Singapore fact of the day

by on August 10, 2015 at 1:38 pm in Current Affairs, Education | Permalink

According to Morgan Stanley, Singapore’s public spending on education amounts to about 3 per cent of GDP — far behind the Nordic countries, which spend 7 per cent or more, and even Malaysia at its 6 per cent. For wider comparison, the US spends about 5.5 per cent and Hong Kong 3.5 per cent.

The FT story on Singapore’s 50th birthday is here.

1 JNolan August 10, 2015 at 2:02 pm

Would be more interesting to see how much $/student (adjusted for PPP) it spends.

2 Glenn August 10, 2015 at 2:33 pm

Would it?

Singapore per-student education expenditures, PPP: $21,563.91
US per-student total education expenditures, PPP: $18,130.12

You might be right. Of course, there’s a better than small chance I screwed up the estimates for those two figures. It doesn’t help that the World Bank gave US education spend at 5.1% of GDP, instead of 5.5%.

Still, while it is true that Singapore is relatively rich per-capita (enabling it to spend less proportionately due to a wealth effect), it is also true that demand for educational services is expected to be rising in income. I suspect that Singapore under spends in any prediction model that considers outcomes, incomes, and student population.

3 collin August 10, 2015 at 2:50 pm


Nice to know but can you show an average per kid? Nobody in Singapore has children (or multiple children) so I bet the averages are very close.

I know Singapore is extremely well run and crowded but all people became like
Singapore, the global economy would have a huge problem.

4 JNolan August 10, 2015 at 3:11 pm

This was my point. Also, since Singapore has a large population of ex-pats (and other wealthy people) I’m sure a lot of the students are in international/other private schools that do not require public spending. These are all just presumptions though.

5 glenn August 10, 2015 at 3:18 pm

Fwiw, my denominator in the above was number of students in the public primary and secondary systems

6 Mark Brophy August 10, 2015 at 10:37 pm

What about the obvious explanation? The more a country spends on government schooling, the less education it gets; it stagnates or becomes poorer.

7 Art Deco August 10, 2015 at 2:16 pm

Maybe they figure the point of the spending is to provide personnel, plant, and equipment for academic and vocational instruction, as opposed to fodder for the Democratic Party vote farm.

8 Steven Kopits August 10, 2015 at 2:59 pm

You pay bonuses to politicians and bureaucrats, that’s what you get.

If politicians were paid for maximizing GDP and minimizing debt, you would see similar effect in the US, or any other country. Today politicians are rewarded for policies which are popular; pay them for results, and they will produce policies which are efficient and effective.

9 Art Deco August 10, 2015 at 4:03 pm

You’re like creaking floorboards.

10 Boonton August 10, 2015 at 5:13 pm

I think in general politicians would rather see headlines about increasing GDP rather than decreasing GDP.

11 Jan August 10, 2015 at 4:24 pm

Art, you should join the Singapore Teachers Union!

There’s an FAQ on Tenure covering benefits and things like pensions.

12 Paul Sas August 10, 2015 at 2:35 pm

A shadow price of Singapore’s education may require accounting for all the hidden taxes on non-conformity. Since education aims to create convergent skill levels across the cohort, outcomes benefit from external constraints that drive people to herd together. The specific line item for education can then go down.
The cultural forces may force Singaporeans to “consume far more niceness than they would like to,” but also find themselves compelled into the production of more nice behavior from themselves through conformity/politeness.

13 Danyl Mclauchlan August 10, 2015 at 3:06 pm

Singapore has a much lower birth rate than, say, Sweden and is also – famously – a city-state with a highly concentrated population instead of a nation with a population distributed iacross many cities and towns requiring a large number of schools and universities to service them. These factors seem more salient than the hinted premise that Singapore is awesome because authoritarianism is better than Nordic socialism.

14 E. Harding August 10, 2015 at 3:14 pm

Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan all score well on PISA. Notice anything all of them have in common?

15 E. Harding August 10, 2015 at 3:17 pm

Also, Korea, which spends comparatively little per student, and Singapore itself.

16 Jan August 10, 2015 at 3:47 pm

None of them have immigrants from Central America, duh.

17 Boonton August 10, 2015 at 5:14 pm

If Central America sends all their expensive to educate children north to the US wouldn’t that mean education costs in Central American countries must be exceptionally low?

18 Thiago Ribeiro August 10, 2015 at 6:30 pm

First, they don’t send “ALL their expensive to educate children”. Second, education costs may be lower than they would otherwise be (or maybe expenses are a function of political will to spend money, and Central American children-expensive to educate or not- and teachers must do with what they got).

19 Boonton August 10, 2015 at 6:46 pm

So in the US this all powerful teacher’s union has managed to get whatever they want regardless of economics or politics? Even in the most red of states that can’t even manage to honestly teach evolution? How exactly did that come about and why wouldn’t teacher’s unions in Central America mimic such amazing political success?

More interestingly, where exactly are the cheap private schools? Aside from some Catholic schools, in the US private schools are going to easily set you back at least $15K per year. How do their teachers manage to make such demands when they aren’t even unionized?

20 Thiago Ribeiro August 10, 2015 at 9:52 pm

“How exactly did that come about and why wouldn’t teacher’s unions in Central America mimic such amazing political success?”
They are already as successful as they can be at facing other interests (honest ones as well as croocked ones) to get a share of the boot (this is exactly why it doesn’t matter if the average child there gets easier or harder to teach–they won’t give the money back in the first case and won’t be getting aditional funding in the second one-, as any Latin American teacher will be glad to explain you, the Congressmen or Assemblymen dividing the money don’t give them “enough money”, they have to make do and help the children as best they can with what they got). You get as much money “for education” as you can (funding of any activity is a function of ability of getting money
), at least I am not aware of many school systems (in the USA and everywhere else) learning that children got much easier to teach and returning the money they thought they needed, but they don’t. And evidently it has nothing to do with “sending the hardest ones to teach north”, it is a stupid strawman. From the point of view of critics of Latin American immigration (to be honest, I do not care one way or other) , almost every Latin American child (those coming and those staying at home) can be equally hard to teach (America could even be getting the less horrible ones) and yet immigration could be flooding America with harder (than Asian or white natives) children to teach. So there’s no reason to Central American costs be smaller thanks to immigration to the USA (except for the fact they have somewhat fewer students to teach than they would have otherwise-yet I don’t see them giving the money back).

21 Art Deco August 10, 2015 at 4:04 pm

I notice first how alt-right partisans are only interested in one thing.

22 E. Harding August 10, 2015 at 11:31 pm

I’m an alt-right partisan? I’m interested in lotsa things:

23 Mark Brophy August 10, 2015 at 10:40 pm

Finland does well, too, and they’re not Asian. Whites in Massachusetts also do well.

24 E. Harding August 10, 2015 at 11:33 pm

You’re right. Finland doesn’t spend a lot on education, either. Scott Sumner pointed out both poor- and well-performing schools in Massachusetts are equally well-funded:

25 DF August 10, 2015 at 3:06 pm

Singapore is managed more like a bank than a country. How much do banks spend on education for the army of new analysts they draft every year, knowing that underperformers can just be coerced to leave and there are millions of others ready to pounce on the opportunity to prove themselves?

26 Thiago Ribeiro August 10, 2015 at 6:32 pm

But who educates Singapore’s analists? They can attract expats, but they can’t get rid of their own citizens.

27 DF August 10, 2015 at 10:11 pm

There are plenty of ex-Singaporeans all over the place, just ask around. Many leave because of the stress or are priced out. It’s much easier to leave Singapore than it is many other countries. For one, leaving Singapore usually means you are already in the Global 1 or 2% and can go pretty much anywhere.

28 Thiago Ribeiro August 10, 2015 at 10:52 pm

There are plenty of ex-anything (I know lots of ex-Brazilians and ex-Americans), but even allowing for the fact Singaporean expats are a big chunck of the Singaporean-born population, there are lots of Singaporeans left back home. Who is teaching these guys if Singapore is like a bank, which doesn’t need to teach the employees?

29 Chip August 11, 2015 at 1:28 am

There are 200,000 Singaporeans living overseas out of a total citizen population of 3.3 million.

As I’ve said previously, it has one of the highest emigration rates in the world and the government tries hard to lure them back.

30 Thiago Ribeiro August 11, 2015 at 10:00 am

Who is teaching the children of the othrr 3.1 million, if Singapore is a business snd can’t be bothered to teach them?

31 E. Harding August 10, 2015 at 3:20 pm

Honestly, I don’t think the world needs much education spending at all. If all government funding for lower education was eliminated, its TFP would go up several hundred percent.

32 Doug August 10, 2015 at 3:50 pm

7th through 12th grade is a near waste in terms of any practical application. If every adult today completely had brain surgery removing any lingering knowledge of foreign language, social studies, art and music, chemistry, biology and post-6th grade math, it would not affect 98%+ of workers. The only real benefit of typical high school education is a minor refinement of reading comprehension and writing skills. The same level could be probably be achieved with 90 minutes of intesnive instruction a day. English class totally misses the mark here. Students should be writing short practical paragraphs (e.g. business emails) and getting detailed feedback on the minutiae of sentence construction. This would be a vast improvement over the status quo of writing sprawling term papers, with the goal of making a retarded facsimile of a mini crit-lit thesis, then getting a vague evaluative letter grade at the top.

33 Boonton August 10, 2015 at 6:48 pm

You forget baby sitting. If every adult could be acted upon via time machine to have the years they spent in 7th-12th grade be unsupervised, uncontrolled then quite a few wouldn’t be great workers today because they’d be serving life sentences.

34 Doug August 10, 2015 at 6:54 pm

Absolutely agree. Idle hands and all that. But we don’t need masters degree holding high-paid high-benefit professionals, at 1:15 ratios to act as camp counselors. We also don’t need $100 million, state of the art facsimiles of university campuses to hold camp.

35 Jan August 10, 2015 at 9:31 pm

What do you consider high paid?

36 E. Harding August 10, 2015 at 11:35 pm

Lower the legal age of child labor!

37 Anon August 10, 2015 at 7:00 pm

Is it only me who feels like this brain surgery might have already taken place

38 Cooper August 10, 2015 at 3:27 pm

20% of Americans are under the age of 15 compared to only 16% of Singaporeans.

If the gap is 3%/GDP versus 5.1%/GDP, then about 36% of the gap can be explained just by looking at comparative demographics.

39 Bill Ellis August 10, 2015 at 6:44 pm

Good point

40 Doug August 10, 2015 at 3:39 pm

If a Chinese kid starts doing bad in school the parents blame him, and respond by forcing him to study more. If a white kid does bad in school, the parents remain convinced that he’s still a special snowflake and the failure must be the school’s fault. (Stuff White People Like author Christian Lander satirized this by noting that all white people have “gifted children”). Thus Western cultures are naturally going to have larger voter blocks who give in to teacher unions by believing their schools are under-resourced, whereas East Asian cultures are more likely to stop outrageously lavish education largesse.

41 Art Deco August 10, 2015 at 4:05 pm

If a Chinese kid starts doing bad in school the parents blame him, and respond by forcing him to study more. If a white kid does bad in school, the parents remain convinced that he’s still a special snowflake and the failure must be the school’s fault

But but but HBD…

42 E. Harding August 10, 2015 at 11:36 pm

Will to study and parenting is determined by HBD too, Art.

43 E. Harding August 10, 2015 at 11:41 pm

And White kids don’t do all that poorly.

44 education realist August 11, 2015 at 4:38 am

“If a Chinese kid starts doing bad in school the parents blame him, and respond by forcing him to study more.”

No, his parents will probably buy the test answers or bribe the teacher to give him a higher grade–or pay for “SAT Prep”, which is actually buying the test answers ( , or cheat on the gaokao.

And blame the kid, of course. Then they bring all the cheating here.

45 Tom August 10, 2015 at 5:25 pm

Also notable that, e.g., Sweden spends so much yet gets mediocre if not outright poor outcomes.

46 AB August 10, 2015 at 6:44 pm

Sweden has nearly-free pre-school from age 1, and entirely free public universities. I suspect that is the source of the difference, not lavish spending on primary/secondary ed. Teachers salaries are much lower than the US.

47 jtf August 10, 2015 at 5:29 pm

Psh. Adjust on a per student basis. Singapore’s birthrate is crap and immigrants never bring in male children to avoid mandatory army service. Also, education spending rates in Korea, Taiwan, China, Japan and Singapore are all routinely understated because they focus only on public education provision. Private education (“cram school” or “tuition classes”) are a big feature of the educational system in all of these countries. In Singapore top students will relearn their O level and A level math and science courses for a second time several times a week.

48 steve August 10, 2015 at 5:54 pm

South Korea is listed as spending 7.6% of GDP on public education. The best i can find quickly on hagwons is that they account for about 12% of consumer spending. Of note, S Korean college grads have low, by OECD standards, employment rates. If you ever have the opportunity, talk with some of the Korean kids studying here about the system.


49 Doug August 10, 2015 at 6:12 pm

As an aside, my favorite tidbit about South Korean education is that English is considered the hardest and most stressful subject, somewhat akin to math in the US. When trying to speak English to Koreans, a lot of them freeze up with recalled anxiety, much the same way many Americans would if you asked them out of the blue to solve for X.

50 Art Deco August 10, 2015 at 6:20 pm

If I’m not mistaken, the cram schools were shuttered during the Park Chung Hee period.

51 msgkings August 11, 2015 at 1:07 am

You’re mistaken. Or rather, if they were shuttered, it didn’t last.

52 education realist August 11, 2015 at 4:39 am

They weren’t shuttered. There was an attempt to rachet back. It failed.

53 Al August 10, 2015 at 5:58 pm

Yes, but, a typical West Texas high fields a much better American-style football team than even the best Singapore high schools, despite all the money they put into sports and physical education.

The trouble lies with Singaporean parents and, indeed, with the national culture: relatively little emphasis upon/cultural respect for/personal affinity for, American-style football.

And that’s probably why people of Singaporean heritage are underrepresented in the NFL. It has little to do with the level of funding.

54 Anon August 10, 2015 at 7:02 pm


55 Jan August 10, 2015 at 8:13 pm

You lose the analogy in the last two sentences.

56 Bill Ellis August 10, 2015 at 7:21 pm

Do those figures include the spending on Edusave ? Singapore has a program called Edusave. It’s a 5 billion dollar government endowment fund that pays every student 350 bucks a year. It also funds grants and scholarship s. On top of that it pays poor kids an extra amount ranging from 200 for the little ones to 500 at the high school level if they are in the top 25 % of their class! ( imagine how an idea like that would go over with the American right ) Every kid in the top 10% in terms of improvement…regardless of income gets played extra too.. Edusave also supplies monetary rewards,up to 500 for leadership and service to 10 % of students. And they payout rewards for character to 2% of the kids.

I think this is a great program…too bad it would never get out of the gates here…there is no way the right would stand for this kind of socialism.

57 philemon August 10, 2015 at 8:14 pm

There is a line for “social transfers to individuals” in the budget estimate for education (2015) for 470,299,300, and another for transfers to Institutions & Organisations for 3,108,672,300. (Source:

The reported overall percentage is about right–Defense and Education get the largest chunk of the budget. The former a little more than the latter, but otherwise both around 12% of budget and 3% of GDP.

58 Harun August 10, 2015 at 9:27 pm

Take this from excessive teacher and admin pay. Suddenly it’s Union loving lefties who would oppose it

59 Jan August 10, 2015 at 9:33 pm

Do you know what teachers make? What is the right amount for them to make?

60 Jan August 10, 2015 at 9:35 pm

What if we took it from the military, which is basically a jobs program for dullards. Ok with you?

61 Thiago Ribeiro August 10, 2015 at 9:59 pm

“And they payout rewards for character to 2% of the kids.”
I would have developed much more character if I had been bribed to develop it.

62 Chip August 10, 2015 at 8:21 pm

Singapore schools are very bare bones. Few facilities, spartan classrooms and little in the way of extra curricular activities compared with many western schools.

When my eldest did the rounds of prospective secondary schools some had ancient desks, rusted overhead fans and even gaping holes in the wall. Yes, most don’t have air conditioning.

Singaporean kids are forbidden – with very few exceptions – from attending international schools, where fees typical run 20-35k a year. Foreign kids have a very difficult time finding space in local schools.

63 ChrisA August 11, 2015 at 5:17 am

Plenty of Singaporean kids at British public schools. I think they have had to place an informal limit on them at some places. I was in the Singapore Airline business lounge earlier this year at Heathrow and the place was packed with kids returning to Singapore for the holidays.

64 duxie August 10, 2015 at 10:07 pm

Interesting to note the pressure cooker environment of the Asian schools from the PISA data. In US more intelligent 15 yo students are promoted to higher grades and thus reduces the competition within grade.

country grade pct ….

US 9 11.74% 10 71.21% 11 16.58 12 0.21% 13 0

SG 9 7.95% 10 89.55% 11 0.09% 12 0 13 0

KR 9 5.95% 10 93.85% 11 0.21% 12 0 13 0

Oh, in SG and KR those in grade 11 were not allowed to take the PISA test, but not in US.

65 duxie August 10, 2015 at 10:12 pm

The Japan data is even more interesting.

JP 9 0 10 100% 11 0 12 0 13 0

66 E. Harding August 10, 2015 at 11:40 pm

Dude, you’re totally right.

67 education realist August 11, 2015 at 4:45 am

Congress and the courts force the states to provide a free and appropriate education to all kids with a large list of disabilities. Sped kids are 13% of the total and cost on average twice as much to educate. The feds allocate about $13 billion to special education, which means the total costs around $70 billion.

Pretty sure the Singaporeans don’t give a damn about executive function and take the kids who can neither speak nor feed themselves and stick them in an institution. In this country, it’s something we should be at least discussing.

But most people are so ignorant about education that they think squawking about “teacher unions” are productive. Make special ed something less than a mandate, and much money would be saved–some of it from teachers no longer needed.

So tell congress to repeal IDEA:

68 Art Deco August 11, 2015 at 10:32 am

Just to point out, Congress and the President can make short work of the courts whenever they care to; they can strip the existing courts of issue jurisdiction, shut extant district and circuit courts by re-delineating their jurisdictions (1 sq yard in the middle of Sunset Blvd), close the courts through impounding appropriations, pay judges in potatoes, and withdraw the U.S. Marshals’ Service from recalcitrant districts and circuits.

69 A Definite Beta Guy August 11, 2015 at 10:42 am

What the hell is the point of a first-world economy if we just dump any special needs kid in an institution? More IPads?

70 Chuck August 11, 2015 at 3:06 pm

Why waste money institutionalizing them? Euthanasia.

71 Axa August 11, 2015 at 5:58 am

What about the students/teacher ratio?

Singapore is mostly urban, thus you can reach the optimal students/teacher ratio with relatively ease. The OECD countries with low students/teacher ratio claim it’s because schools outside big urban areas are not that efficient. Some times a school is open just for a few students in a remote area of the country sending costs up.

72 duxie August 11, 2015 at 6:04 am

The US system of promoting the more intelligent 15 yo to grade 12 is good for providing environment for them to reach full ‘academic’ potential, but it is hard for them to reach full ‘leadership’ potential among the 17 yo classmates who might be 12 inches taller than them (as in US height is an important leadership attribute). This might explain the quality of political leaderships in US.

73 Boonton August 11, 2015 at 9:20 am

Explanations of variance….just tossing ideas out there:

1. Better universal healthcare and retirement system in Singapore. If you could import their prices into the US you would likely find a lot of the costs of our educational system would drop. Education is labor intensive so if you have high benefit costs it will become expensive because of that.

2. Economies of scale, the ‘city state’ can maximize the use of infrastructure. The US is very spread out which means our schools will be essentially under utilized. We have to build, for example, 3 gyms for the same number of students they can assign to a single gym.

3. Unified culture lowers costs. Education is about knowledge transfer and acclimating the young to culture. The US has a complex and diverse culture which makes acclimating more challenging (even deciding the culture, look at how much time and energy went into fights over school prayer and sex education in the 80’s and 90’s). A unified culture is self-reinforcing and likely dramatically cuts educational costs.

4. Lower labor costs overall. Lower labor costs lower costs cross the board. If house painters charge half as much in Singapore as they do in the US then a teacher in Singapore doesn’t have to demand as much pay in order to enjoy a well painted house.

5. Generally better ideas.

I put these in what I think are the rough order of the cause of the variance. Unfortunately only #5 seems to be something the US could try applying to itself in order to lower our costs.

74 Chris August 11, 2015 at 2:16 pm

A lot of US education spending is probably in areas that do little to improve educational results. There is a tremendous bloat in administration – not teaching faculty – to run various programs that benefit only a small number of disadvantaged students, to promote a particular political agenda, or to provide unrelated services to children that were once provided by parents. It also includes a lot of police/safety protocols that were once totally unnecessary in schools.

With intact families, a strong culture of achievement, low criminality, and no tolerance for certain political fantasies, Singapore probably only spends money on the things that actually educate children.

75 sam August 11, 2015 at 2:31 pm

Strangely enough, Monterey Park, CA has Singapore-style educational results while spending almost exactly the US median on education. Arcadia, CA also has Singapore-style educational results with similarly spending.

If only one could find something in common between Monterey Park, Arcadia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea, one could duplicate these educational miracles!

76 jorod August 11, 2015 at 11:51 pm

No wonder the taxpayers love that country. They get more bang for their tax dollars.

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