** Singapore education school schools

Singapore Education

Figure 1.--Hre we see a group of Singapore students with teachers, in front of the school, we think in the 1970s. It is not a class, but some sort of award group. It is a private school, we think the Victoria School.

Modern Singapore has one of the world's finest education systems. It is an important element in the country's phenomenal economic performance as one of the Asian Tigers. The key element of course is free market capitalis, but an effective education system enables a broad spectrum of the country's young people to participate in the economic oportunities created by one of the most viabrant economies in Asia. Sinapore education is a kind of melding of secular British education and high academic styandards with traditional Chinese respect for learning and scholarship. It proved to be a model for China. Deng Xiaoping from an rarly point began to talk about Singapore and the other Asian tigers. Sinngaporr has excellent publuc schools in addition to many fine private schools. Almost all Singapore school children wear school uniforms. The tradition is very well established. They are required by the Government at state schoolds, although the Government does not mandate the style ad color. Singapore was a former British colony and school uniforms were well established in the colonial era. Uniforms were furing the colonial period the traditional British school boy uniforms. Modern Singapore uniforms are more casual than the traditional English styles. Given the warm climate, boys wear short pants and open-necked shirts.


Singapore was Britain's primary Pacific base during the colonia era. Japan's quick movement through Mayaysia after Pearl Harbor and seizure of Singapore with its large garrison was a great shock. Singapore achied independence from Britain in 1965. Singapore's strongly Chinese population prevented it from being included in Mayasia with its largely Malay population. Beginning with independence, the Singapore Government gave education a high priority. Singapore's leaders have seen a well educated labor force as vital to the country's economic success. Educational historians have seen different stages in the development of Singapore schools. First was the 'survival-driven' phase (1960s and 70s). Singapore's economic success then led to the 'efficiency-driven' phase (1980s/early 90s). The current era can described as the 'ability-driven' phase (late 1990s). Singapore has achieved one of the highest standards of living in Asia. Much of the country's success has been due to a low-wages, but wages have risen condideranly in Singapore and there is increasing competition from China with low wages. If Singapore is going to continue to prosper, a "creative and innovative workforce" is needed to compete in the highly competitive global economy. [Kam and Gopinathan, 1999 p. 101].


We have not found much chronological informatiin yet. We have some information on school uniforms in the the 2000s.

Legal Requirements

Singapore has since independence in 1965 made education compulsory for all children up to the age of 12 years except in very special situations like homeschooling. Today most children continue to secondary school and increasingly to tertiary education.


In recent years, however, Singapore has been expanding its pre-school system. A growing number of children in Singapore are attending pre-nursery or playschool education before the age of 4, though this is optional. Many children in Singapore also attend free Nursery schools for 1 year at the age of 4, although this is also optional. Children at the age of 5 years attending Kindergarten for 2 years (K1 and K2). Formal education in Singapore begins with the primary schools (Primary 1 through Primary 6) beginning at age 7 years. This is similar to the American system, although the children begin a year later. Most Singapore children, both boys and gurls, go on to secondary school. The system has a selective character to accomodate the needs of the students.


Before the age of 7, there is no compulsory education. Young children attend childcare centres and kindergartens that are run by both the public and private sector. In recent years, however, Singapore has been expanding its pre-school system. A growing number of children in Singapore are attending pre-nursery or playschool education before the age of 4, though this is optional. Many children in Singapore also attend free Nursery schools for 1 year at the age of 4, although this is also optional. Children at the age of 5 years attending Kindergarten for 2 years (K1 and K2). As there is no compulsory national pre-school system, there is no countrywide uniform style, as each centre or kindergarten has full discretion on the designs. These can range from simple t-shirts to more elaborate shirts and dresses.

Primary school

Formal education in Singapore begins with the primary schools (Primary 1 through Primary 6) beginning at age 7 years. This is similar to American andother countries, although the children begin a year later at about age 7 years. The most common age to begin primary school is 6 years of age. A Singapore reader tells us, "There have been no problems competing with students from countries that start school at age 6." Children between 7-12 attend primary school, which is compulsory. This inncludes 99 percent of the school age population. There are exceptions such as the children in private education, religious schools, home schools, or retainees. In general, boys wear shirts and short trousers, while girls wear blouses and skirts. Both boys and girls wear white socks and white shoes, unless otherwise stipulated by their school. During physical exercise, there is no distinction between boys and girls. Both boys and girls wear the same PE t-shirt and shorts. Except for some of the newer schools, most schools require their students to tuck in their shirts/blouses/t-shirts at all times.

Secondary school

Children 13-16/17 will attend secondary school. Secondary school is no longer compulsory, but most students will progress to secondary school.Most Singapore children, both boys and gurls, go on to secondary school. The system has a selective character to accomodate the needs of the students. Children who pass the Primary Six Leaving Examination (PSLE) at the end of Primary 6 will progress to secondary schools, starting from Secondary 1 through Secondary 4 (Special/Express Stream), or Secondary 1 through Secondary 5 (Normal Stream). This is roughly comparable to Seventh Grade through Tenth Grade in the American system. Students who pass the GCE 'O' Level examination at the end of Secondary 4 or 5 will then have to compete for admission to either a Junior College (2 years), a Polytechnic (3 or 4 years) or a Pre-University Centre (3 years). This is somewhat similar to 11th and 12th Grades in the American system. The Youth Corps play a very important role in secondary schools as students are required to take on a co-curricular activity, and many join the Youth Corps. The schools with longer histories would usually not change their uniform designs. As such, schools such as Nanyang Girls High School, River Valley High School and Catholic High School have retained their historical influences since the World War. For example, NGHS students still wear their nurse-like uniforms up till today. In every school, lower secondary boys wear a shirt and short trousers. Upper secondary boys wear a shirt and long trousers, a mark of maturity and seniority (there are exceptions). There is less distinction with regard to girls' uniforms - lower and upper secondary girls wear blouses with a skirt or pinafore. Again, both boys and girls wear the same PE t-shirt and shorts. In secondary school, it is common for schools to dress their students in uniform attire from their tops all the way to their socks and shoes (all showing the schools' names). There are some unique characteristics in all-boys' schools in Singapore. All the boys' schools have long traditions in Singapore - no new boys' school has been set up in the last 20+ years. Because of their long tradition, some things have intentionally remained the same. For example: 1. All upper secondary boys at Catholic High School still wear short trousers instead of long trousers, a practice passed down since its inception. 2. Schools like Anglo-Chinese School and Victoria School retain singlets instead of t-shirts as their PE attire - singlets were often worn by boys before the 1970s. Many boys feel embarrased about wearing singlets but get used to it after several years in the school. 3. All boys' schools have ties that the boys have to wear on certain days. Failure to bring/wear their ties would result in disciplinary actions. 4. Boys continue to address their teachers as "sir" and "ma'am", never by their names, reflecting a highly respectful culture. Students from non-boys schools usually address their teachers as "cher" or "Mr/Ms xxx". 5. Boys from boys' schools usually have a common identity. For example, boys from Victoria School are called "Victorians", and this is printed on the back of their PE t-shirts. Then there is also "Rafflesian", "Josephian", "ACSian", and so on.


Students from 17-18/19 year attend junior college, polytechnic or the institute of technical education. Only students attending junior colleges are made to wear uniforms. This has led to complaints about 'unfairness'. An increasing number of Singapore students are entering university. And students who perform well in their secondary schools receive free university educations. Students who pass the GCE 'A' Level examination at the end of Junior College Year 2 or Pre-University Year 3, and students with excellent results at the end of Polytechnic Year 3/4 will then have to compete for admission to a local university, either National University of Singapore (NUS) or Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

Curiculum and Teaching Methods

Yes, teaching methods and curricula largely British. Students take the British 'O' Level at 15/16 in Secondary School and 'A' Level at 18 in Junior College. Exam papers are sent to the UK for marking. Recently, top secondary schools have also begun to incorporate the Swiss International Baccalaureate as their main graduation exam, replacing the 'O' Level. What is less British: primary schools, polytechnics, institutes of technical education.


We have begun to acquire some information on activities at Singapore schools and the uniforms associated with the various activities. Here we at this time still have very little information as our Singapore archives is very limited. The activities we have noted seem strongly influenced by British school traditions. Sports are important at many Singapore scgools showing the British imprint. We also notice rgat choral singing is popular. There is a choir in almost every secondary school in Singapore. In a mixed school, we see more girls than boys in choir, but in all-boys' schools, choir is very popular.

School Cadet Units

We have no detailed information about cadet programs in Singapore. The country was a British colony and we note cadet programs at Singapore schools before World War II. We do not know how common this was, but we do know that the cadet programs were mnot just at the schools for British children.

Academic Achievement

It is difficult to prove, but Singapore students have consistently been highly ranked in Mathematics and Science. Methods and curricula have been influences by Britain from the colonial era. A Singapore reader tells us that the United Kingdom has begun to borrow education ideas from Singapore. The left-wing British Guardian nespaper is not impressed. primarily because for ideological reasons theu object to selection amd market approaches. [Sahlberg] Actual success is often seen as less imprtant by idealogically based critics. This is interesting, because Communist Governments once in power commonly adopt educational policies with strong selection approaches.

Economic Impact

One important factor to consider in assessing a country's education system is the impact on the economy. No country has suceeded in building a sucessful economy without a quality education system. One important historian has argued that Western dominance has been based on certain killer apps of society thst have flown from free market capitalism and political democracy. [Ferguson] And ine of those killer apps is education. It is one reason that America, Germany, and Japan proved so successful. Often we find a tendency to over emphasize natural resources and under emphasize other fators such as education. Of course natural reources are important and are part of the American story. But some countries with emense natural resources hav failed to develop modern economies (Iran, Iran, Russia, and Saudia Arabia). And some countries with little or no resources have been very successful. Here Japan and the Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan) are leading examples. And one connecting factor in all of these countries is a strong education system. In this connection, Singapore's education system is interesting. Singapore students tend to report very impresive reults in math and science. Yet we are sure that the country is benefitting from this. We do not see Singapore creating high tech companies that utilize all this talent. We do not see important Singapore high tech companies or tech start ups. A Singapore reader believes that this is due to the country's small size. "Singapore is a small country and does not have a large labour force and domestic market, and this doesn't help foster an environment for tech companies. As a result, the industry hasn't been a lucrative one to enter. The most academically-inclined students go into law, medicine, banking and government." Of course manufacturing can be dome in elsewhere. Many American high-tech companies manufacture abroad. As it now stands, Singapore schools are creating a well educated population providing a telent pool for the many successful Singaporan enterprises, by we find the emphasis in the schools on math and sciene without an important tech sector curious. A Singapore reader adds, "I would add two factors to this economic discussion. First, there is a flaw in the education system which streams students into either 'science' or 'arts' for junior college. So students only have two narrow choices before university. Doing well in these narrow choices may not represent real interest in the subjects. Second, there is hardly a risk-taking culture in Singapore. There is little room for failure, so people want safe jobs. As such, few become risk-taking technopreneurs."

Required Uniforms

Uniforms are compulsory at all Singapore schools. Uniforms are compulsory even in pre-school and all the way up to junior college (18 years). Standards are stricter in primary (7-12) and secondary schools (13-17). While the Government requires a uniform, it does not mandate the precise nature of the uniform. All state schools in Singapore (that is, local primary and secondry schools and not universities) have their own unique uniforms. We are not sure if the government regulations specify waht type of uniforms are required or if they simplu state that shools have to require that the students wear uniforms. mandating uniforms, but all state schools have them." Singapore school uniforms are usually chosen by the head of the school ("principal") and lasts for the major part of the school's history. Schools rarely change the uniform unless a new replacement principal insists on it. As a result, Singapore school uniforms rarely change. A Sinapore student tells us, "School uniforms usually do not change. My school's uniform has not changed for 8 decades!" The schools have a variety of uniforms. The uniform is usually shorts and collared short-sleeved button shirts for boys (made of nylon or polythene) and a blouse and skirt for girls. A Singapore reader tells us, "Most schools change the boys uniform to long pants for older boys, usually at age 15. The older boys uniform is usually long pants as leg hair with the onset of puberty is considered unsightly." One popular style used at many schools is white open-neck shirt with short sleeves, beige short trousers, and white ankle socks. HBC has very limited information about Singapore schools. The school garments we have noted in recent years have been casual open necked white shirts, brown or blue shorts, white ankle socks, and plain white tennis shoes. We have no information at this time about uniforms previously worn in Singapore schools. We suspect they may have been more formal British styles. We do not yet have a chronology of Singapore school uniforms. Our information is still quite limited. Singapore was a British colony. Thus school uniform styles were influenced by the British. Singapore's tropical climate required some modification. We do have some information on 2000 styles. A Singapore newspaper described school uniform styles in 2000. Singapore schools require school uniforms. The schools we have seen have uniforms with simple, utilitarian styles. Some of the girls are a little uncertain about 'looking like Sailor Moon' as they put it.

Individual Schools

We have very limited information about individual Singapore schools. A reader writes, "Eeven though my school's name is "The Chinese High School", it is not a Chinese school as all syllabuses follow the government standard." -- Edwin Tan. We also note the St. Patrick's School. They had a school cadet group in 1939. We note a British boarding school in the 1960s, but we do not yet know the name of the school. We notice another British school, but are not sure if it was a day or boarding school. Singapore is a city state, thus as far as we know, the only boarding schools were for British children during the colonial era.

School Policies

Singapore schools have a variety of regulations concerning school uniform. At least one school that allows older boys to wear long trousers, make them wear short pants if they misbehave.


Ferguson, Niall. Civilization: The West and the Rest.

Kam, H. and Gopinathan, S. (1999) 'Recent developments in education in Singapore'. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 10 (1), 99-117.

Sahlberg, Pasi. "Britain should be wary of borrowing education ideas from abroad," The Guardian (April 27, 2015).


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Created: June 5, 1999
Last updated:11:33 PM 9/8/2017