Mong Palatino

Blogging about the Philippines and the Asia-Pacific since 2004


@mongster is a Manila-based activist, former Philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of Asia-Pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

Policymakers are debating the social impact of private tuition or tutoring classes which have proliferated in recent years. The numbers are simply staggering: More than 90 percent of primary students are enrolled in after-school tuition centers while parents spend an estimated $680 million annually on tutoring services. Soon, it will be a billion-dollar industry.

But aside from being a thriving sector, tuition has become Singapore’s ‘shadow education system’ that caters even to academically-gifted students. And the government is not quite happy with this development.

“Our education system is run on the basis that tuition is not necessary. Some parents believe they can give their children an added advantage by sending them to tuition classes, even though their children are doing reasonably well. We cannot stop them from doing so,” said Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah in a parliament session.

The rise of tuition led many to ask whether it is really beneficial to students in the long run. Does it enrich the learning of children or does it create a ‘mindset of dependency?’ Is it a good investment or a waste of resources?

In the past, tuition was reserved for students who were lagging behind in school. But today, it has become a compulsory service for almost all students – especially those who want to earn higher grades. For many parents, tuition is necessary to give their children a competitive edge in the school and many of them will continue to pay high fees as long as the test scores of their children keep on improving.

But the tuition craze could also affect Singapore’s education system, which ranks among the best in the world. Some parents are worried that schools might lose their best teachers to private tuition centers. The government may be correct to claim that there is a low resignation rate among teachers today; but as tuition continues to expand, how long can schools retain their most experienced teachers, those who might be lured by better career opportunities in the private sector?

There is also a concern about the impact of tuition on the formal learning process in schools. Do students pay more attention to classroom lessons or do they simply expect to be tutored after class? How do teachers adjust their teaching methods with the knowledge that most of their students are enrolled in tuition classes?

Singapore might soon face the prospect that all students are already taking tuition sessions. It could immediately lead to higher examination results and better academic performance of students which would reflect positively on Singaporean education in general. But this numeric achievement should be balanced by taking into consideration the overall development of students, including their health, attitude, and mental well-being.

In other words, public discussion should not simply focus on the economics of tuition and its pedagogic value. More importantly, the tuition debate should lead to deeper reflection on how Singapore nurtures its next generation.

Why Singapore Doesn’t Count the Poor

Written for The Diplomat

Singapore, one of the richest countries in the world, has 20 billionaires and 188,000 millionaires. But curiously, the government doesn’t know the exact number of its poor households. Maybe Kishore Mahbubani, a former diplomat, was correct when he wrote in 2001 that poverty has already been eradicated and that there were no longer “homeless, destitute or starving people” in Singapore. But this seems a bold claim to make in light of the recently documented hardships faced by many ordinary Singaporeans. Perhaps it’s more accurate to mention that the lack of poverty data is related to the government’s refusal to define the country’s poverty line.

Responding to a question in a parliament session, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing explained why the government is not inclined to follow the lead of Hong Kong, which recently defined the poverty threshold: “A poverty line does not fully reflect the severity and complexity of the issues faced by poor families, which could include ill health, lack of housing or weak family relationships. If we use a single poverty line to assess the family, we also risk a ‘cliff effect,’ where those below the poverty line receive all forms of assistance, while other genuinely needy citizens outside the poverty line are excluded.”

He added that developed countries like Canada and New Zealand have not adopted poverty lines in measuring their economies.

But the minister’s “cliff effect” argument was quickly debunked by many. For instance, writer Kirsten Han argued why setting the poverty line would not lead to the exclusion of other less deprived households.

“The existence of a poverty line does not mean that all focus should be directed towards those who fall below it. Once we see that poverty exists as a structural problem, more steps can be taken to address the distribution of resources and opportunities.”

Indeed, the poverty line can be a useful tool for the government in devising multiple programs to assist low-income households. More importantly, it will help validate the effectiveness of the government’s existing economic and social services for the poor.

But the strong reaction to the minister’s response reflects the sentiment among many Singaporeans that the government is not doing enough to address the growing gap between the rich and poor (let alone acknowledge it).

The issue of whether setting the poverty line is relevant for Singapore came out right after the Catholic group Caritas launched an initiative called Singaporeans Against Poverty, whose aim is to raise awareness about poverty and mobilize public support in breaking the cycle of poverty in Singapore. In particular, the campaign urges Singaporeans to be more sensitive about rising poverty despite the reported affluence in the country.

The group claimed that there are 105,000 families or 387,000 individuals whose monthly income is less than $1500. It added that in 2012, more than 100,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents earned less than $1,000 a month despite working full time. It also cited a 2008 survey which showed that a third of households living in one- and two-room flats have no income.

Setting a poverty line would not discredit the status of Singapore as a rich nation. No one can dispute its sterling achievements in building a world-class city that provides efficient services to its citizens and visitors. But poverty, however insignificant the number, is also a reality in modern and prosperous Singapore. And the government, which wants to define and count almost everything, including what constitutes unlawful assembly, can best tackle the problem of poverty by identifying the number of poor that deserve to receive urgent assistance.

One Response to “Singapore’s ‘Tuition Industrial Complex’”

  1. It really helpful for me, you are shared really nice article, Keep sharing 🙂

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