Govt finally disbands streaming 38 years after Dr Tan Cheng Bock spoken against it

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung announced in Parliament today (5 Mar) that streaming in secondary schools will be removed and replaced by subject-based banding (SBB) by 2024.

Also, following this, the O-Level and N-Level examinations will be combined into one common national examination.

The existing system of streaming students into Express, Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) based on their PSLE results will be replaced with subject-based banding, he said. Subject-based banding refers to students taking subjects at different levels according to their abilities.

This system is similar to how students taking the A-Levels offer subjects at H1, H2 and H3 levels, where students weaker in a particular subject can study at H1 level. H1 has less syllabus to cover than H2 level. For exceptional A-level students, they would go for subjects at H3 level.

This year’s primary 2 cohort will be the first batch of students to undergo subject-based banding when they enter secondary school in 2024. Upon entering Secondary 1, they will take a combination of subjects at three different levels based on their PSLE scores: General 1, General 2 and General 3.

Still, Minister Ong defended the streaming system, which he said has successfully reduced school attrition rates from about a third of every cohort to less than 1 per cent currently.

But he acknowledged that streaming can “carry a certain stigma or be 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.’ It becomes self-fulfilling,” he said.

“With full SBB implemented, form classes reorganised across the board and a common secondary education certificate, we would have effectively merged Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams into a single course,” Minister Ong explained.

“The Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams, together with their labels, will therefore be phased out,” he said. “We will no longer have fishes swimming down three separate streams, but one broad river, with each fish negotiating its own journey.”

Dr Tan Cheng Bock questioned streaming 38 years ago

In fact, 38 years ago when the govt first proposed streaming, Dr Tan Cheng Bock spoke against it in Parliament.

On 17 Feb 1981, about a year after the government implemented the streaming system, then MP Tan Cheng Bock spoke against the ills of streaming in Parliament. He opined that streaming in education would encourage “intellectual snobbery” in the society.

He explained, “Class division, undesirable though it may be, exists in muted form in our society. This is expressed in the way Singaporeans go increasingly for prestigious brands of clothing, bags, shoes, cars and even schools.”

“And when we start creating prestigious labels such as super-schools, special and express streams, no Singaporean wants to be caught with the merely ‘Normal’ label,” he added. “Moreover, we seem to be too enamored over streaming when the West is having second thoughts over the system.”

He quoted then PM Lee Kuan Yew who would mix different types of HDB housing in an estate to breakdown class division and discourage “social snobbery”. Dr Tan said, “Perhaps the Prime Minister’s observation on mixed housing applies equally to our schools – a good mix of abilities will certainly go a long way to discourage intellectual snobbery which I think is far worse than social snobbery.”

“The ‘intellectually well off’ will not then be conditioned into thinking that they must have the best of everything without regard to those less well-endowed. Intelligent children, so segregated, run the danger of developing intolerance and a superiority complex to those less able,” Dr Tan cautioned.

Unfortunately, the government went ahead to implement education streaming, indirectly encouraging “intellectual snobbery” in some quarters.

MP’s daughter: “Get out of my elite uncaring face!”

Dr Tan’s fear of “intellectual snobbery” created out of streaming was epitomized in 2006, when an MP’s daughter publicly tell a heartlander to “Get out of my elite uncaring face!”.

The elitism controversy occurred in Oct 2006, when Ms Wee Shu Min, who is the daughter of then MP Wee Siew Kim and a student on Raffles Junior College’s Humanities scholarship programme, found herself in controversy after writing insensitive statements against heartlanders on her blog.

Dismissing the views of a heartlander, Derek Wee, who voiced concerns on job security and age discrimination on his blog, she shot back with a take-no-prisoners diatribe, calling Mr Wee a “stupid crackpot”, belonging to “the sadder class” and over-reliant on the government. Her post also called for Mr Wee to “get out of my elite uncaring face”.

Her response triggered an avalanche of criticism from Singaporeans and she was later forced to apologise and shut down her blog. Commentators used the controversy as evidence that Singapore was suffering from increasing signs, that political elitism, “smarter-than-thou” snobbery and class consciousness anxiety were creeping into its meritocracy model.

Many also pointed to a widening social stratification that would cause long-term implications for Singapore society, as well as to the need to revamp education streaming.

The controversy was subsequently raised and hotly debated again in Parliament with one MP pointed out that elitism was now an open secret in several aspects of Singapore society, including education, the military and the civil service, commenting that it is necessary “(to) break down the institution of snobbery within our society”.