Alan Soh

I am my own columnist, sharing my own thoughts and recent experiences!

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My reasons in supporting removal of streaming in Secondary Schools

Secondary School in Singapore

A major education policy shift in Singapore was announced by Minister for Education, Mr Ong Ye Kung during the Committee of Supply (COS) Bill debate session in Parliament yesterday (Tuesday 5 March 2019), which followed the Singapore Budget 2019 speech delivered by Minister for Finance, Mr Heng Swee Keat on Monday 18 February 2019.

Come 2024, streaming in all secondary schools will be scrapped. It will be replaced by subject-based banding. Following that, GCE N-Level and O-Levels examinations will also be consolidated into one common national certification examination, which will co-branded by Singapore and Cambridge.

The subject-based banding, or SBB will replace the current system of putting our students into Express, Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) streams based on their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) results.

Yes, there will be no Express/Normal Academic/Normal Technical stream classes.

Streaming in primary schools was already scrapped in 2008, with the removal of EM1, EM2 and EM3 streams.

In this new system, upon entering Secondary 1, students will be able to take up subjects at different levels in accordance to their learning abilities. They will take a combination of subjects at 3 different levels based on their PSLE scores: General 1, General 2 and General 3.

The new PSLE scoring will be implemented in year 2021.

This new education policy will apply to pupils who enter Primary 2 this year.

According to Ministry of Education (MOE), these 3 levels are mapped from the current Normal (Technical), Normal (Academic) and Express standards respectively. This concept is similar to how Junior College (JC) students today take up GCE A-Level examination subjects at H1, H2, and H3 levels, and how Primary 6 PSLE students take up subjects at Standard or Foundation levels.

Speaking during MOE’s Committee of Supply Debate yesterday, Mr Ong said streaming which was implemented more than 30 years ago, has successfully reduced school attrition rates from about a third of every cohort to less than 1 percent currently. But he noted the downsides to streaming.

“In its original form, streaming assumed students needed a certain pace of learning in all their subjects, wheras many students, in fact, have uneven strengths across different subjects. More importantly, entering a stream that is considered ‘lower’ (Normal Academic or Normal Technical) can carry a certain stigma that becomes self-fulfilling and self-limiting. Students can develop a mindset where they tell themselves, ‘I am only a Normal Stream student, so this is as good as I can be.”


I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Ong Ye Kung.

Long overdue but finally in year 2024. It is late but it is better than never.

1. Stigmatisation

As a former Normal Academic stream student, I think streaming does create a bit of damning effect on the self-esteem, growth mindset and learning motivation of students who are weaker in academic subjects, as compared to Express stream students.

Especially in Asian context, parents and others would place labels on students of varying abilities. Often, people in Singapore presume that Express stream students are academically gifted, and shall “rise among the ranks to become successful individuals one day”. Talking about intelligence quotient (IQ).

Remember how people used to say “its the end” for students of Institute of Technical Education (ITE) who go for vocational training?

Many Normal stream students would think they will not become successful in life.

This is not true.

I believe everyone can become a capable someone.

Ingredients of success include: self-awareness, diligence, a positive growth mentality, a reflective mind, self confidence, self-discipline, good time management, an outward-looking approach and a keen desire to become the best version of oneself.

As parents, friends, and elders, we ought to give them encouragement.

No one in this world likes to be given a negative label.

2. Social Inequality

We must be aware that students of varying learning abilities also come from different family backgrounds. Most Normal stream students grow up in middle to lower-income households.

In the aspect of gaining access to learning resources such as enrichment classes or tuition, students from poor backgrounds may be at a disadvantage, as compared to affluent ones, due to financial constraints and family issues. Thus these students must be given more care, time, and patience by giving them extra coaching in their weak subjects.

We must help them to get their foundation studies solid.

Despite these hardships, it is also essential that we must motivate them to stay focused on studies, keep up a fighting spirit not to give up, making sure that they do not lose the passion and motivation in learning (in order to get out of poverty trap), so why must we stigmatise the academically weaker students, and worse label them as “stupid, you just cannot be as good as Express stream students”?

If necessary, lend them a listening ear to listen to their problems. Help them to sort out their thinking.

I know Normal stream students are already trying very hard, to the very best of their learning ability.

3. Different abilities during formative years

When we are born into this world, we are all wired differently.

Our strengths are at varying levels. As such I don’t think it is an effective idea to expect a class of 30-40 students to master a subject at a particular benchmark set by the MOE school syllabus.

Moreover, secondary school students are in their teen years. They are in the midst of self-discovery, to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, likes or dislikes. So it is not a good idea to “penalise” a student heavily for failing a subject.

Back in my former secondary school days, I loved history but I hated geography. Because I just couldn’t understand those theories of how mountains are formed, or earthquakes take shape etc. Hence my geography sucked. (Of course the teacher was one of the contributing factors. Haha!)

History was more interesting because it was like a storybook to me.

I also realised I am more a language person than being a science person.

Hence I am glad that future secondary school students will have the freedom to take up different subject combinations pegging to their own learning levels. This will sustain their learning interest in the long run, until their graduation year.

And please don’t forget there are late bloomers. Life is full of surprises.

For example, there could possibly be people who don’t understand basic accounting for in secondary school years but can later develop competency in accounting at tertiary level, thus become certified accountants!

You just never know what will happen in future.

4. Peer Influence

Presently, the concept of a traditional form class is where our secondary school students are grouped rigidly according to whichever stream they are in.

By taking away Normal Academic/Normal Technical and Express streams in year 2024, schools can exercising flexibility in organising classes.

The good scenario is that students across all classes at same level will now be looked upon “equally as peers”.

Here we can take reference from Edgefield Secondary School where Secondary 1 students from the Normal and Express streams are placed in the same form class, which I think is an excellent example.

There are 8 Secondary One classes.

In Euclid class, there are 24 students from the Express stream, 10 from the Normal (Academic) stream and five from Normal (Technical). Each of the seven other Sec 1 classes in the school has a similar mix of students across the 3 different academic streams.

According to a Channel NewsAsia report, these students are split into different classes for each subject – for example, Normal (Academic) students taking Express-level science or mathematics will attend classes together with their Express peers.

But they will attend lessons such as art, design and technology and physical education together as a form class.

I like this class arrangement because I somehow believe the academically strong ones can help to assist their weaker classmates without peer labelling.

The positive feedback from teachers at Edgefield Secondary School?

“Students tell us they enjoyed mixing with their classmates, and they find that some of their best friends are from different streams.”

“They also found that those who do well may not necessarily be from the Express stream, and they’ve learned a lot from one another.”

Isn’t this better? 

It is time to break down the walls separating the streams.

Apart from that, I think at the end of secondary school education, students will really have achieved some of the outcomes set by MOE, for example: 1) be able to work in teams and show empathy for others, 2) take responsibility for their own learning, 3) believe in their own abilities and adapt to change, and 4) appreciating diverse views and able to communicate effectively.

For the boys, it helps further when they are enlisted for National Service, several years later after post-secondary education.

Key stages of Education

As one grows older and upon stepping into the workforce years later, he or she would slowly realise that academic grades are not definitive in measuring a person’s level of capability or a predictor of life success.

If you are recognised as an asset in your organisation for your diligence, good attitude and work performance, your employer will not bother much about which educational stream and school were you from previously.

Learn to overcome labels which people may put on you.

Break free! 










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How I start to pull myself up after O-level ‘failure’

imageMonday 13 January 2014 was the day where Secondary School graduating students in Singapore, of whom has sat for GCE O-level examinations last year go back to their alma mater to collect their much-awaited results slips.

Flashing back to 1998, I was somehow in a state of depression when I obtained my results and knew that I had to go to Institute of Technical Education (ITE).  Was unhappy and feeling withdrawn and inferior for 2 years before entering National Service. And later, my hearing impairement “disaster”. That’s a double whammy. Awww.

Back then, there was quite a big social stigma about students who studied at ITE. For some Singaporeans, they may perceive ITE students as “stupid”, “useless”. Especially those who come from elite schools.

This was because the O-level results crush has shaken my self-confidence badly. And even the way I looked at myself. Despite re-taking it again. The pressure to excel at the exams came from myself, not from my parents.

My parents just told me to do my very best. Thankfully, they did not exert any pressure on me.

As told my form teacher Sumathi R Krishna, I did a lot self reflections in my head: What and where did I go wrong? Why me? And I stupid or what? Did I adopt the wrong exam preparation strategy? Blah blah blah….

To think that I want to be the MOST OUTSTANDING student in my Normal Academic class especially the boys yet my results are…dismaying. And worst still, I was the class monitor somemore. What a big joke. >_<

To pull myself out of the shell, I signed up to volunteer with the Student Volunteer at a volunteer fair held at Fountain of Wealth, Suntec City in 1999. One  Saturday. I used volunteering to “regain my self-worth bit by bit”. That was my virgin volunteer experience with Singapore Children’s Society.

And that was how I actually begun my volunteering journey.

Upon completion of National Service in 2002, I pursued my interest enrolling in Mass Communications course at MDIS (Management Development Institute of Singapore), beginning from the foundation course. I started to wear hearing aid then. Being older and wiser, I took initiative to attend classes early and adopt a different studying method, with much thanks to the guidance and care from lecturers and fellow coursemates.

It worked. My grades were satisfactory. I proceeded onto the Diploma programme smoothly. And alas, I obtained the diploma. Now today, it is a “matter of decision” whether I want to further pursue an university education.

Ms Sumathi R Krishna said this to me before: “Who says one must be a degree holder in order to be successful?”

Anyway, every little achievement gained, my self-confidence grew abit. And I felt better about myself.

Said numerous times, I am a firm believer of positive peer influence. There is no way you can’t become someone outstanding if you have had developed a personal network of outstanding individuals. I am selective in choosing friends. I seeked outstanding individuals who are willing to teach me more. Talk to them. Gain new fresh insights from their experiences shared. Talking about the desire to further develop myself into becoming someone better.

Other than those profound scentific subjects, I usually read more about current social issues as well as communications/media management issues. I want to accumulate a wealth of knowledge before I dare say I am an expert. Up till today, I consider myself still not very intellectual. lol.

I took initiative to sign up for a corporate grooming course. Learnt how to take care of my own appearance from head to toe. What looks good on me, in terms of attire and hairstyle? How to create presence or positive first impressions? How to walk, sit, talk and behave with class, like a true-blue successful personality. Like a boss. Image branding.

Why am I doing all this?

I am my own life sculptor. I want to mould myself into the ideal shape which I envision myself. In short, I am not willing to settle for mediocrity. NO.

Having said so, I am honest to say that it somehow has a haunting effect on me such that if I am to stand beside a junior college (JC) or university graduate or even an influential figure today, I might still think: I feel small because I think he or she could be looking down on me as I come from ITE. =p

I can’t help thinking that way. Inferiority complex at play again?

Life is about choices. If you are now an ITE student, the ball is in your hands, giving you full autonomy to decide whether you want to lose or win in life. Only you can help yourself. Don’t bother about what naysayers say about you.

People including your parents might look down upon you but you should always tell yourself this: “Possibilities are infinite as long as I don’t give up on myself, willing to change for the better, to become the most outstanding person I can be.”

No matter what happens, love yourself. It is about personal motivation. Prove everyone wrong.

This is a recent status update which I saw on Facebook:

“I never tell my Normal stream students that ITE is “It’s The End”. Who in this world has the right to pre-judge and limit a person’s ability except the person herself/himself? 

Most societies around the world today including Singapore are pretty much blinded by the paper chase. A person’s worth is never measured by the number of certificate papers they possess. In my opinion, employers should remember that. 

But often, we usually tend to employ people who are suitably qualified with the right training. That being said, our public service sector values academic qualifications more.

The best things I give to my Normal Stream students are self-dignity and the firm belief in their possible greatness. Every single one of us needs someone who believes in ourselves. But when nobody believes in us, we will then have to believe in ourselves and our worth all the more.”

—- By a Secondary School Teacher.

My take: Education to me, as an educator, is all about training of the human mind and spirit. It is not just about imparting knowledge. The cert paper obtained is the end result but it should not be seen as the-be-all-and-end-all. The journey experienced is far more important than the end destination.

Editor’s Note: Just to get facts straight about my above blog entry post – I did NOT fail my GCE O-Level exams back in 1997. Just in case anyone thought that I really flunk the examinations. No. 

I personally call it a ‘failure’ mainly because my target was to earn more than 3 O-level passes. Unfortunately I did not think and plan the most suitable preparation strategy for some subjects. Everything is all just pure memorisation. And hence, the devastating outcome somehow made me feel like a loser in life. Booooo. Sighhhh. Anyway, I told myself: “move on”.