Our estate agents 4 year old does 6 house of tuition on Saturdays to 'keep up with her peers'. And our neighbour, a lovely little 5 year old Singaporean boy goes for tuition Every. Day. from 3-6pm. His lawyer mother says there is no other way for him to be competitive within his class. Clearly the local system is brutal in its rigour and expectations.
On the other hand my son goes to a wonderful little Montessori which does a fair amount of work disguised as play. Without realising it my 4 year old is doing sounds and basic reading, counting to 200 and learning multiples. He is learning to work calmly (and if only you knew how his legs NEVER stop) and work for longish periods of time, writing, doing puzzles and playing games. It's not an easy day and he comes back tired but invigorated with all the FUN he is having in school. We are happy with his school and know from talking to other parents that when he goes to one of the big international schools next summer he will absolutely love it because they don't do even half of what he is currently doing. An example (before a knowing Singaporean expat jumps on this) is my nephew, who went to the same Montessori before my son and last year, at age 4, went to one of the biggest and best International private schools. He has every resource at his fingertips. For the whole of that first year he loved school because suddenly there was no writing sheets or maths, just learning through play and adventures. He was ahead in math and reading and eventually they all found their balance but he is redoing concepts he already knew, pretending he doesn't know them. Unlearning what he already knows so the whole class can learn at a similar level. I guess that works so that the whole class finds a somewhat level playing field. He eventually did a bit of reading with a small group that are the same level but in all other matters it's a minimal regression. The beauty of that system though is how much he loves going to school which is full of activities that teach in their doing (even if the teaching is very basic). Maybe this Montessori is too pushy and they all know more that they should at their age. I certainly don't know the answer but both nephew and Kid have been happy.
School eventually evens out - much like crawling, walking, eating and sleeping - the corner posts of competitive parents everywhere - they all go to school and work at the level that works for them. They thrive or struggle, they find support, make friends, learn to work with obstacles and pursue their own interests.
However it's the after school activities that are the competitive arena in primary school. I have not yet met a parent in Singapore who has not asked me which and how many post school and weekend classes my child does. Just this morning someone has texted asking if I am keen on piano lessons for kid. The choice is so varied as to be a whole industry of its own. And none of it is cheap. $20 a class with minimum 10 class or 1 term sign ups. Even the few kids who do 'hardly any classes' are doing at least 3. Apparently if you don't know how to swim, paint, play footie, defend yourself with capoeira or taekwando and burst out a mean tune on your piano you shall not be well rounded enough.
I know a parent whose two kids go to 8 classes each week. A mix of piano, keyboard, swimming, horseback riding, drumming, capoeira, Hindi, football, art and craft. This is over and above a long school day (8-3 including travel time). This means that on the one afternoon they aren't a doing anything (Sunday) we are expected to have play dates. Impossible because Sunday is the one day when we go out for lunch and try and nap!
You name the activity and there is a class for it - right brain development, drama, golfing, tennis. Don't get me wrong. I'm not against the idea of classes. I just think they aren't really for us. When Kid gets back from school at 3 pm I want him to play with me, examine his many toys, read his many many books, do some painting or a puzzle if he wants to or just sit on the floor and race cars or play trains. And it's not about having the energy to travel elsewhere for classes - we have the opportunity for tennis and swim coaches to come to us and nothing in Singapore is at any great distance anyway - it's about doing the opposite of school. Filling his day with the mundane. Learning to occupy himself without endless direction.
I'm probable stunting his development by not teaching him to pursue a hobby/ class. He did a trial football class when we got here ($70 for football boots that he has now outgrown and used exactly once) and didn't want to go back. He did a 10 class course of acrobatics which was terrible - the teacher had no real plan and the other 9 kids just sat in a line while 1 child at a time did a move with the teacher. He got maybe 10 minutes of actual learning in 60 minutes. A total waste of time energy and money.
He hasn't asked for any classes and even when they are offered up to him (regularly by his father) he says he wants to just play at home. Or in the park. Or swim a bit.
As I said I'm probably not helping but I really feel it's too young to pursue such a large range of things. I do hope as he works his way from 4 to 5 he finds something he enjoys enough to pursue as a hobby. Then he can join a class. I do want it to be his decision not a class forced upon him because I think it will help his development.
So while all the expats complain about the great pressure that local kids face in their schools, I hope some of them see that a huge plethora of classes does just the same thing, puts pressure on them to excel at numerous things at once, some of which may not be of their own interest.
Education in Singapore is a multi- faceted game of choices and money and competition and on many fronts I think we are behind the game. Happy, but behind the game.