The laudable reputation of Singapore’s education system and how it has transformed and evolved into being among the best in the world comes through as a clear message in many research articles and publications1 as well as repeated references in the national daily newspaper, the Straits Times. Yet, while there is an emphasis on grooming and preparing the next generation, readers are reminded that there is still a lot to do and a “resting on one’s laurels” approach will lead to atrophy. Innovation and entrepreneurship are the keys to Singapore’s future. Book smarts will only take a person so far. There are only so many traditional careers and job types known to the present generation. The majority of students today must be groomed in the art of learning, assimilating and using knowledge and honing skill sets so they can be flexible enough to capably work in professions yet unknown to us at this present time.
Fifty years ago or even less, those studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) did not know anything about the plethora of opportunities that now exist, such as jobs for web designers, video game developers and app creators. It used to be argued that Singaporeans were not innovators by nature like their American counterparts. Well, so it seemed not too long ago. Yet, there is ample proof that with what continues to spring out of the recently established Biopolis, the Fusionpolis and the hundreds of start-ups clustered in “Block 71”, possibly the most tightly-packed entrepreneurial ecosystem in the world”2, Singapore has morphed into a place that is now clearly a magnet for innovators and entrepreneurs from around the world. Indeed, many who work there are non-Singaporeans. Investing heavily in R & D, Singapore is perhaps more accurately described as a budding ‘talent capital’. There is ample proof that Singapore, since Independence, has not stopped reinventing herself to remain competitive.
Most of the Y-generation in developed nations have been given ample opportunities to secure a well rounded education as well as access to some form of relevant work-ready training. They should by all accounts, be equipped for some form of skilled employment. However, the global employment market is an increasingly competitive place and thus is not for the faint of heart. It used to be that the Asians would strive to go West for better educational and work opportunities; but there seems to be a turnaround over the last decade where many Westerners are looking to come East. They go to places like China, India, Hong Kong and Singapore to explore burgeoning opportunities, with China leading the way by attracting close to half a million foreign students, third after the U.S. and UK. As well, Western workers are looking to China and the four the Asian tigers for employment experiences to embellish their resumes. Singapore is a highly service-driven economy, hungry for foreign workers at all levels of the skills spectrum. Getting a work permit is easy enough if you have the right skills. With such an open market, it is perplexing why many Singapore youth appear to still be picky about the jobs they want and don’t want. When a job requiring a specialized skills set is advertised in the Singapore newspapers, prospective job seekers based anywhere in the world may look at the advertisement and apply for the job. It is a competitive, global work market indeed.
At the other end of the human age spectrum, nations are asking: how can we enable the silver generation (mid-fifties plus) to continue to contribute to the nation. In essence, reinvent themselves and as the famous British philosopher Bertrand Russell stated “maintain continuity of purpose”. In most first world nations, this cohort has enjoyed a fruitful career, and having just entered retirement, are still full of vigor and health and likely possessing invaluable experience and wisdom. They are certainly not prepared to stay at home, and just mind the imaginary grandchildren who are yet to come because their children are postponing child-bearing and marriage till they have made their first million. Singapore’s fertility rate declined further in 2014 resulting in it being one of the lowest in the world at 1.19.
Singapore’s investment in re-skilling retirees is clearly one way to go. While Japan, the US and Britain are focusing much of their attention on the sustainability of their health-care and social support systems to enable their silver generation to live comfortably, Singapore is encouraging its mid-career workers and retirees to upgrade and re-skill themselves (with up to 85% funding from the government) to take on higher-skilled work or second careers. Fifty years ago when the life expectancy in the nation was pegged at 66.7 years, it made sense to expect retirees to enjoy their life without having to worry about how they were going to afford to maintain their not-so-expensive lifestyle for a decade or so. Today, life expectancy in Singapore is one of the highest in the world at 84.7 years. This translates to almost twenty more years of life, a generation in fact, much of it still very productive. Unless one is very fortunate, a secondary income is almost certainly necessary in order to maintain a comfortable living standard in the island-nation, touted to be one of the most expensive in the world.
I would like to compare the two countries I have spent at least fifteen years living in; America and Singapore. Let me emphasize at the outset that differences abound and are inevitable between a small island nation and a continental power like the United States. What works in one nation may not work as well in another. For more than half a century, citizens in both nations were told that if they worked hard and played by the rules, then they were guaranteed a reasonable level of success; the next generation would be better off than themselves. In 1965, the GDP per capita of Singapore was $516 while the GDP per capita of the United States was $3,665 in current US dollars3. Savings accumulated during their working life would certainly not be sufficient to support the living standards they have grown accustomed to.
Fifty years on, Singapore has certainly caught up.: The GDP per capita of the United States in today’s US Dollars is $53,042,while the GDP per capita of Singapore is $55,183. Consumer prices are 13.76% lower in the US than in Singapore, and the unemployment rate is 5.6 percent in the US versus 1.9 percent in Singapore. Of course, I’m comparing an elephant to a smaller rabbit, but a look at where each nation was and is could be useful. The economy in America is heavily burdened by debt, social security, Medicare and a plethora of welfare handouts – basically entitlements which potentially cripple its ability to create an active climate for job creation for the many who genuinely want to work and get off welfare. Singapore deliberately did not go the route of handouts. There was no kitty reserved for handouts in the first place. The past fifty years was a time to build up this reserve and now the government is rewarding those who worked hard, contributed economically and stood by it through the tough, early years to emerge at the other end as a first world nation. Huge sacrifices were made. The Pioneer Generation of citizens who were at least fifteen years old when the nation was formed in 1965 are now being rewarded with well-subsidised medical care, public housing as well as means-tested cash supplements. The percentage of marginalised citizens is minimal in this island nation. That is not the case in America with significant erosion in the middle class.
I am not about to say which model of governance is better for its citizens, but let the outcomes speak for themselves. However, Singapore has advantages as a younger (just turned fifty this year) and comparatively small country which some would argue is run efficiently like a mega-corporation with a superb management team bursting with innovative ideas to remain relevant and at the forefront of development.
Dr. Anita Nazareth is a Singaporean and an education planning consultant whose areas of interest include education policy and implementation, incorporating 21st Century skills in school curriculum and professional development of educators in newly developed countries.
The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.