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June 1999

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Teaching in Singapore
Tough But Rewarding

In December 1997, after three years of supply teaching in my hometown of Ottawa, I accepted a full-time position in the Republic of Singapore. I’ve just finished my second year at Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School where I teach English, Literature and Moral Education.

By John Patrick Mascoe

Teaching in Singapore is an incredibly stressful occupation. The country’s shortage of qualified teachers can be attributed to a high rate of teachers quitting the profession within their first five years.

About 70 per cent of the expatriate teachers who arrived in Singapore at the same time as I did have already left. The expatriate teacher I replaced had more than 20 years’ experience, but he lasted only six months. It is not just the expatriates who find this system difficult. The Singaporean teachers do as well. My form class last year had five different local math teachers, each of whom lasted only two months.

Singapore’s education system is extremely competitive and streams children at an early age. Exams place students into courses deemed suitable for their needs. Primary students are streamed first at the end of their fourth year and again at the end of Grade 6 when they sit for the nation-wide primary school leaving exam. The results of this exam place pupils into a stream to suit their intellectual and academic abilities in secondary school.

The more able pupils are placed in four-year special or express courses. The remainder are put into a four or five-year normal academic course. Recently, the Ministry of Education introduced a normal technical course for low-level, non-academic students. Many of these students are learning disabled or hyperactive or have behaviour problems.

Normal technical students in Singapore are quite similar to children in Canada labelled special-needs students. Yet, no matter which stream a student is in, all are expected to become proficient in English and one other language (their mother tongue of Chinese, Malay or Tamil). The majority of Singaporean students leave high school with the ability to speak, read and write two languages.

Since I had some formal training and experience with special ed students in Canada, I volunteered to be in charge of teaching normal technical classes. There are about 40 students in each class.

Generally, students here are much better behaved than in Canada. The school system adheres to a strict code of discipline in which rules control every facet of a student’s life. Hair, fingernail, and uniform checks are carried out religiously. Students caught committing more serious offences like smoking face caning, even if the offence took place off school property or after school hours.

Singapore schools have great confidence in their system of discipline, often leaving students unattended and unsupervised. When teachers of normal academic, express and special stream students are absent, a supply teacher is not called. Instead, the
students are left on their own to do their work. Each class has its own committee, and these students will take charge in the place of an absent teacher. Class committee members are also responsible for collecting class fund money, organizing social outings and buying school supplies.

Normal technical classes also have class committees, but these students are never left unattended. Although Singapore has a good reputation for being safe, it does possess an active criminal element. There are more than a hundred gangs operating in Singapore, and a large number of the normal technical students will become affiliated to one before completing their first year of secondary school.

Those teachers who remain in the profession are, without a doubt, the Ministry of Education’s greatest assets. They are incredibly dedicated and hard working. Teachers in Singapore work six days a week, often putting in 12-hour days as well as conducting a mandatory six hours a week of extra curricular activities.

At my school, I was assigned to help run the Trim and Fit Club, which is a nation-wide program that helps overweight students become physically fit. Teachers are also responsible for collecting school fees and attending at least 100 hours a year of professional development. It is not uncommon for them to be asked to work through the school holidays.


Teachers are evaluated every semester and are ranked among the other teachers in the school. According to ministry guidelines, each teacher’s ranking is based upon potential and not necessarily performance as judged by the principal, vice-principal and department heads. However, all reports are confidential, and teachers never have the chance to read their reports. This secrecy does not always make for a cohesive work environment.

It is not just teachers that are ranked in Singapore. Students, classes, schools, principals and just about any thing else relating to education are ranked. Sometimes appearance and rankings get in the way of what is really important.

Much of the stress in teaching here is caused by the competitive environment. This year, one of my students was assaulted by his father and hospitalized for three days. The school did not want to take any action against the parent, and so I called the police to investigate. Later, the teacher in charge of student welfare told me I should not have called the police as it might affect our school’s appearance.

Appearance is important in Asian culture. As a result, change can be slow. However, the Ministry of Education is trying to move away from rote memorization in order to infuse creative thinking skills. Most teachers feel this is a good idea as it will allow them the chance to address an area of weakness they find in Singaporean students. Yet not everyone is happy. Some schools are dropping their literature programs when they discover that exam marks are not of the same calibre as math and science results. After all, the schools are ranked based on their students’ results.

The demand for expatriate teachers in Singapore has dropped considerably since my arrival. Since the economic crisis hit, more Singaporeans have applied to become teachers. The government this year will be hiring thousands of untrained teachers. However, if you are one of the few hired from overseas to come and teach in Singapore, I can guarantee you will work very hard and gain valuable experience that will make you a better teacher when you leave.

John Patrick Mascoe can be reached at