By Sandra Davie
MYANMAR - MR KHAW Myint, though, decides to explore more options for his son. In particular, Singapore's polytechnics, which charge lower fees. Deep in thought, he brisk-walks for 20 minutes to another Singapore education fair being held across Yangon, at the Parkroyal Hotel.
About 300 parents and students are already there, pelting questions at a dozen counsellors representing six institutions in Singapore, including PSB Academy, SIM, the Tourism Academy @ Sentosa, East Asia Institute of Management, Shelton College and SMa School of Management.
'Must my children speak and write very good English to go to Singapore?'
'How much are the fees? Any scholarships or partial scholarships?'
'Will they be able to get a job in Singapore after completing their studies?'
'How long will it take to get a student visa?'
'Can foreign students work in Singapore while studying?'
Organiser RV Centre International's managing director, Mr Argus Ang, can barely cope with the clamour of interest.
The National University of Singapore business administration graduate, who is in his 30s, first ventured into the education business in Myanmar in 1996, after his businessman father's friends there started asking how to get their children into Singapore schools.
He teamed up with a few Myanmar businessmen and started offering placement services and preparatory courses for students who had completed secondary school and wanted to enter the polytechnics in Singapore.
Before long, Myanmar parents with younger children started seeking him out. This led to him setting up five tuition centres and two schools in Yangon and Mandalay that offered the full Singapore school curriculum, from kindergarten right up to A levels.
His first school, MCTA Academy, which started in 2005 with an enrolment of 17, now has 600 students and a sprawling 7,400 sq m campus in an eastern Mandalay suburb.
His new school, RV Academy, started in January, is temporarily located at the five-star Parkroyal Hotel, where the fair is held. Ten of the hotel rooms have been converted into classrooms that hold up to 15 students each.
Each student at RV Academy pays US$280 a month in fees, about five times the monthly income for the average Myanmar national. But it is still much cheaper than fees levied by Western international schools in Yangon, which charge yearly fees of at least US$8,000.
The unusual location for his latest school, Mr Ang explains, is to ensure a 'safe environment' for the children and 'dependable electricity and water supply', which is not a given, except in hotels with their own generators. Within six months, 45 students, ranging in ages from six to 12, have enrolled at his new school. Mr Ang expects enrolment to double next year and is now scouting for a proper campus.
Most of his new charges, like seven-year-old Htet Myat Noe Oo, find the Singapore curriculum, especially mathematics, 'difficult'. Her parents hope she will master it soon, so they can send her to Singapore as soon as possible. Her relatives, who live in Singapore, will act as her guardians.
'Singapore is helping the Myanmar people.'
THE next day, Mr Ang's education fair migrates to a hotel in Mandalay. There, hordes of anxious parents again descend.
Many of those who sign up are from wealthy ethnic Chinese families in Mandalay, which borders China. Traditionally, they send their children to Chinese universities. These days, however, Singapore institutions are the preferred option.
To hedge their bets, they now send their children to 'cram schools'. There, students study for entrance exams into Chinese universities from 6am to 8am, then to government high schools from 9am to 3pm, and finally preparation classes for Singapore GCE O levels from 4pm to 9pm.
An engineer parent at the fair in Mandalay was in Yangon in September last year, when the monks took to the streets to protest against junta rule. 'After seeing how brutally the military reacted, I see no future for my two sons in Myanmar,' he says, shaking his head.
He is well aware that Singapore is often criticised for doing business with the military government, but he is grateful that Singapore is 'offering a way out of Myanmar' for his sons through its education system. 'By accepting Myanmar students into its schools, polytechnics and universities, Singapore is helping the Myanmar people.'
That sentiment was echoed by Mr Khaw Myint three months later, who excitedly informed The Straits Times earlier this week that his son had just scored a place at Temasek Polytechnic.
'I am relieved. I can't tell you how much this means to me and my family.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 11, 2008.
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