Real reason behind Singapore’s obsession with tuition

By Daniel Wong

Singapore is a tuition nation.

Previous reports from the Department of Statistics show that households spent $820 million a year on both centre and home-based private tuition.

In addition, the number of tuition centres has increased five times over the past decade. There are now more than 500 centres in Singapore.

In comparison, there are fewer than 400 primary and secondary schools in total.

Through my work as an education excellence coach and speaker, I've had the privilege of speaking to and working with thousands of students. Through these interactions, I estimate that more than 90% of students attend some form of tuition classes.

Students continually complain about their huge struggle to complete their school and tuition homework, participate actively in their co-curricular activities, and lead a somewhat balanced life.

Most students tell me that they don't get more than 5 or 6 hours of sleep every night because there's just so much they have to do!

Clearly, there's something wrong with this picture.

In this article, I'll share my observations about how our obsession with tuition reveals deeper issues we face as a society—issues that go far beyond the pursuit of academic success.

The fear of failure starts with parents

Parents send their children for tuition classes because they fear their children getting left behind. That's a reasonable fear, because it seems like every other student attends classes outside of school.

But the bigger fear that parents have is the fear of failure, not just for their children, but for themselves, too.

It's difficult to measure your performance as a parent, so parents often subconsciously gauge their success by how their children are doing in school.

Your child is a straight-A student? Then you must be doing a wonderful job!

Your child is struggling academically? Then you're failing as a parent.

Few parents verbalize it, but these thoughts are at the core of their decision to send their children for tuition classes. At the end of the day, no parent wants to feel like a failure.

What parents really want for their children

There are other implications, too. Parents' fear of failure gets passed on to their children, who grow up thinking that the best path is the one that's free from failure, risk and disappointment.

But is that really the best path? No, that's merely the good path, yet it's also the one that parents unintentionally push their children to pursue. A lot of the time, the best path is the one that's full of uncertainty and adversity.

That's why it's generally incorrect to say that parents want what's best for their children, because they usually only want what's good.

Be curious, not competitive

Moreover, parents who are fixated on their children's academic performance instill a spirit of competition in their children. In today's Information Age, however, what's needed in order to excel is a spirit of curiosity, rather than a spirit of competition.

There's an incredible amount of information available on the internet, which means that if you want to become knowledgeable in some field, you probably could. It just requires that you have enough genuine curiosity to compel you to look up the information online.

If students are caught up trying to compete with their peers and outperform them, it's difficult to cultivate a real love for learning and discovery—the things that form the basis of a meaningful education and of long-term success in the Information Age.

Success is more about will than skill

Furthermore, if students feel like they're being forced to improve academically, there's a limit to how successful they can become. To achieve success—I'll go one step further and use the word "greatness"—in any field, you need to make a conscious decision to be great.

After all, no great pianist, athlete, engineer, doctor, mechanic, nurse or entrepreneur became that way without intentionally choosing the path of excellence.

You can't force anyone to become great. It's possible to force someone to become mediocre or even good, but greatness requires commitment.

If parents make their children go for tuition classes without also empowering them to take full responsibility for their own education, it's impossible for the children to become great students.

At the heart of it, greatness is much more a matter of will than it is of skill. Before we teach our students the skill of studying more effectively and of doing better on exams, we need to encourage them to make a deliberate choice about their education, their future and their life.

Tuition isn't a bad thing

Just to be clear, on its own, tuition isn't a horrible thing. I have no doubt that tuition classes can help children to become more disciplined, knowledgeable, hardworking and determined.

Nevertheless, if it's not done with the correct mindset, sending children for tuition classes can be dangerous.

It's possible that we're currently creating a generation of sleep-deprived, overworked, unfulfilled, and unhappy students. I fear that this generation of unhappy students is going to become a generation of unhappy workers and, later on, a generation of unhappy parents.

This is a problem we cannot ignore.

So whether you, as a parent, decide to send your children for tuition classes or not, I urge you to make that decision with the right perspective. Make sure your children understand that it's more important to finish well than it is to finish first.

The future of our country depends on it.

Daniel Wong is the author of "The Happy Student: 5 Steps to Academic Fulfillment and Success". He is also an education excellence coach and speaker. He writes regularly about topics related to education, career and personal development at Living Large.