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The Singapore Story: A Nation's Effort to Develop Human Resources

by Swee Fong Ng
November 2001

back issues Although Singapore is predominantly Chinese, it is a multicultural and multireligious urban society. English is the language of administration, education, and commerce. Children must study English and their "mother tongue"—Mandarin, Malay or Tamil, as well as mathematics and science. With so much on their plate, what is it that enabled Singapore's students to perform so well on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)?


Singapore's topmost position in the TIMSS is well known among mathematics educators. However, mathematics educators rarely mention the fact that Singapore was ranked 16th out of the 26 countries that participated in the Second International Science Study (SISS), conducted in 1983–1984. The Ministry of Education considered the improved performance in TIMSS, compared with SISS, to be a direct result of changes that it instituted in the mathematics and science curriculum (MOE 1996). Hence, rather than compare Singapore's performance with that of the United States, I believe that we should consider the changes made in Singapore's educational system that allowed for this significant improvement in mathematics performance in just over a decade. This essay considers factors that may have contributed to Singapore's improved performance.

The education system and major changes in the curriculum 

Singapore has a centralized system of education, with a Ministry of Education that spearheads curriculum development and implementation. In 1990, the Ministry revised the mathematics curriculum to place greater emphasis on developing mathematical concepts and fostering the ability to apply them in mathematical problem-solving situations. The revised curriculum also emphasizes process skills and attitude development. The practice of tracking students according to their ability was introduced, and a differentiated curriculum is used to teach students according to their ability. In addition to implementing a national curriculum and examination system, the Ministry also recommends textbooks, provides pedagogical guides, and sets achievement standards. Hence, the intended curriculum has become comprehensive, highly focused, and coherent in its coverage across schools (MOE 1996). Fortuitously, the taught curriculum was similar to the TIMSS test items. Soh (1999) found a very high correlation between TIMSS achievement and item-curriculum match. Therefore, the success of students from Singapore on the TIMSS can be partly explained by the match between their curriculum and the TIMSS test items.

Also the centralized, efficient education system and the relatively small size of Singapore allow the Ministry to disseminate information effectively. The Ministry can inform teachers about changes in the curriculum and can systematically conduct in-service courses to prepare teachers for such changes. Furthermore, the National Institute of Education (NIE) conducts all initial teacher education in Singapore. The Ministry informs NIE about changes in the mathematics curriculum; and NIE prepares new teachers for the changes, content, and pedagogical practices. However, because the initial teacher-education period is very short, the Ministry has recognized the need for continuous teacher education. The Ministry's policy allows recent graduates to have a lighter workload and be mentored by senior teachers during the first year of teaching. Established teachers are entitled to at least 100 hours of in-service training each year. This training is offered by such agencies as NIE and the Association of Mathematics Educators.

The structure of the society in Singapore 

Although the previously mentioned factors possibly contribute to Singapore's success, why is the society amenable to changes instituted by the Ministry? Singapore has no natural resources. The political leaders of Singapore constantly remind the people of this deficiency and remind them that the economic well-being of the country is contingent on its development of human resources. Political leaders prescribe education as a means to develop human resources. Singapore has set up structures to reward and support individuals who do well academically. The goals and rewards are therefore clearly defined. Hence, although Singapore is multicultural and multireligious, it is homogeneous in that all the cultural groups share a common goal for their children—a better future through education. Children themselves value this goal.

Investment in education 

Singapore's government continues to invest heavily in education. Evidence is seen in the continuing upgrading of schools, building of new ones, and the provision of proper infrastructure to help teachers and students use technology in teaching and learning. Parents in Singapore invest heavily in their children's education. A high proportion of Singapore's children receive additional after-school help with their schoolwork from private tutors.


Singapore has made considerable progress during the past ten years, primarily because all parties make a concerted effort to promote education and student achievement. This effort has taken the form of a revised mathematics curriculum, teaching resources, and in-service support. The success of Singapore's students is due to the collaboration of teachers, students, and parents, as well as a structure that supports academic success.


Ministry of Education (MOE). Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). National Report for Singapore (Population 2). Research and Testing Division, Ministry of Education, Singapore, 1996.

Soh, K. C. "Three G7 and Three Little Asian Dragons in TIMSS Mathematics at the Fourth Grade." The Mathematics Educator 4 (2) (1999): 126–37.


Swee Fong Ng is a mathematics educator at the National Institute of Education, Singapore. Her interests include the teaching and learning of algebra and beginning teachers' knowledge of mathematics.


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