Topping PISA charts, at what cost?

Why is Singapore’s education system a double-edged sword to many? To understand this, one first needs to consider Singapore’s unique societal identity.


Photo courtesy: HSK Centre


You may have heard of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) test at some point in your life, or even sat for it if it hasn’t been that long since you finished schooling. This worldwide study aims to evaluate education systems by measuring the performance of 15-year-olds across 3 categories: Reading, Mathematics and Science. Based on the latest Pisa test result, Singapore ranked 2nd across all 3 categories.


Interestingly, the results also indicated that Singapore students are far more fearful of failure compared to their international peers. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 78% of 15-year-olds in Singapore voiced out their concerns over failure in the questionnaire. Specifically, the questionnaire consisted of three statements about attitudes towards failure. Compared to the average result of 54% from across 37 OECD countries, this makes Singaporeans far more doubtful about their future out of their fear of failure.



It is not uncommon to hear about your peers choosing university courses or education pathways based on what majority will deem as the safest and most practical choice. The result? You get a bunch of unhappy students.


Yes, education is important and one shouldn’t be too overly idealistic when making big decisions. But we often forget that learning is meant to be an enjoyable process. Learning needs to be self-initiated. Without taking interest in your learning materials, it is very hard for actual learning to take place.


Being a small nation that is not blessed with natural resources, Singapore’s success story was a miracle, to begin with. As such, it is not hard to see why a skilful labour force is the most important asset of the Republic. The fact that our society is heavily influenced by Asian values further adds to the pressure of getting good grades.

Singaporean children are exposed to competition through internal and national examinations in primary school. From there, they will be streamlined into different education pathways and made to sit through another national examination in secondary school. This cycle is then repeated at the tertiary level.


A double-edged sword instead?

While this system was created with the intention of preparing the younger generation well academically before they join the workforce, its strong emphasis on streamlining and competition leaves one to wonder if it is truly effective. Excellent grades open up doors to elite schools, better resources, and more connections.

Therefore, it is not hard to see why getting good grades seems to be the only ultimate goal Singapore students want to get out of their schooling years. Going through a pressure cooker like the education system, many fear losing out to their peers had they followed their passion and chose an unconventional pathway.



The successes of Singapore’s education system is often talked about in the global media. Known for its world-class educational institutions and impressive performance in math and science, Singapore seems to be doing a great job when it comes to education. But of course, no education system is perfect. What’s not being talked about as much is the drawbacks of it.

The over-emphasis on grades in our society has resulted in many choosing to study just for the sake of not being seen as a failure. After-school supplementary classes, tuition classes, and assessment papers form an integral part of every school-going child’s life. With this much time and money dedicated to getting good grades, it is not hard to see why the younger generation grow up to fear failure so much.


From a foreigner’s point of view, they might think “Failure is inevitable in life, why fear it?”. Without understanding the context of Singapore’s education scene, it is very hard to understand why many young Singaporeans fear failure so much. Here, a student’s perception of self-worth is closely tied to how well he or she lives up to societal expectations.


Failure to live up to expectations would prove to be detrimental to their own perception of themselves. It is so easy to fall prey to these false ideas of ‘not being enough’. Hence, it is not a surprise that anxiety, depression, and OCD are the most common mental health concerns among local youths.


Changes in recent years

Fortunately, in recent years, the government has recognised the need to address this issue. Policy changes such as abolishing examinations at lower primary school levels, replacing secondary school streaming with subject-based banding show the government’s stand in changing society’s attitude towards education.


On a personal level

While it is heartening to see the government’s change in perspective towards education, why not lead the change that we want to see? On an individual level, perhaps parents can start by encouraging and affirming their child’s efforts. On a societal level, normalising occasional failures and placing more emphasis on effort instead of grades are two possible starting points as well to change the general public’s perception of failure.


Whether or not the policies mentioned above will prove to be effective in alleviating the flaws of our education system, only time can tell. Regardless of the outcome, we need to first recognise that our system has its flaws before we can work on it collectively as a society. So go ahead, share this post. Talk to your friends. Start by raising this topic up in conversations. Lead the change.

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