Ministry of Education

Singapore Infopedia


The Ministry of Education (MOE) was established in 1955 by the then newly elected Labour Front government headed by David Marshall.1 Chew Swee Kee was appointed the first minister for education.2 Since then, MOE has been actively implementing and formulating education policies on education structure, curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.3 Currently, the ministry also oversees the management and development of government-funded schools, as well as the Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics and universities.4

Early years
In his opening address at the inaugural meeting of the new Legislative Assembly on 22 April 1955, Governor John Fearns Nicoll conveyed the general attitude of the government towards education: “In education, the policy of the government is to aim at equal treatment for all schools and all teachers in those schools. The foundation stone of the policy will be a six-year course of free primary education for all children”.5 Nicoll reiterated initiatives that had been kick-started by the previous administration, in the form of educational blueprints such as the Ten-Year Programme of 1947 that also emphasised equal opportunity for all children as well as free universal primary education.6

In March 1956, Nanyang University opened its doors.7 Three years later in 1959, a commission formed by the government began looking into the standard of education in the university.8

In 1957, full aid was extended to Chinese and Tamil schools, and MOE embarked on a school building programme for primary and secondary schools. By the end of the year, 96 primary and 11 secondary schools had been completed. In the same year, double-session schooling – morning and afternoon – was introduced in order to accommodate a larger student enrolment, thereby addressing the shortage of schools.9

In response to the increasing number of children reaching school-going age, MOE prioritised the construction of schools and training of teachers under its 1959 expansion programme.10 The government recruited staff with necessary and relevant skills, sent locals for training and obtained assistance under the Colombo Plan Technical Assistance Programme, which provided various opportunities for overseas training.11

MOE faced the task of charting a new course for education in Singapore and carrying out necessary reforms. One of the pressing issues was the unrest in Chinese schools, which had culminated in the involvement of Chinese students in the Hock Lee bus riots on 12 May 1955.12

All-party committee
Following the riots, Chew was appointed as chairman of the All-Party Committee on Chinese Education to review the education system in Chinese schools.13 The committee released its report on 7 February 1956.14 This was closely followed by the government’s White Paper on Education Policy published on 12 April 1956, which largely echoed the views expressed by the all-party committee.15 These reports provided the basis for MOE’s plans for education reform.16

During the latter half of the 1950s, key changes included the implementation of a Malayan-centred syllabus and textbooks, and the nationalisation of communal schools.17 Bilingual education was also introduced to enhance social cohesion among the different ethnicities.18

On Chew’s recommendation, the government enacted the Education Ordinance on 13 December 1957.19 Known as the Education Act today, the ordinance laid the basis for equality in education.20 Besides implementing a common Malayan syllabus, the government also extended a full grant-in-aid offer to all schools that met its requirements as well as standardised teacher salaries, school infrastructure and equipment across government and aided schools.21

Key developments (1960–2000s)
Vocational education
Amidst concerns that education in Singapore was becoming too academic, MOE set out to create more institutions for vocational education.22 In 1956, MOE established two technical secondary schools and a secondary commercial school. It also set up the Joint Advisory Council for Apprenticeship Training.23 Singapore Polytechnic was opened on 3 November 1958. The government assumed full responsibility of financing the polytechnic, which had five departments: General Education, Science and Technology, Engineering, Building and Architecture, and Commerce.24 By 1959, MOE was able to offer 1,820 places in vocational and technical schools.25

People’s Action Party administration
In 1959, the People’s Action Party formed the new fully elected government of Singapore after its victory in the general election.26 Yong Nyuk Lin was appointed the minister for education.27 Under the People’s Action Party, MOE aligned its policies with four guiding principles: equal treatment of the four education streams; acceptance of Malay as the national language; emphasis on the study of languages, mathematics, science and technical subjects; and mass literacy adult education.28 Since then, the responsibility of building new schools also came under the purview of MOE; previously, they were built and supported by private organisations or individuals.29

Language policies
After independence in 1965, the government emphasised the close link between education and the nation’s economic development. The bilingualism policy was officially introduced in primary schools in 1960 and extended to secondary schools in 1966.30 The policy steers students towards competency in the English language and their respective mother tongue languages (Malay, Chinese or Tamil).31

In 1987, English was officially instituted as the first language and mother tongue as a second language within the local education system.32 English also became the official language for both national integration and utilitarian purposes as Singapore vied to be a global marketplace.33 This was in response to the nation’s drive towards high-value-added industrialisation and an economy with English as the language of business.34

Academic abilities
Reflecting the economic restructuring strategies in the 1970s, differentiation for pupils with different academic abilities was implemented with an emphasis on efficiency.35 The New Education System (NES) was introduced in 1979.36 It implemented three streams in both primary and secondary schools so that pupils could progress at a pace more suited to their abilities.37 The NES aimed to enable each pupil to progress as far as possible in school, thereby achieving the best possible educational takeoff for training and employment.38 In 1984, the Gifted Education Programme was rolled out to cater to more academically inclined students.39

In 2017, the streaming system was replaced with subject-based banding for primary schools. Subject-based banding would also be implemented for secondary schools that offer the Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) courses.40

Thinking Schools, Learning Nation
In June 1997, the Singapore education system transformed into an ability-driven one outlined in the vision, “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation”.41 The vision is premised on the importance of undergoing continuous learning and development as the sustainability and wealth of the city-state are dependent on the skills and readiness of its citizens.42 Greater emphasis was given to collaborative learning, creative thinking, national education and information and communications technology literacy.43

Compulsory education
The Compulsory Education Act, which makes primary school education compulsory for all children in Singapore, was passed by parliament on 9 October 2000 and enacted on 1 January 2003.44 With the legislation, the parent/guardian may be guilty of an offence when his or her child/ward fails to attend classes regularly either at a national primary school or a designated school, or is not home-schooled (where exemption is granted).45

Recent developments
In recent years, MOE has been moving towards a flexible and diverse education system.46 To ensure an all-round holistic development, a broad-based education is also emphasised from preschool to the tertiary level.47 This includes the launch of MOE kindergartens in 2014. There are now 15 such kindergartens, with three more to be opened in Punggol by 2018 to provide more high-quality and affordable preschool places. To enhance the skills and capabilities of preschool educators, the National Institute of Early Childhood Development, under the ambit of the National Institute of Education, focuses on early childhood professional training and development.48

Currently, there are 10 statutory boards under MOE: SkillsFuture Singapore, Institute of Technical Education, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Nanyang Polytechnic, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Republic Polytechnic, Science Centre Singapore, Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board, Singapore Polytechnic and Temasek Polytechnic.49 There are over 360 schools for primary, secondary and post-secondary education, which are supported by 33,000 education officers today.50

Nadirah Norruddin

1. Theodore R. Doraisamy, et al, ed., 150 Years of Education in Singapore (Singapore: Teachers’ Training College, 1969), 56. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 TEA)
2. H. E. Wilson, Social Engineering in Singapore: Educational Policies and Social Change, 1819–1972 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1978), 182. (Call no. RSING 379.5957 WIL)
3. “About Us,” Ministry of Education, accessed 10 January 2018.
4. Ministry of Education, “About Us.”
5. “Full Text of Governor’s Inaugural Address,” Indian Daily Mail, 23 April 1955, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Wilson, Social Engineering in Singapore, 184; Doraisamy, et al., 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 47–50.
7. “Nanyang to Open in March – Tan,” Singapore Standard, 11 January 1956, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Nanyang Commission Starts Work in February,” Straits Times, 29 October 1958, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Doraisamy, et al., 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 56–57.
10. “Education Rates Plan Next Year,” Singapore Standard, 21 July 1958, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Doraisamy, et al., 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 58.
12. Wilson, Social Engineering in Singapore, 184, 186–90.
13. “Committee Members,” Singapore Standard, 8 February 1956, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Doraisamy, et al., 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 50.
14. All-Party Committee on Chinese Education, Singapore, Report of the All-Party Committee of the Singapore Legislative Assembly on Chinese Education (Singapore: Govt. Print., 1956), 4. (Call no. RCLOS 371.9795105957 SIN)
15. Legislative Assembly Singapore, White Paper on Education Policy (Singapore: Legislative Assembly, 1956), 1 (Call no. RCLOS 370.95951 SIN); Saravanan Gopinathan, Towards a National System of Education in Singapore, 1945–1973 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1974), 23. (Call no. RSING 379.5957 GOP)
16. Doraisamy, et al., 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 53.
17. “Storm on Schools Report – Then Debate Is Put Off,” Straits Times, 6 April 1956, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Encouragement to Vernacular Education In Singapore,” Indian Daily Mail, 8 February 1956, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Legislative Assembly Singapore, White Paper on Education Policy, 5.
19. Doraisamy, et al., 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 54.
20. C. M. Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 267. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
21. Wan Sook Yin, Singapore: From Multilingualism to Bilingualism 1959 to 1979 (Singapore: National University of Singapore, 1979), 1920 (Call no. RSING 370.95957 WAN)
22. Legislative Assembly Singapore, White Paper on Education Policy, 11.
23. “Scheme to Teach 15 Major Trades,” Singapore Standard, 24 August 1956, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Doraisamy, et al., 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 57.
25. “1,820 Places for Next Year,” Straits Times, 21 November 1959, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “The P.A.P. Landslide,” Straits Times, 1 June 1959, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
27. “Lee’s Cabinet: This Is It,” Straits Times, 6 June 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “1960 Education Plan,” Straits Times, 6 November 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Goh Char Boon and S. Gopinathan, “Education in Singapore: Development since 1965,” in An African Exploration of the East Asian Education, ed., Birger Fredriksen and Tan Jee Peng (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2008), 10. (Call no. R 370.95 AFR)
30. Lee Sing Kiong, et al. ed., Toward a Better Future: Education and Training for Economic Development in Singapore since 1965 (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2008), 75. (Call no. RSING 370.9595709045 TOW)
31. Goh and Gopinathan, “Education in Singapore,” 53.
32. Hedwig Alfred and June Tan, “It’s English for All by 1987,” Straits Times, 22 December 1983, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Lee, et al., Toward a Better Future, 26.
33. Goh and Gopinathan, “Education in Singapore,” 7–8.
34. Lee, et al., Toward a Better Future, 15.
35. Goh and Gopinathan, “Education in Singapore,” 27.
36. Lee, et al., Toward a Better Future, 23.
37. Soon Teck Wong, Singapore’s New Education System: Education Reform for National Development (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1988), 15–16. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 SOO)
38. Lee, et al., Toward a Better Future, 14.
39. Ministry of Education, Gifted Education in Singapore – The First Ten Years (Singapore: Ministry of Education, 1994), 12. (Call no. RSING 371.95095957)
40. “Subject-Based Banding for Primary School,” Ministry of Education, updated 18 October 2021; “Readying our Education System for the Future,” Budget 2017, accessed 6 January 2018.
41. Goh and Gopinathan, “Education in Singapore,” 40.
42. Goh and Gopinathan, “Education in Singapore,” 40.
43. S. Gopinathan, Education (Singapore: Institute of Policy Studies, 2015), 63–66. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 GOP)
44. The Compulsory Education Act 2000, Act 27 of 2000, Government Gazette. Acts Supplement (Call no. RSING 348.5957 SGGAS); Compulsory Education Act (Commencement) Notification 2002, Sp. S.329/2002, Government Gazette. Subsidiary Legislation Supplement, 2002, 2668. (Call no. RSING 348.5957 SGGSLS)
45. “Compulsory Education,” Ministry of Education, accessed 20 November 2017; Braema Mathi, “Compulsory Education from 2003,” Straits Times, 16 August 2006, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
46. “Education SG,” Ministry of Education, updated 9 September 2021.
47. Ng Chee Meng, “MOE FY 2017 Committee of Supply Debate,” speech, 7 March 2017, transcript, Ministry of Education.
48. Ministry of Education, “Laying a Stronger Foundation for Our Children,” press release, 23 August 2017.
49. Ministry of Education, “About Us.”
50. “Bringing out the Best in Every Child,” Ministry of Education, accessed 20 November 2017.

The information in this article is valid as at 15 January 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history on the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

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