Thu, Jan 21, 2010
The Straits Times
Exam aces: More local than foreign

By Amelia Tan & Leow Si Wan

SINGAPOREANS are holding their own against foreigners when it comes to studies.

Although recent examination results have put the spotlight on the achievements of foreigners, principals and others contacted said that Singaporeans are still at the top of the tree in this regard.

Related links:
» S'poreans can hold their own: Educators
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» Foreign student speaks good English

Checks by The Straits Times also show that Singaporeans are outperforming their foreign counterparts.

For instance, although a Malaysian emerged tops in the recent O-level examination with 10 A1s, the majority - 60 per cent - of the 44 students who score nine A1s in the exams are Singaporeans.

For the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) last year, 10 of the 13 top students were Singaporeans, even though a girl from China trumped everyone else with her aggregate score of 290.

And at the A levels, which many educationists consider the truer measure of excellence, Singaporeans are tops, too.

Six Raffles Institution (Junior College) students topped the nation last year by scoring nine distinctions. Five were Singaporeans, the sixth was from Indonesia.

The best of the lot: A trio who took 13 Academic Units (AUs) of subjects, the heaviest workload an A-level student is allowed to take on. They scored As for all the subjects. All of them are Singaporeans.

The recent achievements of foreign students have prompted several people, including Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, to broach the subject of whether Singaporeans are losing their edge in school.

Since the PSLE results were released last November, online forums have been flooded with comments on the immense hard work foreign students put in to brush up on their weak command of English and how they end up scoring As for the subject after just a few years here.

Netizens pointed out that Singaporean students, on the other hand, lack a sense of urgency and tend to be distracted by comforts of life such as computer games and television.

But principals contacted say Singaporeans are keeping their edge. When asked about the fact that 40 per cent of the top students in the O levels were foreigners, they said the creme de la creme among local students do not sit for that exam.

Instead, most of these bright sparks opt for the through-train Integrated Programme, which allows students to bypass the O levels and take the A levels after six years.

Educators say the foreigners' results are very impressive, considering they form just 12 per cent of the student population here in primary schools, secondary schools, junior colleges and centralised institutes, but added that it is important to remember that these children are the best of the best in their home countries to begin with.

Those who make it to the top students lists are mostly scholars carefully chosen by schools here. Many are also one to two years older than their Singaporean peers and are more mature.

Crescent Girls' principal Eugenia Lim said: 'We are highly selective. We consider their local exam results, and we also put them through rigorous written tests and interviews. As the scholars that we select are top performers in their own schools, they are usually already very diligent, self-motivated and driven.'

Catholic High School principal Lee Hak Boon said: 'They are the top students in their schools and some are even the top few in their cities. This means they already have pre-requisites to do well like intelligence and discipline. But more importantly, they all show a hunger to succeed.'

This 'hunger', foreign students say, stems from the fact that stakes for them are much higher.

Said Catholic High School student Cai Sheng Mao, 17, who came here from China two years ago and scored eight A1s: 'When I decided to leave home and come to Singapore, I made a commitment to my parents that I will do my best here. So for me, there is no turning back.'

One of the top students in Crescent Girls' School for last year's O levels, China scholar Chen He added that they had more time on their side.

The 17-year-old who scored nine A1s said: 'When I came here, I was placed in Secondary 3, instead of Secondary 4. This gave me more time to prepare and to brush up on English. The maths and science syllabus here is also easier.'

Discipline is key, she added. She juggles two co-curricular activities, spends at least four hours a day revising lessons, on top of daily classes in school, bridging lessons conducted by the Education Ministry and consultations with teachers.

But teachers said Singapore students have high levels of drive too, and pointed out that this can be seen across the board, from the very top to those at the bottom.

Xinmin Secondary's English head of department Kevin Cheng said: 'We had a student who started school in the Normal (Technical) stream, but through the coaching from the teachers and also his own determination, the student managed to go on to the O levels and did well enough to qualify for junior college.'

Catholic High's Mr Lee said the fact that Singaporeans and foreigners alike are excelling in schools here shows the strength of Singapore's education system. 'It doesn't matter where you come from or if you are Singaporean or not. If you are hungry to do well, our schools will help you achieve success.'

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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