White Space: A glance at gifted education in Singapore
BY FIONA LOWENSTEIN
The popular perception is that “jeeps don’t really mix,” Thung Yee Meng says, laughing. He sits on the grass while a rugby game is played behind him. He looks to be about sixteen and wears glasses. “Do you feel like your friends are discriminating against your jeep-ness?” Koh Choon Hwee asks from behind the camera. Hwee is a student at the National University of Singapore whose recent documentary “Conversations About the Gifted Education Program” follows students who participated in Singapore’s Gifted Education Program, known colloquially as the GEP, pronounced “jeep.”
The GEP was instituted approximately 20 years ago, and places students in the top one percent of each grade on a separate academic track. Currently only available in primary schools, the GEP has been replaced in many secondary schools by a curriculum known as the Integrated Program.
The Singaporean school system requires that students take an exam after four years of secondary education to determine whether they will continue on a track to prepare for entrance to universities. This exam determines much of the curriculum, forcing many educators to rigidly teach to the test. The Integrated Program was invented for students who were talented enough to skip this exam, allowing them time to engage in “enriching classroom activities,” rather than having to study for the test. Approximately 20 percent of students are selected for the IP.
Raffles Institution is a prestigious secondary school in Singapore that was one of the first to begin offering the IP. Jason Tan Chong Lee, Dean of Academics at Raffles, says that his mission is to get students to “exercise their character,” rather than simply prepare for exams. “White Space” is the term educators at Raffles use to describe the time put aside for extracurricular enrichment activities. Students may visit a senior citizen center to interact with their community or meet with a museum practitioner to learn about the methods of documenting history, fieldtrips that Lee explained would be unlikely in a traditional school. “We don’t want [students] to be confined to a syllabus that is exam-oriented,” Lee explains, “I think that’s what makes teaching at RI special… I have that space.”
Students gain entry to a school like Raffles through two routes. Most students sit for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE); their scores are considered with the rest of their application to Raffles. However, some students at GEP primary schools gain entrance through a sort of early-admission system, whereby they don’t have to sit for the PSLE, but submit an application detailing their academic and extracurricular interests. This gives students tracked into the GEP for primary school a leg up when applying to secondary schools.
Raffles Institution is partially state-funded, but—like most schools in Singapore—requires that students pay tuition. A spokesperson for Singapore’s Ministry of Education said that the Ministry provides financial aid to needy Singaporeans, but that aid can also come from individual schools. Schools like Raffles tend to receive substantial funding from the Ministry of Education; it is rumored the Ministry wants to encourage such enrichment programs. According to the spokesperson, the Ministry believes that “a broadened definition of giftedness has opened up new pathways and different approaches to learning.” Lee says admissions at Raffles are need-blind and financial aid is based on family income rather than merit. Still, only 20 percent of students at Raffles receive aid.
In Hwee’s documentary, students describe being shocked when they left GEP, because of the lack of both intellectual and ethnic diversity within GEP. Daniel Lee, a graduate of GEP, discusses his year of mandatory military conscription. “When you’re in school it doesn’t matter, everyone is of a certain intellectual level, but when you go to the army—oh my god—every single person in my company, their highest qualification was O-levels!” Nurul Jihadan Hussein, a Malay graduate of GEP, who looks to be in her early 20s, explains, “All the jeepy kids are Chinese, except for those few of us.” She sits in a school courtyard and wears a white hijab. “People who don’t speak Chinese are kind of a bit of a freak… I was very bilingual before, but when I went to GEP… I didn’t have a lot of Malay friends.” Hussein said she returned to teach at the GEP school she had attended. When asked what she taught, Hussein replies, “Jeep, of course.”
GEP no longer exists in Singapore’s secondary schools, but many GEP primary school students end up in schools with the IP, and socio-economic divisions remain. Poorer students are underrepresented in both GEP and the IP. This may be a result of less transparent admissions processes than the one described by Lee, or a consequence of a racially and economically divided society. The question is whether programs like GEP and IP exacerbate these divisions. At the end of the film, Thung Yee Meng tells Koh “I think jeeps are very different, but I think they’re more different by conditioning than by statistics.” Despite their complaints of elitism and isolation within GEP, the former “jeepers” in Hwee’s film also display a sense of nostalgia for GEP’s unique, close-knit community and creative opportunities. As the credits roll on Koh’s film, what remains are questions about an imperfect program, but also a sense that GEP created a haven for many students who would not have benefitted from traditional education.
Fiona Lowenstein ‘16 is in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.