29 September 2006

We're on a Roll!

ST Sep 28, 2006
EM3 stream to be dropped from 2008
Pupils will be grouped according to ability in specific subjects

By Jane Ng

THE EM3 stream, on the way out over the past few years, is finally being scrapped.

The hugely unpopular stream - which groups the weakest primary school pupils together - will be junked in 2008.

Students will instead be banded according to their strengths in specific subjects.

For example, a student strong only in mathematics will study it at the standard PSLE level - but he will take English and Mother Tongue at the easier foundation level, which covers the basics.

Currently, he would be studying all three at the foundation level - branding him as a weak student.

The change, which will take effect for students entering Primary 5 in 2008, was announced yesterday by Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at his ministry's annual Work Plan Seminar.

It is the culmination of a series of amendments made to the primary school streaming system over the past few years.

In 2004, the EM1 and EM2 streams were merged, allowing pupils to take Higher Mother Tongue, which was previously offered only to those in EM1.

Before that, EM1 students did both Mother Tongue and English at a higher level, while EM2 pupils took Mother Tongue as a second language.

The lines were blurred further that year, when schools were given the go-ahead to merge the EM3 stream with the rest of the cohort for non-academic subjects such as music and art.

For some time now, educators and MPs have asked for the EM3 stream to be done away with altogether, saying that it hurts student morale.
Another good move by the Singapore government, how surprising. Perhaps Tharman has finally educated himself about the well-documented Rosenthal Effect. In a nutshell, studies have shown that young kids who are labelled and treated as "smart" will really become smarter (demonstrating a clear jump in their IQ scores over a one-year period), while young kids who are labelled and treated as "slow" or "stupid" will really become slower and stupider.

Research shows however that the Rosenthal Effect becomes less and less pronounced among older kids. One possible explanation is that older kids are more likely to have already formed their self-concept. That is to say, due to their experiences in their younger years, they already believe that they are smart (or stupid), and therefore behave accordingly. If negative labelling has already damaged a child's self-esteem and self-concept in his earlier years, it becomes harder to later convince him that he actually is bright and has the capability to do well.

We will never be able to quantify how badly the self-esteem of older generations of Singaporeans had been damaged by streaming in our education system. Still, at least it looks that the system will be going less wrong in the future. Hopefully, the sad state of affairs described here will one day become a thing of the past.

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Anonymous said...

Yes, Mr Wang. I feel sorry for those students who had gone through EM3. Shall we call them the EM3 generation?

Another experiment gone wrong, just like our bilingual Mandarin policy where many were forced to study overseas because they could not get places at local unis.

Kelvin Tan said...

I guess calling these people "foundation" kids would sound better than EM3 kids.

Reminds me of the old drama serial, Knight Rider. I am from the Foundation...

John Riemann Soong said...

Almost too good to be true; dropping GEP, EM3 ... but it's good to be course-specific.

lee hsien tau said...

You mean no more one ITE Ah Beng ask another ITE Ah Beng (on the bus), eh you pornten class ah? And the other Ah Beng reply, no lah, Cheacher say today no class. Both Ah Bengs look at each other, laugh uneasily and move to back of bus.

Wow, what and improvement. Singapore die lah, Singapore Ah Lians will henceforth nobody to screw them.

Anonymous said...

Some second thoughts: I still don't like the tone of the article ... ie. "only strong in mathematics".

Would not a better example be, "weak in only [a certain subject]" - because I think it would be more applicable. Also, the article would imply that it is not possible to have an academic strength outside of what the PSLE covers.

YCK said...

One way of looking at the abolishment of EM3 is that it would make it less convenient to classify pupils and subject them to the Rosenthal effect.

But note the the GEP is still there for the best pupils and kiasuism will drive some Singaporean parents to grade the peers of their sons and daughters by the number of foundation versus standard subjects they take or if they are offered the GEP at Primary 3. Would it be unrealistic to expect the teachers to be affected by the parents' perceptions?

In fact if the Wikipedia article on Rosenthal effect is accurate about its effect younger pupils being more pronounced than on older ones, these banding should not be done at all. It could wait until the pupils are older and less susceptible.

I see very little substance in the changes made.

yh said...

the challenge is to tailor every child's education according to his ability and yet not crushing the weaker students labelling him as stupid.
i bet our streaming system has destroyed countless talented kids.
Imagine a kid from a working class family who speaks no english when he enteres primary school. he has to master the language well enough to do well in english exams and also other subjects taught in english before streaming in Pri 3. If he fails, he is branded stupid and possibly never recover.
This is a step in the right direction.

Mr Wang Says So said...

While we are on this topic, I would like to take the opportunity to remind all parents of young kids to please remember to constantly affirm your kids and encourage them and don't use words like "stupid" or "useless" on them. Instead, take advantage of the Rosenthal Effect to give them confidence in themselves. 50% of being able, is just believing that you're able ...

YCK said...

I omitted quoting Wikipedia that the Rosenthal effect is "nearly nonexistent in the fifth and sixth grades". This corresponds to ages of about 10 to 12 years, which will correspond to about Primary 5 to 6 in our system. If this is true, streaming or banding or GEP should start in Secondary schools.

Mr Wang also pertinently added that parents should "take advantage of the Rosenthal Effect to give them confidence in themselves." I agree fully but parents must be converted to the view first.

Modeus said...

Stray cat,

Like you I applaud the changes. However, parents should for the same reasons violently resist Tharman's reforms because of the Rosenthal effect.

Imagine that you are a high flying yuppie parent and you want to give your kids an edge in life. The current system not only allows you to manipulate your kids into a better stream by having bettter technology and tuition teachers. It also has an EM3 stream to ensure that some part of the population can never compete against your beloved progeny because of the destruction done to their self esteem.

With this new system, everyone is special in something and everyone sucks at something else. Finally we are all unique Singaporeans, just like all other unique Singaporeans.

Rich well do to parents will be now be dismayed that despite all that money, theire kids are now mediocre. They can no longer look at other parents and say "My kids own your kids. Fuck off !"

Unless of course they have kids from ACS. We all know that ACS think that they own everything in this country.

kritias said...

This is great news. I've would actually want them to scrap "streaming" all together and give the best possible education to all children.

Not subpar education to some, and good education to some. GEP style education for everyone. I was from the GEP stream myself and I believe the imagined superiority and inferiority of different streams is in large part due to the type of education and self-esteem issues.

So many children with potential destroyed by streaming.

I don't think scrapping EM3 is all perfect yet. They still have to acknowledge there are other talents than just the academic subjects. And teach teachers (all teachers) to be encouraging to their students.

Anonymous said...

Really? I used to study at ACS and I can say that a rather large chunk of the students (if not the majority) that I know there are sympathetic towards the opposition.

Mr Wang Says So said...


Your view doesn't surprise me, of course. I understand your underlying philosophies in life very well, from our many past discussions on many different topics. :)

Basically, you are very competitive with others, you measure success in quite mainstream, conventional ways and you see the world as a zero-sum game.

Whereas I am very competitive with myself, I think that success has many plausible different definitions and I see the world as having plenty of room for everyone to be successful, if only they could find their own definitions and work at getting there.

ccwai said...

I would like to share a personal experience. I was from the Monoligual stream in my primary school. I was one of the kids who was label as "stupid" and "lazy".

Fortunately, I was not subject the the Rosenthal effect.I went on to study in the ÏTE, Polytechnic and graduated with a degree from a local university.

The main reason that I was not subject to the Rosenthal effect was likely because my MOTHER always believe that I am smarter than what the system has labelled me as. However, I wonder how many others who has been labeled as "stupid" ever recover from it.

Advise to parent: Always believe in the ability of your kids. No matter what the system or other label them as.

Anonymous said...

Agreed totally with CCWAI comments. Even the school u r from plays a part in the perception of the kid's ability. Use to come from the neighbourhood school which is notorious for leadership development program for gangsters. (where is ACS or RI). Ppl will always put u down, wat kind of sch u come from. And as per CCWAI, my mum always reaffirm that I am smart and the school turn out gd students as well.

Anonymous said...

Actually, streaming is only a small problem within our education system. The fundamental problem is "how" to get kids "educated" and not "trained". When you educate someone, there is no need for a strict measurement mechanism. But when you trained someone, there is a criteria to verify if he is trained accordingly.

Our ranking of schools has also force the schools to route the kids into their "best performing" space so that the school ranking will not be affected. For example, I like to do Subject A - got interest - but did not get very good result. I will be "encouraged" drop the subject so as not to affect the school's overall result.

Problems like that are going to be more fundamental than streaming...

Our Minister got a lot of works to do if he want to get it right....sigh!

Anonymous said...

I am not convinced. To me it's just putting old wine into new wineskins. The students still do not have freedom of choice. They are still streamed according to "ability" which is assessed through - bingo - examinations! Whatever happened to passion and interest?

Anonymous said...

Nothing changed. EM3 got a new moniker thats all. Foundation kids on the block..

Anonymous said...

Yes, often I think the issue is interest rather than competence.

Often it's counter-intuitive, but if you have interest in an area you suck at, then surely there's a point in improving an area you have interest in right?

I mean, taking a subject you already know inside-out perhaps is just a waste of time. However, an examination-based system would warrant such time-wasters.

Anonymous said...


Advice, not advise.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, the scrapping of streaming will not make for a better education system if kids are trained from young to mug and score, and be impressed upon that the whole point of education is to get a nice job in some everchanging government decree'ed 'next big thing' of the economy. Onward casino studies!

And of course, the point of that is to get more money. MONEY MONEY MONEY MONEY MONEY. Results in Singaporeans getting highly schooled but poorly educated. MENSA membership at the expense of streetsmart idiocy.

Until this fundamental issue changes, don't be too quick to rejoice.

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang, get real. All this thinkering about streaming is hardly -- as you say -- a good move by the government. It is nothing more than cosmetic window dressing.

The anti-government sentiment in me would suggest a plot of the PAP government to placate the rumblings about our educational system to ensure they do not alienate voters. But in the interest of "being fair and objective", I would say that the Tharman guy is probably genuine about wanting to change mindset. But I suspect, he probably runs into major obsticle when it comes to making genuine change.

By genuine change, I mean instituting policies that will make people realise that education is more about -- how shall I put it -- developing critical thinking faculty -- sorry, can't think of a less chim word without being too wordy. Let's just say I have met the Tharman guy and having spoken to him, I believe that is what he believed. His goal is to get Singaporean -- especially the Chinese -- to be less utilitarian about education. In other words, be less of:
(1) the exam smart, heck with the learning process attitude.
(2) Or if my degree don't get me a job it's useless.
(3) the judging people by the paper certificate one has than judging by the content of a person.

I pointed out to him that if he really wants to make that change in mindset, he ought to tackle it at the demand side. In other words, until the day, the practice or rewarding scholars with jobs or we don't see job ads with slip-short requirement like "must have degree" or more Sim Wong Ho type people sprouting up, changing minor thing like streaming ain't going to help.

So if policy needs changing he ought to start at changing employment policy at least in civil servant. This is only part of the equation, the other is political one -- get the government out of micromanaging eduction. Let free market decides -- if a school wants to teach in Chinese so be it. If another wants to keep streaming so be it. All the government has to do is to ensure that every kid going to school has the basic ability to read, write and count.

FYI the Tharman guy did not respond. Anyway, I suspect -- at the risk of being too big headed -- he knows I am right.

Modeus said...

Stray cat,

Yes, you hit the nail on the head. Mainstream Singaporeans will hate the elimination of EM3. After all, now we'll never be too sure who will sweep the roads these days since everyone can develop themselves to their full potential.

I wonder how the rich can buy themselves out of this one !!!


John Rieman Soong,

There are enough rich Democrats in the US to establish that support for the opposition does'nt mean that a group is'nt snobbish or arrogant.


Anonymous said...

I do not regard the Democrats as an "opposition" party. I don't think the comparison is fair.

Not only is the US system *not* the same as the parliamentary system, our system is not the same as the usual parliamentary system.

I treat the Republicans and the Democrats as both part of the establishment. It is often a fallacy for people to compare the opposition in Singapore and the opposition in the US, but in truth they are different as night and day.

The Democrats have a strong presence and present reasonable impetus against the Republicans in Congress, and there are also state government and local government levels.

We? We only have Hougang and Potong Pasir, and hell, we can't even win funds (on a local government level) to upgrade lifts.

Now you tell me.

As a clarification, I did not have an easy time in ACS and there is a certain arrogance involved, but then there is a certain arrogance involved in everyone from New Town Secondary to RI.

But that's just my defence of a school I'm fond of, hor. Quel difference! I do not bear any affinity for my current American high school at all! [herein lies the distinction in culture]

(What is it, to be Singaporean? What is its value? It has become increasingly apparent to me, and I value it. There are many reasons and values, but they are vastly different from what the government says it is.)

Anonymous said...

As a further clarification, rarely (and I mean rarely) do I see the terms "opposition party" and "ruling party" in American politics.

There is "sitting in the Oval office", "control of both Houses", and occasionally "bipartisanship" ... but the true opposition is found in the third parties such as the Greens, the Libertarians, etc.

Those are the true opposition parties of America.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Any complex system has many trends and issues playing out in it at any given time. The scrapping of EM3 naturally cannot address all concerns with our education system at one go, but I think it is a good move.

As for your other point about not micromanaging education, I agree with you. I do have to say that at the secondary school level, there seem to have been many positive moves in this area - there seems to be greater and greater "product differentiation". We get SAP schools, autonomous schools, independent schools, schools that skip O-levels, sports schools etc etc. Not sure how well this is working out in practice, but the idea seems to be there at any rate.

Anonymous said...

more than 1 generation *sigh*... as a system feedback loop, we were oredi impacted by the effects of this thing, now, we will have to wait another generation to see +ive effects. Take one loop as 12 yrs-16 yrs (P1 to u'grad).

Matthew said...

"I wonder how the rich can buy themselves out of this one !!!"
The answer lies in the IP system. When Rear Admiral Teo Chee Hean introduced this and the 6-year program that lead to a International Baccalaureate certificate, he didn't exactly explain the reasons for yet another change in the education system. His simplistic explanation was that, instead of wasting time preparing for the GCE O Level exams, those in this new elite system will be involved in more "enriching" programmes. Guess what? Those in the IP system are now taking exams just like those sitting for the O Levels, except they are called "practice papers". Whiterh enrichment programs? The reality is that, it is just too dicy for the students to take one major exam only after 6 years, instead of being assessed at the O level, and then the A levels. So what's the real rationale for the IB? - it's the tution fee, $400 to $500, compared to the $30 for secondary school fees. So this is where the filthy rich fit in.

ted said...

I don't have much comments on this particular issue but I thought I might contribute some resource for others to read and ponder on, from the land where many in Singapore either loves it as migrants, tourists or criticise how wrong and bad it is, particularly their education sector. :)

Here's an excerpt from an Australian program, INSIGHT on channel SBS, really lovely channel I must add.

(Jenny Brockie is the presenter/facilitator of the show, the rest are the guests/participants.)

"JENNY BROCKIE: Let me ask some of the students what they think about A to E. Claire, what do you think getting somewhere between an A and an E on a report card?

CLAIRE CAVANAGH: I think if C is, like, average that's going to make me feel that I'm not doing as well, because just C - if you have, like, a reporting system of A to E you'd think that if you got a C, it seems not as good as anything else.

JENNY BROCKIE: Hannah, how would you have felt about it?

HANNAH STANTON: I would have thought that it would be beneficial probably from Year 4 to Year 6, not earlier than that, because you're still new to school. But yeah, really encourages competition between students, which I think is really valued, and it really gives you an incentive to work harder, yeah, and shows you clearly where you need to put more work in. "

This is the link to the particular broadcast that is on the topic of teachers in Australia:


They even have a free online video broadcast of the show, so those who are free and have the bandwidth might take a peep, it's at the right hand column of the page.

Anonymous said...

there seem to have been many positive moves in this area - there seems to be greater and greater "product differentiation".

Or perhaps more alienation? Why should people be prohibited from taking Philosophy of Disciplines or Human Studies (anthropology) just because they don't fit into the top 10% of the cohort?

I see IP students who complain about the PoD/IHS subjects, and there are times where I think perhaps those subjects should be taught to more deserving students who actually have an interest in it.

Anonymous said...

To Ted,

Thank you for providing the link to "The Teacher Test". I think that is the kind of discourse that we should be engaging in with regard to our education system. I highly recommend it those who are genuinely interested in improving our education system.

For a start, I applaud their Education Minister, Julie Bishop, for her approach in formulating policies and obtaining feedback from stakeholders, although I disagree with most of what she said.

Australia is way ahead of Singapore because the Minister herself is willing to "face the fire" by discussing her ideas in a session where everyone is not afraid of sharing her/her views and/or even criticize the minister openly. I'd like to see that in Singapore.

As a former teacher, I'd like to share my thoughts on teaching based on what was discussed in the video. I quit mainly because of health reasons.

Firstly, as it is rightly pointed out by Lyndy Clarke, teaching is a calling. Good teachers are those who choose to teach because of love for people, not money. As such, those who think that money can be used as a motivator to attract and retain "good" teachers are misguided. Someone in the group pointed out that no amount of money is enough to reward a good teacher. I agree, because good teachers are priceless.

Secondly, a better way to improve the quality of teachers in the teaching force is to help teachers in intangible ways such as reduced workload (so that they can concentrate on teaching); professional development based on what the individual teacher wants (not what the HOD or P wants); genuinely listening to and encouraging them, etc.

And in order to filter out the number of "bad" teachers, the selection criteria play a huge role. We should focus more on character and motivation to teach rather than academic achievements. Of course, some can bluff their way through but they won't last long if the material incentives to stay are not there.

Lastly, I think policy makers should listen to what the students have to say and structure the system to meet their needs. Kids want teachers who are caring and able to make their learning journey interesting. Would materially motivated teachers do a better job than those who see it as a calling?

The gist is that, we should not use direct monetary/performance rewards as the main strategy but instead explore other more meaningful ways of improving our education system.

Examinations and grades should be used as a tool to help students gauge their progress but not restrict their freedom to pursue their interests.

Rewards systems, where appropriate should look into who should decide and how "performance" should be measured. Very often, the people with power, and means of deciding on who the good teachers are, are biased and measures of performance can be easily and unfairly manipulated.

Anonymous said...

Everyone is equal but some people are more equal than others..not every Singaporean can send his grandchild to American School.

Anonymous said...

That's the point. If we have to send our children to another country for an education, doesn't show that something is lacking in our system?

thoughtpenny said...

The original point, was about streaming children into EM3. (and for those of us born in earlier days, the monolingual students.)

I do not think that streaming in general is a bad thing in itself.

If the students are labelled stupid etc by their parents/teachers, it may well be the fault of that parent/teacher for not encouraging them, causing a Rosenthal effect.

Streaming per se, is a means of grouping like with like, so that education can be more streamlined. This is akin to say Group A wishes to do Mathematics and Group B wishes to do Art. The classes and the emphasis of lessons are different.

I simplify the objections to streaming into those listed below :
(1) streaming is bad per se because it divides and alienates
(2) streaming is unfair because it creates a gap between the haves and the have-nots.
(3) exams are an unfair gauge of ability and one's future.
(4) streaming creates the Rosenthal effect.
(5) streaming is done too early, late bloomers should be given a second and third chance.

(1) is too generic. Whether a quality divides and alienates is a manifestation of societal values. It could well be race, wealth, sex, school, or favourite bakchormee stall, that differentiates. Streaming may cause differentiation, but so does everything else in the world.

(2) is irrelevant/may cut both ways. It is not necessarily the rich and elite who automatically rise in the system, but the people who learn to play the system well. (The rich will tend to rise anyway, regardless of how the system is weighted.) I know I oversimplify horribly here, but the underlying basis of capitalism is inequality, and it seems strange that merit (where the rules of the game are clear) is not rewarded.

(3) Exams may not be a perfect gauge, but it is hard to find an alternative. Ever hear of a harvard student who enters with poor results? Besides, someone pointed out that it is the demand for paper qualifications, or say a scholarship system, that fuels the inequality, rather than streaming itself. Put another way, who would bosses rather hire, a first-class honours holder or a third-class honours holder? Is that unfair? That is reality.

(4) The Rosenthal effect is said to taper off at 10-12 years of age. Why then should streaming at primary 6 be unfair? Besides, the problem appears to lie with the poor parenting/education rather than streaming itself. The solution appears to be educating the problematic people. A cosmetic name-change for EM3 students could well also be a good measure.

(5) Late bloomers may be disadvantaged by streaming, but what right do they have to ask for quicker people to slow down, if they can't catch up? That is reality. How about a late bloomer who starts doing well only at 21? How about a person who writes slowly who asks for another 30 minutes to do his exams? Should the system bend over backwards to help them catch up? Wouldn't that be unfair to the quicker, fitter ones?

It is easy to bash streaming as unfair labelling, etc. However, the exact problem should be identified. The Rosenthal effect is not caused by streaming per se.

While it remains a difficult question whether grouping like with like and specialising education is a superior pedagogical method to mixing all students together and being inclusive, it does appear to be counterproductive if gifted kids are going taught in the same class as kids with say borderline intelligence. The teachers would go mad trying to accomodate the range of requirements. This is an extreme example, but one that highlights that there is probably still a role for streaming in education.

Anonymous said...

Errrr, actually my thoughts about streaming is that if done badly, the consequences are:

(1) students' self-esteem and self-confidence are affected;

(2) the entire school system becomes focused on exams & grades, rather than learning. This is because teachers and students will focus on the necessity of avoiding the "lower" streams or jumping to the "higher" ones.

ted said...

I think it is helpful that all the anonmynouses who make long posts should take the effort of creating a simple moniker for people to identify their posts, it is annoying to respond in the manner of, "to the anon who made the comment at 00/10/06, 3.56pm".

You anonymnous gents and ladies or it aren't doing yourself a favour. Simply put, your well thought out comment can be lost in the air due to this effect. Besides, if the points are for discussions and not snipes (something I indulge in occasionally), it doesn't matter to adopt a moniker. After all, you still need to input the silly visual test when you post a comment.

Ok and now with regard to the long post the second last anon at 3:27:59 AM, I think it is one thing to point out at the effects of the current streaming system, but another thing to say that a larger system (capitalist) works like the effects, I would think it sounds like a circular argument.

I think it is exactly because the streaming system still produces undesirable damage to the students that goes through it that there is a constant effort in trying to refine and adopt another way of 'educating' the young. What I think we should do is to discuss whether the new methodology used would be better and more useful, rather than to keep n defending the old way of doing things.

elizabeth said...

To thoughtpenny:

We need to recognize that streaming is not the only way to structure an education system. We should be open to exploring other alternatives that might work better. It may be difficult but we have to try. What might have been relevant in the past may not be effective anymore even though it may still be efficient.

If we keep rationalizing that the system is good and deny that it is intrinsically problematic, we will never improve. And calling a wolf a sheep does not make it less of a wolf. So this shift to foundation subjects does not make any difference. It's not even a baby step forward but just a crab crawl sideways.

I feel that streaming does not allow individuals to choose their own path, resulting in an "education" that is just a means to an end (a "good" life), instead of a meaningful journey of personal growth.

What is needed is an entirely new perspective on what achievement means. Is it about grades? To me, they are simply tools to measure progress, not intelligence or ability. I'd rather be satisfied doing what I like than collecting meaningless grades on high quality papers.

Because for me, being able to try something challenging and interesting, whether or not I score high marks for it, definitely tops having to do something I have absolutely no interest in, even if I do get distinctions all over my report card (and we know how easy it is to do so if someone decides to cheat).

After all, the good life and success means different things to different people.

Anonymous said...

My objection to streaming is not that of any listed here.

It is when a student is very much interested in taking courses that the other students are taking, but that student is prohibited from taking those courses because he doesn't qualify for that "higher stream". (My story.)

What's wrong with streaming? A student is told that he can't take a course because the school is afraid that if he takes more courses, he'll pull the school's average down.(Someone else's story.)

What's wrong with streaming? The lower streams never even get the idea that they could take French, or German, or Japanese, or any other third language (which is highly enriching and I recommend everyone to go to the MOELC if they can, no matter what your grades are) because they are told to "concentrate on their priorities". After all, unless you're Special stream you can't take third language lor! (Ironically, if one replaces their official mother tongue with something like French they are technically downgraded from Special to Express. "Cultural traitors" lor.)

What's wrong with streaming? It's when it causes neighbourhood school students (why are we even having this label?) to say Native speakers are suppose to be very good in that particular language. I am not that. Native speakers are suppose to be from where the language originated from. I am not born in England. So i do not consider myself a Native speaker.. For the clarification, the English language originated as a West Germanic langauge, and did not originate in England all by itself. But how are the other students to know?

By virtue of streaming, we neglected to teach them that! (As a comparison, most of the students in the GEP would know.) Why teach the lower streams the origin of English, hor. No need to teach them that, they just need to learn how to be slaves to the government lah.

That's what's wrong with streaming. It gives most students an unfortunate and misinformed view of culture, the world, themselves, their language - that gives them an inferiority complex, which further creates the whole culture of the love/hate relationship with the "ang mohs" and so forth!

Ultimately, streaming causes underachievement. That is the greatest horror of all. It's not about the stress or self-esteem - streaming brings the entire education system down.

Rosenthal said...

I am Rosenthal. Any form of classification has my Effect. Just as any form of observational endeavor has an effect on the motivation of the subjects under scrutiny. Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam is Neantherdal.

My Secondary 2 Literature teacher said, "Those who want to study come sit in front. Those who don't can do whatever they want at the back."

The same teacher will now say, "Those doing standard Literature come sit in front. Those doing foundation can do whatever they want at the back."

Pareto said...

"Really? I used to study at ACS and I can say that a rather large chunk of the students (if not the majority) that I know there are sympathetic towards the opposition."

I am Pareto. My principle states that 20% of ACS think they own 80% of everything in this country, despite 80% of ACS being sympathetic towards the opposition.

lee hsien tau said...

"Like you I applaud the changes. However, parents should for the same reasons violently resist Tharman's reforms because of the Rosenthal effect.

Imagine that you are a high flying yuppie parent and you want to give your kids an edge in life. The current system not only allows you to manipulate your kids into a better stream by having bettter technology and tuition teachers. It also has an EM3 stream to ensure that some part of the population can never compete against your beloved progeny because of the destruction done to their self esteem.

With this new system, everyone is special in something and everyone sucks at something else. Finally we are all unique Singaporeans, just like all other unique Singaporeans.

Rich well do to parents will be now be dismayed that despite all that money, theire kids are now mediocre. They can no longer look at other parents and say "My kids own your kids. Fuck off !"

Unless of course they have kids from ACS. We all know that ACS think that they own everything in this country."

It took the French revolution and many sharpened and re-sharpened guillotines to get rid of ACS and the aristocrats of the 'Modeus' mold. And then they had to introduce streaming and GEP.

I gave up on LKY in Primary 1. My English was so bad my teacher had to complain to my mother in Primary 5. My teacher and my mother (a real bitch, that one) had no effect on me.

The girl sitting next to me had. She offered to help me cheat, but backed out of the offer. Instead she lent me an Enid Blyton story book. The next 2 years was spent reading whatever I could lay my hands on of Enid Blyton till 3 in the morning. Enid Blyton fueled my young mind. PAP strait-jacketing won't.

Had streaming been introduced during my time, the girl would probably not have sat next to me.

Modeus said...


First of all, we're not French, we're Singaporean. Secondly, while the production of guillotines increase, some folks will catch wind of it on the Internet and will then leave country. I bet Durai will flee Singapore once he gets an opportunity to do so.

The best is yet to be because one will never be the best in Singapore, Perth or New York.

One more thing, if I were your primary school classmate, your English would have been brilliant because I will make you read Playboy.

Dr Oz bloke said...

Someone fowarded me this in the email. Looks interesting....

Some said this is a belated progress. Wonder if they know WP proposed
idea back in 2002?
Sitting Date: 2002-05-21
Section Name: BUDGET


Mr Low Thia Khiang:
I would therefore ask the Ministry to consider exploring the idea of
organising schools based on subjects. This means scrapping the current
streaming system based on a cluster of subjects and replacing it with
system based on subjects. Students would be grouped into different
based on the merit of their individual subject. Although it could be
argued that this is still a form of streaming, I am sure such a system
allowing individual students to learn at their own pace is more
progressive and is likely to lessen social stigma. This is not to say
schools are to abandon the idea of all-rounded education, but rather
main thrust of the proposal here is the acceptance of the fact that
different students have different strengths. Hence, there must be
opportunities and recognition available to allow individual student to
"major" in what he or she loves. To allow the above to be implemented,
there must be a total revamp, in terms of entire education process,
as grading, protocol, examination systems, admission requirements,
etc, to
support the new education system paradigm. I do not have specific
recommendations for the various components, which require further
studies and analysis for more details.

Sitting Date: 2003-03-19
Section Name: BUDGET
Mr Low Thia Khiang: Sir, unlike Dr Amy Khor, I think we should scrap
current streaming system and replace it with a subject-based system to
maximise the potential of each student.
Sir, at last year's Budget debate, I asked the Ministry to consider
exploring the idea of organising schools based on subject, by
the current streaming system, based on a cluster of subjects, to one
on individual subjects. Students would then be grouped into different
classes based on the marriage of the individual subjects. This would
further customisation of learning, and further allow the development
individual student's potential.
I note from news reports that ACS (Barker Road) has introduced the
of theme classrooms which are subject-focused. Although this is only a
pilot project of grouping classes according to the subject, I think
is a positive first step forward. Theme classrooms could
perhaps one day become a leading model for our national school system.
believe that besides the benefit mentioned above, this system would
be able to significantly reduce the social stigma of streaming. I
like to ask the Minister whether he has any intention to expand this
project to include other schools.

Sitting Date: 2004-03-17
Section Name: BUDGET
MOE should consider subject-based classrooms whereby students are
into different classes based on the merit of individual subjects. This
would allow further customisation of learning and further allow
development of individual student's potential, and it does not come
things like social stigma, and all that.

Sitting Date: 2005-03-09
Section Name: BUDGET
Title: Head K - Ministry of Education


Mr Low Thia Khiang:
If we sit on the fence and do nothing, then this will become a heavy
to pay later. Year in and year out, I have repeatedly asked for a
of the streaming system because its ill implication is far-reaching. I
sincerely hope that the Education Minister will boldly deal with the
present streaming system to fully meet the demand and concept of
according to the students' ability. To truly develop our talents, we
resolutely abolish this narrow and rigid streaming system and expand
concept of subject-based classrooms by implementing the subject-based
teaching system that is customised based on students' ability and
interest. This will provide greater opportunity to maximise the
of students, allowing the full play of maximum ability of each
This is in contrast to the current system of streaming in determining
one's fate by English language.

Manifesto 2006
A. Replacement Of The Streaming System With A Multi-tiered Advancement
1. The current system of streaming is based on aggregate points of
subjects obtained at an examination and is used as the basis for
segregating students. This does not really measure the potential
of students. In addition, the social stigma of streaming far outweighs
usefulness as a convenient way to segregate the students based on
2. WP welcomes the launch of the subject-based pilot classrooms plan.
Further customisation of the education and learning process by
re-organising the class system based on subject and module should be
looked into.
3. Each student should be allowed to advance in different subjects at
pace. For instance, a student may have some subjects taught at the
level and others at the normal level.

Anonymous said...

Modeus: your conditional mood use is rather funny. :p

But since subject-based streaming doesn't seem to extend into the IP subjects, I am not that excited.

thotpenny said...

It's really quite a simple point.

The rules of the game are clear.

If you play the game, don't complain if you suck at it.

Don't ask for handouts, don't ask for the rules to be changed because you suck at the game.

If you don't like it, then don't play the game.

Feel really low and insecure about sucking? Tough. Life is about overcoming adversity and finding a niche. Those that do, do well. Those that can't, don't.

P.S. one may pick up interesting subjects from books. Since when does school teach "interesting" courses, rather than to prepare one as a production unit?

P.P.S. I never did like differentiation or integration nor did well at mandarin, but I had to do/pass them it anyway, and I used my stronger grades to supplement my weaker ones. It's not that hard.

P.P.P.S. I don't need to know where my English comes from. I just need to learn how to play the game well.

thotpenny said...

I can't resist taking a potshot at ted, that by mistakenly calling me an "anon", he isn't doing himself a favour either...

I fail to see why the argument using capitalism merely as an EXAMPLE is circular. I could use GPAs in university, chess rules, tender process, as alternative examples to establish the same point. At any rate, the underlying rationale is simply that merit should be rewarded.

To elizabeth,

Cheating is an irrelevant consideration to streaming.

Like to do something else, then go play that other game. No one will stop you. Or, take that other game as an ECA but do sufficiently well in the game everyone else is playing. Life is about playing to one's strengths to hide the flaws anyway.

Mr Wang Says So said...


I think you're approaching this from a somewhat different angle.

You're thinking from your individual perspective. In other words, what you would do if you were a student.

Others here are thinking of the system. In other words, how the system could be improved for the benefit of society, or for large sections of its young people.

On a separate note, when you speak of "merit". The point about the importance of rewarding "merit" is intrinsically different from the question of what may constitute merit or how we should be measuring it or in the first place.

Drastic example - suppose I say that only the top 5% of PSLE students can go to secondary school. The bottom 95% will be forced to drop out. Clearly the top 5% are being rewarded for merit. However, it doesn't do a lot of good for 95% of young Singaporeans to have no more than primary education.

thotpenny said...

Mr Wang,

The individual context helps to illustrate my thesis that streaming is not unfair.

It should be quite clear that many of those who posted, in support of their thesis that streaming should be scrapped, use examples very much steeped in their experiences or their perceptions.

Hypothetically extrapolating how scrapping streaming will benefit society, without large scale studies or data, is speculative at best.

Only the top X% are gifted/scholars. Only a certain top Y% will be lawyers/doctors/investment bankers/Mr Wangs.

I agree that one can certainly attack the METHOD of choosing these X+Y% people based on some conception of "merit", but so far the posts have not focussed on this aspect.

To say that the people who don't fall into X+Y% are disadvantaged - which is necessitated by reality - blurs the issue. The real issue is whether streaming is a good method to create a large enough X+Y%, not whether streaming is unfair in cutting out those who fall outside the X+Y%.

This then goes back to whether the rules of the game are fair / effective in letting the "right" number of people win.

My examples are similar to yours on 5% secondary education. By massaging the figures towards the extreme we illustrate our points. In truth it is probably a large question of extent, where it is hard to see the effect of policy changes without actually making them.

Mr Wang Says So said...

My own philosophy is that just about everybody is able to shine, given the correct conditions. In practice, the system wouldn't be able to create the "correct conditions" for everybody, but it should strive to do this as for as many people as possible. However, the traditional streaming system falls far, far, faaaar short.

The way I see it - it isn't about, as you say, "winning" or losing or playing "games". It is about helping everybody develop as far as they can.

Examples again. You said:

Feel really low and insecure about sucking? Tough. Life is about overcoming adversity and finding a niche. Those that do, do well. Those that can't, don't.

Why is it not possible to have a system that helps individuals find their niche?

Why is it not possible to have a system where students generally view school as a wonderful, interesting, enjoyable learning experience, rather than a hostile or "adverse" environment?

P.S. one may pick up interesting subjects from books. Since when does school teach "interesting" courses, rather than to prepare one as a production unit?

Why is it not possible for schools to teach interesting courses? Or to teaching interesting courses AND also prepare one to be a production unit?

P.P.S. I never did like differentiation or integration nor did well at mandarin, but I had to do/pass them it anyway, and I used my stronger grades to supplement my weaker ones. It's not that hard.

Why is it not possible for a system where:

(a) differentiation and integration is taught such that it becomes enjoyable anmd interesting for more students?

(b) Mandarin is taught such that it becomes enjoyable and interesting for more students?

(c) students who are bad at maths and strong at other things have viable options to pursue those other things instead?

(d) students who are bad at Mandarin and strong at other things have viable options to pursue those other things instead?

Of course it is possible.

ted said...

Well thotpenny, perhaps your post was in the likes of those anon? Heh, my bad.

I see you are well taken to the constructs of the current Singapore society and are probably well equipped to game the system as the scholars are apt to congratulate themselves on doing so.

As far as I can tell, you are merely defending your position that is pretty much from the perspective of those who benefits, so in my opinion, you are merely speaking for the minority. Quite inconsequential really. (Sorry for being a little mean now, being woken up by some fire alarm in the morning after a late nights out makes one go something something).

Anonymous said...

"P.P.P.S. I don't need to know where my English comes from. I just need to learn how to play the game well."

Ah, but you may not play the game well if you were the ones who believe in that kind of racial prejudice (not to mention you're missing out on a rich sense of language).

thotpenny said...

Mr Wang,

I can respect your views. I believe that a system should be primed towards, for want of a better standard, the greatest good for the greatest number. To that end, efficiently developing the greatest number of people to fulfill their full potential may be the right way forwards. The crux however is whether a system WITHOUT streaming achieves that. I wager that some sort of streaming/differentiation is Probably necessary. I think some sort of differentiation must occur to separate the rulers from the artisans from the mechanicals. How much the market rewards the contributions of each group is of course a separate consideration altogether.


I'm not a scholar, but I have managed to do fairly well in the system. There are ways to "game the system", as you say, without becoming a scholar. Your broadside towards allegedly self-congratulatory scholars misses both myself and the point about whether streaming should be removed (or not).

The successful 'minority' which does well, normally will try to cement its position, just like in any other working, academic, societal or other body. I am surprised that you think that those who do well in the system are a minority and are therefore inconsequential -- unfortunately this minority tends to be pretty consequential and powerful in the grand scheme of things.


I'm sorry, but I don't understand your point on 'racial' prejudice. Good for you if you wish to have a 'rich sense of the language', but I never found the need nor the interest to, in your sense of the word.

Anonymous said...

You're assuming that everyone would comply with the utilitarian school of thinking, which I think in particular is flawed.

You're also assuming a positive liberty kind of thought (create greatest good for the greatest number of people) rather than a negative liberty kind of thought (prevent as much evil as possible for the greatest amount of people).

My point on racial prejudice is that although you may have escaped it, there are Singaporeans who assume that just because English did not originate in Asia, as Asians they are wont to be in an inferior position by not being in its place of origin.

And oh yes, there is definitely a need to, if one wishes to grasp cultural connections properly, or use certain terms properly without the mugging (ie. Latin cognates). But then I suppose you think that learning any further additional languagues is unnecessary.

YCK said...

Hi thotpenny and Mr Wang,

I have followed the last few comments the two of you exchanged. You appear to be taking diametrically positions. Though I personally find Mr Wang's position more attractive, thotpenny has made the following thoughtful comment that may be crucial for justifying each of your positions.

To that end, efficiently developing the greatest number of people to fulfill their full potential may be the right way forwards. The crux however is whether a system WITHOUT streaming achieves that.

Can it be shown that streaming results in a larger talent pool and at an acceptable loss of people with potential to do well if given time, i.e. the late bloomers? More simply, on the ledger is there a net gain or loss?

While quantifying it one should also bear in mind that more, some may say inordinately more, resources are given to those in the elite GEP, IP and other programs.

Given the very utilitarian approach of our MOE, I do not recall the above being demostrated in support of current policies. I wonder why?

To summarize my position, I am of the view that streaming should be done late and and gently with not more discrimination than necessary. As they say "more haste less speed". I would add to that "more waste".

elizabeth said...


"Cheating is an irrelevant consideration to streaming."

I beg to differ. Streaming is very much based on examination results. As such, those who cheat and obtain better grades have a higher chance of getting into more coveted courses and deprive others of the places they might otherwise have gotten if there were no cheating.

So, this "greatest good for the greatest number of people" kind of argument is somewhat flawed because I don't consider getting ahead through cheating good at all, especially for the cheaters. And "good" is a subjective notion.

"Like to do something else, then go play that other game. No one will stop you. Or, take that other game as an ECA but do sufficiently well in the game everyone else is playing. Life is about playing to one's strengths to hide the flaws anyway."

Thanks for the advice, but I have played the local academic game well enough to have experienced what "elite" schools are all about. I have also played a different game overseas, which I found not only to be a more challenging and interesting but relevant to life and career as well. Unlike you, I don't believe in hiding my flaws but overcoming them. It's less delusional and deceptive. Victories are sweeter too.

"It should be quite clear that many of those who posted, in support of their thesis that streaming should be scrapped, use examples very much steeped in their experiences or their perceptions."

My comments are based on my experience as a former teacher who has seen the struggles of those deprived of a decent educational experience due to streaming. I also find that those who advocated that streaming be scrapped tend to speak more sense and had better insight to the issues.

What is education to you? Cold analysis of figures and equations based on the experience of one person who, fortunately for him, did "fairly well" despite the system? Try leaping out of the well.


"To that end, efficiently developing the greatest number of people to fulfill their full potential may be the right way forwards. The crux however is whether a system WITHOUT streaming achieves that."

We will never know if we are not open to alternative ways of doing things. In any case, to be efficient is no long good enough, we have to be effective in order face current and future challenges.

pennythots said...


1) Cheating is irrelevant because there can be cheaters in any system, whether there is streaming or not. Unless you mean to say that any system based on exam results must be bad because people cheat -- that is a questionable thesis, and is irrelevant to streaming per se anyway.

2) You appear to assume that those who get ahead are cheaters.

3) Good for you that you can overcome all your flaws, overseas. I am however happy to just have the pyrrhic victory of hiding them behind my strengths.

4) I respect your experiences as a teacher, upon which your thesis is based.

Mr Wang Says So said...


YCK believes in relying on his strengths and hiding his flaws.

Elizabeh believes in relying on his strengths and overcoming her flaws.

I believe in MASSIVELY DEVELOPING my strengths and largely ignoring my flaws.

That's because I find the research results from Gallup very persuasive.

The research is based on interviews with 2 million high achievers in different occupations, different countries and different age groups.

The conclusion is that people who succeed massively in life are people who have focused on developing their innate strengths - their unique individual natural thinking patterns that manifested them in them even as children.

The study persuasively argues that time spent worrying about or trying to overcome your flaws is basically WASTED time.

The other guy who influences my thinking about streaming a lot is of course Howard Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences. In a nutshell, we are all intelligent in a variety of different ways, some of us can be extremely intelligent in one way (eg mathematical thinking or interpersonal intelligence) but at the same time, idiots in other forms of thinking (eg linguistic ability or bodily-kinesthetic intelligence).

Let me put all this in the local context of streaming.

We have extremely narrow methods of measuring merit. Example - last year the media reported that there was this young Malay kid who was a real soccer talent and wowed all the coaches. However, the Singapore Sports School rejected his application to join. Reason? He did very badly in his PSLE - in Maths and Science.

The ridiculousness is immediately apparent, I trust. If the kid is a total dud in Maths and Science, it's even more important (even using the detestable "economic product" perspective) that he gets a chance to pursue a career in sports, for which everyone unanimously agreed he had a huge talent.

Another example - once upon a time, I had a very artistically-talented young cousin who was not permitted to join the Art Elective programme in his secondary school because the places were reserved for the top X% of PSLE performers. Never mind the fact that the AEP has absolutely zero to do with PSLE subjects English, Chinese, Maths & Science.

A more general example - in the past (less so now), JC students who failed Chinese would not be allowed to enter university. Never mind the fact that in university, practically all courses are taught in English, and not in Chinese.

Thus in our system where we measure merit on very limited and flawed bases, students are denied opportunities in X because they showed insufficient merit in a totally unrelated area, Y.

The problem with streaming at a young age is, as I believe I may have mentioned before, that it affects young Singaporeans' self-concept and confidence. We measure merit on such limited bases that students may develop a long-lasting lack of confidence simply because they found themselves unable to excel in those things that the system measures. They may never realise that they actually have other valuable talents elsewhere.

By the way, Mr Wang is so multi-talented that he can justly claim to be superior to Yong Pung How; Taufik Batisah and Zinedine Zidane. After all, I can easily beat Yong Pung How in soccer. I can sing much better than Zidane. I'm a far superior lawyer than Taufik.

There is a real point to the above, which I'm sure you can see.

elizabeth said...


1) Cheating is relevant in the discussion because it reveals a loophole in streaming. We may not be able to prevent cheating in any system, but it does not mean that there are no better alternatives to streaming, nor does it justify streaming.

Put in another way, what if we have a system that makes it pointless to cheat? In fact, I feel that streaming actually encourages cheating.

2) No. Not all who get ahead are cheaters. Some are. And they are the ones who deprive others who could otherwise have a better headstart under the current system.

3) That was my response to illustrate that not all who were unhappy about streaming were necessarily losers demanding handouts from the government. You seem to have assumed that.

4) Thank you.

Mr Wang:

It seems that the Gallop proposal assumes that a person will either focus on developing his strengths or worry about his flaws. It is silent about those who work on their strengths as well as their flaws and whether strengths could be fully developed regardless of flaws.

Anyway, that could be a whole new debate.

Mr Wang Says So said...

It probably is a new debate. But actually Gallup's objective is to help corporate organisations to make the most of their manpower. In other words, identify the top strengths in your key employees; deploy them in areas where they can use these strengths; and groom them to develop these strengths further.

Gallup believes that this is a far more effective method than seeking to overcome weaknesses. For example, if an employee is a self-driven, independent high achiever, but lacks the ability to work in a team, then instead of focusing on his lack of "team player" ability and sending for courses etc, simply deploy him in solo projects which require someone who is self-driven and prefers to works independently.

I took the Gallup test - a previous employer sent me for it. The test identifies my top strengths as:

1. Intellect - sheer thinking power

2. Strategic - strong in big picture analysis and comfortable with complexity

3. Achiever - high energy, driven by big challenges

4. Ideation - innovative, creative, love playing with new ideas,

5. Learner - love to learn new things

Some of my weaknesses were:

Positivity (or the lack thereof) - bad at lifting people's morale or motivating people

Restoration (or the lack thereof) - bad at helping people salvage emergencies

Context - low respect for tradition & history; therefore bad at defending status quo

[ ] - some other term I can't remember, basically means that I will be a bad salesman

etc etc .... but Gallup's point is that the organisation should NOT try to train me to be a good salesman, historian, fireman or pom-pom girl (these are occupations for which I inherently have no talent, so even with the most training, I will at most become a passable salesman, tradition-defender, fireman or pom pom girl) ... but instead use me in roles where my strengths (Intellect, Achiever, Strategic, Learner, Ideation) come in useful.

lee hsien tau said...


If I get to be the one in charge of deciding on the production of guillotines, you won't get the opportunity to park 58 suit-cases in Helsinki.

YCK said...


You wrote, "We will never know if we are not open to alternative ways of doing things. In any case, to be efficient is no long good enough, we have to be effective in order face current and future challenges."

I agree but the bureaucrats at MOE would not want to jump into things. Probably nothing short of a feasibility study with a thorough cost-benefit analysis would be needed to handhold them through any change.

But even if we could give them all the numbers, they might still be inclined to keep some form of streaming and use the narrow but easy to apply criteria to evaluate products of the system.

It could be the case that the streaming concentrates pupils who do well in the paper chase. These pupils are then paraded as cream of the crop of made possible by the system thus justifying it. In the end streaming and the assessment methodology become mutually reinforcing.

Mr Wang:

You said "YCK believes in relying on his strengths and hiding his flaws." I do not quite get you but it would not be a bad strategy given the unforgiving system.

Your “MASSIVELY DEVELOPING my strengths and largely ignoring my flaws” way is possible in a more enlightened setting that we lack. Applaud the idealism :)

Anonymous said...

How effective are examinations in measuring good, anyhow? All we have is created a bunch of people who are good at mugging, rather than people who have a desire for learning.

In fact, the system effectively punishes people who actually learn, while rewarding people who pore over a textbook.

In fact, mugging is almost like a form of cheating really - you're circumventing the true accuracy of the examination by explicitly preparing for it, rather than being examined in your natural state.

YCK said...

Hi John:

Suppose what you want is not reasonable and necessary to develop a human fully. The qualties you would like to nurture in students are difficult though not impossible to assess.

My guess is that without relying on easy to measure exam results, it could be difficult to guage the performance of the students, educators, schools all the way up to MOE. It becomes very difficult to justify budgets, scholarships, promotions, rewards, recognition, ranking etc. to be handed out.

Therefore, it is a convenient differentiation device that is needed in any meritocracy. Of course too much of it is really stiffling.

I hope that Tharman has the intention to reduce it to a harmless level. But the society, parents included, could help by not placing undue significance on the paper chase and not to mention be so coldly utilitarian.

In Singapore we see a lot demand for applied sciences and engineering with little respect for pure sciences, arts and social sciences. Sometime some idle daydreaming is needed for creativity :)

lee hsien tau said...

The apple landed on Sir Issac's head because ... yes, he was malingering. And he wasn't hungry.