So, it’s a welcome read, to see veteran journalist, Seah Chiang Nee writing about the changes in the subtler aspects of the Singapore education system in his article entitled “Stepping up gear to produce a thinking workforce” published in the Star on 25th September.
We have always known Singapore to be almost excessively academically focused, hardworking and disciplined, conjuring images of tiny tots carrying oversized rucksacks of text and work books. They also produced some of the most competent engineers and scientists in the region. However, they have always been criticised for extreme emphasis on examinations and rote learning. As a result, “multi-national corporations have complained that this breed of scholars, while excelling in data knowledge, lacks personal initiative and needs hand holding.”
So it was some eight years ago, that the Singapore government launched a whole new strategy to “inculcate thinking minds and entrepreneurial skills”. From the anecdotes provided by Chiang Nee, it appears that the policy has been achieving some commendable success. Here are some of the little successes quoted here:
- At Hougang Primary, seven-year-olds share their classrooms with an assortment of insects, plants and skeleton frames. In all 11 classes are objects highlighting skills that include IT, science, music or languages. “The children can touch and play with them. They will have fun and maybe make a mess of things, but hopefully discover new things,” said the principal Goh Ek Piang.
- From last year, Coral Primary children, working in teams, were given part of a long corridor to jointly plan and paint the wall as an ongoing art project. “The pupils take ownership of that corridor and feel responsible for that area,” principal Teo Bee Eng told reporters.
- The courses are becoming more innovative. A nine-year-old student, for example, is CEO of her school library cafe, getting a real, first-hand lesson on running a business. Forty students in her Edgefield Primary 3 class operate it. They have elected a 15-member board, which in turn chose Dominique Sng as boss. She has four managers in charge of finance, inventory, operations and marketing.
It also appears that in the quest to improve the system, no stones have been left unturned. Sacred cows such as the ‘O’ Levels have also been slaughtered, now with certain schools allowed “skip” the examinations. My alma maters in Singapore, Raffles Institution (RI) and Raffles Junior College (RJC) have to a certain extent “re-merged” having moved to adjoining premises earlier this year – and students are permitted to bypass ‘O’ Levels at RI and proceed straight to the ‘A’ Level curriculum at RJC.
As highlighted in the article, even “during the worst of Asia’s economic recessions when most governments had cut their education budgets, Singapore stepped up spending in this
field”. Many of the above measures will not produce results immediately and their full impact can only be seen possibly a decade later. There continues to be a certain amount of criticism on the education system in Singapore (which I won’t dwell on here), but the key here is that major reforms have taken and are continuing to take place.
Education has in fact, been highlighted by visiting Prof Issac Ehrlich of University at Buffalo (part of the State University of New York) as the 'secret weapon' for continuous, self-sustaining economic growth. His comments were reported in the Business Times on 19th September, strengthening the case for Singapore’s aggressive investment in education.
Basically, the theory is that economic growth can only be self-sustaining if it is endogenous. And endogenous growth comes from increases in productivity, which is a result of technological advance. The simple conclusion to such a theory, as Prof Ehrlich puts it:
'But the question is what accounts for the fact that technology keeps improving? We know the secret: it comes from the accumulation of knowledge and knowledge is human capital.'Prof Ehrlich argues that to explain that economic growth is a result of investment in education - and not the other way round (some argue that education increases due to increase in affluence) - by looking at the experience of the US over more than 140 years.
Prof Ehrlich postulates that a poor, post-civil war US managed to overtake the United Kingdom through massive investment in education with government measures such as the GI Bill - which offered returning US soldiers from Europe education aid - and the Morrill Act, which granted land to higher education institutions to be built in each state.Hence, I totally agree with the policy in Singapore to expand the budget for education even in the toughest of times, for it will ultimately enable a country to "leapfrog" its peers in terms of performance and achievements. It is arguably the only panacea to achieve the quantum leap of the nation. Of course, it needn't be said that the expanded budget should be utilised productively and not be subject to profound leakage (such as appointing incompetent contractors to build schools).
Over at Malaysia, it may be too soon to attempt wholesale reforms such as that taking place in Singapore at this stage. It is most important for us to tackle some of the most basic issues that are plaguing our education system today, which appears to stifle our abilities to produce even competent graduates – whether in sciences, mathematics or languages. Our authorities need to remedy some of the “simple” shortcomings in our education system – the quality of teachers, the standards of languages, the state of school facilities and the impact of continued segregation in schools of the various ethnic groups.