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Singapore Math

Monday, March 1, 2010

Singapore at the IMO

Singapore at the IMO

In Singapore, the average ratio of female to male undergraduates at the university is three to one. Yet those who perform outstandingly are male. Few female undergraduates make it to the Honours class, and very few of them have a doctorate in the subject. In the last fifteen years, only one female Singaporean mathlete had represented Singapore at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO); indeed, not a universal anomaly looking at the number of over-represented male mathletes at regional and international math competitions. It almost seems that our local gifted and talented math female students lack the “math gene” to compete regionally and internationally!

Even in local publishing, only recently did we see some female writers experimenting with some school math textbooks. Traditionally, mostly male teachers or tutors have written Singapore textbooks, although increasingly and encouragingly we're seeing more female authors in the assessment (supplementary) math market. In many ways, they're still under-represented considering that up to the university level, females outperform males in most mathematics local examinations.

Singapore's Mediocre Ranking

Why do Mainland Chinese, Vietnamese and Iranian students outshine their Singaporean counterparts at the IMO? One would assume that better coaches, as compared to their counterparts in other developing countries, would provide better training to the six representatives of Singapore; yet, the prevailing situation reveals a different story.

An informal investigation shows that the Singapore Mathematical Society (SMS), the body in charge of coaching high school IMO mathletes, doesn't seem to engage the best local or foreign-born trainers to coach the IMO Singapore team. Everybody seems too busy to put the time and effort to offer their expertise to prepare the best possible IMO local team to compete with the best teams round the world. Apparently, it's not due to a lack of brainpower or finance that is the cause of Singapore's mediocre performance at the IMO every year, but because of the reluctance on the part of some professors to play their social responsibility to the nation.

Singapore – a Deprived Math-Gene Nation!

Skeptics believe that even with the best resources, our small team of talented young mathematicians may not have what it takes to win some gold medals, because the often drill-and-kill educational system and the limited choice to compete in other olympiads doesn't provide them with the conducive milieu to wanting to excel in mathematics competitions.

Local math educators reveal that local talented and gifted students would rather compete in a physics or chemistry olympiad than taking part in a mathematics competition, simply because it's easier to win a medal in these subjects than being an IMO medalist. Paradoxically, there is too much choice for our talented youngsters to compete. The time and effort needed to prepare for an IMO seems to be a key factor in attracting the best brains to represent Singapore at the IMO.

One hypothesis is that developing countries like China, Vietnam and Iran can ill-afford modern laboratories to do research; so their gifted youngsters have little choice but to focus on subjects or disciplines that don't need much equipment and resources. Singapore young scientists and mathematicians, on their part, have much opportunity to interact or work with faculty staff of tertiary institutions - one interesting point here is that faculty members from the physical and social sciences seem more willing to mentor their students than their counterparts from the mathematics department. 

Relaxing IMO Criteria

Perhaps if the IMO relaxes its citizenship criteria, Singapore may do better, because it's no secret that many of the better math students in Singapore come from neighboring countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, but they're not eligible to represent their host country at any math competitions. Although raised and schooled in Singapore, their nationalities hinder them from doing Singapore proud, especially when the pool of local gifted math students is infinitesimal. Many of these foreign bright students are dealt a double blow: on one hand, they can't represent their country of birth for political and racial reasons; on the other hand, as non-Singapore citizens, their brilliance prevents them from representing their host country.

Singapore's First IMO Invitation

Singapore was first invited at the IMO by host Australia in the late eighties. Since then, we have only produced few gold medalists. Singapore mathletes continue to disappoint or underperform at Olympiads, despite its relatively high standard of mathematics education, as compared to many developed and developing countries.

After all, it's hardly a coincidence that Singapore was ranked first three consecutive times at the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) - it lost its top position to Taiwan at the last TIMSS. Excellent performance at the TIMSS but average at the IMO! Nonetheless, Singapore mathletes have so far performed relatively well in other regional math competitions such as the Australian Mathematics Competition (AMC) and the Pacific Asia, where they'd collected a handful of gold medals, as compared to their other Asian counterparts.

So, what must be done to help Singapore make a significant impact at the IMO? Better coaches or better coaching methods to prepare our local mathletes? What are some of the missing ingredients, which would propel Singapore to the Top Ten in the IMO ranking?

© Yan Kow Cheong, March 1, 2010