Education principally serves two primary functions; to equip a country’s youth for gainful employment, and to build social cohesion. When Singapore became independent, its education system found itself struggling to address both these needs, but yet today — merely 54 years later — it is lauded as one of the best in the world. High education quality is notable at all levels of the system, from Primary 1 to technical and vocational education and training institutions and universities. Singapore’s students have performed well in international tests. For instance, in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD’s) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015, Singapore’s 15-year-olds were top in mathematics, science and reading among students of 72 economies. Singapore, whose economy was once based primarily on entrepôt trade, has become one of the world’s leading global cities and a hub for global finance today. Despite having a multi-ethnic population, it has successfully maintained racial and religious harmony. How did Singapore get there?
Today, all public schools are English-medium institutions that teach a common curriculum developed by Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE), yet this was not the case at independence. Like Malaysia, Singapore had a segregated education system, with English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil medium schools that taught different curriculums, some even arguably chauvinist. Singapore’s preoccupation with inter-ethnic integration and social cohesion led to the creation of a state managed national system of education. Common schooling experiences contributed significantly to building social cohesion.
Singapore’s founding leaders’ strategy was well encapsulated by the first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew: “to develop Singapore’s only available natural resource: its people”. From the late 1960s to the 1990s, development in Singapore’s Southeast Asian neighbours was driven primarily through the export of their abundant natural resources. Yet Singapore, with no discernible natural resource beyond a deepwater port and a small population, successfully matched, and in many instances, surpassed their growth rates. Arguably its education system primarily its public-school system, was a key driver of this success.
Setting The Right Course
Singapore’s founding leaders were keen to repudiate the cronyism that was then commonly practised in many other Asian countries and that entrenched existing elites. An emphasis on meritocracy was quickly enshrined as a key governing principle, and applied at all levels of society, particularly in the education system.
Meritocratic principles form the basis of what Singapore’s education system is (in)famous for: rigour, competitiveness and high-stakes national examinations. Students typically take national exams at Primary 6, Secondary 4 and the second year of junior college and are ranked and sorted against their peers; like in a well-poured cup of coffee, the cream rises to the top!
The importance Singapore placed on education was and is reflected in the calibre of leadership in education policies. Both founding PM Lee Kuan Yew and Deputy Prime Minister (and at various times Minister for Finance and Minister of Defence), Dr Goh Keng Swee, were actively involved in setting policy directions and winning acceptance of tough policy decisions, like making English the main medium of instruction. They were ably followed by such leaders as Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean, Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam and DPM and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Kiat.
The political and administrative leadership also recognised that institution building in education required a strategic and sustainable vision. Singapore’s political leadership capitalised upon its small size and the dominance of the PAP to create a ‘joined-up government’. It recognised, for example, that policies for skills creation to meet manpower needs for industrialisation needed a ‘joined-up government’. So, it is not unusual to find various agencies, such as the MOE, MOM, and EDB, working closely together in the creation and implementation of policies. The result is a strong ecology of linked up institutions — primary and secondary schools, post-secondary institutions and universities — providing, in a coordinated manner, multiple pathways for learning and skills enhancement.
Staying The Course
Fidelity to policy and a commitment to effective implementation are other important factors in the success of Singapore education system.
The stability of single-party governance in Singapore since its independence has meant that education policies designed for the long term are allowed the time needed to reach maturity; effective implementation strengthens confidence in the system. Ministers are not known to radically undo the policies of their predecessors for fear of destabilising the system, but are willing to tweak them with the benefit of hindsight. Singapore does not do large-scale education reform; timely and incremental change is the norm.
Yet another reason for Singapore’s education success is the amount of attention that Singapore pays to the selection, preparation, deployment, incentivisation and retention of school leaders and teachers. Initial teacher training and professional development, career development, and performance management of teachers are considered very important in Singapore.
In governance terms, Singapore practises what might be termed‘centralised decentralisation’. The zones, clusters and schools are given a degree of autonomy to tweak or to adopt policies to make them more applicable to their cohorts. But the MOE retains control over the strategic direction and quality assurance.
Adapting To The Winds Of Change
Three initiatives taken since the beginning of this decade illustrate well how the state addresses key emergent issues in the system.
As a consequence of globalisation and the government’s responses of prosperous nations — rising levels of inequality. Singapore’s Gini coefficient — a measure of income inequality, with one being the most unequal — before taxes and transfers in 2017 has been calculated to be 0.417 by its Ministry of Finance. Inequality is beginning to challenge meritocracy in Singapore’s education system, threatening to turn it into an elitist one. Middle and upper middle class parents are able to use their financial resources and social networks to gain advantages for their children in an increasingly competitive system. For instance, Singapore has a huge private tuition industry, with some 950 tuition/enrichment centres, and reportedly worth some 1.4 billion dollars in 2018, a huge amount considering the island’s total enrolment in pre-tertiary education is slightly under one million. According to a report in The Straits Times dated 7 August 2019, the top 20 per cent of households spent nearly four times more on tuition than the bottom 20 per cent.
Perpetuating an elitist education system would be disastrous for Singapore. Such a system would equip only a small segment of Singapore’s children with the skills needed to be economically competitive in a rapidly changing global landscape. But more worryingly, an elitist education system might fracture Singapore’s multicultural and cosmopolitan social fabric.
Understanding this, DPM Heng often cited this slogan when he was Minister for Education: ‘Every school, a good school’. While there will be better schools that provide more challenging opportunities to high-performing students, the MOE’s commitment was to ensure that entry into other schools would not disadvantage those from less-privileged backgrounds.
To this end, the government has been encouraging the nurturing and recognition of talents beyond academics, which include sporting and musical prowess, and leadership abilities.
Queensway Secondary School students testing remotely operated vehicles, which they created using materials such as PVC pipes, foam and cable ties, in the school’s applied learning programme in October 2017. Picture: Singapore Press Holdings
The government has also taken great pains to improve the quality of education in poorer performing schools by giving them access to innovative pedagogies and educational technology. An example would be the Applied Learning Programme (ALP). The MOE tasked its statutory board, the Science Centre Singapore, with developing the ALP as a means of providing schools with exposure to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The ALPs were initially offered to poorer performing schools, with the government providing the necessary hardware such as 3D printers and the Science Centre Singapore providing training for educators. Programmes such as the ALP allow poorer performing schools with unique opportunities to equip their students with 21st century core competencies. The MOE has encouraged schools to develop their own ALPs since 2013. By March 2018, all 155 secondary schools and more than 80 primary schools had ALPs; these would be extended to all primary schools by 2023.
In 2019, the government also announced initiatives to provide more equitable opportunities for quality preschool education. Today, some 50 per cent of preschools are government supported; this will rise to 80 per cent in future. The National Institute of Early Childhood Development has been established to ensure that teacher standards for early childhood education will continue to improve.
Recognising the need for workers to possess more advanced skills in a post-industrial economy, the government embarked upon a major workforce skills development and adult learning initiative — SkillsFuture — in 2014. Technical and vocational education and training institutions and universities have been given a major role.
In 2019, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung announced new measures to make tertiary education more accessible and affordable; students from low-income homes will benefit from lower tuition fees, thus broadening their opportunities to obtain a degree and to study in expensive programmes such as medicine and dentistry. Mr Ong said that this was being done as universities have an important role to play in social integration via enabling greater social mobility.
Singapore’s founding leaders envisioned a global city that would be a world leader in the provision of high-quality professional services, led by a highly educated, disciplined and professional workforce. Today, Singapore is that global city but its education system is still very much local. Education has played a crucial role, over the last half century, in ensuring that multi-ethnic Singapore enjoys high levels of racial harmony, that a strong sense of citizenship has emerged and that rigorous and high quality education has prepared Singaporeans well for a future full of opportunities and challenges!
Co-written by Prof S. Gopinathan and Mr Vignesh Naidu, this essay first appeared in the print version of “Fifty Secrets Of Singapore’s Success”. The book, a compilation of 50 essays sharing how Singapore has scored significant success in nine areas, is edited by Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh. This essay has been reproduced with permission from Straits Times Press.
Professor S. Gopinathan is currently the Academic Advisor at The HEAD Foundation and Adjunct Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
Mr Vignesh Naidu is the Director, Operations at The HEAD Foundation.