The Korean, Chinese, Indian and Singaporean systems of education

The various educational systems in Asia are all traditional, completely dependent on lectures of teachers and prescribed textbooks. However, the colonial influences of the British, Spanish, American, French and Dutch are still felt. Buddhist and Hindu, Muslim and Christian beliefs have permeated their culture as well.

South Korea’s uphill struggle to become a democracy

South Korea has a total population of 49.3 million. The 20th century (1948) history of education in Korea dates back to the liberation from Japan after the Gwangbokjeol era. Then the Korean government began to study and discuss for a new philosophy of education. The new system attempted to make education available to all students equally and promote the educational administration to be more self-governing.

Following the Korean War, when the country was divided into North and South Korea, Syngman Rhee and later Park Chung Hee were in power. Education became centralized. Because of lack of resources, education was compulsory only up to the sixth grade. Reforms in the 1980s took place under the power of Gen. Chun Doo-hwan. In 1980 the number of students attending all kinds of higher educational institutions was almost 600,000, that number grew almost 100 percent to 1,061,403 students by 1983. A second reform was the prohibition of private, after-school tutoring. Formerly, private tutors could charge exorbitant rates if they had a good “track record” of getting students into the right schools through intensive coaching especially in English and mathematics.

Kindergarten is optional in South Korea and most parents prefer to keep their little ones at home as long as possible. However, at age 6 compulsory chodeung-hakgyo elementary education was imposed. The transition to 3 years of Middle School can be difficult because studies are taken far more seriously.

Places in secondary schools are awarded by lottery and everybody gets an equal chance. Discipline with uniforms, haircuts and punctuality is strictly enforced. Specialist teachers move between classrooms teaching core subjects. The final 3 years of school education take place at high schools. These may specialize according to subjects taught like Science versus Languages. Some are state owned and some are privately run. Approximately 25 percent of Middle School graduates prefer to go on Vocational Schools, where they are taught skills in Agriculture, Commerce, Fishery, Home Economics and Technology.

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The greater majority of Korean high school students must pass a college scholastic ability test with a view to studying further. Standards are high and some students start preparing as early as in kindergarten years. Whole families become involved in helping them to pass. Thus a student who passes acquires a qualification that meets top international standards – living proof of the power of a knowledge-based economy.


Before the defeat of the Kuomintang in 1949, education was effectively closed to workers, peasants and generally females in practical terms despite Sun Yat-Sen’s support of general education in principle. However, the Marxist ideology of the post-1949 government, in reacting to the overly literary and classical tradition of China, overstressed the superior wisdom of the worker and peasant. Various experiments in which peasants and industrial workers were made “teachers” overnight but were unable to communicate their knowledge.

In an attempt to make education more practical and accessible, Chinese characters were simplified by communist leader Mao Zedong for quick learning. The Great Leap forward (1958-1960) and the Socialist Education Movement sought to end deeply rooted academic elitism, to narrow social and cultural gaps between workers and peasants and eliminate the tendency of scholars and intellectuals to disdain manual labor.

Later on Deng Xiaoping’s introduced far-ranging educational reform policy, which involved all levels of the education system, critical to modernizing China. Academically, the goals of reform were to enhance and universalize elementary and junior middle school education, to develop vocational and technical education, a paramount importance. China’s mandatory nine-year compulsory education, now effectively cover 85 percent of the population. Illiteracy in the young and mid-aged population has fallen from over 80 percent down to five percent.

As of 2014, China’s population is estimated at 1,393,783,836. International cooperation and education exchanges increase every year. China has more students studying abroad than any other country. Chinese students have been studying in 103 countries. About 185,000 have returned after finishing their studies.


India has a population of 1,238.9 million as of 2014. Both public and private education in India is funded from three levels: central state, and local. Free and compulsory education is provided to children between the ages of 6 and 14.

According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2012, 96.5 percent of all rural children between the ages of 6 to 14 were enrolled in school. Its quality has been questioned. Some of the reasons are attributed to the absence of around 25 percent of teachers everyday. Private schools in India must be non-profit to run any accredited educational institution.

The Indian education system is structured as follows: preschool education is not compulsory. The Montessori system is especially popular at the preschool level since Dr. Maria Montessori lived here to continue her research on the Cosmic Curriculum. The medium of teaching is often English, but Hindi, the national language is compulsory. More than 50 percent of the children are enrolled in private schools in urban areas and 20 percent in rural areas. The percentage of untrained teachers (parateachers) is 54.91 percent in private, compared to 44.88 percent in government schools. Even the poorest often go to private schools despite the fact that government schools are free. Elementary education for 6 to 14 years old is a major challenge for the government, specially to engage communities where child labor is still a common practice and young females particularly are still being deprived of this opportunity.

The secondary school curriculum is still largely based on the colonial system that the British left behind. Young people who do not wish to go on to tertiary education or who fail to complete secondary school often enroll at privately owned vocational schools. In so doing, they prepare themselves to face the impact of the liberalization and globalization of the Indian economy.

Tertiary Education – India is justifiably proud of its universities, which are mainly funded by state governments and many are centers of excellence. The 12 larger ones are funded by the central government, which is more generous in its financial support. The National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) is responsible for the management of the education system and teacher accreditation.

 Singapore – Strictly multi-lingual and ‘subject band’ based, leading to British GCE ‘O’ levels

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles founded Singapore Institute (now known as Raffles Institution) in 1823, thereby starting education in Singapore under the British rule. Due to the multi-racial nature of the population, there are three main types of schools which appeared in Singapore: the Chinese and Tamil schools (taught thru their native tongue) Malay schools. English schools were exclusively then for the British residents.

In 1947, after World War II, the Ten Year Programme for Education Policy was implemented partially with the British military administration (1945-1955). Internal self-government set in 1955-1962 when Singapore separated from the Malaysian merger and Lee Kuan Yew became the head of the new Republic calling for a universal education system that would prepare for “self governance.” The industrialization program started. The bilingualism policy in schools was officially introduced in 1960, making English the official language with the mother tongues. The first Junior College was opened in 1969.

In 1980s, Singapore’s economy started to prosper. Education system shifted from quantity to quality, such as revamping vocational education under the new Institute of Technology and splitting secondary schools into Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams. Lee’s son Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong continued the “ability driven system.” Preschools are run by private sector, including community foundations, religious bodies, and civic or business groups. Primary education is compulsory and free for all, though there is a fee of up to SGD13 monthly per student to help cover miscellaneous costs.

Streaming after Gr. IV is quite different and complicated since pupils are divided as Primary 5 to the EM1, EM2 and EM3 (English and mother tongue). This includes the “Subject-based banding” where students take subjects at different levels depending on their scores in the respective subjects. To get promoted to Secondary School, students sit for the national Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE)

“Special” and “Express” are four-year courses leading up to the Singapore-Cambridge GCE “O” Level examination. This is complicated with obligatory “higher mother tongue” Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. There are ongoing debates about the effectiveness of streaming with some arguing that it should be abolished due to its detrimental psychological effects. The Integrated Programme, which leads to either an International Baccalaureate Diploma or to an A-level exam.

Polytechnics in Singapore provide three-year diploma courses. They accept students based on their GCE “O” level, GCE “A” level or Institute of Technical Education (ITE). Polytechnics offer a wide range of courses in various fields, including engineering, business studies, accountancy, tourism and hospitality management, mass communications, digital media and biotechnology. There are also specialized courses such as marine engineering, nautical studies, nursing and optometry. About 40 percent of each Secondary 4 cohort would enroll in Polytechnics.

Asia’s mad rush to become globally competitive

The parents and teachers of all Asian countries eagerly anticipate the sustainable future of their children with the “best” system of education, to the extent of entrapping them within a “pressure cooker” lifestyle without recognizing the hidden treasures of infancy to adolescence.