It was indeed an eye-opening experience for a group of Malaysian teachers invited by the Singapore Tourism Board for a familiarisation tour of the island's top- notch educational services and facilities.
BEING kiasu may not be a bad thing after all, especially when it comes to getting a good education. Singapore opens up a whole new world of diverse education opportunities for students of all ages, ranging from pre-school to tertiary education, corporate programmes to part-time courses.
Education there is not only confined to schools and formal institutions but also enrichment programmes, such as school trips, language and art courses, motivational workshops, and overnight camps at places of interest.
The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) invited from Malaysia three journalists and a group of 20 primary and secondary school teachers from the National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) for an eye-opening familiarisation tour recently.
The visit was primarily to create awareness on Singapore’s educational services, which are open to students from all over the world, especially Asia.
According to STB’s latest statistics, more than 50,000 foreign students are studying in Singapore’s schools and institutions of higher learning.
“In view of the growing number of students who will be coming to our shores in search of quality education, STB promises to provide better pastoral care for international students as well as clearer and more transparent course and enrolment information,” said an education official.
Some of the visiting teachers who had heard that Singapore is very advanced in its education system had their views reinforced.
“It cannot be denied that Singapore offers top notch education. Although similar to what we have in Malaysia, the standard here is much higher and students face a lot of competition,” said teacher Hasmukharay Chotalal.
Added Vanaja Seenivasagam: “Singapore emphasises a lot on holistic education which is a good thing. Every aspect of the student is taken care of, from developing intellect to emotional intelligence.”
Another teacher, Azhar Amid, commented that it may be more difficult for Malaysian students to cope with their studies if they do not possess a good command of English as it is the medium of instruction at all levels.
Temasek Junior College
Form Five school-leavers should be sure of their intended education path when they choose to study in Singapore as chances are slim for entry into public universities if they return to Malaysia.
Students who choose to stay in Singapore for their tertiary education will pay fees based on the foreign student rate which is relatively high. The Singapore Government also offers a Tuition Grant Scheme whereby fees are subsidised, but students will be bonded with the Government for three years.
In Singapore, girls aged 16 to 18 usually choose to spend either two years at a Junior College, three at a polytechnic, or opt for a skills-based programme at a technical institute. Boys aged 18 usually spend two years or more in National Service before furthering their studies.
Junior colleges are a popular choice among students who intend to do the two-year Cambridge A-Levels programme.
Selection of students for the top five junior colleges in Singapore is based entirely on merit, which means doing well in the O-Levels, or the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) for Malaysian students. Foreign students will also have to sit for the Central Qualifying Test at the Education Ministry.
One such college is Temasek. Of its 800-student population, about 153 foreign students come from Malaysia and Indonesia, some of whom are Asean Scholarship recipients, so once again, “competition is stiff,” said college principal Lim Lai Cheng.
“We want students who are not just muggers academically, but possess a sense of passion and drive, are creative, and have good social skills,” said Lim, adding that there has not been a single student caught smoking or getting involved in fights.
“A psychologist is also very important in such a college because teenagers can sometimes get too stressed about their studies or family-related issues,” she said.
In line with efforts to encourage inter-disciplinary studies, the college offers a wide range of cross-curricular subject combinations. For example, Science students may choose to read History, Music or art as a fourth A-Level subject and vice versa.
To encourage participation in co-curricula activities, the college allows students to set up a club for almost everything under the sun, including a Japanese Animation Club. Taking up a third language is also compulsory for all students.
Foreign students should be prepared to spend about S$16,000 to S$20,000 (RM36,000 to RM45,000) a year on tuition, lodging, transport, examination fees and other expenditure. Although fees may be steep for Malaysian students (doing A-Levels at a local private institution costs RM11,000 to RM13,000) the quality of education is a strong pull factor.
Student counsellors Valerie Nunis, Soh Ailing, Wanni Lo and David Setiawan Suwarto have been enjoying their studies at the junior college since classes commenced on Jan 2 last year.
“The teachers really know their stuff, so that’s a motivation because I know I will get the best education experience here,” said Wanni.
Indonesian-born David, who went to Singapore on his own five years ago, said it was initially difficult to communicate with the Indonesian “r” accent but he later learnt to “fake American English.”
“There is no discrimination here; it’s a very friendly environment so I feel really comfortable,” said David who is of Vietnamese, Laotian, Indian and Chinese decent.
So, how kiasu are they? “Stress is a form of motivation. Being kiasu helps to push you even harder to succeed, although you must be emotionally prepared to survive the challenge,” said Ailing, who hopes to read law at the National University of Singapore after getting her A-Levels.
Said Valerie: “If you don’t study hard, you won’t get anywhere.”
Comparing the Malaysian education system with that of Singapore, she said the former is definitely more relaxed but not her cup of tea. “I like the fast pace of studying in Singapore because there is never a boring moment here,” said Valerie who often travels to Malaysia to visit her cousins in Kuala Lumpur.
Sixty per cent of the students in Temasek are girls. The racial composition is 90.1% Chinese, 3.1% Malay, 3.8% Indian, and 3% other ethnic groups. Most of the students (87.7%) are doing Science courses, and the rest Arts.
More than 95% of its 2001/2002 students were admitted into the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and Singapore Management University, while a number entered universities abroad.
Studying sans books, pen and paper? Many think that the idea is incredible, but the people at the Republic Polytechnic (RP) in Singapore do not share their view.
Breaking away from the conventional lecture-tutorial style of education, students at the polytechnic work together in teams of five. Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is used rather than thick textbooks. Every student owns a laptop computer.
“This is how a wireless campus should be,” said director of academic affairs Dr W.A. Mervyn Alwis.
PBL is an educational strategy where learning is driven by a problem or scenario. As a problem-based learner, you will work on a challenging problem, describe a difficulty, or investigate curious phenomena.
“You will be a participant, rather than a passive listener,” said Dr Alwis.
Students are asked to respond to real world problems that are complex, multi-faceted and contextual.
“They take control of their own learning and are given the freedom and responsibility to explore problems as they see fit. PBL encourages students to argue their view and allow others the right to contend and counter-critique,” added Dr Alwis.
The polytechnic boasts that itdoes not teach students but facilitates their learning instead. “A facilitator’s job is to guide the students, and give their comments, not teach or lecture,” he noted.
Students are posed one problem a day, followed by a “goals meeting”, a “teach meeting”, and an “elaboration/feedback meeting”.
“During meetings, students learn how to be active team players, problem solvers and decision makers,” said Dr Alwis.
To ascertain their knowledge, students are given a short online quiz and are required to keep a journal on their learning progress.
The Learning Online environment has proven to be successful. “There is already a significant difference in first year students. They are more confident and are able to discuss and evaluate matters. Once they enter the job market, these students will learn very fast and when they go to university, they’ll say, ‘Hey, where is the learning?’”
Republic Polytechnic consists of three schools offering three-year diplomas in Electronic Engineering, Industrial and Systems Engineering, Biomedical Electronics Engineering, Information Technology, Business Computing, and Biomedical Sciences.
The fee is S$2,150 (RM4,800) a year for foreign students who sign up for the Government’s Tuition Grant Scheme. Those not subsidised pay S$12,000 (RM26,850) a year.
Students enjoy the revolutionary technique of learning.
“PBL can be unnerving because how well you learn depends on your resourcefulness, your ability to work well with your team and your research skills. It begins with a problem that puts you in the driver’s seat, and using your previous knowledge, hunches and sometimes your wildest ideas, you start your search for a solution,” said second-year student Annabelle Cheong Jiashan.
While some are still adapting to this new learning environment, others use the opportunity to interact with team members. The general response can be summed up this way: PBL generates creativity and a headache as well.
Malaysian student Teo Ho San, 17, says it took him four weeks to get used to the concept. “It was a big switch from the traditional learning style, but it forces us to learn on our own rather than getting spoonfed,” he added.
He recalls his first day at RP. “It was nerve-wracking and my legs were shaking when I had to do a presentation in front of 25 people. I was looking at the screen and it was looking back at me.” He is now a pro in presentations and thinking on his feet.
Indeed, information retention in students is much greater.
Said Dr Alwis: “The use of our well designed learning activities motivate these students and trigger their ability to retain and apply their knowledge.”
Students are graded daily based on various aspects, which make up 50% of the course assessment. There is also a test every four weeks.
The polytechnic, established in 2002 at Kay Siang Road, will be relocated to a state-of-the-art campus in Woodlands in 2006 to accommodate up to 14,000 students.
Apart from formal education, Singapore boasts of various enrichment courses for students, such as short school trips, motivational programmes and vocational training.
Trips ranging from three days to a week are designed to suit the different needs of students. To facilitate their learning, they are given worksheets, classroom lessons, quizzes, and lots of hands-on experience.
Special interest camps, such as leadership and team building, are also available. The Spark C campsite at the Marine Parade is an impressive showcase of Singapore’s first-of-its-kind outdoor experiential learning centre.
A training wing of Outward Bound Singapore, Spark C conducts programmes such as the outdoor discovery course, explorer course, and young leaders course, customised for children aged 10 to 14.
“Programmes focus on character building and leadership skills where students learn by doing. It is an opportunity for them to bring their sense of imagination and adventure into full play,” said programmes and development manager Sin Soon Ho.
Students camp communal-style in tree huts, which promotes esprit de corps and fosters bonding among students and teachers.
Through participation in games, projects and adventure activities, participants take turns to lead the group, and manage their own resources and time.
Outdoor activities range from water-based challenges to higher impact activities like rock-climbing.
Courses are conducted throughout the year depending on availability of dates. Fees are S$100 (RM225) per person, a day.
For older kids, the Metropolitan YMCA organises a number of programmes and educational camps, complete with accommodation at its Hotel and Service Apartments.
International student exchange programmes are also conducted where students get a chance to sign up for short workshops in Robotics, Edward de Bono Thinking, Aqua Aerobics, and Personal Grooming for Success, among others.
Although the high exchange rate is a deterrent in considering Singapore as a school trip destination, many teachers who were on the trip agreed that it is still worth a visit.
“I believe our students can learn a lot through the many enrichment programmes; it would really motivate them in their studies,” said Vanaja Seenivasagam.
Sunmugam Arumugam says more should be done to arrange a reasonably priced package for Malaysian students to visit Singapore. He adds that similar camps and enrichment programmes should be organised in Malaysia. “This is good exposure for students to learn how to think critically and make wise decisions on their own.”
Form Six teacher Chan Cheng Huat said it would be good to send students on exchange programmes.
For more information on Singapore’s educational services, contact the STB in Kuala Lumpur at 03-2142 7133, or fax: 03-2148 7133.
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