There was widespread incredulity last week when Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah declared that tuition is unnecessary.
By Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor
Responding to a question in Parliament on the "shadow education system" and its impact, she said: "Our education system is run on the basis that tuition is not necessary. Some parents believe they can give their children an added advantage by sending them to tuition classes, even though their children are doing reasonably well. We cannot stop them from doing so."
The parents who spend US$680 million (S$848 million) each year (according to a 2012 Asian Development Bank report on tuition) on private tuition for their children here clearly think that tuition isn't unnecessary.
Various polls suggest tuition prevalence here as anything from nearly half of households (a MasterCard survey on spending in April) to over 90 per cent of students (the Asian Development Bank report).
But in a way, Ms Indranee's view is internally consistent: the Ministry of Education (MOE) does not consider tuition necessary, so it designs its curriculum accordingly, and its teachers are expected to teach like there is no such thing as private tuition.
Thinking within the box that says tuition is unnecessary leads to this rather ostrich-like way of tackling the issue: not needed, not an issue, go away.
How different it would be if the ministry could get out of its self-imposed box to contemplate: What is it about the education system that is making so many parents send their children for private tuition?
In fact, this was precisely what Nominated MP Janice Koh asked in Parliament: Whether more should be done to make tuition "less necessary and desirable" in Singapore, and if the ministry had data on tuition.
If the ministry took the issue of tuition seriously, its thinking might go this way: "We think it's unnecessary, but many parents and students clearly think otherwise. Is there something we're missing? In fact, how prevalent is tuition? Maybe we should study this, and see what students have tuition in, how much is spent, and if tutors are qualified.
"Better still, let's study if tuition is effective, for different groups of students: the weak, the average and the academically strong.
"Do some of MOE's existing policies create conditions that fuel demand for tuition? Could large class sizes result in weaker students needing personalised attention from tutors? Could our move to grade exams on raw scores rather than in broad bands compel students to get extra coaching to chase up every extra mark to get ahead of others?
"Could our marking and grading system fuel hyper-competitive behaviour and lead to an arms race in grades and tuition? What can we do to reduce these effects?"
If such thinking goes on in the ministry, the public is none the wiser.
Singapore's policymakers have a tendency to present a closed, united front on an issue and speak within the confines of existing practice, ignoring different realities and views.
There may be reason for such an approach: in this case, it might be to avoid spurring a frenzy for tuition; or to assure parents that schools are doing their job teaching students. But this approach lacks credibility when there is a vast gap between their pronouncements, and the reality on the ground.
As Singapore undergoes significant shifts in policy, and its leaders try to recalibrate a new bond with the people, it is vital that the Government discard the old mode of responding to criticisms - or questioning of its policies - by ignoring them out of existence.
I have interviewed and spoken with many senior civil servants in both formal and informal settings and know most of them for a thoughtful, serious-minded bunch. I would be extremely disappointed if the questions on tuition I can think of, off the top of my head as I write this article, have not occurred to them in the course of their work.
I am sure ministry officials, and educationists, have studied these issues and come to some conclusions. But when the discussion is kept behind closed doors, out of sight and hearing of the public, it might as well not have taken place.
When all the public sees are pronouncements that defend the status quo and ignore the shadow system beneath, it begins to think that either the Government doesn't know what's going on, or doesn't care, or is powerless. It can erode the Government's credibility.
The ministry would be unwise to ignore tuition when it has become part of students' life, and when the excesses of a hyper-competitive tuition culture in countries such as South Korea and Japan are so visible.
I cite the example of tuition not because I believe tuition is a good thing. Indeed, I went through my school days without any. I cite it only as the most recent example of a distressing tendency to gloss over problems in Singapore, rather than look at them candidly and tackle them.
The policy shifts of the last year, on public transport, health care, childcare and housing, among others, should be reminder enough to all policymakers and Singaporeans just how dangerous it is to ignore problems, to close one's eye to troublesome specks of activity and refuse to connect the dots.
If officials who noticed the surge in employment pass, work permit, permanent resident and new citizenship numbers had voiced their concerns, and if the Government had listened to its own MPs' complaints about overcrowding instead of dismissing them, there might have been a faster build-up of housing and transport infrastructure to prepare for the larger population.
In health care, calls to extend the MediShield umbrella to cover people till death, and to include people with pre-existing illnesses, have been made for years. Thinking within the box led policymakers to defend the status quo resolutely and refuse extending coverage.
When you keep within the confines of policy, the refusal is internally consistent: Bringing in the very old and sick will jack premiums up so much, the young and healthy will flee the insurance scheme and scupper it. Ergo, keep the old and sick out.
Then, this year, the Government acquiesced.
What changed? The Government was ready to get out of its self-imposed policy box. Instead of treating MediShield as an opt-in insurance system that healthier people can flee from if the net is broadened to cover the very old and sick, it decided to make it compulsory. With a broader risk pool, the sums will be more manageable.
Singapore faces many choices in the years ahead, on social policy, on education, and certainly in politics. The Government and the intellectual elite in Singapore can choose to debate options within the confines of what is currently agreed on, and within the self-imposed limits of existing policy.
Or it can do the more politically difficult thing and really acknowledge problems, study them and see how the status quo can change to address the problems.
Start with the shadow education system. The best way to remove a shadow is to bring it into the light, not dismiss its utility.