Tag Archives: health

The downsides to Singapore’s education system: streaming, stress and suicides

First published in South China Morning Post on 21 September, 2017

The country’s school system is geared towards high achievement in exams, but the emphasis on rote learning and memorisation, combined with pressure to succeed, affects children’s social skills, health and overall happiness.

Singapore’s education system is reputed for producing children who top the world rankings in standardised tests. The city state took first place in the last Pisa (global education rankings.

Hong Kong ranked ninth in the last Pisa tests, below Taiwan (fourth) and Macau (sixth).

Howard Tan, a former Singapore primary-school teacher turned private tutor, says he has encountered parents who put undue pressure on their youngsters.

“It’s too simplistic to say that the pressure comes from the system. A lot of pressure comes from parents,” he says, adding that he’s seen parents express disappointment with their children for scoring less than 90 per cent in tests. “As a teacher, I hardly push my students that way. The system necessitates that from the parents,” he says.

Tan teaches eight- and nine-year-olds, and his private tuition classes wrap up at 9pm. “I have one eight-year-old student taking multiple tuition classes from multiple tutors per subject, amounting to 11 tuition sessions a week. Does she have time for anything else?”

Tan says that when he taught physical education classes in primary school, he noticed that a number of children lacked motor skills. “In preschool … they need to socialise and learn conflict resolution with other kids. Many of the children I taught didn’t know how to deal with disagreements; they would shout because they didn’t know any better,” he says.

High student-to-teacher ratios are a big problem in Singaporean schools, Tan says, but pressure also stems from the practice of streaming – with pupils of the same year being segregated into different classes based on results and assessments in several key gateways.

Streaming is where the Singapore system differs from Hong Kong’s. However, segregation of “bright and slow” students still happens in Hong Kong, in the form of school banding.

Singapore’s compulsory education system consists of six years of primary school, four years of secondary, and between one and three years of post-secondary school. Students undergo two major exams before even leaving primary school.

At the end of primary year four, pupils are tested to determine the courses they will take in English, mathematics, mother tongue, and science. At the end of primary school, they take the Primary School Leaving Examination, which determines the stream a pupil will follow in secondary education.

There are four streams: Special, Express, Normal Academic, and Normal Technical. Special comprises about 10 per cent of pupils, and is an accelerated pathway to university. Fifty per cent make the Express track, which may lead directly to university or initially to junior college. Twenty per cent pursue the Normal track, leading to polytechnic institute, while the remainder fall into Normal Technical, which leads to a qualification at the Institute of Technical Education.

Some Singapore parents regard streaming as beneficial for children with different learning capacities. Maida Genato, who has three children at school, says: “For the slow learners, if you teach at a faster pace, they might have a hard time adjusting, whereas for fast learners, if you slow the pace they might get bored.”

Tan, however, says that with class sizes of 30 to 40 pupils, streaming will fail a lot of children.

Jamie Sisson, an education lecturer at University of South Australia, says streaming and high-stakes testing increase stress on children and parents.

“There is hard evidence proving that below high school, homework does not have a positive impact on learning.”
– JAMIE SISSON

“[It serves] to limit opportunities for learners that later affects their opportunities in life. Humans are complex beings. It is difficult to determine at a young age what someone is capable of achieving later in life,” she says.

The Singaporean concept of kiasu – a Hokkien word meaning “afraid to lose” – may explain why parents enrol their children in extracurricular tuition in the hope they will excel in test scores.

Genato, a Filipino, says she’s noticed that her daughter’s ethnic Chinese classmates tend to be pushed harder. “It must be a cultural thing,” she adds.

Sisson says she has observed that young adults of Chinese descent, including Singaporeans, sometimes find it hard to adapt to the university’s style of teaching.

“I’m seeing students, especially from China, struggle because they’re used to memorising answers. When they come to study in Australia, they have to shift their way of thinking.”

Sisson advocates a democratic, student-centred pedagogy, a teaching ethos by which students play a significant role in defining course policies, materials covered, and other aspects of schooling.

“Research shows that placing high value on test scores has led to narrow views of teaching and learning,” she says. “Such practices focus on memorising facts that have been determined by others to be of worth.

“If we don’t understand how things work in the context of real life, then we don’t understand, we’re just memorising. This can limit children’s opportunities to develop skills important to being innovative problem solvers we need in the future.”

Sisson refers to a widely cited report by British-based business lecturer Sally Chan, titled The Chinese Learner – a question of style. Chan writes: “The popular view is that the stresses of learning and need to excel academically leave the Chinese student with little choice but to resort to rote learning of the essentials to pass the examinations … Such learning modes are believed to dominate classroom behaviour for Chinese students in Hong Kong, China and Southeast Asia.”

Although primary-school children in Singapore spend an uncommon amount of time dealing with homework and extracurricular tuition, the benefits are questionable.

“There is hard evidence proving that below high school, homework does not have a positive impact on learning,” Sisson says, citing the example of Finland, which takes a holistic approach to education. Finnish students have little or no homework, and there is no private tuition culture in the country.

Finland came sixth in the latest Pisa rankings, and its schools produce young adults who are critical thinkers and problem-solvers.

“In preschool … they need to socialise and learn conflict resolution with other kids. Many of the children I taught didn’t know how to deal with disagreements.”
– HOWARD TAN

Finnish children don’t start school until they are seven years old, and there is only one standardised test, administered in the final year of high school. School holidays are longer. Finland ranked fifth in the UN’s 2016 World Happiness Report; Singapore ranked 26th.

Last year, Singapore’s Ministry of Education announced that a new scoring system would come into effect in 2021, claiming it will reduce stress by encouraging pupils to focus on their own learning rather that competition with their classmates.

Currently, a student’s Primary School Leaving Examination aggregate is the sum of T-scores from all four subjects taken. T-scores indicate how well a pupil has performed relative to peers in the subjects. From 2021, pupils’ scores will no longer be benchmarked against their classmates’, the ministry says, admitting: “The way that the T-score is calculated may have also created unhealthy competition among our young children.”

Roy Ngerng is a Singaporean activist, who in 2014 was found guilty of defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on his sociopolitical blog, in comments about the city state’s pension fund. In an article titled ““New” PSLE Education Scoring System: Does it Change Anything?” Ngerng concludes that the change “still puts excessive focus on academic results”, and that students will actually find it harder to obtain higher scores.

Ngerng suggests that “healing” the system would require a combination of reducing class sizes and the administrative workload of teachers so they can focus on the development of each child, which would in turn reduce stress levels.

He also suggests a reduction in school hours. This would give teachers room for more creative activities to develop children’s critical thinking skills, he says.

Treating a Growing HIV and AIDS Epidemic in Indonesia

Yayasan Kasih Suwitno at Ruang Carlo Community Centre: Non-discriminatory, friendly and free services for people with HIV and AIDS in Jakarta, Indonesia. 

World Aids Day took place on 1 December 2014 and according to UNAIDS, HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) in Indonesia is one of the fastest growing epidemics in Asia, due to the lack of awareness, lack of education and health services, not to mention the social stigmas attached to having HIV or AIDS. Indonesia’s first case of the HIV virus was reported in 1987 and in 2011, 310,000 were reported to have the virus, with 8,700 annual reported deaths.

Today, the highest concentration areas are Papua, where 2.7% of the population have contracted the virus, followed by Jakarta, East Java, West Java, Bali and Riau. In Wamina, West Papua, 30% of the population have HIV, and nearly 100% have either Chlamydia or Gonorrhea, as these particular STDs are closely linked with the HIV virus.

Steve Wignall, Founder of Yayasan Kasih Suwitno (YKS) in Jakarta and Yayasan Bali Peduli (YBP) in Bali, has been working in Indonesia for 30 years and is an expert in HIV and AIDS. Due to an increase in cases in young people, in 2011 Steve and Dr. Emon Winardi (Director of the clinic) and their friend Johan set up YKS at Ruang Carlo Community Centre to provide services to patients that were friendly, efficient, easy to access and most importantly, free.

The clinic is located in the Saint Carolus Hospital and is a comfortable and discreet area, closed off from the rest of the hospital. Walls are painted a calming cream, service is friendly and knowledgeable, and there are different areas where patients can wait in peace.

“For young people with a chronic sickness, it’s very hard. They don’t have a lot of disposable income; the system often doesn’t respect their time and the cost of transport back and forth,” Steve tells me on my visit to the clinic in the centre of Jakarta.

Today the clinic has six full-time staff and is a wonderful example of a public-private partnership, working with the government who provide the reagents and drugs, and the NGO providing the environment and resources to make it accessible to people.

A common misconception is that HIV is a death sentence, when this is no longer true. If a person is tested early, before their immune system is damaged, medication is free and they will be able to live happy, healthy lives, have families and not infect other people. People are afraid to come for testing because of the stigmas associated with the virus.

Steve Wignall and Dr. Janice of Ruang Carlo Community Centre, Jakarta
Steve Wignall and Dr. Janice of Ruang Carlo Community Centre, Jakarta

Dr. Janice Tandraeliene works at Ruang Carlo Community Centre and believes stigmas are the main reason why people don’t take the test. “Some people are afraid to come, not just here but to all health facilities that test for HIV. There are many reasons, including the stigma, because they’re alone and don’t know what to do. When people come here alone, we try to consult and explain about HIV and make them comfortable so that they want to take the test.” If the result is positive, patients will be guided by therapy and given medication, which they are expected to take for the remainder of their lives.

The medication given to HIV patients is called anti-retroviral therapy and works by suppressing the virus and stopping the progression of the disease. Killing the virus is not possible, but these drugs stop it from developing. HIV is different from other viruses and infections because it becomes one with the DNA, integrating and hiding within it. Patients do not die from HIV; they die from infections, viruses and funguses, which are able to attack the weakened immune system.

“Unfortunately, HIV goes for the dalang (mastermind) of our immune system, the CD4 positive T cells, a type of white blood cell that is vital to fighting off infection. We’re all exposed every day to viruses and funguses but our immune system takes care of that,” Steve explains.

HIV is transmitted in key infected populations: injecting drug users – a problem that is decreasing in Indonesia as people are switching to amphetamine-like substances –, female commercial sex workers – 10-15% of whom are HIV positive -, and men who have sex with men – a rapidly expanding population of over 1 million individuals. In Jakarta in 2003, studies showed that 2% of gay men were found to be HIV positive; in 2007, 8%; and in 2011, 17%. At YKS today, an average of 27% of young men tested, are HIV positive.

What is the reason for this growing statistic? Social medias are providing a new platform for young people to meet and sex is happening at a younger age. Unfortunately, this is not coupled with adequate sexual education in local schools, and not at an early enough age, by teachers who are able and willing to talk openly about sex.

One of the fastest growing groups in Indonesia are housewives infected by their husbands who are visiting sex workers or are having sex with other men. In Bali, one in 200 pregnant women have contracted the virus from their husbands.

Steve believes the focus should shift towards men. “The focus often goes to the women, but it’s really the man that’s the problem. There’s only a sex industry if there’s a market to sell sex; if men didn’t buy it, there would not be women selling it. Getting men who buy sex to use condoms is a challenge and we need to continue to work on that; the best we see is 40-50% condom use.”

Antonio giving a consultation to a patient at Ruang Carlo Community Centre
Antonio giving a consultation to a patient at Ruang Carlo Community Centre

Antonio is Case Manager at Ruang Carlo Community Centre and is HIV positive. He’s passionate about helping others who are going through what he has. “My life has become more positive, living healthily, and getting support from family and friends. Of course, I want to be a role model for other friends so they do not feel despair and can continue to enjoy their lives by giving and sharing information about the ups and downs of life with HIV, and supporting each other.”

The only way to break the process of infection is for people with high risk behaviours to get tested. “We’re only going to be able to break this chain of infection if people know their status,” reminds Steve. Recently, the team at YKS have been bringing free HIV testing to certain high-risk establishments in Jakarta, resulting in a much higher number of people agreeing to be tested.

How to help

YKS would like to provide more mobile testing, and welcome your donations to help them continue to run their operations. 

Donations can be made to: 

Yayasan Kasih Suwitno

Panin Bank

148 5 017678

Harco Mangga Dua Blok I no. 5 A-B

Swift Code PINBIDJA

 First published in Indonesia Expat December 2014