What Next for the Malay Community and Education?

After 50 years of national independence, the Malay community has a lot to be proud of in terms of educational achievement. Alongside the rest of the Singapore population, the educational profile of the Malay community has risen. Many more Malays proceed to various forms of post-secondary education. The numbers of Malays with university degrees, polytechnic diplomas and technical qualifications are promising. What lies ahead for the community? This article outlines major features of the evolving education landscape in Singapore and draws implications for the Malay community.

After two decades of government effort in the 1960s and 1970s to unify and standardise schooling experiences for the entire school-age population, a new era of differentiation was ushered in with the publication in 1979 of the Report on the Ministry of Education 1978. The Report identified a few major problems including: high dropout rates at both primary and secondary levels, low literacy levels and the lack of effective bilingualism among many school-leavers. A major policy reform was advocated, that of streaming students into different tracks in order to ensure that learning experiences could be better tailored to variations in students’ learning abilities. Primary school students would henceforth be streamed at the end of primary three while secondary students would be streamed on the basis of their Primary School Leaving Examination results. Interestingly enough, the report noted a positive relationship between students’ home background and the quality of schools, in other words, ‘good schools’ had higher percentages of pupils from better home background, in terms of pupil’s father’s occupation and educational level, than the other schools. In other words, even after two decades of state intervention to ensure comparability across schools of such factors as physical infrastructure, school curricula and teacher qualifications, the playing field was still not level for students from differing socio-economic backgrounds.

Since streaming was introduced at both primary and secondary levels of schooling more than three decades ago, various modifications have been made to the streaming system. During the last decade, the Ministry of Education has tried to soften and blur the boundaries between students in different streams at both primary and secondary levels. For example, efforts have been made to encourage greater interaction between primary students enrolled in the Gifted Education Programme and their other schoolmates, while students from lower-prestige academic streams have been provided greater opportunities for upward mobility to higher-prestige academic streams. Nevertheless, the concept of differentiated tracks for different students has remained essentially unchanged.

Besides streaming of students, other Ministry of Education policies since the 1980s have introduced greater diversity of programmes and choices for students. For example, in the 1980s, the Gifted Education Programme, the Music Elective Programme and Art Elective Programme were introduced. By the late 1980s, a few top-ranking secondary schools were allowed to become independent schools. In the mid-1990s, some secondary schools were granted ‘autonomous school’ status. A little over a decade ago, top-end secondary schools and junior colleges introduced ‘integrated programmes’ allowing students the chance to bypass the General Certificate of Education ‘Ordinary’ Level examination. At the same time, a number of specialized independent schools were established to cater for secondary- and junior college-age students talented in the arts, sports, and mathematics and science. A few schools were also set up to cater for secondary-age students who had failed the Primary School Leaving Examination at least twice, in order to provide them a chance at leaving school with vocationally-appropriate qualifications.

The 1980s marked the beginning of what is known as the marketisation of education. In other words, parents and students were increasingly introduced to the virtues of ‘diversity,’ ‘choice,’ and ‘competition.’ The Education Ministry introduced the annual Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme for secondary schools in 2004 and for junior colleges in 2005. The scheme allows schools full discretion in conducting selection interviews based on their own selection criteria (based on non-academic endeavours) to offer early admission to a certain percentage of students before the qualifying national examinations.

The connection between students’ home background and academic achievement that the Goh Report identified in 1979 has persisted till the present. For example, in 2011 former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew presented statistical evidence that a far greater percentage of students in more prestigious secondary schools than their counterparts in less prestigious secondary schools had university-educated fathers. Similarly the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had observed in 2011 that Singapore society is ‘stratifying,’ and that “while the children of successful people are doing better, the children of less successful people are doing less well.” These inequalities exist despite the numerous initiatives already in place – such as the self-help groups, Edusave, student care centres and financial assistance schemes – to level the playing field for all students.

Over the past two decades, the Education Ministry has expected parents to play a more significant role in supporting their children’s schooling. In December 1998, the advisory body COMPASS (Community and Parents in Support of Schools) was tasked with strengthening and promoting school-home-community collaboration. Parental volunteering has been introduced as a criterion for admission to primary one. A combination of factors such as rising family incomes and parental education levels, along with falling fertility rates, have contributed to increasing parental involvement with their children’s schooling experiences. Growing parental aspirations for children’s educational achievement is fuelled by a positive relationship between educational qualifications and wages.

With the advent of social media, more parents are widening their social networks in order to find out more information about the education system and strategise their children’s educational success. Schools are dealing with more input from parents about matters such as homework. The private tutoring industry, which was estimated in a recent press article to be worth more than $1 billion annually, not only provides academic tutoring in school subjects but also provides parents with tutoring, so that they can help their children with their homework. Some tutors promise parents help with securing their children admission during secondary schools’ DSA exercises. In addition to sports tutoring, they are also helping students prepare for tests, auditions and interviews.

Singapore education appears to be exhibiting what the British educational sociologist Phillip Brown has termed ‘parentocracy’, where “the education a student receives conforms to the wealth and wishes of parents rather than the student’s individual ability and effort.” This ‘parentocracy’ is co-existing alongside ‘meritocracy.’

There are a few major implications of what I have mentioned earlier. First, parents need to be able to navigate the education system. They need to be aware of the diversity of courses and programmes on offer, and the implications of their choices for their children’s educational outcomes and upward social mobility. The Malay community, while having made considerable progress, is still underrepresented at the university level and over-represented at the vocational level. If Malay educational achievement levels are to rise further, Malay parents will need to avail themselves of social networks and strategise actively for their children’s success. A big worry is that many Malay parents are not able to do this because they lack the necessary social and cultural capital. In particular, it is important to remember the inter-generational effect of streaming. In other words, many Malay parents, who were streamed into less prestigious streams themselves as students, are less well-placed than other parents who were streamed into higher prestige streams, to help their children. If nothing changes, the chances are the existing educational inequalities will persist, if not worsen. How can Malays, both individually and collectively, respond to the major changes in the education landscape? ⬛


Prof Jason Tan completed his Masters in Education in education and national development at the University of Hong Kong and his doctoral studies in comparative education at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is currently associate professor in policy and leadership studies at the National Institute of Education in Singapore. Prof Tan is an international editorial board member of several international journals. His most recent publications include Education in Singapore: Taking Stock, Looking Forward.

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