singapore students [4 to 6 years], or the (d) Special Education School programs that provide EITHER mainstream curriculum with programs catering to the student’s special needs OR customized special education curriculum [4 to 6 years]. The different curricular emphases are designed to match students’ learning abilities and interests. The traditional secondary education could either be 4 or 5 years. Whether a student is in the Normal Course Curriculum, Special/Express Courses Curriculum, or other programs in secondary school, he is served, in addition to knowledge skills and skills, a trifold menu of (a)the humanities and the arts, (b) mathematics and sciences, and (c) languages which include English, the mother tongue and, optionally a third language (L3). MOE’s “Secondary School Education” indicates that the courses — whether it be the (a) Express Course [4 years], (b) Normal (Academic) Course [5 years], (c) Normal (Technical) Course [4 years], or (d) Vocational Course [1 to 4 years] — include English and the Mother Tongue as language subjects.


Depending on his performance on the GCE level examinations, the traditional secondary school graduate progresses to the one of a few post-secondary options: (a) the 2-year junior college or 3-year centralized institute pre-university course leading to the GCE ‘A’ Level examination, (b) the 3-year polytechnics, or (c) the 1- or 2-year Institute of Technical Education. Per the post-secondary brochure, “Follow the Signs, Stretch Your Potential“, the 2-year junior college or 3-year centralized institute options mention Languages (mother tongue languages and some 3rd language electives) as one of the troika of curricular requirements (the others being math and sciences and the humanities and the arts). Depending on post-secondary assessment examinations, the Post-Secondary graduate may elect to continue to the 3- or 4-year undergraduate university level or join the workforce.
Yes, English is the MOI in Singapore as it once was the MOI in the Philippines as started by the “Thomasites” (more than 1,000 American teachers, who came on the S.S. Thomas, and fanned out across the archipelago to open barangay schools.) between 1901 and 1902 and became the entrenched MOI until the bilingual program (Filipino & English as MOI) which started in 1974. However, the study of the student’s mother tongue as a subject starts in pre-school and continues all the way to junior college. That has to leave a lasting imprint of one’s mother tongue, its literature and culture to keep one more or less firmly connected with his own roots. Well, what do you think about emulating this in the Philippine setting to help preserve at least our salvageable regional languages?

4 thoughts on “Singapore Education System: What We May Learn From It

  1. Pingback: NZ education system impresses DepEd execs « Multilingual Philippines

  2. Pingback: World Data on Education Seventh edition 2010/11 | Multilingual Philippines

  3. Pingback: World Data on Education Seventh edition 2010/11 » MULTILINGUAL PHILIPPINES

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