Reaching International Students in Singapore

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I attended a workshop at the GoForth National Missions Conference last week. I wish I could have attended the whole conference but I was working. The last time I attended the conference was in 2005 and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s so wonderful to be around other Christians passionate about missions. It really brings you perspective – this is what a Christian ought to be living for!

The workshop I attended was called “Reaching International Students in Singapore”. This is of course the topic I’ve been into recently. The session was led by the people from the Fellowship of Evangelical Students (FES). These are the people in charge of the Christian Fellowship (CF) groups at the various University and Polytechnic campuses throughout Singapore.

The 2.5 hours session consisted of introductory talks and some activities. I’ll just mention some interesting things that were mentioned. One speaker mentioned that Singapore was previously seen as the Antioch of Asia. That is, we’re a base to send out missionaries to the surrounding countries. And while that’s still true, he pointed out that many people are now flocking to Singapore – foreign workers and students. It’s interesting to see it this way. While there’s still a great need for missions in terms of moving cross-culturally, it’s good to recognize that a lot of students and workers are coming to Singapore and there’s a huge harvest field here in Singapore.

It was also mentioned that the top 6 countries from which foreign students come are, in order, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, India, Vietnam and South Korea. It’s also important to note that Singapore is aiming for 150,000 foreign students in Singapore by 2015. So there’s only going to be more of them coming.

While I thought the session was pretty OK, I felt it didn’t give a very good big picture of what’s involved in reaching out to international students here. The reason is because the speakers were only from one organization. FES does a lot of good work in the Universities and Polytechnics but it has to be noted that most international students do NOT study in these campuses. Most international students do not enter the Government/Public school systems. It was pointed out that only 35% of international students study in this sector. Meanwhile, the majority (65%) study in the private school system. That is, they study in private schools like United World College (UWC) or Singapore American School, but they also study in tertiary-level commercial schools that are sprouting out all over Singapore. These are the schools that offer external diplomas and degrees. For example, a famous tertiary-level private educational organization is Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS). This is one of the biggest around. There are other big ones like Asia Pacific Management Institute (APMI) or PSB Academy. However, there are tons and tons of smaller organizations too that most of us have never heard of.

For me, I’m interested in the international students in these organizations as opposed to those in the campuses that FES has a base in or those in government Primary or Secondary schools or those in International schools like UWC. Why? Because the international students in schools like MDIS or APMI and also in the smaller commercial schools are the most neglected and isolated of all international students. Ok, maybe not so much the bigger commercial schools like MDIS as you have a lot of Singaporean students studying in MDIS. But for the smaller commercial schools, a lot of them consist mostly of international students and hardly any Singaporean students. That means you’ll have fewer Singaporeans to reach out to such students. An international student in UWC or NUS or in local Primary or Secondary schools will have a lot of connections to Singaporean Christian students or churches. Not so for the international students in the smaller tertiary-level private schools. Not only is it more unlikely for such students to hear the gospel due to a lack of Singaporean Christian friends in these schools, but such students are also so much more open to friendships because most of their friends are fellow international students and so they long to get to know Singaporean friends to practice their English and also integrate to Singaporean society.

Therefore, I think it’s these students that are the most interesting lot. They are extremely open and they are longing to get to know other Singaporeans. Another interesting group of international students is the group that comes to Singapore solely to learn English in language schools. They may stay for 3 months or 6 months or a year. Their purpose is only to learn English and most of them do not have any Singaporean friends and so are also extremely open to friendship.

I’ve taught in both kinds of schools before. Right now, I’m teaching in a language school, but before I taught in private school that offers external diplomas/degrees and where about 90% of the students are from China and most of them do not have any Singaporean friends. These people are so open to friendship with Singaporeans and also pretty open to the gospel.

So how do we reach out to these two neglected groups? I believe the best way is to offer free English classes to them…

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  1. The PEIs here still have a long way to go in truly becoming educational institutions. For many, it is just a business venture to make a quick buck. A teacher’s job is just to stand in the classroom and deliver lessons. Lesson planning, marking and reporting are things that teachers do at home after school hours. Frankly, even when schools try to do the right thing in the private sector, they become obliterated by other less than ethical organisations. Thankfully, there is the Council for Private Education but they need to get bigger and more comprehensive quickly in order to reign in some of the more errant private schools here. Lately, the trend for some of these private schools seem to be the leasing of a large campus to give potential students the impression of how marvellous the school is. Sure , it looks good on the outside but dig a little deeper and it is probably rotten on the inside or lacks any true substance. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to teach in Australia. That experience really taught me what professionalism truly meant. I wish the PEIs were more receptive here and not just embrace lip service to keep CPE happy. I am not sure if anyone has heard this before but one of my employers said that learning is not important because the students only want to know how to pass exams.

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