By Mavis Toh
Call it the private life of Brian. Primary 4 pupil Brian Lim has three private home tutors, each coaching him on a different subject.
Tuesdays: English; Wednesdays: Chinese; and Thursdays and Sundays: Maths.
His mother, Mrs S.L. Lim, says simply: "The tuition is necessary, or he will lag behind his classmates because they all have tutors too."
Mrs Lim, 38, an accountant, and her son are not alone. So pervasive is the practice that wags have called Singapore the "tuition nation".
The tuition business is booming, and more parents are signing up their kindergarten and nursery-level children as well, tuition providers say.
Just two weeks ago, five parents wrote in to The Straits Times' Forum page, commenting on the country's "tuition syndrome".
They knew of Singaporean parents enrolling their children in multiple tuition centres, some even shelling out up to $3,000 a month.
A Sunday Times poll last week of 100 primary, secondary and junior college students found that only three students do not have any tuition at all.
Of the other 97 students, 49 engage private tutors while 32 attend classes at tuition centres. 16 have both "types" of coaching.
The most popular subjects are Maths and English, and a session typically lasts two hours, whether held at home or at a centre.
Private tutors do not need to register with the Ministry of Education (MOE). They may advertise in a newspaper's classified section but their best "sales pitch" is word-of-mouth recommendation.
They can also register with tuition agencies which match them with students. MOE requires tuition centres to be registered as schools.
Tuition agencies, which play middleman between students and tutors, are commercial set-ups usually registered as a business with the Accounting and Corporate Regulating Authority.
Figures from the Singapore Department of Statistics show that there were 417 tuition centres in 2005, up from 387 in 2004.
In total, their annual turnover was about $110.6 million in 2005 and $105.9 million in 2004. MOE statistics show that there are currently 1,231 registered private schools, of which 425 are tuition centres.
The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) said that there were 17 complaints about the tuition business in 2006 as well as last year. For this year, five complaints have been lodged to date.
When The Sunday Times spoke to 10 tuition agencies, most claim to have a pool of some 4,000 tutors.
The director of Xue Hai Tutorial Centre, Dr Low Boon Yong, said his centre opened three branches within a year. He has also received more than 30 inquiries about franchising his business.
Dr Low, who is also a senior consultant in orthopaedic surgery at Changi General Hospital, said all this activity is "a testament of the good business tuition centres are making". His centre offers tuition on core subjects.
Tuition centres say students sent to them are getting younger.
Aspire Home Tuition's spokesman said parents of kindergarten and nursery-level children have been asking for phonics tutors, so that these kids can have an early start in learning to speak English properly.
The spokesman for Score tuition agency said that two in 10 requests are now for kindergarten tutors.
He added: "Parents want tutors to teach their kids how to read properly, to help them build a strong foundation."
And it seems now that "smart kids" have also caught the tuition syndrome.
Mr Stanley Tan, 43, a full-time tutor for 16 years, has noticed a change in his clientele.
"Previously, only students who are failing or barely passing their subjects come to me for tuition," said Mr Tan, who has 14 students.
"Now, even those scoring distinctions - 80 and 90 marks - are coming for tuition."
To cater to this seemingly insatiable demand, education centre chain SmartLab Education launched an online service this month.
It now offers students a "virtual classroom" where they can log in from home to post questions to teachers on messaging systems or virtual whiteboards.
SmartLab's managing director Hazel Poa said its aim is to eventually enable students to get help from tutors at all times.
Its online tuition service costs between $49 and $79 monthly, and caters to upper secondary and junior college students.
The market rate for private one-on-one home tuition is between $10 and $150 an hour, depending on the student's level and the tutor's qualifications. Group tuition classes cost between $60 and $350 monthly.
Necessary, say parents
From the Sunday Times survey, 12 students said their parents spend $500 or more monthly on their tuition fees.
Dr Low of Xue Hai Tutorial Centre estimates that the majority of parents spend $250 monthly on tuition for each primary- level child. Secondary-level tuition will set parents back by about $400 monthly.
Parents said they are willing to fork out such sums because tuition is increasingly seen as a necessity.
SmartLab's Ms Poa offered this explanation: "When everyone else is getting extra help, it raises standards all round and even schools start to expect you to get tuition."
Madam Choo Swee Lin, 49, a manager, is one parent who initially resisted sending her son for tuition.
She eventually gave in when she found her son, now 13, lagging behind his classmates when he went on to secondary school.
"I regret not sending him for tuition earlier, as his foundation is now so weak," said Madam Choo. "I now tell all my friends with school-going children that tuition is very necessary."
She pays $350 a month in total to her son's three tutors, who teach Maths, English and Chinese.
Another parent, marketing manager Tan Eng Hong, 50, was shocked when his Secondary 4 son's teacher told him to engage a private tutor.
"The school conveniently pushed the ball back to parents, to tell us to engage private tutors for our kids," he said. "This is a serious failure in the education system."
Singaporeans have become "over-dependent" on tuition, he felt.
Mr Tan signed his son up for a maths tuition class at $300 for 10 sessions.
Help or hindrance?
MOE's stance is that it understands parents want the best for their children and that it is their decision whether to engage tutors.
It also advised parents to allow their children sufficient rest and avoid cramming their time with too much tuition.
It added that Singapore's schools provide a "holistic education" to meet the educational needs of students.
"Students will be adequately prepared for the demands of the school's curriculum and national exams by their schools," it said.
A secondary school teacher, who wanted to be known only as Mr Ang, felt that tuition has its pros and cons.
It helps those who are "slower" or shy in class. One flipside, however, is that students will not pay attention in class because they can "turn to their tutors for help later", he noted.
Other teachers The Sunday Times spoke to agreed that it has become harder to ensure that every student can cope in class.
Co-curricular activities, marking of students' work and administrative matters leave teachers little time to provide individual classroom coaching.
Meanwhile, among the 97 students in the Sunday Times survey who have tuition, 68 found it "useful" and 64 even found it "enjoyable".
Brian definitely says he cannot do without tuition, even if it is tiring.
He said: "Sometimes I wish I can replace tuition time with computer games, but then I won't be able to catch up with the others in class."
This article was first published in The Straits Times on June 15, 2008.