The Special Assistance Plan (Abbreviation: SAP; Template:Zh) is a programme in Singapore which caters to academically strong students who excel in both their mother tongue as well as English. It is only available in selected secondary schools. In a SAP school, several subjects may be taught in the mother tongue, alongside other subjects which are taught in English. Currently, SAP schools only cater to those studying the Mandarin mother tongue, although theoretically, future SAP schools for other mother tongues are a possibility.

SAP schoolsEdit


A student's admission to a SAP school (or any secondary school for that matter) is decided based on their results in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). To enter a SAP school, a student must achieve a PSLE aggregate score that puts him in the top 10% of his cohort, with an 'A' grade for the mother tongue and an A* ('A star', i.e. a score of more than 90 out of 100) in English. This means that only a relatively small group of students who are academically and linguistically strong may enter a SAP school. Consequently, SAP schools have a reputation of being the "elite" group of secondary schools in the country, alongside independent and autonomous schools. This stems from the Singaporean tradition of effective bilingualism in the education of the elite students from SAP schools. The best students in SAP school, i.e. the top 10% of the top 10% selected for SAP school admissions, i.e. the top 1% of each national cohort are offered a chance at effective trilingualism in secondary education starting from age 12. The first language, English, is the international language of commercial and the administrative and legal language of Singapore, a former British colony. The mother tongue reflects the cultural and ethnic identity or in recent times, the linguistic curiosity of the students, e.g. Malay and Indian students who opt to study Mandarin as second Language in Singapore. The "third languages" are foreign languages which are considered by MOE to be "economically, politically and culturally vital" Template:Citation needed, such as Japanese, German and French.

Historical contextEdit

Many SAP schools were historically Chinese language medium schools, i.e. they taught all academic subjects in Mandarin (including science and mathematics), and which may have taught English as a foreign language. Following Singapore's independence in 1965, the government recognised four official languages in Singapore (English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil), but clearly designated English as the main language of basic and higher education, government and law, science and technology as well as trade and industry. While according official recognition to the languages of different ethno-linguistic communities in Singapore, it sought to promote English as a neutral common language to unite a culturally diverse nation of immigrants. English was also held to be the language of international higher education, science/technology and commerce. As such, it was indispensable to Singapore, given her ambition to become a 'Global City', articulated as early as 1972.

In 1980, the Ministry of Education (MOE) designated nine Chinese-medium secondary schools as Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools. These schools were intended to provide top-scoring primary school leavers with the opportunity to study both English and Mandarin to high levels of competence. Also, these schools were to preserve the character of traditional Chinese-medium secondary schools and allay fears that the Government was indifferent to Chinese language and culture amid declining enrolments in Chinese-medium schools.[1]

Asian valuesEdit

With rapid economic development and exposure to Western, particularly American popular culture and values in the 1970s and 1980s, Singapore began to change from a lower income, poorly educated society to a more confident, educated, vocal and individualistic society. Around the same time, in the 1980s, the world was witnessing the rise of Japan and the Asian newly-industrialised economies or NIEs, of which Singapore was one. In contrast, the West and in particular the United States, appeared to be in a stage of decline, with rising drug use and crime, the transformation or collapse of the nuclear family and other social problems. Economically, American appeared unable to compete with rising Asian manufacturing competitors, especially Japan. The United States appeared lost and sinking under the weight of ballooning public and private debt, with large and growing trade and budget deficits. Singapore politicians from the dominant People's Action Party synthesised these various situations and developed certain ideas that came to be known as the Asian Values discourse.

According to this line of argument, Singapore, along with Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan, had succeeded so spectacularly in no small part because of their shared Confucianist cultural heritage, which emphasised values such as hard work, education, family unity, deference and loyalty to authority figures, community spirit (in contrast to Western individualism), etc. Some parallels were drawn between this Confucian ethic and the Protestant Work Ethic. However, the West was seen to have fallen into a state of permanent decline, marked by cultural decadence, indiscipline and even impending social decay. As an English speaking country and, in some ways the most Westernised of the Asian NIEs, Singapore was seen to be vulnerable to cultural influences from the West.

To better sell this argument to a multi-ethnic population where the non-Chinese / non-'Confucianist' communities formed at least a quarter of the population, the discourse was re-branded 'Asian Values', rather than Confucian Work Ethic. In Singapore, traditional Asian culture was seen as a valuable bulwark against 'decadent Western values', as well as a source of the nation's economic success thus far. As such, the government embarked on programmes and campaigns to promote traditional culture, including the revitalised Speak Mandarin Campaign (targeted at English rather than dialect speakers, as was historically the case) as well as SAP schools.

Concerns and criticismsEdit

The SAP school programme is periodically criticised in the national media by Singaporeans who are concerned about the ethnic segregation that it inevitably promotes. SAP schools only offer Mother Tongue lessons in one language (always Mandarin). In addition, several other academic and non-academic subjects may be taught in Mandarin (the academic subjects are usually related to Chinese culture - e.g. Chinese literature or the history of China). Sports, arts and music lessons may be held in Mandarin in some schools, and assemblies and other formal and ceremonial events (including the school song and motto), as well as routine public announcements, may be in Mandarin. These are intentional moves to allow students to be immersed into a Chinese speaking environment, notwithstanding the fact that the main academic subjects, especially all science and mathematics subjects, are taught in English, in common with all other Singapore schools. Consequently, SAP students tend to use Mandarin more frequently on a daily basis, for example, in canteen, during co-curricular activities (sports, games, societies, cultural events, etc) as well as when mixing with friends outside of school. Almost all students that attend SAP schools are ethnic Chinese, and those that are not usually study Mandarin. Critics are concerned that the effect of SAP schools is to take a group of academically strong students and to cluster them together academically and socially in an artificial, Mandarin speaking environment devoid of ethnic minorities. The concern is that these students will be less well equipped to integrate with non-Chinese in their later social and professional adult lives. However, future indepth studies and surveys are needed to confirm the validity of the concerns. A counter argument would be the SAP students with better academic results tend to come from better off families and thus were more likely to speak English Language more in their daily conversations. Thus it is not true that they tend to speak only Mandarin in schools.

Another, less mentioned, concern is that by virtue of sheer numbers and their proportions in the population, as well as the related issue of the relative economic value of different languages in Singapore, it would seem unavoidable that only SAP schools catering to the ethnic majority will ever be viable in Singapore. As such, the State effectively promotes special promotion of the Chinese language and culture only, whereas the ethnic minorities (Malays and Indians) receive no such State funding or other support.


  1. p.166. Tan, Jason. (2001). "Education in the Early 21st Century: Challenges and Dilemmas"' in Singapore in the New Millennium: Challenges Facing the City-state. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies: Singapore.

Template:Education in Singapore topics