Section 2
Defence and International Security

Section 3
Linking Bridges and Strengthening Ties

Section 4
Building on the Economic Miracle

Section 5
A Healthy Nation, A Thriving Land

Section 6
Housing a Nation: Changing Times, Changin Needs

Section 7
Sports and Culture: The Finer Things in Life

Section 8
Education for All on Different Paths

Section 9
The Next Decade


Education for All on Different Paths


Click on each section to view details.

8.0 Introduction
8.1 New Ways of Learning
8.2 Plugging the English Gap with SAP
8.3 Moulding Character through Moral Education
8.4 Grooming the Gifted
8.5 The Junior College Boom
8.6 Expanding Tertiary Education in the Second Decade
8.7 Do you know? Speak More Mandarin and Less Dialects


The education system was evolving in the decade, as concerns shifted from getting children into schools to imparting them with the skills and knowledge needed to support a modern economy. Faced with a large number of young people who entered the workforce with no particular skills, major reforms in 1979 led to a new education system where there was “streaming” of students to different courses so they could progress at their own pace based on their abilities and potential.

Vocational education also played a bigger role in helping to cut the dropout rate, and enrolments into technical and vocational institutes doubled from about 9,800 in 1975 to about 18,900 in 1985. Pre-university and tertiary education received greater attention and enrolments grew as well, from about 18,500 in 1975 to about 38,000 in 1985. In the decade, National University of Singapore was born, housed in a brand new campus. And English was on its way to being the main language of instruction.

It was also in schools that the values of living in a multicultural and multiracial society were imparted, as moral education with a new emphasis on religious knowledge came into prominence, helping to connect Singaporeans to their cultural roots, and in turn, to create an awareness of their social environment.

In the second decade of nation building, several challenges in education emerged. These included:

  • the different learning pace of students which led to many early school leavers with unemployable skills
  • the need to maximise the potential of more intellectually capable children
  • a fall in enrolment in Chinese schools and ineffective bilingualism
  • the teaching of moral values and cultural traditions to counter what was deemed as undesirable western influence

At the tertiary level, the challenge was to meet the brainpower needs of the developing economy.

Source: MOC (now MICA), courtesy of NAS

Young unskilled workers who made a living as hawker assistants were common in the 1970s, and early school-leavers were one of the challenges faced by educationists.

Source: Singapore Press Holdings, courtesy of NAS

In 1976, the primary school system was revised to phase out automatic promotion. Students were to be promoted to the next level based on examinations. Those who had repeated a year twice were transferred to a Basic Course -- taking only one language, simple arithmetic, home economics, education for living, physical education and music – before moving on to study at technical institutes run by the Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB).

Source: MOC (now MICA), courtesy of NAS

In 1978, secondary school education was revised such that over-aged students who failed the examinations would be taught vocational skills to prepare them for employment in the industrial and commercial sectors. The photos show students during lesson time at the Bukit Merah Vocational Institute.

Source: MOC (now MICA), courtesy of NAS

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Dr Goh Keng Swee, at the Outram Park Education Centre at Outram Park Community Centre on 28 January 1978. In August that year, he led a study team to work out a more flexible system for different types of learners. This led to the streaming of primary and secondary students to cater to their different learning abilities, following his “Report on the Ministry of Education 1978”, popularly known as “The Goh Report”.

“I have got Dr Goh to bring a whole team to go into Education… I had to bring an outside task force to attack this problem… Can it be done? I say yes, but let us work out a system which will fit the average. In the present system, only the bright rise above all the overload and break through. And the average give up.

Extract of PM Lee’s National Day Rally speech, 18 Aug 1978

In January 1979, the recommendation was to stream primary and secondary school students, where the emphasis was on matching the new education system to students’ abilities. 

At the primary level, slow learners were allowed up to eight years to complete their education instead of letting them drop out after Primary 6. The streams they could go to after taking the Primary 3 examinations were: Normal (six years), Extended or Monolingual (eight years for either).

At the secondary level, students could take the Special/Express four-year course, the Normal four-year course, or study in vocational institutes.  Normal-stream students could study a fifth year and sit for the O levels. After that, they could take the two-year junior college route or the three-year pre-university route to sit for A levels. 

Source: Report on the Ministry Of Education 1978

Letter from Goh Keng Swee and study team

Dr Goh, who subsequently took over the Education portfolio, explained his streaming policy in Parliament on 27 March 1979:

We must teach children at different rates according to their capacity to absorb learning … Parents in Singapore have great expectations of their children. There is a Chinese saying which expresses this very well - wang zi cheng long – ‘hoping that one's child will become a dragon’. To deprive half the children, all potential dragons, of any chance of getting secondary school education will not be acceptable to Singapore parents. We have therefore allowed part of the slow learners … an extended primary school education with eventual entry into secondary school. Most of these will not reach O level, but will move on to vocational training. However, they would have acquired sufficient competence in the English language to widen their opportunities for employment … this is advantageous not only to the children but also to our economic growth.”

Notwithstanding this, the recommended changes aroused strong emotional responses from some educationists and parents, and there was a four-day parliamentary debate on the issue. Subsequently, provision was made for transfers across streams, to cater to late developers and possible parental appeals.

Source: Singapore Press Holdings

(From left)
The Business Times, 29 Mar 1979
The Straits Times, 28 Mar 1979
The Straits Times, 30 Mar 1979
The Business Times, 31 Mar 1979

“There was this stigma that was attached to the normal stream and the extended stream at the primary level. There was a provision built into the proposal that parents could appeal if their children were put into the extended stream. They had to accept responsibility if they demanded that their children be moved to the normal stream against the advice of the school or how they had performed at the primary level.”

Extract of oral history interview with Eugene Wijeysingha (1995, reel 33), former principal of Raffles Institution, on the general reaction to streaming and the provision for lateral transfers.

Source: The AlumNUS, October 1995


Source: Singapore Press Holdings, courtesy of NAS


Source: NAS

Whether their classes focused on the arts or sciences, students could choose to study in a course that suited their different learning abilities when streaming was introduced in primary and secondary schools after 1979. Pictured are students from Jubilee Primary School and their teacher working on a wall mural, and students from Bedok North Secondary School with their teacher in a laboratory.


New Ways of Learning

Language laboratories and audio-visual (AV) kits added variety to classroom learning as students from primary schools, secondary schools and junior colleges had greater access to them in the 1980s.

The Ministry of Education was to spend more than $45 million over five years to increase AV resources in schools. All new junior colleges built after 1981 were to be equipped with language labs under the plan.

Source: Singapore 1983, courtesy of NAS

Source: MOC (now MICA), courtesy of NAS

In 1981, schools were also preparing to enter the computer age. The long-term goal was to get every secondary school-leaver to be computer-literate. Upper secondary school students could take computer appreciation courses as part of their extra-curricular activities.

At pre-university level, computer science was offered as an A-level subject in junior colleges and Raffles Institution.

Source: Singapore 1984, courtesy of NAS

Source: Singapore 1982, courtesy of NAS

Plugging the English Gap with SAP

With the job market in the 1970s placing greater importance on English language competency, more parents were sending their children to English-medium schools. Enrolment in Chinese-medium schools declined. Even Nanyang University, the first Chinese-language university in Southeast Asia set up to provide higher education to the Chinese community, switched to English as the language of instruction and examination in 1977.

Source: Tao Nan School, courtesy of NAS

The 1976 cohort of teachers and graduating students from Tao Nan School. Children entering Chinese schools started to fall as English-medium schools became the preferred choice of parents.

Source: Singapore Press Holdings, courtesy of NAS

These 1977 Nanyang University graduates belonged to the last batch of students who were taught in the Chinese language before the University switched to using English as a medium of instruction that year.

In 1978, the Ministry of Education introduced a Special Assistance Plan (SAP) and picked nine established Chinese-medium secondary schools to offer a special course where students could study two languages both at first-language level.

The aim was to raise the standard of English in these schools and expand their facilities so that they become effective bilingual schools. The top 8% of primary school students who passed the PSLE could choose to study in these schools.

Source: Nanyang Girls’ High School 75th Anniversary magazine, 1992

Nanyang Girls’ High School was one of nine established Chinese-medium secondary schools selected for the SAP scheme.

Others included Anglican High, Catholic High, Chinese High (now Hwa Chong Institution), Chung Cheng High, Dunman Government Chinese Middle (now Dunman High), Maris Stella High, River Valley Government Chinese Middle (now River Valley High) and St Nicholas Girls’.


Moulding Character through Moral Education

The principal value of teaching the second language is the imparting of moral values and understanding of cultural traditions… in the transmission of the norms of social or moral behaviour… It would be a tragedy if we were to miss this and concentrate on second language proficiency nearly equal to the first language… No child should leave school after 9 years without having the ‘soft-ware’ of his culture programmed into his subconscious.”

PM Lee addressing the report by the education study team, 10 Mar 1979

Recognising that it was important for the young to develop an awareness of moral and traditional values, the Moral Education Committee of Parliamentarians headed by Ong Teng Cheong, Minister for Communications and Acting Minister for Culture, was formed in October 1978 to review existing moral education programmes in schools.

The committee recommended replacing the “Civics and Education For Living” programmes with a new “Moral Education” programme, to cover topics such as the individual’s relationships with others, family, nation and the world. The values were imparted through class discussions, storytelling and other activities.

Source: Ong Teng Cheong Collection, courtesy of NAS

Communications and Acting Culture Minister Ong Teng Cheong (at microphone) and his team at the “Report On Moral Education” press conference on 15 September 1979.

From left: Member o f Parliament (Kolam Ayer) Sidek Saniff; Political Secretary, Ministry of Science and Technology, Lim Chee Onn; Foreign Affairs Minister S Dhanabalan; Minister of State (Defence) Bernard Chen; Parliamentary Secretary Chin Harn Tong and Ministry of Education’s Senior Public Relations Officer Chew King Hwan


Source: Singapore Press Holdings, courtesy of NAS

Doing good deeds for others was often the message during moral education lessons. When the Singapore Association for the Blind asked for help to fold and glue together 20,000 hongbao packets, these 50 students from East Payoh Secondary School volunteered. They went to the association's premises in Thomson Road on 9 February 1980 and spent the morning doing the task.

In 1984, a compulsory religious knowledge education was introduced for all upper secondary students, in a move to try to mould young Singaporeans into becoming upright citizens.

Students could choose to study Bible Knowledge, Buddhist Studies, Confucian Ethics, Hindu Studies, Islamic Religious Knowledge or Sikh Studies.

Source: CDIS, courtesy of NAS

Prescribed textbooks were prepared and published after consulting with the respective religious authorities.


Grooming the Gifted

In January 1984, the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) became part of the education system, with the aim to develop intellectually advanced children to their maximum potential.

Students were selected for the course via screening tests and a pilot project was started in two primary schools (Raffles Girls’ Primary and Rosyth School) and two secondary schools (Raffles Girls’ Secondary and Raffles Institution). Today, GEP is offered in nine primary schools.

Source: MOC (now MICA), courtesy of NAS

The Junior College Room

More schools, especially primary schools, were built in the second decade to cater to a growing, young student population, but these developments could not quite rival the expansion of junior colleges.

Nine colleges were set up - more than three times the number built after independence - to meet the popular demand for the two-year pre-university course. The growth of new towns meant that colleges were also built in those districts for students living nearby.

Colleges that opened in 1965-1975

  • National Junior College (1969)

  • Hwa Chong Junior College (1974)

Colleges that opened in 1975-1985

  • Catholic Junior College (1975)

  • Temasek Junior College (1977)

  • Anglo-Chinese Junior College (1977)

  • St Andrew’s Junior College (1978)

  • Nanyang Junior College (1980)

  • Jurong Junior College (1981)

  • Raffles Junior College (1982)

  • Anderson Junior College (1984)

  • Victoria Junior College (1984)

Source: MOC (now MICA), courtesy of NAS
Miss Tan Tahn Joo, an electrical engineer with the Public Works Department, inspecting the Temasek Junior College construction site in Bedok, off Upper East Coast Road, in 1976. It was the second college to be built by the Government. The other colleges, Hwa Chong, Catholic and Anglo-Chinese (also being built in 1976) were privately funded.

Source: Singapore Press Holdings, courtesy of NAS

Temasek Junior College was completed in November 1976 and opened in 1977, taking in mostly students from secondary schools in the eastern part of Singapore.


Source: Singapore Press Holdings, courtesy of NAS

Anglo-Chinese Junior College undergoing construction at Dover Close East, near Clementi, before it opened in 1977. Film tycoon Tan Sri Runme Shaw donated $1.2 million to the building fund.


Source: Singapore Press Holdings, courtesy of NAS
Film tycoon Tan Sri Runme Shaw laid the foundation stone for St Andrew’s Junior College in 1976 before construction began at the Malan Road site off Alexandra Road, near Telok Blangah.

Expanding Tertiary Education in the Second Decade

At the tertiary education level, a Joint Campus between Nanyang University and University of Singapore was set up at Bukit Timah in 1978 to pool the two institutions' resources into a single, stronger entity.
At the same time, a new campus at Kent Ridge was being built for the University of Singapore as the Bukit Timah campus was not big enough for the student population.

Source: Ministry of Culture (now MICA), courtesy of NAS

Undergraduates of the Joint Campus at Bukit Timah attending a talk at the lecture theatre in 1979.

Source: Singapore Press Holdings, courtesy of NAS

Source: Singapore Press Holdings, courtesy of NAS

Undergraduates of the University of Singapore’s Faculty of Architecture, Building and Estate Management visiting the soon-to-be-completed Kent Ridge complex in 1976. They were the first to move into the new campus.

On 8 August 1980, Nanyang University and the University of Singapore merged to become National University of Singapore (NUS), with six faculties housed at Kent Ridge by 1981. Another two, Faculties of Dentistry and Medicine, located at Singapore General Hospital, were scheduled to move to Kent Ridge by 1985 when Kent Ridge Hospital would be ready.

Source: The Heart Is Where It Is – The NUSS Story, 1994

Aerial view of National University of Singapore. NUS could be seen as a culmination of Dr Toh Chin Chye’s vision of a university geared towards developing critical skills to transform Singapore’s economy. It was Dr Toh who chose the site for the new campus at Kent Ridge and oversaw the building of the university in 1969, when he was Minister for Science and Technology and vice-chancellor of University of Singapore.

Source: MOC (now MICA), courtesy of NAS

Rag & Flag Day in NUS, organised by its students union, is a yearly tradition to unite its student community as they go around Singapore to get donations for charity. Since the 1980s, it has been a feature to have a float parade on campus to thank the public for their donations. Pictured is a float on display in the 1985 event.


Source: MOC (now MICA), courtesy of NAS

Undergraduates performing a skit during hostel King Edward Hall’s opening at Kent Ridge in 1981. President Devan Nair was one of the VIPs being entertained at the event.


Source: MOC (now MICA), courtesy of NAS

Students mingled with Dr Tay Eng Soon, Minister of State for Education, during a seminar on biology and biotechnology research at the science faculty of NUS in 1983.

NUS was aiming to increase student enrolment to 15,000 by 1985 to provide manpower for Singapore’s restructured economy in the next decade. Together with Nanyang Technological Institute (NTI), the total number of engineering students from both campuses was expected to rise from about 1,700 in 1980 to about 4,200 in 1985.

NTI was established in 1981 on the former Nanyang University campus in Jurong, with the aim to educate engineers for the economy. NTI admitted its first batch of about 580 engineering students in July 1982.

Source: Ministry of Finance, courtesy of NAS

Map showing the proposed new campus for NTI on the former campus of Nanyang University.

Source: The NTU Story, 1995

Facilities of the former Nanyang University, such as the auditorium (pictured), was used by the newly established NTI before new ones were developed from around the mid-‘80s.


Source: Ministry of Culture (now MICA), courtesy of NAS

The Nanyang University Library and Administration Building was renovated before it was used to house NTI’s administrative offices in 1982. It became the Chinese Heritage Centre in May 1995 and was gazetted as a national monument in 1998.


Source: MOC (now MICA), courtesy of NAS

During the 12th South East Asian Games hosted by Singapore, NTI was used as the Games Village, which was opened by Second Deputy Prime Minister S Rajaratnam on 25 May 1983. The institute’s sports facilities were upgraded in time for the Games.


Source: The NTU Story, 1995

The members of NTI students’ union council of 1983-84. R Sinnakaruppan is the first president of the union’s executive committee (second row, 7th from right) and next to him is council chairman Lim Sui Soon (second row, 6th from right).


Source: The NTU Story, 1995
Engineering students doing hands-on projects at NTI.

Source: The NTU Story, 1995

The computer centre at NTI underwent great improvements to meet the teaching needs for its first batch of students. It went from being a unit in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering to being an independent unit on campus as computer services expanded.

With NTI and NUS set up on different sites, the vacated Bukit Timah campus was taken over in 1982 by the Institute of Education, which trained teachers. Two years later, the College of Physical Education was started and based there to train specialist teachers in physical education.

Source: MOC (now MICA), courtesy of NAS


Source: MOC (now MICA), courtesy of NAS

Teacher trainees attending classes (right) in “micro labs” and undergoing civil defence drills (left) at the Institute of Education.


Source: Singapore Press Holdings, courtesy of NAS

Teachers attending Singapore’s first course on management skills for potential principals, at the Institute of Education in 1984. The institute offered a Diploma in Education Administration course, developed jointly with the Ministry of Education.


Source: MOC (now MICA), courtesy of NAS

In gradual stages, over the last 26 years, we have improved in making the best of every Singaporean child. In the 1960s, we got them into schools, any schools, to teach them literacy and numeracy, whether in Chinese, Malay, Tamil, English. Then we introduced bilingualism. Next, we got them competent in one working language - English - with the mother tongue, for cultural identity. Finally, we have cut down the failure or wastage rate by streaming. Students can learn with those who go at their pace. As a result of streaming, we have cut down the primary school wastage rate … in secondary school, we have reduced the failure … So we have more than double the numbers who have made it to the polytechnics and universities ... And we have not yet reached our limits. And we can still improve.”

Extract of PM Lee’s National Day Rally speech, 18 August 1985


Do you know? Speak More Mandarin and Less Dialects

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