School’s Out: How Singapore Keeps University Reserved for the Elites


Indeed, MOE’s Education Statistics Digest 2016 showed that from 2008 to 2015, the enrolment in the first year of the junior colleges hovered in the 14,000s to the 16,000s. The enrolment in the polytechnics and ITEs from 2008 also hovered in the 24,000s to 26,000s and 13,000s to 14,000s, respectively.

Ong had implied that the junior colleges do not have the critical mass and have to be merged while the other education minister Ng professed that the mergers of the junior colleges have to be done because “we would see that several of our JCs [… would] only be able to fill less than half of its JC1 desired intakes – it is possible that some would struggle to fill even just 200, given the sharp drop in JC1 cohort for the coming years.”

But looking at the statistics, both of their reasoning do not seem to hold water. From 2013 to 2015, the enrolment in the first year of junior college did drop from 16,261 to 15,337, and to 14,043, but the same thing was happening at the polytechnics too, where the intake fell from 26,879 to 25,777, to 24,251.

Where last month the government merged eight of the junior colleges and this month, Ong said that the government would restrict the proportion of students from each cohort who could enter the public universities to between 30 and 40 percent, this has led to questions as to whether the two are connected.

Commenting on The Straits Times Facebook page, Chee Chua said: “Thanks for telling us the real reasons for [the] closure of JCs. The most direct route to university is now reserved for the smarties and the well connected.”

What perhaps amused some Singaporeans more was when Ong shared a photo taken during his school days on his Facebook and wrote: “A priceless photo which [Tan] Chuan-Jin sent me last night. Amongst these group of friends, one an ambassador, one a Permanent Secretary, two became senior executives in the private sector, and two of us are in Cabinet.”

Tan Chuan-Jin is Singapore’s current Minister for Social and Family Development. Ong and Tan, together with Minister without portfolio Chan Chun Sing studied in the same cohort at Raffles Junior College, popularly seen as the top junior college in Singapore. All three are earmarked to be potential future prime ministers of Singapore. And they studied together.

There can never be a more tone-deaf post at a more tone-deaf time.

So, elitism at play? To Cheng, he thought: “I do not find the word ‘elite’ a bad word. Nor do I think elitism is a bad thing as long as it’s meritocratic.”

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