Tuition a sign of a developed economy

I read Mrs Marietta Koh's insightful analysis of the tuition industry in Singapore with interest ("Tuition a necessary evil"; yesterday).

Instead of seeing tuition as an inherently problematic phenomenon that society must merely tolerate, here is a different perspective on an industry that exists not only in Singapore, but also in all major cities, such as London and New York. 

High-stakes examinations are a microcosm of working life, especially in late-capitalist societies where individuals compete for plum positions at a variety of institutions, ranging from prestigious universities to white-shoe law firms.

Doing away with high-stakes examinations in childhood only postpones the stress of this frenetic competition to a later stage in life - at which time, children will not have developed the necessary fortitude to cope. Indeed, the tuition industry in Singapore ought to be viewed as a positive example of private-public symbiosis.

Rigorous educational standards established by the Government become the goal posts for small, private companies that are nimble enough to cater to the changing tastes of younger generations and innovate rapidly.

It is a sign of a developed economy that parents can choose to supplement a rock-solid public education with other educational programmes in the private sector, a model that already exists in the provision of other public goods.

Let us suppose that in a world filled with sophisticated technological distractions, the tuition industry ceased to exist.

What would children choose to do with that free time?

Theoretical discussions of idealised childhood aside, anecdotal evidence suggests that the vast majority of them would end up playing with their phones.

The private sector is in a good position to compete with these distractions for their attention.

In an advanced economy with high levels of disposable income, spending money on the provision of goods and services of one's choice is an essential part of social and economic life.

If it really boiled down to an economic choice between a designer tote bag or giving one's child the skills to cope with a highly competitive and globalised working world, why wouldn't you choose the latter?

Johann Loh Runming

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2015, with the headline 'Tuition a sign of a developed economy'. Print Edition | Subscribe