The Primary School Leaving Exam

On Thursday, September 27 2012, the Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE in short) will commence.  Over a period of 4 days, students in primary six the public school system will sit for a common nationwide test touching Math, English, Science and 2nd Language.

This year, I have a son who is sitting for his PSLE. His older brother sat for it in 2009.  I sat for mine in 1971. Back then, in addition to the four subjects, we also had Geography and History.

Over the years, the whole thinking behind the Primary School system has evolved, and I would say for the better.  There was in the last decade, the articulation of “teach less, learn more” being the mantra where teachers were encouraged to do less “teaching” and getting the students learn via the enquiry mode. All of this is good. We need thinkers not automatons. We need rule breakers, we need citizens who will define what this country can be in the next 20 to 30 years.

But what has happened is that the “teach less” (which you cannot find in the MOE site’s own search and had to be discovered via google!) has now lead to the schools assuming that if there are things to be learned, it will be taught by tutors hired by the parents of the students.  If you look at a text book (yes, they have dead tree versions), these text books are colourful and has some minimum set of words and little else. There is very little information nor facts in these books and students are somehow to gain them by other means.

The private/home tuition industry in Singapore skims a very large amount of money which should not be the case to begin with. Various numbers of the size of this industry has been suggested and I have yet to find a credible source of it. The numbers are anywhere from S$800m to $1b. That is a big number no matter what and all because the school system – the ones we tax payers help fund – has failed to do its part of the bargain.

A lot of it has to do with archaic ideas of education that stem from the likes of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. While he has good ideas at times, there are plenty of mistakes he and his cabinet ministers have made in educating the population.

Back when I was in primary and secondary school, we called 2nd language as it is. Whether you learned Mandarin, Tamil or Malay, it was labelled 2nd language. Then LKY, with his social engineering ways, relabeled 2nd language to “mother tongue”. In the Singapore population, other than the Tamils and a subset of the Malay population, none of the three languages are the “mother tongue” of the people. Mandarin is not a “mother tongue” of the Singaporean Chinese – it is variously Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Khek etc etc etc. Among the Singaporean Malays, it was Bugis, Boyanese etc and among Singaporean Indians, it was Punjabi, Kanada, Telegu, Malayslam, Hindi, Urdu etc etc etc. But LKY wanted to brainwash the population to think that they are learning their “mother tongue”.

Again, when I was in school, ALL of us learned our National Language which is Malay. LKY and Company removed it and today you have at least two generations who don’t understand their National Language. How would you continue to explain that?

LKY and Company then created some elitist scheme called “Special Assistance Plan” schools which taught Mandarin as it it was a first language on par with English. This was to “appease” some bogeyman “Chinese intellectuals from Nantah“. All of this nonsensical policy continues to this day.

What has the rant above got to do with the PSLE?

Well, for one, Singapore last lost highly capable people who left this country because of the stupidity of the 2nd language policy in school. [Grapevine wisdom has it that the grandchildren of LKY were exempted from 2nd langauge because “grandpa is dyslexic”. I can’t vouch for it and will stand corrected if it is not true that they were exempted.]

If you ask the many Singaporeans who packed up and migrated why they left, the overwhelming answer will be “for the children’s education and it is about the 2nd language policy”. Way to go, PAP. You pushed native-born Singapore out and then lament that we are not replacing ourselves.

The talk these days is about the scrapping of the PSLE. I am told reliably that the PM Lee Hsien Loong (LHL) was going to announce exactly this at the 2012 national day rally. But it was taken out. Why? I don’t know. What I do know is that the idea is being bandied around by PAP MPs as if it was a PAP idea. The idea of scrapping the PSLE (in its current form) has been around for a long time, I guess the trail balloons are to test the ground. It is such as wayang, on the part of the PAP-led government.

I will stop here.

I wish all the primary six students the best in their PSLE. Don’t fret it if you don’t do “well”. Life has a lot more to offer and in a few short years, no one will care what you got for your PSLE. No one really bothers.


  1. “Well, for one, Singapore last lost highly capable people who left this country because of the stupidity of the 2nd language policy in school.” – I really don’t think they are highly capable if they can’t even conquer a second language. Not much of a loss.

    I am not against learning Malay in school. But as a Chinese, I do think that my mother tongue is as important to me as English.

    And I hope you know that LKY put his LHL into a Chinese school to make sure that LHL would grasp the basics of Chinese from young simply because LKY himself had problems learning Chinese himself. I doubt his grandchildren would be exempted.

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