Education Ordinance, 1957

The Education Ordinance, which applied to all schools in Singapore, was enacted on 13 December 1957.1 The ordinance (replaced by the Education Act in 1965) made provisions for the registration of schools, managers and teachers, as well as for the roles and responsibilities of school management committees.2 These measures signalled a move towards a highly centralised system of education in Singapore.3 The main aim of the ordinance was to ensure that no individuals or groups associated with any school would act in any way that would be detrimental to the interests of the country or the students.4 The Education Ordinance laid the basis for equality in education and continues to be the foundation of Singapore’s education policy till today.5

After World War II, the high enrolment in Chinese schools was a great cause of concern for the British, as vernacular institutions were thought to promote ethnic segregation. The colonial government therefore began to either reduce or withdraw subsidies to Chinese schools, while English schools gradually became free. In 1953, the British planned to anglicise the Chinese schools by introducing English as a medium of teaching alongside Chinese. The authorities also wanted the Chinese schools’ curriculum to have a local focus. However, the Chinese community vehemently opposed the bilingual plan, which eventually failed. This resentment among the Chinese community against the British for the unfair treatment meted to Chinese schools formed the backdrop of the All-Party Committee Report on Chinese Education.6

The Education Bill was drawn up largely based on the White Paper on Education Policy published in March 1956. The white paper, in turn, had been the government’s response to the All-Party Committee Report on Chinese Education released the previous month.

All-Party Committee Report on Chinese Education
The All-Party Committee Report on Chinese Education, published on 7 February 1956,7 was the result of an all-party inquiry into the Chinese middle schools. The inquiry was carried out because the students of these schools had been involved in the Hock Lee bus riot that occurred in May 1955.8

The all-party report recommended the endorsement of Chinese education so that Chinese culture as well as the cultures of other ethnic groups in the respective vernacular institutions could thrive and contribute to a nation that was gaining independence.9 It emphasised the value and significance of vernacular languages in the creation of a united Singapore. Significantly, it made wide-ranging recommendations calling for equal treatment of all schools. It proposed setting up an advisory council and drafting a new ordinance applicable to all schools. The recommendations were: equality of education opportunity for all children irrespective of sex, race and religion; common curriculum and syllabuses to be prescribed for all schools; teaching of civics to be made compulsory in all schools; direct education to cater to the needs of a multiracial society; and parity treatment for all four language streams.10 To serve the larger purpose of creating a united nation with common ideals, the report also called for a nation-oriented curriculum and the use of Malayan-centred textbooks.11

White Paper on Education Policy
The following month in March 1956, the government responded to the all-party report with the White Paper on Education Policy.12 Reiterating the all-party report, the white paper set out recommendations for greater equality among schools regardless of their language medium, but under the condition that the general education policy of the school must not be in conflict with the education policy laid down by the government.13 The main aim was to build a Malayan nation – an endeavour that would be supported by schools upholding this ideal.14 The white paper laid the foundation for the Education Bill.15

Soon after the White Paper on Education Policy was introduced, drafting of the Education Bill began. The bill was eventually tabled in the Legislative Assembly on 13 February 1957 by then Minister for Education Chew Swee Kee, and had its second reading on 24 April 1957.16

The bill was subsequently submitted to a select committee chaired by then Speaker of the Assembly George Oehlers. Among the most controversial aspects of the bill pertained to the control wielded by the director of education over staff recruitment and dismissal in all schools. Chew assured that checks and balances would be made to ensure that the director would not abuse his or her authority.17 After considerable amendments, the Education Bill was passed on 18 November 1957.18

The major provisions of the Education Ordinance were the establishment of an  education advisory council, a school appeals board and a finance board chaired by the director of education.19 The director of education’s role was to advise the minister for education on the administration of finances and to exercise supervision over the expenditure of public money entrusted to the schools.20

Grant-in-Aid Regulations
To ensure that the Education Ordinance would be properly effected within a unified system of national education, Grant-in-Aid Regulations were passed under the ordinance.21 The regulations listed the terms and conditions under which non-government schools would be aided.22

The full grant-in-aid system was extended to all schools that satisfied prescribed conditions on the proper operation of a school, such as standardised teacher salaries, school infrastructure and equipment, across government and government-aided schools.23 The Education Ordinance and Grant-in-Aid Regulations ensured that all pupils, irrespective of their ethnicity or language medium, would be allowed to enrol in suitably provided schools.24

Later developments
By the end of 1957, the government had opened 96 new primary schools and 11 new secondary schools.25 Over the next decade, further steps to centralise the education system included the standardisation of subject syllabuses and education structures across the various language streams, and the institution of common terminal examinations.26

In 1985, then First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong provided a major boost to the idea of decentralising control of schools.27 He spoke of the need to allow more autonomy within schools, and of giving principals the right to appoint staff, devise school curricula and select textbooks, while conforming to national education policies such as bilingualism and common examinations.28

Nadirah Norruddin

1. T. R. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore (Singapore: Teachers’ Training College, 1969), 54. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 TEA)
2. Saravanan Gopinathan, Towards a National System of Education in Singapore, 1945–1973 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1974), 25. (Call no. RSING 379.5957 GOP)
3. “Bid to Limit Schools’ Power,” Straits Times, 18 November 1957, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “Draft on Education Is Ready,” Singapore Standard, 15 August 1956, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
5. C. M. Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 267. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
6. Wong, T. (2006) “ Institutionally Incorporated, Symbolically Un-Remade: State Reform of Chinese Schools in Postwar Singapore,” British Journal of Sociology of Education 27, no. 5 (November 2006): 637–639. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
7. “Draft on Education Is Ready”; “Singapore Education Policy,” Indian Daily Mail, 30 March 1956, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Chew Swee Kee, 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)
8. “All-Party Probe: Chew Asks Approval,” Straits Times, 24 May 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Chew, Report of the All-Party Committee, 4.
10.  Wan Sook Yin, Singapore: From Multilingualism to Bilingualism 1959 to 1979 (Singapore: National University of Singapore, 1979), 20 (Call no. RSING 370.95957 WAN); Gopinathan, Towards a National System of Education, 21, 23, 26.
11. Legislative Assembly Singapore, White Paper on Education Policy (Singapore: Legislative Assembly, 1956), 4. (Call no. RCLOS 370.95951 SIN); Chew, Report of the All-Party Committee, 14.
12. Legislative Assembly Singapore, White Paper on Education Policy, 1; Gopinathan, Towards a National System of Education, 23.
13. Legislative Assembly Singapore, White Paper on Education Policy, 8; Gopinathan, Towards a National System of Education, 24.
14. Legislative Assembly Singapore, White Paper on Education Policy, 4–5.
15. Wan, From Multilingualism to Bilingualism, 19–20; “Equal Treatment for All Schools, Languages & Cultures Discussion on White Paper Postponed to Apr. 12,” Indian Daily Mail, 6 April 1956, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Draft on education Is Ready”; Legislative Assembly Singapore, First Reading of Education Bill, vol.3 of Debates: Official Report, 13 February 1957, col. 1403; Legislative Assembly of Singapore, Second Reading of Education Bill, vol. 3 of Debates: Official Report, 24 April 1957, cols. 1523–60.
17. “That Bill Passed,” Straits Times, 19 November 1957, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Legislative Assembly Singapore, Second Reading of Education Bill, cols. 1533–44; “Education Bill under Fire for ‘Dictatorial Powers’,” Straits Times, 25 April 1957, 7; “Director’s Special Powers,” Straits Times, 27 February 1957, 4; “Changes Expected in Schools Bill,” Straits Times, 16 November 1957,  4; “‘Controversial’ Education Bill Passed,” Singapore Standard, 19 November 1957, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Gopinathan, Towards a National System of Education, 21, 69.
20. Legislative Assembly Singapore, White Paper on Education Policy, 7; Gopinathan, Towards a National System of Education, 69.
21. Ruth H. K. Wong, Educational Innovation in Singapore (Paris: Unesco Press, 1974), 5–6 (Call no. RCLOS 370.95957 WON); Chew, Report of the All-Party Committee, 28–34.
22. Gopinathan, Towards a National System of Education, 25.
23. Wan Sook Yin, Multilingualism to Bilingualism 1959 to 1979, 19–20; Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 54–55; Wong, Educational Innovation in Singapore, 5–6.
24. Gopinathan, Towards a National System of Education, 26.
25. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005, 267.
26. “Schools to Hold Term Exams on Schedule,” New Nation, 28 December 1972, 3; “Existing Education System,” Straits Times, 20 March 1979, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Paul Jacob, “Bold New Idea to ‘Free’ Schools,” Straits Times, 30 May 1985, 1; Peng Ailian, “Plan to Examine ‘Independent Schools’ Idea,” Business Times, 30 May 1985, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Jacob, “Bold New Idea to ‘Free’ Schools.” 

Further resources
3 Guidelines on Education Policy,” Straits Times, 23 July 1986, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

1,200-Pupil Limit for all Colony Schools,” Straits Times, 8 January 1957, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

Chua Chong Jin and Ng Wei Joo, “Tony Tan: Education Plan Meets Needs of Multi-Racial Singapore,” Straits Times, 10 March 1991, 13. (From NewspaperSG)

Deputation from Schools Sees Lim, Chew on Education Bill,” Singapore Standard, 22 May 1957, 5. (From NewspaperSG)

H. E. Wilson, Social Engineering in Singapore: Educational Policies and Social Change, 1819–1972 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1978). (Call no. RSING 379.5957 WIL)

Lee Siew Yee, “Will Chinese Schools Now Accept Control?Straits Times, 8 February 1956, 8. (From NewspaperSG)

S. Gopinathan, Education and the Nation State: The Selected Works of S. Gopinathan (New York: Routledge, 2013). (Call no. RSING 370.95957 GOP)

School Grants: Chew Gets Tough,” Straits Times, 16 August 1956, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 5 October 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

Education policies and system
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