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Categories: CultureDrops
| On 6 months ago

In a Fiercely Multiracial Country, Are SAP Schools Still Relevant?

With the recent trending topic on racism sparked from the George Floyd fiasco, the topic of SAP schools in Singapore has raised eyebrows once again. However, this article will not delve too deeply into the myriad of complex issues surrounding racial privilege surrounding SAP schools. Rather, it is written to find out the lived realities of students who were from these schools, and how their lived realities, in a way, removed them from the very notion of multiracial relations.


History of SAP schools

The Ministry of Education first introduced the Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools in 1979. In this long-term scheme, nine Chinese-stream secondary schools were first selected and designated as SAP schools to develop bilingual Chinese students and at the same time, inculcate traditional Chinese values.

To achieve this, schools had to find ways to preserve a strong Chinese culture within the student body and, at the same time, implement a system that honed their English language capabilities. In the first year of its implementation, option letters were issued to parents of Chinese students who were amongst the top 8% scorers of the PSLE to encourage them to enrol into SAP schools. In January 1979, there were 1,445 students in the pioneer batch of these nine SAP schools.

In 1989, 10 primary schools were selected as SAP schools. Today, there are a total of 15 primary SAP schools and 11 secondary SAP schools.

15 SAP primary schools

  • Ai Tong School
  • Catholic High School (Primary)
  • CHIJ St. Nicholas Girls’ School (Primary)
  • Holy Innocents’ Primary School
  • Hong Wen School
  • Kong Hwa School
  • Maha Bodhi School
  • Maris Stella High School (Primary)
  • Nan Hua Primary School
  • Nanyang Primary School
  • Pei Chun Public School
  • Pei Hwa Presbyterian Primary School
  • Poi Ching School
  • Red Swastika School
  • Tao Nan School

11 SAP secondary schools

  • Anglican High School
  • Catholic High School
  • CHIJ St. Nicholas Girls’ School
  • Chung Cheng High School (Main)
  • Dunman High School
  • Hwa Chong Institution
  • Maris Stella High School
  • Nan Chiau High School
  • Nan Hua Primary School
  • Nanyang Girls’ High School
  • River Valley High School

Why was it created

There were three main reasons for the creation of SAP schools that affected three different groups of stakeholders.

1. Chinese-Medium Schools

In the 1970s, it became apparent that English was the neutral common language and fast becoming the language of higher education, commerce, and science and technology. This increasing importance gained popularity amongst parents and hence an increased inclination to enrol their children to English-medium schools, like Raffles Institution, Anglo Chinese School, and Methodist Girls’ School.

Credit – The Straits Times

This led to a plummeting decrease of enrolment in Chinese-medium schools, leading to the closure of many such vernacular schools, such as Meng Teck School (Chinese Catholic School), Ming Sin School, and Whampoa Secondary School.

Our Government felt that Chinese schools could not survive this shift in preference among parents though the schools were worth preserving for various reasons which will be elaborated in the next point. Hence, the idea of publicly supporting SAP schools was implemented to help protect these Chinese-streamed institutions.

2. Government

The Government felt the need to raise a future capable generation who is bilingual and inculcated with strong Chinese values—like harmony, filial piety, honesty, and loyalty—as opposed to Western individualism. Our leaders saw the merits of these communitarian values to promote community interests and national benefits.

The world was also witnessing the burgeoning of other economies like the Asian newly-industrialised economies and China. Hence, the importance of having shared Asian values and the need to preserve these Chinese schools, through the SAP school implementation, became a key priority.

3. Students

For students, SAP schools are a pathway for top-scoring primary school leavers to study both English and Mandarin to higher levels of competency.

Credit – Dunman High School

These SAP schools are equipped with additional teaching resources and assistance to run classes with a lower student-to-teacher ratio, thus, giving students more attention and guidance in their learning journey.

In this small, privileged world of Chinese-educated comrades, we wanted to find out what efforts SAP schools had taken to instil multiculturalism and, at the same time, look into the shortcomings of a system that is largely Chinese-based. We gathered some SAP school alumnus and asked them to share the efforts their school has taken to raise awareness of a Singapore that is multi-racial and multi-cultural.

There were a lot of ‘Racial Harmony Day’ responses, which, given the SAP schools’ mono race intake, rings hollow and reeks of tokenism, at best.


What do you remember of your school’s best effort at promoting multiculturalism?

“Racial Harmony Day”

Ariel, Nanyang Girls’ High School, 2002-2005


“Cannot remember a single effort.”

Lianne, Kong Hwa School, 2005-2010


“My classmates and I dressed in different ethnic costumes during racial harmony day.”

Pei, Chung Cheng High School, 2002-2005


“Nothing”

Amelia, Anglican High School, 2003-2006


“Overseas cultural trips to China and India, and racial harmony day celebrations where we are encouraged to wear ethnic outfits.”

Lisa, Dunman High School, 2005-2008


“We celebrated racial harmony day, did heritage visits to Kampong Glam, etc.”

Bryan, Catholic High School, 1995-2004

“There were racial harmony days and excursions to temples.”

James, Maris Stella High School, 2004-2007


“We learnt about different ethnic costumes, cultures, and food of different races during Racial Harmony Day.”

Isaac, River Valley High School, 2008-2013


“Racial Harmony Day, heritage site visits to Little India, Kampong Glam, and Overseas exchange programmes.”

Rachel, Nan Hua High School, 2005-2008


“Our teachers dressed up in different ethnic costumes for Racial Harmony Day.”

Sean, Hwa Chong Institution, 2002-2005

Credit – Chung Cheng High School – Main

Next, we asked if they have heard any racist remarks in school; the majority of them could not recall. The common reason was that the minority races were “out of sight, out of mind”. With limited exposure and inadequate knowledge, there is little or no room to spark nasty racism stereotypes in a mono-ethnic setting.

However, what we realise is the general ignorance of the presence of other racial groups amongst these SAP school alumni.

“I didn’t know my Malay friends had to go off for prayers on Friday until I was in Junior College.”

Pei, Chung Cheng High School, 2002-2005


“I learnt Malays give green packets during their new year.”

James, Maris Stella High School, 2004-2007

“We weren’t aware that it was fasting month until a friend felt unwell during a CCA marching practice.”

Joy, CHIJ St. Nicholas Girls’ School, 2002-2005


“One of my Indian friends took part in Thaipusam, and I thought it was crazy.”

Kelvin, Catholic High School, 2006-2009


“I didn’t know smoking and makeup is prohibited in the Islam faith.”


– Isaac, River Valley High School, 2008-2013

“Debunk myths that certain races are lazy and not academically inclined.”

– Rachel, Nan Hua High School, 2005-2008


“I realised there were different groups within the Indian community. Our Singaporean Indian friend (Tamil-speaking) can watch a Bollywood film and not understand a thing.”

– Sean, Hwa Chong Institution, 2002-2005

Based on the responses from the SAP schools alumni, the efforts of instilling multiculturalism in these schools seems like an act of tokenism. In the measure of multiculturalism, there lies two extremes—full assimilation versus full ignorance. In an ideal state, we have full assimilation—your roots don’t matter; everyone is embraced equally.

On the other end, we stay ignorant. And that is dangerous in a cosmopolitan state because ignorance breeds insensitivity, even if it happens unintentionally.

Not that I’m saying all SAP schools students are ignorant, but the lack of exposure does lead to the lack of practical knowledge and proper understanding. And, I will be first to admit that, having been from an SAP school.

No doubt, it was a very good four years of my life—I forged the best friendships, had the most nurturing teachers, and enjoyed my school activities to the fullest. However, when I entered Junior College, I had an initial mini culture shock.

I remembered an instance where I spoke Mandarin to my Malay classmate, thinking she would understand what I was saying and only realising my stupid mistake when she gave me the quizzical look. Thankfully, we are still very good friends today.

However, it’s time to relook the concept of SAP schools—if the reason for its existence is even relevant today. Surely, it’s a policy that, although serves a very specific purpose, is completely antithetical for interracial integration.

Is it possible to achieve the same purpose—encouraging bilingualism and promote good values—while not polarising the other? If it is a matter of policy balancing, and if our circumstances are constantly evolving, shouldn’t our policy grow with our developments too?


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