And that's why it came as such a surprise when the government recently decided not to name the top students in a national examination.
As Kevin Ponniah reports, the move could be the first in a raft of changes to this highly regarded system.
Correspondent: Kevin Ponniah
Speakers: Indranee Rajah, Singapore's Minister of State for Education; Allan Luke, education professor; Vivian Tan, parent
KEVIN PONNIAH, REPORTER: The primary school leaving examination is seen as a do-or-die moment for most Singaporean school kids.
And in this city state, a pass is never enough.
The exam is sat when students are 12 years old and the results offer a gateway to the best secondary schools for high-achieving students.
Rankings of both schools and students are taken very seriously, and the competition is high.
Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah went on local television to explain to Singaporeans the rationale behind the proposed changes.
INDRANEE RAJAH, MINISTER OF STATE FOR EDUCATION: How do we scale back from that where you can have an objective test across the board, nationwide, but at the same time don't put people through the meat grinder so that teachers, parents, as well as students are so stressed out that it just becomes an ordeal as opposed to an objective measure of your academic ability.
KEVIN PONNIAH, REPORTER : Education professor Allan Luke was a researcher at the National Institute of Education in Singapore from 2003 to 2005. He says the government is trying to meet the changing needs of the global economy.
ALLAN LUKE, EDUCATION PROFESSOR: This is really a question and an issue that has been raised across what we would call East Asian Confucian based education systems - in Singapore, in China, in Hong Kong, in Taiwan and elsewhere which is the concentration on examination and testing can have a deleterious effect in a couple of ways. First of all there is documented evidence that kids get stressed out...we've known this for quite a while. But moreover I think that in some of our research that we did at NIE in Singapore and which is ongoing in Singapore...what we find is that the over emphasis on tests can dampen down some aspects of creativity, critical thinking, originality, aesthetic work and a lot of the kind of higher order competences that are really required for the new economy and for global economies.
KEVIN PONNIAH, REPORTER: The Education Ministry is conducting a long-term review of the education system that could consider scrapping the leaving exam completely.
The recent moves have drawn mixed reactions from parents and students.
Vivian Tan, a mother of two primary school children, says the leaving exam, known locally as the PSLE, should be replaced by a more balanced system.
VIVIAN TAN, PARENT: Okay, I'm totally in favour of doing away with the PSLE because the kids are still at a very young age, they may not know the consequences of not doing well in the exam. And at the same time I think one of the most important things is that we want to develop a wholesome being, not somebody who is just obsessed with doing well academically. It has got to be a total development of the person.
KEVIN PONNIAH, REPORTER: But many parents back the leaving exam, one telling a local newspaper it motivates students by ranking them on ability.
ANNONYMOUS PARENT (TAKEN FROM VIDEO): Yes you can see their standard and you want them to be promoted according to their ability because when they go to secondary school you know it's good that they are given a choice to step out of their primary school into a new secondary school of their capability.
KEVIN PONNIAH, REPORTER: The Education Ministry told Radio Australia that while the recent changes are in line with the importance of recognising students' holistic development, it does not mean academic achievement will no longer be celebrated.
Under the current system, Singaporean parents fork out money to provide extra tuition for their kids - to the tune of 800 million dollars a year.
There are reportedly 500 tuition centres in Singapore, compared with a total of just 400 primary and secondary schools.
Though she is a supporter of the changes, Mrs Tan says she still recognises the system's benefits. However she says the exams simply put too much pressure on the students to get good results.
VIVIAN TAN, PARENT: So I have got my daughter, who recently now she just finished her P5 and next year she's going to P6. So she has been telling me, 'Mum can you please bring me to the popular bookshop and get me some more assessments.' Which is a good thing and I don't want to disappoint her, so I asked her why. So she said because all her friends are doing assessments during the holidays so she also wants to do. So I'm not sure whether that is something to be cheered for or to be dismayed over but I still brought her to Popular to buy the books!
KEVIN PONNIAH, REPORTER: Professor Allan says his research in Singapore indicates the recent changes are part of a wider regional move to a mixed-model of education.
ALLAN LUKE, EDUCATION PROFESSOR: So I think that it's not a radical change that we see in Singapore as much as a set of gradual changes to begin to shift the emphasis of the system away from an exam preoccupied system or an exam obsessed system of which characterises not just Singapore but most of East Asia...and what that means is gradually moving through and modifying and hybridising and blending western education systems with Confucian based respect for teachers, respect for authority and exam-oriented systems.