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Where did Singapore's Ministers Study?
From secondary school to university, this issue illustrates the educational background of Singapore’s 34 ministers (as of 2021) in eight charts and figures.
In this issue:
How elite are the elite institutions of Singapore?
Which three junior colleges produced the majority of Singapore's ministers?
What is the most commonly studied degree subject among ministers — and what is the most uncommon?
How prevalent is an overseas education among ministers? And how many went to Oxbridge?
The Elite Institutions of Singapore
While Independent and Special Assistance Programme (SAP) schools form a small minority of the secondary schools which exist in Singapore, a majority of ministers (23 out of 34) were educated in SAP or Independent schools.
SAP schools have a distinct focus on bilingual education in English and Mandarin Chinese. As recently as 2019, the importance of SAP schools was again emphasised by then-Minister of Education Ong Ye Kung, who pointed to the growing importance of China and the Chinese language. However, criticism has been levelled at the programme for being ethnically-exclusive and elitist in nature, considering Singapore's large non-Chinese minority.
Independent schools "have the flexibility to set their own fees and develop their academic and non-academic programmes". For Singapore Citizens, the school fees amount to $300-$600/month, while the monthly school fee for government (including autonomous) schools amounts to $25-$43/month (with an additional fee for autonomous schools).
Based on 2020 Primary School Leaving Exams (PSLE) admission cut-off points, 6 out of 11 SAP schools were in the 20 options with the highest cut-off points. Meanwhile, all 8 independent schools were among the 20 options with the highest cut-off points.
These elite institutions are not only more exclusive, they are also concentrated geographically: all Independent schools and all but two SAP schools (Nan Hua and Nan Chiau) are located in Central and South Singapore. A similar pattern can be seen in the schools attended by ministers.
Why does location matter? A study of 40 years of junior college yearbooks from 6 junior colleges indicated that a neighbourhood’s characteristics could potentially explain why some groups are under-represented in Singapore’s top junior colleges:
"We found that ethnicity and gender matter in different ways. For female students, attending an elite junior college in a wealthy neighborhood is associated with wealthy neighborhoods having a disproportionate number of elite girls’ secondary schools that feed enrollment into the junior colleges. By contrast, for Malays, not attending an elite junior college in a wealthy neighborhood has more to do with Malays being underrepresented in wealthy neighborhoods." (Chua, Swee & Wellman, 2019)
Most Ministers attend one of three Junior Colleges
The majority of ministers (24 out of 34) studied at one of three tertiary institutions: Raffles Institution, National Junior College or Hwa Chong Institution. Despite attempts to shed the image of being an 'elite school', Singapore's oldest school (Raffles) remains the school of choice among Singapore's leaders.
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Singapore's Fixation with Oxbridge
Ministers’ most commonly attended universities are the National University of Singapore, Harvard University and the University of Cambridge.
In line with Singapore's national fixation with Oxbridge and the Ivy League, 13 out of 34 ministers have studied at these universities. However, this number falls to 8 when we exclude postgraduate studies at the Harvard Kennedy School — which has drawn some controversy over its admission requirements and graduates.
This figure (about 38% of Singapore ministers have studied at Oxbridge or the Ivy League) is not far from that of British politicians: In 2019, 57% of the British Cabinet and 36% of Junior Ministers studied at Oxford or Cambridge. What is striking however is our attainment of a similar figure despite being a continent away from the US and the UK.
Running Singapore like a Business
The three most common degree subjects are economics, business and public policy / administration. All public policy / administration degrees were conferred by the Harvard Kennedy School.
Notably, no minister has a university-level degree focusing on the humanities. The closest is Senior Minister of State Sim Ann’s Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.
To be clear, the marginalisation of the humanities is not unique to Singapore, with the humanities suffering from shrinking sources of funding and decreased attendance worldwide. In the US, the percentage of all new graduates with a bachelor’s degree in the humanities was 11.9% in 2015, the lowest percentage ever recorded.
In Singapore, 17.9% of new graduates who completed their bachelor’s degree in 2020 did so in the humanities or social sciences (as data specific to the humanities is not available, the actual percentage of students who graduated with a degree in the humanities is likely to be much lower).
Every ministry has at least one minister with a background in economics or business studies. Even the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth is led by three ministers who studied law, business studies, economics, and public policy. Here, our emphasis on economic expertise over other forms of expertise becomes more readily apparent.
Singapore and the West
27 out of 34 ministers completed at least part of their university studies abroad.
Ministers studied in a total of five host countries: Singapore (18), United States (18), United Kingdom (18), Australia (3) and Switzerland (1). 7 out of the 18 who studied in Singapore spent the entirety of their time in university there. Note that this figure does not include exchange semesters.
Despite the rise of China and the growing importance of alternatives to a US-led world order, the educational background of Singapore’s ministers — on the surface level, at least — points strongly to alignment with the anglophone West.
A Master's-Level Degree as the Standard
Between them, Singapore’s ministers have an average of 2.2 degrees each. While 3 out of 34 hold a doctorate-level degree, only 4 out of 34 did not possess a master’s-level degree. At least 15 ministers received scholarships for their university studies.
How does this compare to the general population? According to the World Bank, as of 2018, 31.5% of Singapore’s population aged 25+ have attained at least a Bachelor’s degree, whereas 100% of ministers have. Specific data regarding the percentage of the general population with a master's degree is not available. Past statements by ministers indicate that aim is to have 30 to 40 percent of a cohort of students graduate with a university degree.
What makes a typical minister?
A typical minister is one who has:
Studied at an Independent or SAP secondary school
Progressed to Raffles, National JC or Hwa Chong for their tertiary studies
Studied economics or business as an undergraduate
Gained a postgraduate degree, most commonly at the Harvard Kennedy School
Incidentally, the above also describes Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s educational background to a tee. Perhaps it is fitting then that Heng was the favoured candidate for the role of future Prime Minister by the PAP rank and file.
It is important to note that educational background is only one part of what constitutes a member of Singapore's political elite. At the very least, however, these points provide an indication of what is valued at the highest level of government — and what meritocracy means in Singapore.
Corrections: Minister Lawrence Wong's postgraduate institution was incorrectly indicated as University of Wisconsin-Madison instead of University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Minister Sun Xueling's tertiary education, which was previously indicated as unknown, is now indicated as Raffles Institution.
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A Note on this Story's Data
Source: All data on Ministers' educational backgrounds was gathered from parliament profiles, government websites and media reports.
My data has some missing information: Alvin Tan and Tan Kiat How’s secondary-level institutions are not included; as this information could not be independently verified. Janil Puthucheary’s secondary and tertiary-level institutions, both outside of Singapore, were also excluded.
A reason for this missing data is the change to how members of parliament’s data is presented to the public on government websites. Prior to 2015, parliament.gov.sg presented detailed information about a minister’s CV (most of which is still available via the Internet Archive). This information is no longer available post-2015 and as a result, information on the qualifications of members of parliament has become more difficult for the public to access:
Barring changes to the way MPs’ backgrounds are presented to the public, comprehensive analyses of our current elected representatives by their professional backgrounds, educational backgrounds, scholarships received and other such biodata would be unfeasible or very time-intensive.