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Special Assistance Plan Schools: Cultural Necessity or Monolithic Relic?

Image: Credits to Straits Times (ST Photo: ALPHONSUS CHERN)

In this Explainer, find out...

  • What are the differences between Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools and regular schools?

  • Why do we still have SAP schools today?

  • What are the impacts of SAP schools on Singapore?


First launched in 1979, Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools cater to academically inclined students and focus on preserving and cultivating Chinese culture and values. In response to the changing global landscape and local demand, SAP schools have gone through waves of changes and reiterations to reach what it is today. In this Policy Explainer, we will be exploring the genesis of SAP schools’, how they have changed, and concerns regarding SAP schools today. 

SAP… What's That?

Pre-SAP Schooling

Before we can delve into the development of SAP schools and their modern-day place in education, it is important to understand the context in which they were established. 

After World War II, Singapore’s education landscape was a hodgepodge of both English-medium schools and vernacular schools in the Malay, Chinese, and Indian languages. The education system was highly fractured, without a single governing body ensuring consistency amongst the different schools.

Figure 1: Types and Numbers of Schools Post-WWII¹

After Singapore gained independence in 1965, enrollment into vernacular schools saw a massive decline.² Tamil language schools were obsolete by the 1970s, and Chinese and Malay schools followed suit shortly after. This change can be attributed to Singapore’s ambitious move to promote bilingualism and adopt English as its lingua franca, its working language, due to better economic prospects and its position as a neutral language for all races.³

Indeed, the growing obsolescence of vernacular education was apparent. The final nail in the coffin came in the late 1970s when Singapore’s Nanyang University, set up to promote the Chinese language and culture in 1956, changed its language of instruction and examination to English. This decision came in light of falling demand for Chinese-educated students, making it harder for these students to find jobs.⁴

Against this backdrop, worries about losing the traditional values of Chinese culture and the erosion of its heritage and history grew heavier.⁵ Thus, in 1979, to reconcile the pragmatic need for English education with the cultural desire for Chinese education, the SAP was set up.

SAP’s Rocky Beginnings

In its genesis, the SAP aimed to transform nine of the best Chinese-medium schools into bilingual schools with English education standards equivalent to those of English-medium schools.⁶ The schools were presented and curated as top-tier educational institutions. Only the top 8% of Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) scorers were given the option to join an SAP school, and they were provided with top-tier teaching resources and facilities.⁷ 

Despite its initial allure, SAP school enrollment declined in the early 1980s due to worries about juggling two first languages. Thus, the Ministry of Education (MOE) introduced a slew of incentives for SAP prospectives. Of those still existing today, some notable examples include a concession of two points for their post-secondary applications under the O-Level Examinations and a choice to drop Higher Chinese as a subject if they entered post-secondary institutions.

A Second Wind for SAP 

The turning point came in 1983 when the inaugural batch of SAP school students received their O-Level results. The data showed that students from SAP schools performed, on average, better than those from non-SAP schools.⁸

Figure 2: Newspaper clipping from a Straits Times report on SAP students’ O-Level performance

As evidenced by the article headline, attitudes toward SAP schools remained hesitant. However, in the years after, applications to SAP schools increased significantly. In 1979, about 30% of the students enrolled in the SAP schools were from the English stream, which subsequently increased to 90% by 1986, demonstrating the shift in public confidence in SAP schools’ English education abilities.¹⁰

SAP in the Mainstream

Over time, the admission criteria for SAP schools were relaxed greatly. With both the demand for SAP schools rising and the criteria for application dropping, the Government set up two more SAP schools in 2000 and 2012. Furthermore, SAP primary schools were set up in 1989 to build up students’ capacity to study and absorb the Chinese language and values from a young age.¹¹ 

Figure 3: Timeline of SAP schools’ evolution¹²

SAP Today

Today, despite decades of change, SAP schools’ fundamental mission remains the same; to develop effectively bilingual students who were inculcated with traditional Chinese values. Several initiatives have been developed to facilitate this.

First, the Bicultural Programme Studies (BSP) was launched exclusively in SAP schools.¹³ Offered at the post-secondary level, students in the programme are allowed to join many activities within and beyond schools such as talks, symposiums and overseas immersion programmes. These activities seek to facilitate a good grasp of international issues relevant to China through a Singaporean perspective, thereby developing students who can relate to both China and the West. Under the BSP, students may be awarded a scholarship or award. While the BSP was initially launched in three SAP schools, it has now expanded to include Eunoia Junior College as well, a non-SAP school.¹⁴

Second, each SAP school has its flagship programmes for promoting the Chinese language, culture and traditions. These programmes include Chung Cheng High (Main)’s courses on Chinese internet broadcasting, filmmaking and drama or Nan Hua High School’s Translation & Interpretation Module and Confucian Ethics curriculum.¹⁵ Additionally, many SAP primary schools have begun teaching non-examinable subjects such as art, music and physical education in Chinese.

Finally, to develop an understanding of Chinese culture, history and language at its heart through these various programmes, each student in SAP schools receives S$300 more in funding compared to the average student.¹⁶ This funding is used to develop additional programmes about Chinese language- related studies, such as the programmes mentioned above. However, the use of this funding varies drastically from school to school as each school develops its unique programmes.


Are SAP Schools Relevant Today?

Singapore needs a workforce that is fluent in English and their mother tongue in the 21st century. While the economic benefits of an English-speaking workforce have long been recognised, the growing economic prominence of Asian countries like Indonesia, India and China has made one’s command of their mother tongue equally important. More specifically, being fluent in one’s mother tongue will allow Singaporeans to communicate with foreign counterparts, engage in business transactions, and build professional networks. This will help Singapore unlock vast economic opportunities, catalysing the next phase of Singapore’s development. To this end, SAP schools are more relevant than before, as they play a key role in developing Singapore’s next generation of bilingual citizens who can represent and advance our economic interests on the world stage.

SAP and its Concerns

While SAP schools offer tangible benefits to Singapore, they have also been criticised for making interactions between SAP school students and their non-SAP school counterparts more challenging. Despite the lack of official data, several personal anecdotes shed light on this. For instance, a Chinese ex-SAP primary school student shared how he initially felt apprehension at approaching his non-Chinese classmates when entering secondary school, due to being raised in a very different environment.¹⁷ 

Additionally, non-Chinese students in SAP schools may also feel alienated from their peers. As an Indian SAP school alumnus opined, non-Chinese students may be made keenly aware of the “fact that they are a minority.”¹⁸ They can also be subject to tokenism by the school to increase the diversity appeal, thus contributing to the burden of having to represent their entire ethnic group.¹⁹

That being said, it must be acknowledged that SAP schools have made efforts to connect their students with the wider community. For example, Hong Wen School (a SAP school), Alexandra Primary School and Radin Mas Primary School have jointly conducted art programmes and celebrated Racial Harmony Day together. Nanyang Girls High School also works with Madrasah Aljunied to jointly organise activities during festive seasons and national events.²⁰ 

Then-Minister for Education Tony Tan had also argued that SAP schools have not compromised racial harmony. He echoed the sentiments of eight SAP principals, citing their bilingual education, their plethora of community programmes, and the success of alumni in creating relationships with people of other ethnic backgrounds.²¹  

Programmes for Other Languages

While SAP schools have received a lot of attention, many do not notice similar programmes which have emphasised other mother tongues. 

Malay-speaking students may join the Malay Language Elective Programme that is run at both the secondary schools and pre-university levels.²² Tamil-speaking students are also offered the National Elective Tamil Language Programme and the Tamil Language Elective Programme.²³ Similar to SAP schools, the aforementioned programmes aim to develop students’ aptitude and interest in the respective language and literature. They also focus on cultivating bilingual students who can go on and better serve the nation’s needs. As part of the programme, students experience overseas immersion programmes, camps and workshops.

Comparing the Malay and Tamil programmes against the SAP, there are a few similarities and differences. A key similarity is their shared goal of promoting culture and bilingualism. The programmes offered are also largely similar in how they are run, with each school having ownership in tailoring the language programme to suit the needs of their students. 

However, one key difference is the scale in which the programmes are organised. While the SAP is school-wide, Malay and Tamil programmes focus on fewer students in selected schools. This is likely due to the smaller cohorts of Malay and Tamil-speaking students in Singapore’s education system. Despite this, the Tamil and Malay programmes receive higher funding compared to SAP schools. For instance, students in the Elective Programme in Malay Language for Secondary Schools receive additional funding of over S$3,000 per year.²⁴

Nonetheless, the plethora of programmes ensures that students of all language groups are presented with opportunities to develop bilingualism and develop their interest in their mother tongue. 


SAP schools have aided in the preservation of  Chinese culture and producing students of high calibre. However, many Singaporeans feel that this has come at the cost of multiculturalism, creating a culture of Chinese elitism and alienating other ethnicities. While SAP schools have attempted to rectify this through school programmes, this has not stopped the perceived lack of interaction between SAP school students and their non-SAP school counterparts. Thus, many policymakers, including Minister of Education Ong Ye Kung, have stressed the need for increased efforts to expose SAP students to other backgrounds, to preserve Singapore’s multicultural identity.

MAJU PE_2024_10_Special Assistance Plan Schools_ Cultural Necessity or Monolithic Relic_ -
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This Policy Explainer was written by members of MAJU. MAJU is an independent, youth-led organisation that focuses on engaging Singaporean youths in a long-term research process to guide them in jointly formulating policy ideas of their own. 

By sharing our unique youth perspectives, MAJU hopes to contribute to the policymaking discourse and future of  Singapore.

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