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Singapore vs. Australia: What both education cultures can learn from one another

Natalie Ng

Wed Jun 01 2016


EASTERN education is known as being a pressure-cooker while Western education is more laidback by comparison. But are there lessons that one education culture can learn from the other? Natalie Ng reflects on her own Singaporean education upbringing and compares it to her current experiences as an international student in Australia. 


People always assume that I chose to pursue higher education in Melbourne either to escape the famously high stress East education system, of which Singapore is part of, or because the Western education system is somehow superior. Neither is true; I chose to study in Melbourne for my own personal growth and not because I decided one education system was better than another. But having studied in Melbourne for the past three years, I believe that both the East and Western education systems have lessons that they can learn from each other.

Singapore is famously known for its exemplary education system, but it is equally known for being a pressure-cooker. There is some truth in that, but I believe that it thoroughly prepared me to transition into university and set me up for life. Perhaps not in the sense of advanced trigonometry but more about the kind of work ethic that one needs as they transition into the working world.

Discipline, hard work and efficiency are key traits that are valued in Singaporean students. I don’t necessarily consider myself a hardworking or disciplined person by any stretch, but that might also be because by comparison, I was surrounded by so many of my peers who were so much more hardworking and disciplined than I was.

Funnily enough, my level of productivity — which was considered average in the Singapore education system — was considered to be very productive once I started studying here in Melbourne.

A healthy work ethic, in my opinion, would lead to a less likely chance of tasks snowballing over time and as a final year communication design student (and one day, a working graphic designer), the stress of dealing with last minute problems and deadlines is a major concern to me.

While that could be chalked up to the genuine passion I have for my course, I do think part of it is also rooted in the rigor of the Singapore education system.

Singaporean education


Singaporean education might seem overwhelming but it does instill a sense of responsibility and work ethic on children early.

When I was five, I attended my first enrichment education class and was expected to score no less than 90 per cent in primary school. In my final year of primary school (Year 6 in Australia) myself and many other Singaporean students had to take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) that would determine which secondary schools we would go to. That year, I had after school tuition classes every day of the week.

In the eyes of the West, I guess this would have been considered undue stress and pressure on young children and that they somehow missed out on their childhood. Perhaps that is a little early to be so concerned about a child’s academic performance, but I don’t think I missed out on my childhood at all.

Eventually, as I went on to secondary school, I realised that I was more inclined towards the arts and humanities than the sciences, which was what the Singaporean education system catered more towards.

“Did I wish that Singapore would put more time and resources into recognising or validating the arts and humanities? Of course.”

Junior college is what most Singaporeans attend as pre-university education where they sit for the Singapore-Cambridge A-Levels or International Baccalaureate (IB), qualifications which would give students the certification to go into university. In the junior college I attended, the ratio of arts and humanities to the sciences students was one to five.

I was only one of nine students out of approximately 500 doing art.

Did I wish that Singapore would put more time and resources into recognising or validating the arts and humanities? Of course. But I also know Singapore is a country that values STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) over the arts and humanities, and as we are a small country that has to constantly keep up to stay afloat economically, it’s perhaps understandable as to why the country’s education leans more towards STEM-based learning.

As a person who thrives in a creative environment, however, I decided it was not for me and ended up choosing a Western education for my tertiary studies purely because it benefited my own personal personal growth.

Australian education

Collaborative learning, creativity and ideas are what make Western education appear laidback by comparison.

Collaborative learning, creativity and ideas are what make Western education appear laidback by comparison.

What I’ve gleaned from my time in the Australian education system is that the West values creativity and ideas more than anything. The environment is much more laidback than the Asian education system, for sure.

Educators here adopt an approach that encourages individuals to get as much as they can out of their experience, as opposed to the pressure and expectation of results the Asian education system tends to value.

From my experience, I have found tutors to be generally flexible with assignment requirements. Rules exist but they function as guidelines and aren’t enforced with strictness. I think that lifts the pressure off for most people and because of this, I’ve enjoyed how tutors have been mostly open to everyone’s ideas.  That kind of encouraging environment is very nurturing for any student, and in particular those in the creative field as it helps students produce the best work they can possibly deliver.

But that kind of environment may also breed its own set of problems, particularly when it becomes too laidback. Tertiary level students should be getting a taste of how the real working world works — meeting deadlines, learning how to balance, prioritise and compromise to produce work efficiently is all part and parcel of that learning curve that will take students into the working world.

“From my experience, I have found tutors to be generally flexible with assignment requirements. Rules exist but they function as guidelines and aren’t enforced with strictness.”

Though students of all disciplines understand the pressure of deadlines, as a communication design student, deadlines become part of your everyday life. Art and design students tend to work at a different pace because the inspiration has to strike, and then the ideas take time to develop and execute. So meeting deadlines can be a struggle for a lot of us design students. Tutors tend to be sympathetic and flexible with their deadlines and requirements if a student is behind, but when is it okay to relax or enforce the rules?

If one student is allowed more time to bend the rules just because they are unable to prioritise or balance their assignments, that becomes unfair for the rest of the students who worked within the given time-frame. It also means more work for the tutors who have to chase up those students.

University isn’t the working world, but deadlines are still deadlines in the working world. One has to figure out a way to work as efficiently as possible while producing the best possible result. It is not so much as compromise as learning how to prioritise and manage your workload. Know your own capabilities.

What one education system can learn from the other 


Neither education cultures are better than the other but there are things that Eastern and Western education can learn from one another.

I will be graduating at the end of this year and I think I absolutely made the right decision for myself to study in Melbourne. I can’t say if I would be the same person as I am now had I stayed in Singapore to study but I do feel that there are lessons to be learned that both education cultures could benefit from.

Singapore could definitely have a healthier education environment that’s less stifling to students’ voices, enables class discussion and encourages a variety of opinions to emerge from a young age. There should be more of a balance with respect to arts education and less pressure should be put on students at a young age (and that means time for activities out of academics as well, which is something Asian parents need to be reminded of).

With Australia, more emphasis in encouraging students to cultivate a strong work ethic from an early age would help instill a stronger sense of responsibility later in life. This would include emphasising discipline, hard work and efficiency in their studies. A stronger emphasis also on preparing students for university-level study would also be ideal.

“International students are lucky in that regard as they get the best of both worlds in their education.”

All this is to say that Eastern education needs to foster creativity and ideas, something the West does very well, while Western education should commit to providing students with a clearer focus and stronger work ethic — traits emblematic of the East.

Though both education systems have their strengths and weaknesses, the agreed goal by the end of every students’ education is to prepare them for work. Students have to recognise that the image they project to their peers and educators is the same one they’ll project to employers in the future.

International students are lucky in that regard as they get the best of both worlds in their education. The degree isn’t what gets them the job; it’s the experiences and what they’ve learned along the way. And for international students to understand and leverage that, it would mean all the difference later in life. 

Do you agree that there are ways that both education cultures can learn from each other to better enrich the student experience? What have you found most challenging or interesting about the Eastern education culture and the West? Do you think one is better than the other? Why? Discuss all this and more in the comments below!