Jeraldine Phneah: Ideas for a better education system in Singapore

We had the special privilege to speak with Jeraldine Phneah, one of the more eloquent bloggers in Singapore. In this interview, Jeraldine shares with us her thoughts on the education system in Singapore and what she thinks are some ways we could improve further.

1. Your article debunking that every school is a good school has resonated with many readers. What is one real way our education system can be revamped to address the inequalities you’ve raised?

I feel that one of the ways we could level the playing field would be to provide more funding for neighborhood schools.

Equitable funding would level the playing field for neighborhood schools and ensure that they have additional funds to invest in enrichment programs.

Currently, neighborhood schools in Singapore have less disposable funds than independent schools, putting them at a disadvantage. Independent schools have more funding as many of them usually charge higher fees. For instance, the monthly school fees at ACS Independent and Methodist Girls School is around $300 per month. In contrast, New Town Secondary School monthly fees is $5 per month. In addition to higher school fees, many of them also have successful and wealthy alumni who would donate generously to the school

As we see more schools merge due to lower student intake, I feel it is a good opportunity for the Ministry of Education to redistribute funding across neighborhood schools to equalize this disparity.

2. Some have suggested that PSLE may have partially contributed to this inequality. What are your personal views on this matter?

PSLE is a pretty emotive topic in Singapore. Both sides have their reasons for or against subjecting children to national examinations at the age of 12.

Like many, I have also observed that PSLE can also widen the gap between richer and poorer students.

In principle, every twelve-year old sits the same set of PSLE papers. Regardless of whom his parents are or how much money they earn, he can still make it if he’s got what it takes.

In practice, the average Singaporean sees a different side of the story. Those who do not have opportunities may find themselves being unable to catch up with their wealthier peers in primary school. A poor score on this major examination could put them at a disadvantage for the rest of their schooling and career.

As the late Lee Kuan Yew previously shared, he had also observed that in RGS, 72.3 per cent of students have fathers who are university graduates. For other top schools like Hwa Chong Institution, the numbers are similar and above 50 per cent. In contrast, in neighborhood schools like Jurong West Secondary, the share of students with graduate parents hovers at around 10 per cent.

Another negative impact of PSLE is that it can impact a student’s self-esteem and subsequently their performance. It creates and entrenches the self-limiting belief that they are only as good as their grades or the academic stream they are in.

At the same time, I understand that the idea of scrapping PSLE entirely can sound radical to those who are unaware of the way things are done in other OECD countries. They fear that scrapping PSLE may affect the quality of students that our education system can produce.

If you look at the other developed countries even those who perform well in PISA tests, there are no competitive national exams at age 12 to assign them to high schools on the basis of how well they did at those exams. Some examples include Taiwan, Japan, Canada and Finland. Are the people there less competent than Singaporeans? Definitely not.

As for the parents who really wish to send their kids to elite schools in these countries, the kids can then take the entrance exams by these elite institutions and be admitted if they qualify.

Given that many are still supportive of the PSLE system, I feel that a reasonable solution for us at this present moment in time would be to allow some to opt out of PSLE. The ministry could select a handful of schools to offer a through train program from Primary one to secondary four. Parents can then decide what they feel is best for their child and choose if they wish to opt out of PSLE and send their children to these schools instead.

3. Singaporeans are often primed to pursue grades from a young age. For some, this mindset persists when they enter the working world. What are your thoughts on the civil service's reliance on grades when it comes to hiring fresh graduates?

I feel that grades still remain somewhat important for assessing a fresh graduate's knowledge and attitude. However, I feel there is scope for greater flexibility for the civil service to consider more factors equally such as work experience, attitude and practical skills.

I understand that academic aptitude is important for fields like policy analysis. However, what about say corporate services? Do you really need a second upper honors to do well in fields like marketing and human resource? Till today, we often see that as a requirement in civil service job descriptions. However, in the private sector, I’ve encountered so many outstanding leaders in these fields who don’t fall into this category.

As for A level and O level grades, I still hold the belief that it is pretty unnecessary to take these into consideration or to ask candidates to bring these transcripts for interviews. If you really want to look at grades, isn’t a university GPA enough? I’ve never encountered an MNC or leading technology company who has asked for high school certificate and I am not sure why it is so important for the public sector, even for those who have graduated a long time ago.

For my generation, I believe that many private sector employers look out for other things beyond grades alone such as internship experience, co-curricular activities, willingness to learn, attitude and international exposure.

4. You’ve mentioned international exposure is an asset. In line with that, would you encourage students to pursue their college education overseas?

I personally feel that going to an overseas university has many benefits. Firstly, for many leading universities, there isn’t any bell curve system. Students would have more time to explore the world outside college such as internships; taking up a part time job or working on a side-hustle.

In some instances, going overseas could also prevent a student from being discriminated against. For instance, if two students did not do well for A levels and one went to a local private university while the other went to an overseas university, many employers would tend to have a better perception of the latter.

The downside is that it could be expensive and without a scholarship, studying abroad is a luxury that only rich families can afford or if one is willing to take a loan.

So, I guess going to a local university but going on exchange and doing an overseas internship is one of the ways to get the best of both worlds.

I’ve done that by doing my exchange in Switzerland and then going to work in Hong Kong as a journalist. Living in Switzerland and mixing with European people have definitely made me more outgoing and working in Hong Kong has been really inspirational. The people I’ve met there have inspired me to speak out about the issues which affect millennials.

Ultimately, I feel that a lot of it depends on what an individual makes out of it. I mean if you go overseas to study but mostly hang around with other Singaporeans or maybe Malaysians, it isn’t really considered as “international exposure”. It is the same for an American expat to Singapore and only mixes with other Americans, how is that an Asian experience?

5. How can students sensibly prepare themselves for the changing economic and technological landscape?

I feel that Millennials have to accept that being a graduate is no longer a mark of someone who is capable (yes, even graduates from our local universities). Rather, it has become a basic requirement in our society.

This graduate glut could have been prevented if a decade ago if the government had the foresight to start focusing more on developing skills and helping our youth become craftsmen in a wide range of fields.

Here is my two cents worth on how youths can deal with this current situation:

  • It is okay to settle in your first job. After you get one year of training or so, many more companies would be more willing to hire you than if you had no experience at all. You’d be able to make a jump with a pay raise.

  • Don’t blindly believe the graduate employment survey by MOE. This is often inflated with answers from respondents who work in the civil service. Instead, approach people on LinkedIn, offer to buy them lunch and coffee in exchange for industry knowledge. The advantage of being born in this generation is that so much information is available at our finger tips and we just have to ask!

  • Choose growing industries to enter. Think about swimming against the current or with the current. The latter requires less effort and enables you to move up-stream lot more easily. When industries are growing quickly, demand for talent exceeds supply. Typically, pay packages and benefits would be better than average. Personally, I made a jump from traditional market research to data and analytics. I personally feel that the latter has a lot more growth potential in the the years ahead.

  • Be open to possibilities. Most of us won't get to do what we're passionate about so probably it is a good idea to choose jobs based on factors that are equally important for job happiness - money; autonomy; leadership; culture and opportunity for growth.

  • Never be complacent; keep reading; keep learning and keep improving. Stay relevant to your industry by keeping yourself updated on industry news and attending events and workshops. As Reid Hoffman, Founder of LinkedIn, says “You have to be constantly reinventing yourself and investing in the future.”

Jeraldine Phneah, 26, is a young Singaporean who writes about personal development and current affairs. In her day job, she works in the data and analytics industry. She is also known for several of her pieces on the education system. The most popular one titled 5 Differences between Neighbourhood and Elite Schools in Singapore.

Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

Geraldine Lee
Geraldine lives out of bubbles and dreams. She writes primarily about parenting and learning. Her work has been featured on TheAsianParent, Singapore's Child, and now even Yodaa.