Sunday April 22, 2007
Red stars rising
By HO AI LI and VINCENT LEOW
Help! There's a China student in my class. The presence of these kids in schools has raised the bar for local students. Should Singaporeans be worried?
MI XIAO was 14 when teachers from Singapore went to Gao Xin Number One Middle School, the top school in China’s Shaanxi province, to recruit students three years ago.
He sailed through mathematics and simple English tests and rounds of interviews before entering Secondary Three at Maris Stella High on a bond-free scholarship.
He had not read a single English novel in China, but once in Singapore, he picked up his first book, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and armed himself with an English to Chinese dictionary. His second English novel? Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Within three months, he topped his class in English.
When the O-level results were released in February, he ranked among the top students nationwide with nine A1s.
Life has not been the same for students in Singapore ever since China students like Mi Xiao began to make their presence felt in the mid-1990s. They have raised the level of competition in schools with their hard work, focus and determination.
From about 14,500 students five years ago, their numbers have more than doubled to 33,000. They make up almost half of the 80,000 foreign students Singapore hosted last year, overtaking Malaysians and Indonesians.
About a third of the China students are in mainstream schools, from primary schools to junior colleges. Another third are in the polytechnics and local universities, and the last third are in private schools. Many leave their Singaporean peers awestruck with near-perfect scores in maths and science.
Teachers say the China students are usually ahead in maths, science and Chinese. And once they overcome their English handicap, nothing stops them from beating their Singaporean peers to the top spots.
Indeed, from the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) to the O and A Levels, China students have figured among the top scorers.
The China student boom can be traced back to the mid-1990s, when schools, mainly those with strong Chinese traditions such as Chinese High or Nanyang Girls’ High, started going to China to scout for talent.
Dunman High began wooing them in 1997 and the China students now make up about 4% of its 1,680 students.
Principal Sng Chern Wei said the China students “help to humble our top students, who have come to realise that being top in Singapore doesn’t mean that they are the best in the world”.
It was from 2002 that the numbers really soared. That was when more schools, even the less “Chinese” ones such as Victoria School and Tanjong Katong Girls’, got into the act, with the Education Ministry helping to put them in touch with schools in China.
The hope was that these scholars would remain here and contribute to the economy eventually.
Even if they do not, Singapore would benefit from having more friends overseas. The schools’ scouts fanned out to all corners of China, from Heilongjiang in the north-east to Guangzhou in the south, to scour for talent.
Maris Stella, for example, goes to pre-selected schools in places such as Xian and Changsha to recruit about 15 students a year. Top students from the schools are invited to apply for scholarships and then put through tests and interviews.
Scholarships offered by the Singapore International Foundation (SIF), the Association of Nanyang University Graduates or the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry pay for school fees, board as well as an annual allowance of S$2,200 (RM5,000).
Mainstream schools hosted just 1,500 China students in 2002. Now they host about 11,000.
For the China students, the education system in Singapore is less stressful than what they go through back home.
There, 60 to 70 students usually squeeze into one class, and lessons go on from 7.30am to 6pm.
Small wonder that Jiangxi native Li Xiayu, 16, was “shocked” when she found that lessons at Temasek Junior College ended at 3pm.
Back home, she sat for classes from 8am to 9pm at Jiangxi Number One Middle School, where three years’ worth of courses were crammed into two.
Although as exam-oriented as in China, the education system in Singapore is not as competitive, the China students said.
Mi Xiao said: “In Singapore, even if you can’t go to a good university, you’d still have a job. In China, if you don’t have a good degree from a good university, you can’t survive.”
Another big difference between the Singapore and Chinese systems: There are no community service or co-curricular activities to speak of at most schools in China.
IT consultant Yang Le, 24, who won a scholarship to study at Chung Cheng High (Main) nine years ago, said: “School was not so much providing education and nurturing students; it’s more like training us to be question-answering machines.”
The top-scoring China students elicit a mixture of resentment and admiration from their Singaporean peers, and are a worry to some Singaporean parents.
Irene Tan, 41, a personal assistant who has two sons, said their presence “adds more pressure” to school-going kids.
“Not just that, these China students may go on to compete in the same job market.”
Mi Xiao, now 17 and taking Literature as one of his subjects at Raffles Junior College, said he did not like how a few Singaporean classmates at Maris Stella kept comparing scores.
“If you did better than them, some became unhappy,” he said.
Tianjin native Zheng Lu, from Temasek Junior College, is candid about how some Singaporean students see China students as “muggers”. Alfred Chua, 16, a former Anderson Secondary student who is waiting to go into Ngee Ann Polytechnic, said: “The top students are almost always China scholars. The local students feel inferior.”
Instead of being spurred to work harder, he said they were resigned to the fact that their China peers would outshine them.
Make or break
Unhappiness spilled over from the academic to the sporting arena last year when a parent complained about the unlevel playing field in table tennis and badminton.
Some teachers are also unhappy that their students are thrashed by Chinese “foreign talent” double the size of their charges.
But some accept that there is no gain without pain.
Production manager Robin Lee, 47, who has four children, said China students can pick up English from their Singaporean peers, who can in turn improve their Chinese.
There will be greater pressure, but this cannot be helped.
He said: “Either we catch up or risk being frogs at the bottom of the well.”
While the achievements of some China students have hogged the limelight, not all find life here smooth-sailing.
Most scholarship students “flow through” to the top junior colleges, but a few had to be sent home when they failed O-level English.
Others returned for personal reasons, to attend to family problems or out of sheer homesickness.
If they do not do well enough to get into junior college or decide to pursue the polytechnic route, their scholarship is terminated.
Breaking the stereotype of the hardworking China student is Lionel Dai, 22, who went from the Express to Normal (Academic) stream at the end of Secondary Three at First Toa Payoh.
The top student in his primary school in China, he was hooked on computer games and lost interest in studies in secondary school.
His advertising executive mother thought a change of scenery might do him good. The Beijing native arrived in Singapore in 2001, and spent six months on a crash course in English before entering Secondary Two.
He thought maths, science and Chinese were very easy and did not bother doing his homework. “I admit I was lazy,” he said.
Now a business student at Raffles Design Institute, he said: “There are two kinds of China students: the top and the bottom.”
So the presence of China students in class can do two things – spur their classmates to do better or break their spirit. Educators hope that Singaporean students will pull up their socks.
What of the future? Will they stay on to add to the talent pool?
Figures for 1996 to 1999 show that more than 60% of the foreign undergraduates studying in Singapore, including those from South-East Asia, India and China, have become permanent residents (PRs) or citizens since graduating.
According to Shanghai native Rick Zhong, 27, who belonged to the second batch of China scholars at Chinese High, 80% of the about 40 scholars he keeps in touch with are still here.
A few have also taken up citizenship and government scholarships.
Now an IT security consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Zhong, a PR, said he likes the people and the environment here and is staying put for now.
And next month, he will have an even better reason to stay: He will be walking down the aisle with his Singaporean sweetheart. – ST/ANN