Tuition Dilemma, A Prisoner’s Dilemma

I found myself bewildered by the impasse
An entire generation of parents was expressing their frustration over the education system

They were demanding that MOE act to stop the tuition disease, to stomp it out like a cancer
Yet the Minister had proclaimed that the education system was designed so that no student required tuition
Then how does one explain that 97% of Singapore primary school students have after school tuition?

Speaking to some teachers and parents, it seems to me that both sides were well meaning
MOE didn’t intend for parents to send their  kids to tuition as a norm
And the parents didn’t intend to spend thousands of dollars on tuition but they felt they had no choice

And I believe them both

So who is to blame for robbing these children of their childhood?
Can it be possible that this impasse was due to nobody’s fault?

After some reflection, I thought we are perhaps caught in the Prisoner’s Dilemma which explains why 2 individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in the best interests to do so

The cause was as much structural as it was cultural.

For the sake of our discussion, let’s assume there are only two parents.

Parent A doesn’t know if Parent B is going to send his kid to tuition.  Assuming tuition gives children an advantage in school, parent A will act in his self interest and send his kid for tuition, because that is the dominant strategy when there is lack of information. Parent B will do the same.

Thus, with a lack of communication and trust between parents A and B, the tendency is that both parents will send their kids for tuition.

Multiply now the number of parents. The communication and trust problem worsen.  Parents will end up sending their kids for tuition, because otherwise, their kids will lose out.  They are compelled to do so.  They feel that “they have no choice”

And we ended up with frustrated parents and a whole generation of burnt out kids

Unintended impasse by well meaning parents and schools.

So the question now is, how do we break the impasse?

Based on the prisoner’s dilemma, we may consciously choose to break from the natural order of things by collaborating, in our case, boycotting the tuition centres.

This way, we level the playing field, save the money that would otherwise be spent on tuition and most importantly, give back our children their childhood but in reality, which parents would take the risk of pulling their kids out from tuition centres which they have grown so dependent upon.

If what Education Minister said is indeed true

‘ amount of changes in the education system can alter the reality of each of us chasing after material and positional goods. We cannot have broader definitions of success in education without our society accepting broader definitions of success in life. In many respects, the education system reflects societal norms and expectations’

Perhaps a more lasting solution for breaking the impasse will require us to look into the fundamental, to redefine success and the way we measure it which will then invalidate the prisoner’s dilemma

This will require us to rethink what is education and probably a whole generation of re-education.



  1. Angie.S says:

    Well-said Hai Fang…I dream a dream…that one day, we needn’t send any of our kids to any tuition after school…that their childhood will not be spent being ferried from one tuition centre to another, that they need not change out of their uniforms and gobble their meals on the go…that they can truly look forward to the last bell of the day because it signals it’s time to rest, relax and play. As I stood outside a certain enrichment centre and observed the number of parents, grandparents and domestic help waiting for their kids this afternoon, I cannot believe how much Singapore has become a ‘tuition’ nation. Every single center in this chain has long waiting list across the whole island. Just goes to show the incredulous and sad state of affairs we are in. It’s indeed time for a revolutionary re-think and re-education…and I dream it will happen in this generation…

  2. Jovin says:

    Hi Rachel, I share your thoughts and dilemma. It’s such a lousy feeling to be pressured into a cultural norm, the fear of losing out, the unknown…maybe when there is enough like-minded parents to support no tuition or individuals who have succeed in life without going through the tutorial path.

    It will be an achievement if could raise my kids without tuition, to reinstate the rightful childhood.

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful post. It’s good to know I am not alone.

  3. The Wobbly Guy says:

    Simpler solution – make tuition and school one and the same – they are both ‘education’, after all. If the parent wants to homeschool/private tuition instead of public schooling, then sure, why not?

    Oh, and get rid of the normalisation for national exams and use pure criteria instead. If they are good enough, then they are good enough.

Leave a Reply