Strong Foundation



As Principal of Temasek Junior College and later National Junior College, Mr Wee Heng Tin was invited to discussions with Minister of Education, Dr Goh Keng Swee (1979-1985), where he shared his views on language learning in primary school, and on Moral Education. These wide-ranging interviews that Dr Goh and his team of system engineers conducted with principals like Wee, MOE HQ staff and teachers, were part of a serious study to identify the strengths and weaknesses of an education system that was certain that it had supplied places in schools but unsure about its outcomes. It culminated in what came to be known as the 1979 Goh Report which brought drastic changes to the education landscape.

The Goh Report identified areas that needed urgent attention. The most pressing was the high attrition rate in secondary schools, also understood as a problem of wastage as there was no system or programme to train or develop premature school leavers for work or for life. Another problem was the lack of articulation of the purpose of education, which hinted at how core education issues such as why we teach what we teach, and how best to achieve the education outcomes that we want, had not been sufficiently debated nor scrutinised. Also of concern to Goh's team was how the Ministry of Education was organised, and how schools were managed.

So began in earnest a host of changes to the education system. The New Education System (NES) introduced in February 1979 made it compulsory for all Primary 3 pupils to sit for an examination, after which pupils were streamed into either a ‘Normal' three-year upper primary course or an ‘Extended' five-year upper primary course. The weakest would enter the five-year Extended Monolingual course. This was to cause a national debate that has only abated somewhat in recent years, with refinements to the system. Inside and outside the education service, people expressed concern about whether it was suitable to determine children's ability to learn based on their performance at one examination at age nine, how the labels ‘Normal' or ‘Monolingual' would affect the children, and what long term impact these would have on their psyche.

IN LINE WITH ITS POLICY UNDER THE NEW EDUCATION SYSTEM TO ALLOW EACH PUPIL TO LEARN AT HIS OR HER OWN PACE, THE MINISTRY ALSO IMPLEMENTED THE GIFTED EDUCATION PROGRAMME (GEP). A SPECIAL PROJECT UNIT, CALLED THE GIFTED EDUCATION BRANCH, WAS FORMED. THE TEAM'S MAIN TASKS WERE TO SELECT PUPILS AND TEACHERS FOR THE GEP, TRAIN THE TEACHERS, PREPARE CURRICULUM MATERIALS AS WELL AS IMPLEMENT THE PROGRAMME AND MONITOR ITS PROGRESS. THE TEAM RECEIVED TRAINING FROM A SPECIALIST IN GIFTED EDUCATION FROM THE USA AND A PILOT PROJECT WAS STARTED IN TWO PRIMARY SCHOOLS, RAFFLES GIRLS' PRIMARY SCHOOL AND ROSYTH SCHOOL, AND TWO SECONDARY SCHOOLS, RAFFLES GIRLS' SECONDARY SCHOOL AND RAFFLES INSTITUTION.

At the same time, the Goh Report had highlighted how there was insufficient dialogue between school inspectors who hear teachers' feedback on teaching materials that were rolled out, and the curriculum developers who had to produce learning resources for schools. One of Goh's innovations was to establish the Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore (CDIS), staffed with teachers with school experience, to produce learning resources that would be used in all schools so that material of a certain quality would find its way into every school bag.

The educational television programme unit was also incorporated into CDIS. Goh sited CDIS outside MOE HQ in a bid to allow space for curriculum developers to concentrate on their core work.

There followed debates on whether the Western or Asian model of Moral Education was suitable for use in schools. Goh had felt that the Moral Education syllabus, "A Good Citizen", used till then, was inadequate. So a new syllabus, "Being and Becoming", was commissioned. As early as 1982, Goh had announced that Religious Knowledge would be introduced in schools. In 1984, it became compulsory for Secondary 3 students to read Islamic Studies, Buddhist Studies, Bible Knowledge, Hindu Studies, Sikh Studies or Confucian Ethics as an ‘O' level subject. Controversy raged from day one. At one end, some parents, teachers and principals feared that proselytising would be encouraged in school, which would have gone against the spirit of a secular education. At the other end, defenders of Religious Knowledge expressed concern that the syllabus was inadequate. In 1989, MOE reversed the policy on Religious Knowledge: it became a non-compulsory elective subject taught outside curriculum time. Clearly the debate on how best to inculcate values and achieve desired social-moral outcomes was and remains a controversial one.

THE BILINGUAL EDUCATION POLICY DEMANDED TWEAKING EVEN AS IT REMAINED AS A CORNERSTONE POLICY. BY THE LATE 1970s, IT WAS APPARENT THAT PARENTS COULD SEE THE USEFULNESS OF ENGLISH AND BEGAN TO CHOOSE ENGLISH MEDIUM SCHOOLS FOR THEIR CHILDREN. THIS MEANT THAT MORE CHILDREN IN SCHOOL WERE LEARNING ENGLISH AS A FIRST LANGUAGE, AND RECEIVING INSTRUCTION IN ALL SUBJECTS IN ENGLISH, EXCEPT FOR MALAY, CHINESE, AND TAMIL AS A SECOND LANGUAGE.

From a high of more than 500 small vernacular schools, non-English stream education lost favour with parents so rapidly that many were forced to close. Yet even then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew himself was sore to see the demise of some of these schools.

IN HIS MEMOIRS, LEE EXPRESSED HIS ADMIRATION FOR CHINESE SCHOOL STUDENTS, WHOM HE FOUND TO BE DETERMINED AND COMMITTED TO THE NATION. HE FELT THAT PERHAPS SUCH STUDENTS WERE PRODUCTS OF A CERTAIN SCHOOL ENVIRONMENT. SO HE WELCOMED THE IDEA OF PRESERVING THE BEST OF THE CHINESE SCHOOLS UNDER THE SPECIAL ASSISTANCE PLAN (SAP) PROGRAMME OF 1979.

Foremost in Ministry officials' minds was that these SAP schools must dedicate themselves to preserving the best in Chinese language, literature and culture, and must teach Chinese well. Other government efforts to help arrest the rapidly declining enrolment rate at Chinese schools included allowing Chinese stream schools to take in students in the middle of a school year, and allowing these schools to start pre-primary classes for five-year-olds. Parents had to commit to keeping their child in that school for at least three years, thus ensuring that the child is enrolled for primary education in the school. These attempts, some more successful than others, were grounded in the belief that learning one's mother tongue gives one the necessary cultural ballast that we cherish as a society. For years on end, the issue of the learning of our mother tongue - what standards to aspire to, how to teach it, how to promote it, how not to disadvantage those who cannot cope with learning two languages - has continued to grip the imagination of education planners. One Cabinet Minister after another was to head committees tasked to review language learning in school, signalling clearly that this is as much an education issue as it is a socio-political issue; and for years to come, this nation will continue to grapple with the bilingual education policy.

In our complex language environment, how individuals have experienced the bilingual education policy cannot be uniform. The most able at learning languages have been given opportunities to learn a third language - French, German, Japanese, Malay for non-Malays and Chinese for non-Chinese. Those not endowed to learn a language with ease may recall enduring hours of public and private instruction in a language which they cannot seem to master.

The 1990s saw changes to the bilingual education policy. Students who were very able in their mother tongue language were encouraged to pursue the language at higher levels. Their classmates who struggled in Chinese, Malay or Tamil class were allowed to learn a simpler curriculum from the secondary level. The smaller Indian communities whose mother tongue was not Tamil could learn Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Panjabi or Urdu.

Another area of concern was how schools were managed by the Ministry. Goh, who believed that schools should be where the action is, formed the Schools Council (1981 – 1991) where principals were rotated to sit in the Council to discuss issues and share their views. Other principals could sit in the gallery and raise queries or suggest ideas. In his inaugural address to principals at the Schools Council, Goh gave his impressions of the weaknesses of MOE's management system then, and encouraged principals to be brave participants in this "unique experiment of mass involvement in the management decision-making process" (Goh, 1981). This laid the foundation for autonomy to be devolved to schools, step by step, to the extent that the most successful schools turned independent.

By the time Dr Tony Tan succeeded Goh as Minister for Education in 1985, the stage was set for strong schools with strong leaders to be given greater freedom than a centrally planned education system would grant. Tan, very interested in innovation, led a team of 12 school principals on a tour of top schools in the United Kingdom and the United States. The outcome was the report "Towards Excellence in Education", which recommended that the very good schools which satisfy the criteria of having a good principal, good teachers, good students, strong alumni, and strong community support, could do even better if they had more autonomy and turned independent.

IN 1987, THREE BOYS' SCHOOLS, ANGLO-CHINESE SCHOOL, THE CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL AND ST. JOSEPH'S INSTITUTION TURNED INDEPENDENT. IN SUBSEQUENT YEARS, FIVE MORE SCHOOLS FOLLOWED SUIT: RAFFLES INSTITUTION, LED BY MR EUGENE WIJEYASINGHA WHO WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN PROMOTING THE INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS IDEA, RAFFLES GIRLS' SECONDARY SCHOOL, METHODIST GIRLS' SCHOOL, SINGAPORE CHINESE GIRLS' SCHOOL AND NANYANG GIRLS' HIGH SCHOOL.

Dr Tony Tan's name also became synonymous with review and reform in Higher Education, even after he had relinquished the Minister for Education portfolio. In January 2006, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (speaking at the Official Opening of The Singapore Management University's City Campus) publicly acknowledged the contributions of Tan "who has steered our universities to become institutions of teaching and research excellence for more than two decades."

The success of the Independent Schools gave the Ministry the confidence to establish Autonomous Schools after Mr Lee Yock Suan became Minister for Education in 1992. Within the government school system, it was felt that the more successful schools could be given greater autonomy and funding to provide quality education. In 1993, the Ministry established the Edusave Scheme to level up enrichment opportunities through grants to pupils and schools. Every pupil in primary, secondary and pre-university was given an Edusave account. Based on good performance in academic areas, and later also in non-academic areas, pupils received scholarships, bursaries and awards in their Edusave account. Lee's tenure also witnessed one seminal refinement to the primary and secondary school system. 1993 saw the last of the Extended Monolingual stream, or pupils who spent a total of eight years in primary school. Thereafter, primary school education reverted to a six-year course. From 1994, the academically weakest pupils in primary school would enter the Normal (Technical) course in Secondary school, a four-year course which prepares students for advancement to the Institute of Technical Education, which was transformed into a post-secondary educational institution.

By the time Minister Teo Chee Hean assumed the leadership in 1997, a new vision of Thinking Schools, Learning Nation was crafted and announced by then Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong. It captured the Ministry's focus on designing a curriculum that encourages students to be critical and innovative thinkers, incorporating IT intelligently in the classroom, and inculcating a value system that will stand students in good stead for the long term. The acronyms and terms TSLN (Thinking Schools, Learning Nation), NE (National Education) and IT (Information Technology) Masterplan became common vocabulary in the education service. More were to follow: DOE for Desired Outcomes of Education, which spelt out the expected outcomes in terms of beliefs and behaviour a child must acquire at each key stage in the school system; CIP for Community Involvement Programme which encouraged students to break out of the narrow confines of their immediate world to care for the community; SEM for School Excellence Model, a new approach to guide schools in charting their broad directions and appraising their own effectiveness, as well as EPMS, the Enhanced Performance Management System to guide education officers in setting work targets and developing their competencies and capacities. This was part of a new package to enhance career development and recognition for the teaching profession.


An Accidental Hero

In November 1961, students boycotted the government's Secondary Four examinations by picketing, vandalising buses and blocking the entrance to Teachers' Training College. Even the Ministry of Education was under siege. This was a reaction against the government's regulation to convert the 6-3-3 system in Chinese schools to the 6-4-2 system in English schools. The Chinese school community had perceived the Ministry's attempt to standardise examinations as a deliberate move to control Chinese schools.

By his own admission, Koh Hoe Kuan did not know better when he took down the posters that fateful day in 1961. The student boycotters of the Chinese examination had lined the road up the slope leading to the Ministry of Education Headquarters at Kay Siang Road. The posters declaring the protesters' intentions and grievances, Koh removed "with shaking hands".

There was a hint of trouble to come, for the night before, Koh had worked overtime to cut the fence that faced Margaret Drive – "in case any candidate turned up to sit for exams at Kay Siang or if other exam centres could not function because of the protests, we could let him in through the cut fence." He did the leopard crawl under the cover of the night, cut the fence in some places, and retied it with twine that could be released at will to reveal an opening. Later that year, when Education Minister Mr Yong Nyuk Lin hosted an annual dinner for MOE staff at the Istana, Koh's supervisor, Reverend T.R. Doraisamy, brought Koh before the Minister, and introduced him as "the man who cut the fence", to which Minister Yong had responded with, "You don't have to pay for it!"

KOH HOE KUAN / Clerical Support Officer / Exams Operation Department /
Singapore Examinations & Assessment Board //


Dr Goh Keng Swee

Education is a powerful vehicle of social mobility; that is, families can improve their earning power through the education system... we should ask…"What proportion of the original Primary One cohort reached Pre-U 1 and how do children from different parental educational backgrounds compare?'... Children's performance in school is closely related to home environment. ...we should get a higher percentage of school children to get good passes at 'O' and 'A' levels and where their inability to do so is the result of handicaps arising out of their home or family environment we must help them to overcome these.

DR GOH KENG SWEE / MINISTER FOR EDUCATION (1979 – 1980, 1981 – 1985) / AT TEACHERS' DAY CELEBRATION / 31 AUGUST 1979 //


Dr Tony Tan

Emphasis on the basics, though necessary, is unlikely to be sufficient to teach our children how to think and how to continue to learn throughout their lives. We have to build into our children the realisation that education is not a one-off experience in schools but a life long process of learning and re-learning skills to keep oneself up-to-date. To remain useful in the modern world, students must acquire the faculty to remain open-minded, inquisitive and receptive to new ideas. To achieve this, we need principals and teachers who are creative and innovative

DR TONY TAN KENG YAM / MINISTER FOR EDUCATION (1980 – 1981, 1985 - 1992) /
AT NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL INSTITUTE / 22 JULY 1986 //


Mr Lee Yock Suan



With the additional funds available from Edusave, many schools are organising a wide variety of enhancement programmes for their pupils. These include courses and seminars on computer application, music appreciation, and public speaking as well as leadership and adventure camps, field trips and expeditions. Secondary schools are making use of the Edusave grants to hire part-time coaches for various extra-curricular activities and to purchase equipment and materials to meet the needs of their pupils. With experience in operating the Edusave schemes, I am confident more schools will come up with innovative schemes to enrich the learning experience of their pupils.

MR LEE YOCK SUAN / MINISTER FOR EDUCATION (1992 -1997) / AT THE SCHOOLS' COLOURS AWARD PRESENTATION CEREMONY ON 30 OCTOBER 1993 //


Mr Teo Chee Hean



We have evidence that we are strong in the practical aspects of delivering good education, but the theoretical basis for what we do and how to do it well is not well understood. I searched for answers when I visited some of the top Schools of Education overseas; ...I was convinced that we could develop NIE into one of the best Institutes of Education in the world, not just for teacher training, but for research that would translate into what matters in the classroom. I am pleased that we set up the Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice in NIE. The work is cut out for the centre: research on language acquisition, maintaining excellence and our lead in the teaching and learning of Math and Science, use of IT in education, and understanding how the brain works, acquires, uses and creates knowledge.

MR TEO CHEE HEAN / MINISTER FOR EDUCATION (1997 -2003) //