Until 1965, when Singapore became an independent republic, its population lived mostly as simple fishermen, and the illiteracy rate was very high. In fact, when Great Britain withdrew Singapore’s status as a British colony, this small country was so poor that no other nation wanted to take over its territory. Only 40 years later, it ranks first in most international exams and its students speak English as if it were the country’s first language. This is why the history of Singapore is amazing.
The question is how did Singapore get to where it is today? According to local officials and academics, the country’s founder, Lee Kwan Yew, had a vision to make Singapore an English-speaking country with bilingual education, where students learn English as their first language and their mother tongue (Mandarin, Tamil or Malay) as their second.
This contributed to making Singapore an important center of world trade. It also made the education system one of the world’s toughest meritocracies, producing highly skilled workers and exporting more and more high-tech products. Singapore’s academic meritocracy begins in the first grade, where children are ranked according to their academic performance, from first to last.
Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles founded the Singapore Institution (now known as Raffles Institution) in 1823, thus initiating education in Singapore under British rule. Later, three main types of schools appeared: Malaysian, Chinese and Tamil schools and English schools.
The Malaysian schools were free for all British students, while the English schools, which used to have English as the language, were established by the missionaries and had to pay school fees. Students in Chinese schools were very much in tune with the evolution of China, especially at the height of Chinese nationalism.
During World War II, many students in Singapore dropped out of school, causing a huge backlog of students in schools after the war. In 1947, the Ten-Year Program for Education Policy in the Colony of Singapore was formulated. This program was not only the beginning of a universal education system, but also a call to prepare for self-government.
During the 1950s and 1960s, when Singapore began to develop its own economy, Singapore adapted a system of “survival-driven education” to provide a skilled workforce for Singapore’s industrialization program, as well as to reduce unemployment. In addition to being an economic necessity, education also helped integrate the new nation.
The policy of bilingualism in schools was officially introduced in 1960, making English the official language for both national integration and utilitarian purposes. Universal education for children of all races and backgrounds began to take shape as more children began to attend schools. However, the quality of the schools that were created during this time had varied considerably.
Upon gaining its independence from British colonial rule in 1965, the government of Singapore focused on developing an educational system based on equal opportunity while being aware of the four major races that existed on the island (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian).
Singapore started its “Education for All” policy, a one-size-fits-all education system, to address the problem of the many private schools that existed during colonial rule.
The “Education for All” policy served as a vehicle to welcome all private schools to the newly created Ministry of Education funding, and to integrate not only the different races through a common educational experience, but also a common set of educational standards and curricula that would serve as the basis for its industrialization initiative.
Through an educational system that offers equal opportunities for all, regardless of race or religion, students’ progress through the mainstream educational system is based on achievement. After ten years of compulsory education, children had to enroll in the limited vacancies of non-compulsory education. This enrollment is based on a system of meritocracy.
Some twenty years later, after realizing that a system of resource allocation based on educational equity was not capable of accommodating the different needs and abilities of children, a system was initiated that channeled students into different academic programs based on their abilities.
The objective of this change in educational policy, from a principle of equity to one that recognized the different potential of each student, was to guarantee the individual rights of each student, as well as the need for the government to fully develop the people who made up its nation.
In order to improve the educational system in the 1980s, an educational reform was initiated: the backbone of this new reform was the separation of students according to their abilities and academic performance and, thus, to be able to provide them, in different educational programs, with the educational response according to their abilities and interests, in accordance with their potential. With this new system of education proposed by the Ministry of Education, students were given the opportunity to learn and progress at their own pace.
The Gifted Education Program, as the new plan was called, was the result of the systemic reform that took place in the government’s educational policy. With the new comprehensive education system, based on the difference in potential and abilities of each student, there was a belief that the most talented students should be given the same opportunity to progress according to their high abilities; as well as the less capable students were allowed to learn at a slower and more comfortable pace for them.