Class divide in Singapore’s education system |

by Zhiqi Wang

With the recent popularisation of the film ‘Parasiteʼ, inequality has again received attention, rare amidst the COVID-19 incident. Indeed, inequality might not be as eye-catching as new incidents of confirmed cases of coronavirus, but it has arguably a further reaching impact on the fabric of society.

In the movie, two families – the Kims and the Parks – have contrasting features and belong to two entirely distinct classes in society. What caught my attention was the male lead who took over his friendʼs tutoring job. Despite being portrayed as hardworking and repeating the national university entrance exams 4 times (2 before the army and 2 after), he was still unable to gain entry to a national university, leaving him essentially unemployed.

Does this remind you of Singapore? Just like South Korea, Singapore has one of the most comprehensive educational systems in the world, leading the PISA charts. From young, children understand the importance of doing well academically, fuelled by the fear of not joining the cohort to enter university. In fact, the current education system goes a step further, implementing streaming from an age as young as 10 years old.

From statistics published by the Ministry of Education, just over a third of each cohort of children enters local university to enjoy heavily subsidised school fees, as well as eligibility into some of the most prestigious and well remunerated careers. Looking closer into the data from the World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE), Singapore has one of the largest gaps for achievement in academic subjects between the poorest and richest, meaning that high income has a direct correlation with academic results, and ultimately, university admission.

What has caused this? I would argue it’s the unequal access to resources. Attending school until Junior College in Singapore, I understand the amount of resources necessary to groom a student in Singapore: extracurriculars, music classes, and most importantly, tuition. These items can simply be inaccessible to low-income families. Children from these families struggle, both academically and psychologically, often believing that their wealthier classmates might simply be smarter and more talented. Through 12 years of education, the differences diverge and some believe that they are only fit for manual (or lower-paid) work because they werenʼt as talented as their more affluent classmates.

There are real and tangible educational differences between growing up in a low-income or high income family, and this will destroy the meritocratic vision of Singapore, a land of opportunities. There is definitely much work that can be done and there are plans to implement new changes.

The government has now reserved up to 20% of primary school spots for low income families in top primary schools, and has made local universities more accessible through bursaries and revised admission strategies (e.g more spots for students from the polytechnic route). Only time will tell if these changes will even the playing ground for future cohorts.