August 1999

One in thirteen can't read




The adult literacy rate in Singapore is only 92.2%. One in thirteen adults you meet on the street is illiterate in any language. I have always thought this to be a shameful indictment of social policies in this country. In Japan the literacy rate is 100%. Among Asian countries, Singapore stands fifth, behind Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines, three countries whose per capita economic rankings are below ours, and therefore who can afford to spend less on education than we can. Yet they do better.

Now, one may think that the 7.8% of adults here who are illiterate are the aged, from a generation when education was not yet universal. Wrong. Education is still not universal. Even now, about 3% of every batch of 6-7 year-olds are not enrolled in Primary One classes, and it is not compulsory for parents to send their children to school.

The Education Minister provided some details to Parliament on 5 August. In 1997, 49,340 children were registered for Primary One. 1,677 others were not. He said that his Ministry had a "systematic way" of following up these cases. They send letters to the parents (notice how they assume that the parents are literate themselves!). Sometimes -- how often was not disclosed -- Ministry officials and retired teachers visit the homes to talk to the parents and help them tackle whatever difficulties they face in sending their kids to school.

This follow-up effort resulted in these outcomes: 

Status of the child Number Percent
Children joined Islamic schools, private schools or "special education" schools 498 29.7
Parents' addresses not on record or could not be contacted 457 27.3
Parents responded to the ministry's letter, but didn't say anything specific about the kid's status ( ! ) 419 25.0
Family had migrated 247 14.7
Children would be joining mainstream schools 29 1.7
Children having medical problems, or "not ready" for admission to school 11 0.7
Family having financial problems 10 0.6
Parents had divorced, whereabouts of child unknown ( ! ) 4 0.2
Children have died (and the government records didn't tell the Ministry that?) 2 0.1
Total 1 677 100.0



Many Members of Parliament rose to question why the State did not make it compulsory to send children to school. In reply, the Education Minister, Mr Teo Chee Hean, said, "I think there should be a balance of responsibilities between the State and the family. The State provides the places, the families should want to send the children to school . I do not believe that compulsory education is going to solve the problem."

He added that making it compulsory would undermine the "principle of self-reliance and parental responsibility which undergirds our society". In any case, having a law may be able to compel parents to enroll their children in school, but there would be problems of absenteeism and truancy. Jailing or fining parents might make things worse and risk breaking up the family.

The Minister had a point. Sometimes the law is not the right instrument, and this may be one of those situations. But nevertheless, one is left with the strong impression that the Ministry is doing too little to tackle the problem. They seem to be just going through the motion of looking into why 3% aren't enrolled in mainstream schools, and leaving the result wherever they find it. If you looked again at the statistics above, you'd see that only 29 kids out of 1,428 (i.e. 1,677 less those who had died or migrated) were finally sent to a mainstream school in response to the Ministry's contact. That is hardly a success rate to be proud of.

This, to me, is another example of the government's inclinations. A lot of effort is put into serving the elite -- gifted programs, broad-band computer access, scouring the world for the best teachers -- little to the underclasses. For highly-qualified technocrats (the kind of people that make up the government here) it's probably easier to build fancy new schools and think up programs for creativity development. The underclass, on the other hand, only pose intractable social problems, mired in ignorance, family conflict and religion.

* * * * * * * * * *

Religion. Now that's the other problem. The Minister did not highlight this. I'm sure he did not want to. But everybody whom I asked privately for their opinions as to why the Ministry was so reluctant to do more than they were doing, mentioned religion as the issue.

The biggest group -- 29.7% -- of the kids who were not enrolled in Primary One, were found to be enrolled in Islamic and private schools. You can take it from me that there are very few non-Islamic private schools in Singapore. The majority of these kids were sent to Islamic schools, known as Madrasahs. A few months ago, there was a newspaper feature that said that enrollment in these schools was growing steadily year on year.

Madrasahs offer an education anchored firmly in Islam. The children must dress in accordance with religious teaching, the girls are separated from the boys, and a high degree of discipline is expected. The curriculum has a high content of moral instruction. This, I am told, is the chief reason why they are increasing in popularity.

My sister, who is in the Education Service, told me that in her view, this is a reaction to the social problems faced my many Malay families. Their community has a higher incidence of delinquency and drug-taking than other communities. Those of us who have thought hard about these issues know that they are related to low education levels, therefore poor earning capability, therefore more stress at both personal and family levels. We see this as an economic problem, borne out of a social history. Educated Malays also see it this way. The Association of Malay-Muslim Professionals (AMP) have it as their mission to improve education levels for the next generation of their community in order to break out of this vicious cycle.

But this kind of analysis can seem too sophisticated for families who are besieged with drug-addict sons and runaway daughters here and now. To them, the long view is too long. More discipline, more moral fibre, is the quick fix. And where better to find these solutions than in Islam?

This is a common response of communities anywhere around the world, who find themselves unable to compete in the modern world, or who find themselves entrapped in all sorts of social ills. They turn to religion. Unlike the competitive scramble and gamble out there, religion offers sure answers, eternal truths, and especially in Islam, the promise of equality. In addition, there is alluring myth of an idyllic past, when all was right and society was a peace. Recreating it may not hurt.

So Malay parents are increasingly opting out of the State's schools and sending their children to Madrasahs. Despite the title of this essay, by no means do the children turn out illiterate. However, literacy alone is hardly enough to cope with today's world. And that's where the problem lies: the curriculum in these schools is tailored for a different age. There is a lot of Arabic, a lot of religious studies. There is a lot of doctrinal content. Is there enough science, higher mathematics, biology, English? Because they are privately funded (by a relatively low-income minority) their facilities are poor. No proper science labs, no computer equipment. What roles in modern society can these children play when they grow up?

* * * * * * * * * *

Everybody whom I spoke to suspected that the Madrasahs were at the back of the Education Minister's mind, when he defended his Ministry's position against compulsory education. To make it into law would bring the government head on against the issue of religion. If education were made compulsory, the government would either have to say Madrasahs do not qualify, or absorb them into the State school system.

If the former, then it would be tantamount to saying that Malay parents are disallowed from sending their children to Islamic schools. The more extremist of them would rise up and say the government was circumscribing their religious freedom.

If the latter, the question would then be how does one absorb Madrasahs into the State's school system without imposing the State's standards on them? Singapore requires -- rightly -- that all State-funded schools must be open to all races and religions, and must comply with the Ministry's curriculum standards. But to do so would risk some extremists saying that the government was out to destroy the character and purpose of Madrasahs.

* * * * * * * * * *

This is Singapore's example of the worldwide problem of how exactly to separate Church from State. Turkey has a similar (and bigger) problem. The Christian Religious Right in the US creates its own show. Perhaps Falungong is China's parallel.

It's all very well to say that the State should not interfere in spiritual matters, and no Church should invade the secular. But, as in Singapore's example, when a community has a social problem, and both Church and State claim they have a solution for it -- the former calling for more adherence to its teachings and more faith in its utopia, the latter pushing for more education for a better future, then we have a gnashing of interests.

Personally, I am disappointed with the way the Singapore State retreats in the face of Madrasahs. I think we are letting down thousands of Malay Singaporean children who have been sent to these schools, and who emerge with a serious handicap for their economic future. This trend perpetuates an inward-looking, modern-skills-deficient underclass, and to have such an underclass in our midst, hurts all Singaporeans' interests.

Sometimes one needs to stand up for the State and defend its vision against the Church. Yes, sometimes the State must get a little anti-clerical.

Yawning Bread 






  1. See also the article Education and the Malay community