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Education in Singapore – Learn for Life: Ready for the Future

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While educational provision, in a variety of formats, has always been a preoccupation of societies, two key events in the 18th and 19th centuries gave rise to the advent of mass schooling organised at the national level. One was the transformation of largely agricultural societies into industrial societies, accompanied by increased urbanisation. The other was globalisation; notwithstanding claims to deglobalisation, globalisation, in my view remains a largely positive force. In the education space, globalisation has facilitated the internationalisation of education values, policies and best practices. It is not that the national education has lapsed but national policymakers have to take account of what other countries are doing. Agencies like OECD, UNESCO, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank have been major actors facilitating this diffusion of knowledge and best practices. Finally, while knowledge sharing is clearly evident, so is competition as shown by interest in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

Thian Hock Keng mural

On the rear wall of the 177-year-old Thian Hock Keng Temple is a 40-metre long painting by Yip Yew Chong that tells the story of early Hokkien immigrants to Singapore. A section of the mural is dedicated to education. It pays tribute to early pioneers such as Tan Kah Kee and Lee Kong Chian, who made contributions to the establishment of schools in Singapore. Photo: Charles O. Cecil / Alamy Stock

EDUCATION IN COLONIAL SINGAPORE

Concerns with the adequacy of educational provision in Singapore only surfaced when colonial authorities recognised Singapore’s economic potential. The existing small population was augmented by the increase in migration, largely from China and India. This had the effect of turning Singapore into a plural society, a medley of ethnicities, languages and religions. The growth of commercial activities led to the growth of bureaucratisation, which in turn required an educated workforce. The policy response was to establish a small number of English-medium schools, leaving the provision and management of Chinese-medium schools to community leaders and successful businessmen. Given that teachers, the curriculum and textbooks, amongst other things, were all imports from China, it was inevitable that the victory of the communists in the civil war in China in 1949 radicalised Singapore’s Chinese school students and aroused nationalist sentiment, a process strengthened by the Japanese occupation of Singapore (1942-1945). If the war ended notions of colonial superiority, it also bequeathed a legacy of mistrust and the politicisation of education.

 

The two decades from 1945 to 1965 were also significant. The key questions confronting politicians and policymakers were: could a small, multi-ethnic, resource-starved island develop into a stable, prosperous nation state, and what role would education play in this transformation? The political question had to be addressed first, and the answer was a merger with Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak, leading to the creation of Malaysia in 1963. The Malaysian experiment failed due to irreconcilable differences between Malay-dominant Malaya and Chinese-dominant Singapore. Singapore accepted a ‘reluctant statehood’ in 1965, and entered into a phase of uncertainty and vulnerability. It is for this reason that this phase in nation-building is labelled “survival-driven”.

The key questions confronting politicians and policymakers were: could a small, multi-ethnic, resource-starved island develop into a stable, prosperous nation state, and what role would education play in this transformation?

BUILDING A NATIONAL SYSTEM (1965-1975)

The key challenges were threefold – policymakers had to provide for a national, public system that would foster social cohesion, build human capital to fuel economic transformation and develop resilient, future-ready citizens. Among others, key issues related to different media of instruction schools, roles for English and mother tongues, unified governance, and improvement of teacher quality all had to be attended to on an urgent basis. The All-Party Report on Chinese Education (1956) was an important milestone in addressing these, and can be regarded as the first ‘national’ education policy document. Its important recommendations included ‘equality’ of treatment for the four media (English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil) of instruction schools, a common education ordinance to cover the governance of all schools in the system, and the active promotion of bilingualism for all students. As significant as these recommendations were, what is noteworthy is that the government of the day committed itself to a full, speedy and effective implementation of the recommendations.

 

While Singapore is rightly praised for the high quality of the current system, speedy implementation was also the cause of the first major education policy failure in Singapore. We noted earlier the commitment to foster societal bilingualism via the school system. What policymakers failed to realise was that such a significant policy initiative needed careful preparation. Curriculum development, teacher preparation, textbook production and development of appropriate assessments all had to be attended to prior to and during implementation. For example, in the early phase of implementation, the Ministry of Education (MOE) adopted a strategy of teaching Science and Mathematics in English from Primary 1 in non-English-medium schools; from 1970, Primary 3 students in English-medium schools were taught History in the mother tongue. The practice was abandoned soon afterwards as the language used in textbooks proved too difficult for students.

The oldest school in Singapore

Students in Raffles Institution celebrated the 150th anniversary of the founding of Singapore in 1969. The school was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1823, with the intention to provide education for the sons of the local chiefs, teach local languages to officers of the East India Company and facilitate research in the history, culture and resources of Asian countries. Source: www.rafflesrampage.wordpress.com

More serious was the fact that as the government put in efforts to promote economic growth via investments in infrastructure, the adoption of a strategy of industrialisation was successful. One key initiative was the establishment of Jurong Industrial Estate in 1961. In the 1970s the economy grew by an average of 7-8%. However, the education system was unable to provide a steady supply of educated or skilled manpower.

 

In 1969 a policy was introduced that all boys and 50% of girls would be required to take technical subjects. In 1973, the government established the Industrial Training Board, later replaced by the Council on Professional and Technical Education (CPTE). By the late 1970s, about 37% of the secondary school cohort were in Singapore’s well-equipped and relevant polytechnics, one of the highest rates in the world.

 

Notwithstanding the above efforts, the bilingual challenges imposed on the education system had significant consequences. Economic growth and the internationalism of the Singapore economy via rapid increase in foreign investment had raised the profile of English and an appreciation of its economic value. This caused, in turn, a greater take-up of places in English-medium schools; while in 1959 45.9% of students were in Chinese-medium schools, by 1978 this had dropped to 11.2%.

 

While the imperative to be proficient in English was understandable, many students came from non-English-speaking homes. On top of that ‘handicap’, a large majority of ethnic Chinese students came from dialect-speaking homes but had to master Mandarin in the school system. The consequence was high attrition. In 1979 only 71% of each primary cohort reached secondary school and only 14% went on to post-secondary education.

The key questions confronting politicians and policymakers were: could a small, multi-ethnic, resource-starved island develop into a stable, prosperous nation state, and what role would education play in this transformation?

The policy response was laid out in the Report of the Ministry of Education (Goh Report), authored by a committee headed by Dr Goh Keng Swee, then Minister for Finance and Deputy Prime Minister. The report identified the major cause as “a single system of education imposed on children of varying abilities to absorb languages they do not speak at home”. Its answers to reducing education wastage – such as failure to achieve expected standards, premature school leaving, repetition of grades and unemployable school leavers – was ability-based streaming.

 

Goh acknowledged that the Report’s streaming proposal would be controversial but dismissed legitimate concerns as prejudiced, arising out of a belief that sorting out students at an early age “derives from an egalitarian philosophy fashionable in the Western world… resting on a prejudice against the pursuit of excellence…”. He and the review committee failed to acknowledge that ‘ability’ is a complex construct, and home environment, socio-economic circumstances, parenting practices and other factors would all have an influence on how well students are prepared for the rigours of formal schooling.

 

The Report’s shocking use of terms like ‘monolingual’, ‘express’, ‘normal’, and the co-opting of ‘excellence’ is, at the very least, insensitive! Its legacy of an early and radical differentiation of curricular experience has, in my view, impacted students and the system negatively.

 

FROM SURVIVAL TO EFFICIENCY (1979-1996)

The period from 1979 to 1996 has been labelled the “efficiency-driven” period. Singapore’s education policymakers had recognised the importance of a skilled labour force as vital to its economic restructuring plans. They utilised financial resources derived from rapid economic growth to upgrade education infrastructure and to build new education institutions, including the Institute of Technical Education in 1992, Temasek Polytechnic in 1990, Nanyang Polytechnic in 1992 and Republic Polytechnic in 2002. While the former allowed for an increased participation rate, the latter enhanced the skills profile of school leavers, which were greatly needed in the new industrial sectors. This period also saw significant policy and practice innovations in the structural, pedagogic and capacity-building segments of the education system. In the structural segment, within a national system, the MOE provided school diversity via the establishment of independent, autonomous and specialised schools to cater to a wide variety of talents, aptitudes and preferences. Even faith-based institutions like Malay-Muslim madrasahs became part of the system. The creation of a school cluster system in 1997 and 1998 enabled principals and teachers greater leeway to innovate and modify to better meet the learning needs of their students. This ‘bounded autonomy’ concept enabled quality and standards to be maintained while allowing for flexibility at the school and classroom level. The latter was especially important given the recommendations of the Thinking Schools, Learning Nations (TSLN) and later, Teach Less, Learn More (TLLM) reports which advocated a more student-centred pedagogy.

Jumping ropes and hopscotch

Titled Singapore in the 60s, the book is a collection of anecdotes from James Suresh’s childhood set in Queenstown. Readers can get a glimpse of how life was back then. Source: Singapore in the 60 by James Suresh & Syed Ismail

Rethinking the learning of language

In 1987, it became compulsory for all schools in Singapore to teach English as the first language. Developments in reading research and language pedagogy led to a 1991 syllabus that moved away from functional literacy and made it compulsory for students to read children's fiction in the classroom. Photo: Chris Barham / ANL / Shutterstock

EDUCATING FOR A POST-INDUSTRIALSOCIETY (SINCE 1997)

The next major shift occurred in 1997. Singapore had seen dramatic developments in the economy. National GDP was USD974.7 million in 1965, USD87.81 billion in 1995 and USD308 billion in 2015. The skills profile of Singapore’s workforce had also improved considerably. However, the advent of globalisation and a post-industrial system required changes. The economic crises of 1985-1986 and 1997-1998 exposed weaknesses in the education and skills training infrastructure. Prime Minister at the time Goh Chok Tong, at the opening of the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) in 1992, spoke of the need to take better account of student differences in ability andaptitude, and to design an education system that could better cater to these differences. His view of individual differences was different from that of Goh Keng Swee: in my view, a more enlightened view of human potential. A teacher-dominated learning regime with a focus on content mastery and high stakes examinations was no longer fit for purpose. Policymakers recognised that a post-industrial economy would be characterised by innovation and enterprise, which would in turn require those entering the workforce to be independent learners committed to lifelong learning, not risk-averse but resilient.

The earlier meritocratic model of ‘the best to the most able’ was now to give way to a focus on pedagogy, greater use of information technology and formative assessment, as well as the wider use of project work to strengthen applied learning.

An exam meritocracy

A 2017 study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that Singaporean students were significantly more anxious about tests and grades compared to their international peers. This intensified dread over academic performance may be due to a more competitive culture in Singapore. Source: Dreamstime

Three major policy initiatives introduced between 1997 and 2005 – the ICT Master Plan I in 1997, the Thinking Schools Learning Nation initiative in 1997 and the Teach Less, Learn More initiative in 2005 – mark a decisive shift in the purpose and nature of the Singapore system. The earlier meritocratic model of ‘the best to the most able’ was now to give way to a focus on pedagogy, greater use of information technology and formative assessment, as well as the wider use of project work to strengthen applied learning. At the structural level the MOE introduced greater fluidity in education pathways – the introduction of a school cluster system to promote even greater school autonomy, and the recasting of school leadership preparation to emphasise the need to manage schools as learning organisations. The government recognised that this shift also required improving initial teacher preparation and continuing teacher professional development. To this end the MOE provided an entitlement of 100-hours of in-service training every year for all teachers. The MOE also sought to empower teachers to become lifelong learners, by facilitating the establishment of the Singapore Teachers’ Academy and subject-specific institutes like the English Language Institute of Singapore (ELIS). Among these, especially significant is the establishment of the Academy of Principals Singapore. Previous practices for identifying leadership potential depended largely on seniority in the teaching profession. This was now deemed inadequate given that the cluster system gave principals greater autonomy. Also the mandated curricular and pedagogic changes could only be successfully implemented if there was data on existing pedagogic practices and knowledge about the opportunities and constraints in changing practice. The MOE’s generous research grants to the National Institute of Education, Singapore’s sole teacher education institution, have enabled Singapore to build a detailed and nuanced database to guide both initial teacher training and professional development.

World's best education system

The Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, visited Lauttasaari Comprehensive School in Helsinki during his Finland tour in 2017. He was introduced to innovative learning environments and methods and learned about the KiVa Koulu anti-bullying programme – a multifaceted, research-based programme developed in the University of Turku that provides schools with concrete, easily adoptable tools to tackle bullying. Photo: Tim Rooke / Shutterstock

Could it claim to be Asia’s Finland? Does Singapore’s socio-economic transformation hold lessons for other developing countries?

WHAT NEXT?

In a very short period of six-plus decades under challenging circumstances, Singapore has today a world-class system. Could it claim to be Asia’s Finland? Does Singapore’s socio-economic transformation hold lessons for other developing countries? Singapore’s early stellar performance in international assessments has been sustained over the years. In PIRLS (2017) Singapore ranked second to Russia; in PISA (2018) it was second to China, and in TIMSS (2019) it was first. Elementary school completion in 2019 was 98%, whereas in 2019 74.5% of students completed high school. In 2020, among students who sat for the Singapore-Cambridge ‘O’ level examinations, a major and demanding end-of-high school examination, 85.6% obtained five or more ‘O’ level passes. In the IB examinations last November, Singapore students also posted outstanding results with their average score of 40.6 out of 45, higher than the global average of 32.37, as well as the Asia-Pacific average of 37.02. Also, more than half of the perfect scores globally – 133 out of 228 – were from Singapore!

 

What explains this ‘education miracle’? One factor is an achievement culture, especially amongst the majority Chinese population. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants. Chinese parents’ aspirations for their children to succeed in education are high amongst all ethnic groups; meritocracy and the rewards that high certification brings fuel effort and commitment. A second is an appreciation that challenges also provide opportunities. Singapore’s political and administrative elite was drawn from the brightest and the best; a hard-headed technocratic elite came up with effective policies, funded education adequately, attended to implementation issues promptly, and instilled the values of meritocracy, competence and accountability in the education system.

Melding tradition with technology

Singapore’s oldest Islamic education institution for girls, Madrasah Alsagoff Al-Arabiah is one of the five schools in Singapore recognised as an Apple Distinguished School. All of its educators are certified Apple Teachers, while students learn basic Swift coding as part of their core curriculum. The school’s Arabic studies curriculum is accessed through a series of books on iPad. Source: www.ourmadrasah.sg

Not all education problems have been solved, by any means. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened existing inequalities; while achievement standards gone up for all ethnic groups, Malay students still lag behind. At the post-secondary level, in proportionate terms, there are more Malays at ITE and the polytechnics than in the universities. The government continues to attend to issues of education inequality and underperformance. Earlier policy responses from self-help groups such as SINDA, MENDAKI and more recent ones like Uplift have targeted underachieving students from all ethnic groups. However, identity politics is straining social cohesion and some earlier initiatives – such as the Special Assistance Plan Schools, an effort to strengthen English-Mandarin bilingualism and Chinese cultural values – have caused disquiet. This is especially in the context of a resurgent China, and the fact that a vast majority of students in these schools are Chinese. In my view, this policy compromises the ideal of a national education system which was to build social cohesion via ethnic mixing in schools. Notwithstanding the above challenges, there is reason to be optimistic that Singapore is well-placed to surmount them.

World's best education system

Expanding the reach of educational excellence Singapore-style schools are growing in student numbers and expanding in scale in the region. There are at least 25 schools in countries such as Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam offering curriculum similar to Singapore. Its popularity is largely fuelled by Singapore’s reputation for quality education. The Singapore International School in Hong Kong, set up in 1991, is the only overseas school run by Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE). Source: MKPL Architects

Singapore’s experiences and lessons in educational development could be of considerable benefit to countries seeking socio-economic transformation via education.

‘THE BEST IS YET TO BE’

While Singapore’s education system has not yet been the answer to its socio-economic and social cohesion challenges, it has made significant progress. Though very Singapore-centric and national in character, it now has also a distinct international character. Many foreign students now attend schools, both national and international, in Singapore. Singapore’s universities have collaborated with US universities like MIT, Wharton, Duke and, until recently, Yale. And Singapore education entrepreneurs have established Singapore-style schools in Indonesia, Thailand and Hong Kong. In teacher education, the NIE has helped establish teacher education colleges in Indonesia and Abu Dhabi, and enhanced teacher and school leadership capacity-training in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and China. Notwithstanding the above challenges, there is reason to be optimistic that Singapore and its education system is well-placed to surmount them.

PROF S. GOPINATHAN

Prof S. Gopinathan is an Academic Advisor at The HEAD Foundation, where he advises the Foundation on programme development and publications, and also assists in alliances and partnerships.

From 2015 to 2020, Prof Gopi was Adjunct Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Before that, he served as Dean of the School of Education at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University, between 1994 and 2000. In 2003, he helped NIE establish a Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice.

Prof Gopi is also the founding editor of the Singapore Journal of Education, serves on the International Advisory Board of the Asia Pacific Journal of Education, and co-edits the Routledge Critical Studies in Asian Education.

MARCH 2022 | COMMEMORATIVE ISSUE

Healthcare and Education for Asian Development

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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