Singapore schools still pulling in Malaysians

Despite fee hikes and rising fares, more students make daily commute here

FROM the age of seven, Ms Tan Chiew Hui had to wake up at 4.30am in her Johor Baru home to catch her 5am school bus to Singapore.

The journey each way used to take at least two hours. Once, she was even stalked when she was on her way back home after dark, and another time, ended up late for an exam when she was stuck in a traffic jam, said Ms Tan, now aged 19.

"The experience toughened me up. I lost a lot of sleep," she said. But the 12-year sacrifice was well worth it. The former Raffles Institution (Junior College) student was ecstatic when she received her A-level results last week - four As and three Bs.

She is one of the thousands of Malaysian students who make the daily trek across the Causeway to attend Singapore schools.

Despite the recent fee hike and rising transport costs, this number appears to be increasing. The biggest Singapore-Malaysia school bus operator, Century Bus, said it has seen a 5 per cent increase in the number of students it ferries since last year.

Bus driver Lee Chee Chen, 60, who operates his own bus company, agreed. Last year, he ferried just 18 Malaysian students but the number has almost doubled this year, he said.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) said that between 4 per cent and 10 per cent of primary, secondary and pre-university students here are foreigners, a proportion which has remained fairly consistent over the years. Both MOE and Immigration and Checkpoints Authority said that they do not track the number of Malaysian students who make the daily commute. But Century Bus estimates that there are at least 2,000 students, half of whom are ferried to school by the company's buses.

Ms Janet Lee, 43, whose family owns Century Bus, said: "The parents want their children to have more job options in the future and having English is one way to make sure they are on the right track."

A fee hike for mainstream primary, secondary and pre-university foreign students kicked in this year. A Malaysian student now has to pay between $350 and $700 a month, an increase of between $115 and $170 from 2012. Independent schools have also increased their school fees for foreigners.

Some Malaysian parents told The Straits Times that while the fee hike puts a strain on the family budget, they are willing to bite the bullet for the benefits of an English-medium education.

Johor tutor Cindy Seah, 33, puts both her primary school daughters in schools here. "Malaysian Chinese schools focus on Chinese rather than English, and Malaysian international schools are more expensive than Singapore schools."

Ms Tan's mother, Madam Yap Nyet Ling, 48, said Malaysia's national schools conduct their lessons in Bahasa Malaysia. "The lack of an English-speaking environment means fewer job opportunities for my daughter," said the tutor who lives and works in Johor.

Insurance manager Joseph Soo, 45, who also lives and works in Johor, said he feels the financial strain. It costs him $900 to send both his sons to school in Singapore, up $400 from last year. But he said the sacrifice is worth it. "When my older boy leaves for school in the morning, I'm still in bed. When I'm done with my dinner after work in the evenings, he would have just reached home."

This story first appeared in The Straits Times on March 4, 2013

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to