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Mandarin in Singapore

September 19, 2013

Judy Shei recently moved from San Francisco to Singapore. She says the Mandarin immersion program in San Francisco Public schools “did a great job” prepping her son for the Mandarin track in the Singapore schools. She’s sent a nice overview of how school works there. It’s part of the longer chapter on Singapore in “A Parents Guide to Mandarin Immersion” which I look to have done in November. Here’s the chapter, with Judy’s information at the end.



Singapore’s Mandarin education program

When talking about Mandarin education, Singapore makes for an interesting study. While the nation’s schools are all taught in English, about three-quarters of all students are in a strand of the national education system that requires them to become fluent in Mandarin in order to graduate.

“Singapore is quite different from the rest of the world because we make the learning of Mandarin compulsory” for all students with Chinese heritage, said Dr. Chin CheeKuen, who is executive director of the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language at Nanyang Technological University. The goal is to create “bilingual citizens of the world.”

In the past only the most capable people, those who were able to master two languages, truly became bilingual. Now it’s simple “part of life” and necessary for the 21st century. Singapore has built its educational system around ensuring that its students are ready for that future, he said.

Singapore is an island nation situated between Malaysia and Indonesia, about 3.5 times as big as Washington D.C. It became an independent country in 1965. One of the Asian Tigers, today it has the third highest per capita income in the world. The population is 5.26 million, made up of multiple diverse groups:


  • 74% of Chinese descent
  • 13% of Malay decent
  •  9% of Indian descent.
  •  3% Eurasians and other groups


Singapore’s educational system is considered one of the world’s best. Its students consistently score at the very top of international measures of science and math ability.

It was founded as an English trading colony in 1819, which is why English is one of its official languages and why all schools are taught in English.

The nation has four official languages, based on the main language communities of the island: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.  All children are enrolled in a ‘mother tongue’ strand within the school system depending on their ethnicity. This language remains one of their core subjects as they move through school. The breakdown is


  • 72%-75% of students in the Chinese strand
  • 12%-15% in the Malay strand
  • 10% in the Tamil or other minorities’ language strand.


But just because students come from ethnically Chinese families does not mean that they speak Mandarin. Among Chinese families, 37% speak only or mainly Mandarin at home, 25% speak both Mandarin and English at home and 38% speak only or mainly English.  The use of Mandarin as a home language is declining in Singapore as English slowly supplants it, Dr. Chin said.

The Singapore school year runs for 40 weeks and the school day goes from 7:30 to 1:30. Most students do extracurricular activities or special projects at school after the academic day ends, or attend remedial lessons where they do more studying. Singapore schools embrace tracking. Students are tested and assigned to a top, mainstream or vocational track according to their academic ability.

All subjects but the mother tongue are taught in English, so up to 90% of the day is in English and the rest is language arts in Chinese, Malay or Tamil depending on the student’s background. In Chinese, students get more Mandarin time in elementary school and then the level drops slightly as other subjects are emphasized. The amount of time students in the mainstream program for elementary school spend studying Mandarin in first through sixth grade varies between 6.5 and 4 hours a week, depending on their grade.

In secondary school, the U.S. equivalent of middle and high school, students in the mainstream program study Chinese 3.75 hours a week. There is also a track for students who have done very well in Chinese or who are very interested in pursuing Chinese studies. These students get an extra 30 minutes of Mandarin per week.

Singapore has its own national examinations which are taken at the end of grade 6, grade 10 or 11 and grade 12 or 13. Chinese language is one of the compulsory subjects for all Chinese students in these examinations. Students in the Chinese track in middle school need to pass a Mandarin test in the General Certificate of Education (GCE) ‘O’ (Ordinary) Level examination in order to enroll in high school. They also must pass a Chinese test to get their ‘A’ (Advanced) level certificate to attend local universities.

How good their Chinese is depends on their interest and how hard they work. It’s impossible to directly compare their Mandarin ability with either Chinese and Taiwanese students on the one hand and American immersion students on the other, says Dr. Chin.  But students who truly apply themselves are able to enter Beijing University in China. “We have some students whose Mandarin standard is really comparable to mainland China. We have some families who do not speak Chinese at home and I think they are learning the language from the ground up” so the level they reach is not as high in general, Dr. Chin says. And some speak it very well. As in all schools “there’s a big difference here between individuals.”

However, all students must pass the Chinese language at A Level examination to be able to enter university in Singapore. This makes students and parents “take learning of Mandarin in school seriously,” says Dr. Chin.



Singapore has been a leader of the read-first-write-later strategy of Chinese education. Students are expected to read and recognize more characters than they are able to write. This allows them to read most complicated material more quickly. A distinction is made between the number of characters students must be able to read and recognize and characters students must ‘master,’ i.e. be able to read and write.

By the end of second grade, students will have learned between 600 and 650 characters, 300 to 350 of which they must be able to write. By the end of fourth grade they must know between 1,200 to 1,300 characters, including 700 to 750 they must master. By end of grade 6 they know between 1,600 and 1,700 characters, of which they must have mastered between 1,000 and 1,100. By the time they take their O Level Examination when they’re 15 or 16, they will have mastered between 2,400 and 2,500 characters, 2,000 to 2,100 of which they must be able to write.

However despite this, most students still read for pleasure in English, with which they’re more comfortable, but that depends on their family and the student themselves, says Dr. Chin.

The Mandarin taught in Singapore’s schools is very close to standard Beijing Mandarin and simplified characters are used. In Singapore it’s called 新加坡华语, Xīnjiāpō Huáyǔor, Singaporean Mandarin. The Mandarin spoken on the street is called Colloquial Singaporean Mandarin and contains loan words from the Malay and Chinese dialects also spoken in Singapore. It is quite natural for people in Singapore to “mix up the vocabulary between Mandarin and English. They might say a Mandarin sentence but have an English or Malay word,” said Dr. Chin. However, under formal settings like meeting China or Taiwan counterparts or attending cultural or official events when Chinese is the main or one of the main languages, good Mandarin will be used.

Singapore doesn’t have actual immersion classes in elementary school, but some preschools are beginning to experiment with the idea. As families shift to speaking English rather than Chinese at home, immersion programs are seen as helpful to introduce children to the language they will study in school.

The Chinese textbook series used in Singapore schools is called华文,

HuáwénChinese Language for Primary Schools or Chinese Language for Secondary Schools. The Portland Public Schools Mandarin immersion program uses it as well.


An American in Singapore schools

So should we all just move to Singapore? Maybe not. I asked an American mother whose job took her family to Singapore when her daughter was still a toddler to tell me about their experience. She found that while there were many excellent aspects to the education her child received, there was quite a bit of downside, too.

Her daughter began learning Mandarin at a bilingual preschool when she was two-and-a-half. When it came time to start first grade, her Chinese was good enough for entry in the neighborhood primary school’s Mandarin track. She attended Raffles Girls Primary School, which was one of the better public schools in the city-state.

She did well in her coursework during her six years in Singapore, thanks to extra tutoring, and thrived in the structured environment of the school system. When the family arrived back in the United States for seventh grade, her daughter was able to get a place at a the Mandarin immersion school in San Francisco and has had no trouble keeping up.

The schools had well-funded music and sports programs. Intellectualism was encouraged and all children got to participate in a variety of activities as part of their school day. “The biggest benefit of life in Singapore was the experience of living abroad — meeting new people, having new experiences, etc.,” the mother said of their time there.

Still, there is no magic bullet to creating the Perfect School – even in the city-state. Despite identical government funding and curriculum, students who attend schools in the wealthier districts tend to outperform those in the less affluent.  “Even if the Singapore government doubled or tripled funding for low-performing schools, I bet children in the wealthier neighborhoods would still get better test scores,” the American mom said.

Children from wealthy families have access to expensive, high-quality tutoring to supplement their education and are better able to transport their children to study centers.  Über-competitive parents also gain status from their child’s school placement and exam scores, she said. The family is motivated for the child to excel.

The test scores touted internationally refer to students in the most academically demanding courses, many of whom have been nurtured since pre-K by academically-minded families. Sixth-grade students take an especially grueling test that determines what type of secondary school they will enter. According to the Ministry of Education, last year’s scores saw kids going to: advanced (62%); academic (23.1%); technical (11.4%) or vocational (2.6%) secondary schools.

Many Singaporean school children struggle with spoken English even though much of the curriculum is taught in English. Teachers throughout the city-state speak a pidgin version of the language known as Singlish and writing assignments often reflect a lack of proper sentence structure. The government’s “Speak Good English” campaign did little to encourage fluency.

The pressures put on students in high-performing schools in Singapore are ones that many American parents might find unreasonable or even damaging. When her daughter scored 94.5 in English, 95.0 in Chinese and 87.0 in Math on her first report card, the teacher wrote at the bottom that the student “needs to be more meticulous so as to attain better results.”

The grading curve in Singapore is 85-100 for “Band One” so her daughter’s grades were the equivalent of straight A’s. “I don’t know about other parents, but that means ice cream sundaes for all at my house,” the mom said.


Unreasonably Rigid?

The school system also can seem unreasonably rigid. Singapore’s school year runs on a calendar year and kicks off Jan 2. Everyone born in 1999, for instance, is in the same grade and expected to be at the same level. Brutal mid-terms are given at the beginning of May. They often contain new material that won’t be introduced until the second-term, if at all. When the American mom asked about this, the teacher responded, “We like to challenge them.” Bad grades for the mid-term often mean students spend their four-week break in June studying.

Finals occur in October and there’s a week off when kids are expected to cram with their private tutors. All extracurricular activities are suspended in September/October, which is not a joyful time. After finals, the students do nothing until the year ends in mid-November. The American mom’s take-home: They may have a longer school year, but they’re not maximizing learning.

Each class has 30 or more kids. Her daughter’s sixth-grade math class had 42. “Her teachers didn’t cover all that much in the classroom and the homework load was often freakishly light because the teachers assumed kids got assignments from tutors.

According to the American mom, “the No. 1 difference between Singapore’s education system and that of the U.S. is the expectation that children will have hours of private tutoring every week. And it’s not cheap.”

“Teachers often moonlight as tutors. Our Chinese tutor was an `education mother’ from the Mainland. She accompanied her brilliant daughter, who was on a scholarship. The tutor came two times a week for 90 minutes. She charged 45 Singapore dollars per hour ($37 US). Starting from fourth grade, my daughter had a math/science `homework helper’ for two hours every Sunday morning.”


Rote memorization is often prized over true learning

            Singapore students may score highly but that doesn’t necessarily mean the students have actually learned anything, says the mom.

The first time my daughter asked me to help her study for an English spelling test I was impressed with the vocabulary. But guess what? The kids weren’t expected to know what the words meant—only to spell them! I asked the teacher about this and she gave me a blank stare. She then told me I could teach my daughter the meanings if I wanted to, but because it’s a spelling test, she only needed to spell the words.

My daughter was once asked to read a composition about orangutans and then fill in a worksheet.

First question: How tall is an orangutan?

She parroted what was in the composition, which was around 1.4 meters or so. I asked her – what’s a meter? How tall are you? She had no idea so I got out a measuring tape. It turned out an orangutan was about the same size as my daughter, so she added that into her answer.

Another question: How long does an orangutan stay with its mother? The answer was six years, which was a year younger than my daughter at the time. She wrote “Six years” and added, “I’m seven and I’m not ready to leave my mother yet!”

The teacher handed back the assignment and crossed out my daughter’s added comments, writing “irrelevant” in red pen. I mentioned this to the principal. “Oh well,” she said.

My daughter failed her science midterm one year. Most of her class failed it. Einstein might have failed it. The teacher was incompetent and they learned nothing. Instead of conducting a simple experiment in front of the class, the teacher showed a YouTube video of it. Guess what was needed to do the experiment? A bowl of water, a plastic cup and some cotton.

Because of the massive failure, the school offered a “remedial” class given by local high-school students. It was so fun and hands-on that parents of the kids who passed called to complain that their kids were being punished by the exclusion. My daughter aced the final. Happy ending!


Overall, the American mom says, the experience was a good one. Since moving back to the U.S., her daughter’s English has gotten better and her Mandarin worse, as would be expected moving from a Chinese-speaking to an English-speaking country. Her main message to parents is that despite the hype and the test scores, Singapore isn’t an educational paradise. But, she says, perhaps nowhere is.


A Parent’s take on how the system works

Judy Shei and her family moved to Singapore in the summer of 2013 from San Francisco, where their oldest son had been a student in the Mandarin immersion program at Starr King Elementary School. She wrote up this Singapore schools cheat sheet to answer all the questions she’d gotten about how the system works. It’s instructive to read how very different school there is, and yet how similar.


There is a lot of information online regarding Singapore Public Schools ( but most of it is geared toward Singaporeans who already know the system and just want to brush up on the latest MOE (Ministry of Education) rules and changes.  Very little of it is geared toward Americans and what is different between a typical American public school and typical Singaporean Primary School. We just went through the process of enrolling my older son into P2 in a local primary school (Jul-2013) and I have received a lot questions about Singapore schools in general as well as how to enroll.  Thought I’d share what I’ve learned for all those who are also considering the local system.


Hopefully the below will be useful.  Please contact me if you have any questions.


Quick Facts

  • School Year runs from January 1 – mid-November, with a one month break in June, a one week break in September and March and public holidays throughout the year.
  • Preschool/Kindergarten is private.  Kindergarten is divided into K1 (5 year olds) and K2 (6 year olds)
  • Primary School Ages: Primary 1 (P1) – for all kids who turn 7 that calendar year – through Primary 6 (P6).  So for the school year starting January 2014, all children born in the year 2007 must enroll into P1.  Red shirting (American term for holding back children who are near the cut off so they enroll the following year) requires special permission from the MOE.
  • P1 expectations:  Children entering P1 are expected to know how to read.  For children who don’t, most schools will provide after school support.
  • P1-P3 Class size: max 30 students
  • P4-P6 Class size: max 40 students
  • Primary School Size: Typically 6 – 8 classes per level, so most schools have 1100 – 1400 students.


Vocabulary List

  • MOE: Ministry of Education
  • Local School: Public School.  Singaporean citizens must attend local schools and require special permission to attend International Schools.  International students who are Permanent Residents or on Dependent Passes may also attend local schools although are not guaranteed a spot.
  • International Schools: Private School.  Typically mostly students are from other countries.  The Singaporeans who attend either have one parent who has a passport for another country or received special permission from the MOE allowing them to attend for a prescribed reason.
  • Level: grade.  Instead of saying “I’m in 2nd grade,” you say “I’m in P2.”
  • SAP School: Special Assistance Plan Schools.  Contrary to what it sounds like to an American, it is a school that has enriched Chinese language and culture.  These schools are very difficult for international students to enroll in as they are very popular with locals.  They typically have a more high pressure environment.
  • GEP School: Gifted Education Program.  All children take an exam at the end P3 which determines whether they qualify for the program which starts in P4.  GEP is only in select Primary Schools so a child may switch schools at this time.
  • Elite vs. Neighborhood Schools: Although the MOE officially states that all Primary schools are “good schools”, in reality in many Singaporean minds there are the “elite” schools (Raffles, Anglo-Chinese School, Henry Park, Nanyang Primary School, etc., etc.) and “neighborhood” schools.  If you don’t have a $1M to donate, as an international student it is next to impossible to enroll into an elite school.  These schools are highly coveted by Singaporeans.
  • PSLE: Primary School Leaving Exam.  This is an exam all students take at P6 and the results of this exam and their grades determine which secondary schools a student can enroll in which then determines which university/polytechnic (technical school) they qualify for.  It’s not unusual for Singaporean parents to take time off to assist their children in preparing for this.  The closer it gets to P6 the higher the pressure and the more likely students attend tuition on the weekends and during school holidays.
  • Tuition: Tutoring, usually in an after school or weekend class.  Many Singaporeans send their children to tutoring over the weekend.  I have heard anecdotes that Elite Primary Schools there is an expectation that all children have tuition.  There is less of an expectation, if at all, in neighborhood schools.
  • MT: Mother Tongue (Mandarin, Malay or Tamil).  MOE is realizing that many students of this generation use English as their primary language at home and is scaling back expectations particularly in P1 and P2.  For non-SAP schools, mother tongue is taught more like a foreign language with a lot of emphasis on vocabulary and grammar. It is not an “immersion” environment for those coming from an immersion program in the States (like we did).  The teachers will speak in English to students if they don’t get it.  However, for international students with no background in a mother tongue, they can get a foreign language exemption.  Theoretically, that means the child will still participate in class and take exams.  The tests, however, will not count toward their grades.  In my son’s school, his Mandarin class is further divided by levels with some students in advanced Chinese, most in regular Chinese, and a few in beginning Chinese.
  • PAL: Physical Active Learning.  Haven’t figured out yet how this is different from PE
  • PE: Physical Education
  • CCA: Co-curricular Activity.  In order for students to be more “well rounded” the MOE has decreed all students P3 and above must have an extra-curricular activity. Each school has many to choose from, sports, music, theater, etc.  Typically one or two afternoons a week, and during school breaks, students stay late and attend a CCA.  Once in P6, CCA activity stops so children can focus on studying for the PLSE.
  • FTGP: Form Teacher Guidance Period – as described to me by a local, it’s a class used to teach “values” – such as being nice to each other, social-emotional skills.  My child is not able to articulate what exactly he is learning in this period, although he has a textbook just for this!
  • HE: Health Education
  • CME: Citizenship & Moral Education (taught in Mother Tongue).  Often described as a class that everyone blows off
  • Canteen: Cafeteria.  The Canteen is like a mini hawker center and there is a stand to cater to each major population of Singapore – Vegetarians for the Tamils, Halal for Malay, Chinese food and Western food.  Children are expected bring cash to school in their wallet and purchase their own breakfast/lunch.
  • International Student: As an American, in my mind’s eye, I was thinking relatively well-off expats from North America, Europe, Australia/NZ.  But there is quite a mix: those from other SE Asian countries (Malaysia, Indonesia), but also quite a large contingent from Korea and China.
  • Balloting: Basically if more students want to attend a school than there is space, the school does a random drawing (balloting).
  • Kiasu: Singlish term that literally means “Scared to Lose” and can be loosely translated as the need to “keep up with the Jones.” It has been described to me as a “typical” Singaporean mindset, particularly in regards to education and their children.  Singaporeans openly compare their children to others and will ask you questions about your child’s test scores & grades, what school he is applying to, what after school programs he/she is attending.



Primary School is not free.  There are school fees and more add on fees than a typical American school, especially for International Students.  On the flip side, most schools do not have PTAs whose task is to endlessly fundraise for basic supplies.

  • School Fees:  For Singapore Citizens, typically just a few dollars a month.  PRs a bit more and International Students much more ($500/month in 2013, up from $345 in 2012). When you enroll, you have to fill out a GIRO form so fees are automatically deducted from your bank account.
  • Busing: Although the MOE is trying to encourage folks to enroll in their neighborhood school, many people enroll their children in school not within walking distance.  Usually schools will have a contract with a private busing company and you can arrange for pickup and drop off.  A couple things to note: the farther away you are from the school the earlier your child will be picked up.  Most schools start between 7am and 7:45am so that means your child might have to be up and out the door by 6am.  Also drop off is typically after the school day ends, so if you child is staying late for an afterschool activity you will have to make other arrangements
  • Uniforms: You will be required to buy at least 3 sets of shirts, athletic shorts, regular shorts/skirt, a tie or hat (depending on the school), socks, shoes, and name patches which have to be special ordered and have sewn on the shirt. Uniforms are required every day.  Each school has its own uniform so you must buy them at the school store.  You need to check your child’s schedule to determine whether it’s a PE day (athletic shorts) or a regular school day (regular shorts). 
  • Snack/Lunch: Your child will need a wallet to hold their money to purchase food at the canteen.  Typically the food is about $1 per portion, drinks are about 50 cents.  Because food is so inexpensive, most kids purchase at school.
  • Water bottle: All kids bring their own water bottle for sports class and for lunch/snack
  • Textbooks: You will be given a list of textbooks and workbooks and supplies to purchase at the school book store.  The school does not provide textbooks!  Sometimes the teacher will ask a class to purchase an extra book not on the list.
  • Report Card: Students do not take home a paper report card generated by a computer.  There is a report book which parents must purchase in which grades are recorded.  We haven’t gotten there yet, so will let you know what an end of term card looks like!
  • Backpack: Some books are kept at school, but many are taken home.  The class schedule changes every day, so students have to remember what books to bring on what day.



School Schedule

  • Primary Schools can be either single session or double session.  Single session means all grades have the same start and end time.  Double session means P1-P3 is either in the morning and P4-P6 are in the afternoon or vice versa.  All schools are supposed to be single session by 2016.
  • Schools start EARLY.  If you take public transportation any time around 7am, you will be surrounded by students.  Most primary schools start anywhere between 7am to 8am.
  • School ends anywhere between 1pm and 2pm and can differ on different days and whether your child attends a CCA or what grade they are.  For example, my son, who is in P2, not in a CCA, ends school at 1:45 on Monday and Tuesday, but 1:15 on all the other days.
  • Every morning there is a school assembly.  There is a show about current events, rules, etc.  And then they sing the National Anthem (in Malay) and say something akin to the Singapore Pledge of Allegiance.
  • In P2, my son has multiple teachers (MT, music teacher, PE teacher, Art teacher, and a head teacher who teaches English and Math) and typically students stay put while teachers come in and out.  The schedule is different every day.  You must refer to schedule to know what clothes to wear (athletic or regular uniform) and what books to bring and what test to study for!  When a teacher arrives, the entire class stands up and says “Good Morning Teacher” and when the teacher leaves, the entire class stands up and says “Thank You Teacher.”
  • It’s not all academics.  In a week, in addition to English, Math, and mother tongue, he has music, art, PE/PAL, social studies, CME.

School Infrastructure

  • Schools are not air conditioned, but are usually designed for maximum airflow.  There is a fan in the classroom and my son has not complained about the classroom being hot.
  • Every school I visited had really nice computer rooms.  My son currently uses computers for Chinese on Mondays.  He also has access to an online Mandarin website for use at home.
  • My son school also has a large library and separate music room.
  • Each school I visited also had a very large gym, sometime also a large assembly room, and outdoor sports field and play structure.
  • In terms of administrative infrastructure, in addition to the principal, there is typically an assistant principal, academic advisor and a support staff for children who need extra support for things such as dyslexia or other special needs.


How to Enroll

  • Mid-year:  We just went through this.  Although this is described extensively on the MOE site, reality is a bit different. This is what happened to us, and based on discussion with others our experience is fairly typical –
  • Beginning of School Year
  • I looked on various map sites and the MOE site to find schools close to where I work (link to primary schools by location here:
  • We also contacted the MOE for schools which had openings in P2
  • I also looked on Kiasuparents ( to find schools that have historically been under enrolled as those schools most likely would have openings.  Note, there is a forum for each local school on Kiasuparents, so it was useful for me to read up about each school I was targeting to get a sense of the parent community.
  • During our  preview trip (about a month before we were to move permanently),  I literally emailed each school I targeted, addressed to the assistant principal or the generic address on their school website with a picture of the family, copies of son’s report card and why I thought their schools would be prefect for us.  I made clear I was an American on an employment pass and the kids would be on a dependent pass.
  • All the schools said there were full.  Some suggested we fill out the wait list.  Some were open to us stopping by and touring the school.
  • For the schools where the email response was friendlier, we tried to arrange a school tour.  No one would promise anything, but some hinted that if we were to apply upon our return to Singapore, the changes would be likely there would be a space.
  • In the end there were 3 schools that were strong possibilities and after discussion with local Singaporeans, ended up in the school with the best reputation of the three.
  • We contacted the school we liked best and we arranged to have my son take some assessment exams (English and Math only, no mother tongue).  Note he did fine, although he was confused by some of the Math problems as they are presented differently
  • Detailed Instructions here:
  • To Apply Directly at school of choice:
    • Enroll begins in July and take place in Phases described here:
    • In all phases, Singaporean Citizens are first priority and then Singaporean PRs.
    • International Students cannot apply until Phase 3, the last phase, which means that international students tend to cluster in less highly coveted neighborhood schools.  One of the schools we looked at 25% of the P1 class was International.
    • For International Students with an older sibling already enrolled, there is no sibling preference until Phase 3.  That means all Singaporeans and PRs get first crack at the school and if there are any spaces left in Phase 3, those international students with an elder sibling at the school gets priority of an international student who does not have an elder sibling.
  • Participate in Admissions Exercise for International Students



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