In her address to Parliament, the President called for a “broader and more open meritocracy that works well for all Singaporeans”. A lynchpin of our system of meritocracy is our education system, which is the subject of my speech today.
Education and Examinations
Singapore’s education system has gone through several changes over the years, from the introduction of streaming in 1981, to the introduction of Subject-based Banding (SBB) in 2014, to the roll out of Full SBB starting in 2020. Yet even with these changes, one major feature of our education system remains central: Examinations.
As a parent of two children who have gone through the PSLE and are now in secondary school, I am rather familiar with both the joy and — more often — the frustration that parents go through when helping their children through major national exams.
Tutoring my own children has also provided me insights into the academic curriculum and its continued focus on exams. I recall spending an inordinate amount of time working with my children through assessment books and past exam papers. I would often have to peek at the answer sheets behind, so I could teach them how to answer science questions with just the right number of points — while putting up with taunts by my own offspring which went along the lines of, “See, you also don’t know!”
I would also have to repeatedly drill my children on maths problem sums. To get a good pass in Singapore’s exams, students need to not just answer questions correctly, but also quickly, or risk the “horror” of having many unanswered questions at the end of the paper, due to exam time limits.
Many mid-year exams have been done away with, but these have been replaced with weighted assessments which occur throughout the school year. The major national exams like the PSLE, N levels, O levels or A levels always loom just around the corner. Perform poorly in any of these exams, and the student will find their future educational options narrowed down or delayed — a prospect that many students and parents fear, no matter what the Government says about the many pathways to success.
There are positive effects of exams: They can incentivise teachers to cover their subjects more thoroughly, a skill which our local educators excel in. Exams motivate students to work harder to gain a sense of accomplishment.
However, there are also negative effects of exams. They can motivate students to aim for test mastery, instead of subject mastery. Tests encourage teachers to narrow the curriculum and lose instructional time, which could lead to “teaching to the test”.
Exams typically assess only certain aspects of a learner’s knowledge, potentially overlooking other facets of their education. Exam outcomes may not be definitive since they are solely based on a student’s performance on the exam day. If a student is unwell or performs poorly under stress, it could adversely affect their exam results and their scores may not be an accurate reflection of their grasp of the subject matter. If the student fails to achieve their desired exam results, they will have to settle for courses of study in secondary schools or tertiary institutions that they may not be so inclined towards.
National exams induce tremendous amounts of stress on students, as they determine their future educational pathways and, consequently, their future careers and earning potential. While it can be argued that it is good for young people to learn to cope with stress, when stress becomes toxic, it can have negative effects on learning and knowledge retention and, in extreme situations, could become chronic.
By channelling their energies into preparing for exams, students may forgo opportunities to experience the joy of learning and achieving mastery in what is really important for life.
The streaming approach put students through a standardised test like the PSLE, sorted them into good, average and weak students, and put them on different education streams in secondary school with different subject combinations based on their test scores. The new subject-based banding approach also sorts students into good, average and weak students for each subject, and channels them into subject combinations based on their assessed ability in each subject.
While subject-based banding is less rigid than streaming, it is still based on the same principle: A student has to meet a specific test score in order to study the subjects they are interested in.
The ostensible reason for implementing this sorting mechanism is to provide some assurance that the student can cope with the rigours of that subject or subject level before being allowed to take it, so that they do not drop out of school. This is probably why through-train programmes are currently available mainly to an elite few students who qualify for the Integrated Programme by virtue of their stellar performance in the PSLE. There is little risk that these students will become early school drop-outs.
In contrast, the Workers’ Party has proposed a 10-year through-train programme from Primary 1 to Secondary 4 as an option for parents who want their child to bypass the PSLE. Our proposed through-train programme gives students 10 years to prepare for their first major exam at Secondary 4, allowing them to learn at a pace best-suited for them, while developing other areas of interest. The 10-year through-train programme will pair up existing primary and secondary schools and complement, but not replace, the non-through train tracks in these schools. My Hon. Friend, Assoc Prof Jamus Lim, elaborated on this proposal in detail during the Committee of Supply debate earlier this year.
We need to make our education system less of a sorting mechanism for identifying students’ abilities and more of a launchpad for students to discover their strengths and interests, and develop deep skills in their areas of interest.
Students should not be channelled away from their interests just because they did not obtain a certain cut-off point in their exams. There might be concerns that some so-called “kiasu parents” will push their children to take subjects that are far beyond their abilities. However, I believe that most Singaporean students and their parents are keenly aware of their own limitations and will not bite off more than they can chew. After all, if a student takes a subject at too challenging a level, they will have difficulty scoring the much coveted A1’s in national exams.
I would like to move on to another aspect of education which needs more focus in Singapore — financial literacy.
Singapore is a major financial hub, with numerous global, regional and local institutional investors and high-net-worth family offices based here. Billions of investment funds are raised and managed in Singapore.
Yet, Singaporeans generally lack the financial know-how and confidence to manage their own personal finances and plan for their future. In a private sector survey in 2022, more than half of Singaporeans considered themselves “financially illiterate”. The same survey showed that financial literacy is the lowest among the age group of 18 to 24, at only 35%. In the MoneySense National Financial Capability Survey 2021, four in 10 respondents said they lacked knowledge of basic financial concepts such as risk diversification and simple and compound interest, and more than half had not developed a retirement plan.
MoneySense is Singapore’s national financial education programme. In the two decades since it was started, it has launched various programmes and provided resources to help Singaporeans manage their finances better. However, the programmes seem to be mostly ad-hoc and campaign driven. Various surveys have been conducted on financial literacy among Singaporeans since its launch, but it is not clear how much the financial literacy of Singaporeans has improved over the last two decades, as these surveys do not seem to have followed the same scope or framework.
Based on the results of the recent surveys, it appears that a lot more needs to be done to enhance Singaporeans’ financial capacity and literacy. And instead of doing more, it appears that some co-funding of financial literacy workshops for schools under MoneySense has been discontinued.
For a developed country, with such high educational, wealth and income levels, and an established status as a leading international financial hub, the survey results show worrying statistics about the financial literacy rate in Singapore.
To improve our financial resilience as a nation, there is a need to plug the current financial literacy gap among Singaporeans and empower Singaporeans with the knowledge and confidence to take greater ownership of their financial well-being.
I would like to share three suggestions to systematically uplift the financial literacy of Singaporeans, and empower them with the knowledge and confidence to manage their own financial health.
First of all, I would like to suggest that the Government develop a National Financial Literacy Framework, to provide a systematic basis for benchmarking improvements in financial literacy levels over time. In the Financial Literacy Survey conducted by the MAS (Monetary Authority of Singapore) in 2005, a scoring system was mooted, covering both knowledge and action. However, it appears that the scoring system was discontinued in subsequent surveys. Aggregate financial literacy statistics of Singaporeans should be established, measured and tracked as part of ascertaining Singapore’s financial resilience.
Second, I would like to suggest that the Government establish a National Financial Education Programme, under the Ministry of Education, to provide proactive and comprehensive financial education for Singaporeans across all ages.
I note that the Minister for Education had mentioned previously that financial literacy is infused into subjects such as Character and Citizenship Education (CCE), and that the Student Learning Space provides self-paced lessons for students to learn financial literacy. However, I believe financial literacy is such a critical subject matter that we should not adopt a “by-the-way” approach.
Instead, we should equip Singaporeans across all ages with deeper financial knowledge and confidence. This should include not just MoneySense’s Tier 1 knowledge of “basic money management”, but should also aim to significantly improve Singaporeans’ financial capacity in Tier 2 — “financial planning” — and Tier 3 — “investment know-how”.
Financial literacy should be included as a standalone subject taught in schools, as good financial habits need to start from young. It does not need to be an examinable subject. Financial literacy clubs can be included as a co-curricular activity across all schools. These clubs can also be set up at all community and SAFRA clubs, with structured activities.
Third, the concentration of household wealth in residential property assets needs to be addressed, to give Singaporeans the financial freedom to explore other asset classes for their retirement planning, in order to achieve better diversification and improve returns on their assets.
According to the Department of Statistics, almost half of Singapore’s household wealth is in residential property assets. A DBS report has indicated that property will no longer be the best retirement investment in Singapore in the future. Having half of Singaporeans’ wealth in a single, relatively illiquid asset is a financial risk. Contrary to the common perception, other asset classes have also generated returns comparable to Singapore residential real estate, even in the Singapore property boom period, especially after factoring in costs relating to holding and transacting properties.
As I had mentioned in my speech on the Motions on Public Housing in February, we need to moderate the growth in housing prices and ensure they do not outpace Singapore’s economic growth. It is unlikely that Singapore’s economic growth will be anywhere close to what was achieved in the past few decades. Therefore, it is also unlikely that, moving forward, Singaporeans’ residential property assets can deliver a level of returns similar to what was previously achieved, without causing undue inflationary pressures.
Equipping Singaporeans with better financial literacy will help them become willing to have a more diversified asset portfolio and make more sound decisions while doing so, taking into consideration their risk profile and circumstances. This could in turn better secure Singaporeans’ retirement adequacy.
Mr Speaker, in summary, our education system should provide more opportunities for our students to pursue their interests, as long as they have demonstrated their commitment and ability to complete their whole course of study. We need to move away from the over-emphasis on preparing for high stakes exams, and place greater focus on enjoying learning, and achieving subject and skills mastery.
Equipping Singaporeans with greater financial knowledge and confidence will enable them to take charge of their financial well-being, and make better-informed decisions on their personal finances. Strengthening Singaporeans’ financial resilience will also serve to enhance our overall resilience as a nation.
Finally, I would like to respond to what the Hon Member, Mr Murali Pillai, said in his speech earlier. Unanimous agreement on both sides of the House is not a prerequisite for national unity. Rational and responsible debate in Parliament that focuses on policies, not personalities, is the way to express our diverse views and improve our policies, with the objective of improving the lives of Singaporeans, while remaining united as one people.
Sir, I support the Motion.