By Leow Si Wan & Yen Feng
FOREIGNERS with children enrolled in Singapore's mainstream schools were surprised by future fee hikes announced by the Education Ministry over the weekend.
For now, most are taking the news in their stride. The new fees, which will be more than three times higher than the current fees, come into effect from 2011.
While it signifies a widening gap between privileges enjoyed by citizens and non-citizens, foreign parents and educators said the fees would still be affordable compared to those in international schools and in other countries.
Dr Chin Kon Yuen, chief executive of private school TMC Educational Group, said: 'Overall, the increased fees are still low compared to what foreigners pay to enter state schools overseas. I don't think it will have much impact.'
Mr Tony Du, president of the Tianfu Club, a networking club for Chinese immigrants, said he spoke for the group when he described the decision as 'fair'.
'Of course, the Government will take care of its citizens first.'
On Sunday, Education Minister Ng Eng Hen announced that school fees for permanent residents (PRs) and foreigners would be raised in two cycles - the first in 2011 and the second a year later.
For primary school pupils who are PRs, the annual fee is now $174. By 2012, it will be $612. For pupils who are non-PR and foreign-born, it can go up to more than $4,000.
The changes will affect about 12 per cent of the school-going children in Singapore, according to Education Ministry figures. Of the 521,000 students currently in primary, secondary and pre-university schools, about 60,000 are non-citizens.
There are no official figures that break down the group according to their nationalities, but bigger sources include Malaysia, China, Indonesia and the Philippines. The children of expatriates from North America, Australasia and Europe form a smaller proportion of students.
The Education Ministry does not limit the number of PR students in schools.
Malaysian parent Charlene Lee, 41, a housewife, placed her two sons in schools here. She said: 'Nobody wants school fees to go up, but we are very happy with the education and opportunities my boys have received. The fee increase is still affordable for us.'
The hike will likely have the largest impact on low-income foreigners, such as the 'study mamas' who accompany their children here from China, or parents of the 10,000 students who make the daily commute across the Causeway from Malaysia, according to earlier Malaysian news reports.
Madam Zhu Lingyu, 37, a PR with a 12-year-old son about to enter Secondary 1 next year, said: 'I can still handle the fees in 2011, but the second increase the next year, should my son make it to junior college, is worrying. There are also tuition fees to consider.' The China national, who moved to Singapore three years ago, makes about $1,500 a month as a masseuse.
Others, like cousins Wang Xiaomin and Lin Xiaohua, both in their 30s and also from China, worry that the hikes will mean working longer hours to make the payments.
'I am already quite busy at work,' said Ms Wang in Mandarin. 'How will I have time to take care of my son?'
The cousins work as part-time cleaners, earning between $900 and $1,500 every month. Both their sons are in Secondary 1 in mainstream schools.
Apart from school fees, families have to put down security deposits ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 for their children's student visas.
Mr Daniel Chu, former president of the Association of Consultants for International Students, reckons that even if some parents pull out their children because of cost, the move will not dissuade those who know a bargain when they see one.
'If you compare the quality of our education to that of other regional countries, it's value for money.'
Government Parliamentary Committee for Education chairman Josephine Teo said the move to raise fees is a 'balanced approach and a reminder to PRs that citizenship comes with its privileges'.
She added that the hikes would 'better reflect the true cost of education for non-citizens who wish to enjoy the high-quality education available in state schools here'.
Some principals, such as Mrs Lee Hui Feng of Nanyang Primary, said the new fees might push foreigners into applying for citizenship, although none of the 11 parents interviewed said they would.
Those who do so will enjoy at least one more perk: From next year, the primary school registration balloting system will be tweaked to favour citizens.
While the new rule will not take effect until June, CHIJ Kellock's principal Clara Lim-Tan has some advice for non-citizen parents in the meantime.
She said: 'Expectations will have to be managed, especially if the school has a trend of receiving more applicants than places available.'