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Learning from the Singapore Model

Contributed by / October 8, 2014

To stop seeking questions and answers is to stop the progress of humanity


The Singapore model has often been lauded as one of the successful model of city-state in the 21st century. While many are trying to study or emulate its model, it has not been resting on its laurel. Forward planning and reinventing its national policies have become a foretold ritual. One could easily be forgiven to take for granted the short history of its nation building and its turbulent and precarious past. One could also easily argue that the cornerstones of its success lay in the stability of its political systems, efficiency of its public service systems and resilience of its highly literate population.

Singapore government has placed much emphasis on increasing the literacy level of its people over the past few decades and equipping the people with the necessary skillsets to support the rapid growth of its economy. To a certain extent and in certain areas, the demand of the economic growth has gloriously overtaken the supply from the pool of people it can produce and tap on within its country. Singapore students have been doing well in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It would be natural to conclude that whatever that can be done and right to do have been attempted and the direction has been set right and bright. Indeed many would have agreed and try to maintain the current ways of things, while making cautious adjustments and improvements here and there. Far fewer would have challenged the former approach openly not only because strong and simple supporting facts and logic seem to be hardly within easy reach, but also because socio-cultural attachments seem to be hard to overcome. However, the story of Singapore has just started, and will surely be rewritten in ever more interesting and tantalising ways. It will not just settle with one hastily forged climax, but will have the savoury and romantic process of making a nation and reaching multiple plateaus.

Maintaining strong and continuous economic growth has arguably been a preoccupation of the Singapore leaders. Producing a pool of well-equipped and talented people to support the growth has been an arduous task. Singapore has cautiously kept the number of public universities in the country low and citizens’ entry to them one of the most competitive in the developed world. Typically for a citizen to get into one of them, he or she has to get through at least three checkpoints. Normally first at the 6th year of public schooling, second at the 10th or 11th year of public schooling and third at the 12th to 14th year of schooling. These checkpoints are typically examination based and assess the academic competency related to a number of subject domains, such as Mathematics, Science and English etc. One can reasonably view these checkpoints as primarily designed to screen and select for entrance into the next level of education and used by academic institutions as a convenient way to select certain group of students into their institutions. Most of the time these institutions will attract and recruit students of certain range of academic performances based on the score-based results of these checkpoints.



One way of viewing the score-based result of the academic competency of a student is that it reflects or suggests the amount of gap from a certain benchmark of the respective level. There will be students with different amount of gaps in their academic competencies.  When a schooling institution recruits mostly students with a smaller amount gaps, it will probably have a less challenging time helping the students cover those gaps compared to another institution recruiting students with a bigger amount of gaps. Not surprisingly most students and their parents would have the aspirations that they could enter the schooling institutions which recruit mainly students with the smaller amount of gaps, in other words with better score at the examinations. The reality is that there will only be a handful of such institutions as the overall distribution of the gaps will be more or less evenly spread out, from high to low. There will always be top and bottom scores. Thus a significant majority of the students will not be going to these institutions. However most people will try to increase their chances of getting into these institutions and are willing to spend enormous amount of time, effort and financial resources to this end. As a result, it drives the growth of the billion dollar industry in Singapore that caters to the demands of these aspiring parents and students, through offering services that aim at improving the academic results when passing through these checkpoints. Time, effort and capital spend on one pursuit are time, effort and capital taken away from other pursuits.

One of the reasons that the billion dollar industry could thrive is that it provides a simple and compelling value proposition, which is more focused and dedicated attention to student, typically through higher tutor-to-student ratio. Generally the higher the ratio, such as one-to-one, the higher the price one has to pay. As schooling institutions normally avoid the higher tutor-to-student ratio approach, which would be more costly, that demand has been filled in by the industry readily, as long as one could pay.

If one would see these as challenges worth surmounting, there are two basic approaches to tackle them that need to be carried out concurrently. One is to reduce or redesign the checkpoints and that requires asking what growing up to a curious and learning child is about versus serving the needs or goals of a nation, the higher institutions or other stakeholders. The other is to level the field towards access of higher tutor-to-student ratio as well as towards greater quality of tutor-to-student interaction and even towards greater self-efficacy and autonomy of one’s learning. The latter would require a greater understanding of how a person learns and how the mind works. The former would require further technological and socio-infrastructural innovations that offer cost benefit compared to higher tutor-to-student ratio.

On the first approach, a more holistic way of evaluating and using the evaluation to help in the learning process more than in entry selection process is the key. Going beyond academic-based assessment has been a challenge since the advent of public education systems, which often run on tight budgets competing with other national priorities. One may easily forget that public education systems are recent achievements in many countries. Reaching to the plateau today that beckons the questioning of the academic-based assessment systems and searching for a more holistic approach is itself a commendable, natural and healthy progress.

On the second approach, unleashing the latent potential of learners to learn and optimising the opportunities and accesses to learning is the key. In the midst of devising ways, contents or attributes for a learner to acquire or cultivate within a system of constraints and limitations, some things worth having probably have been sacrificed along the way. Unlocking the system constraints and limitations when the system is already highly leveraged through redesigning and freeing up time, effort and capital for other meaningful pursuits is one of the logical steps forward. Beside educators, parents, friends, professionals and domain experts etc. should be highly accessible resources to tap upon to support learning. Technologies current and emergent can be used to increase time, quality and effectiveness as well as reduce cost to support more holistic learning.

Using an analogy of the reliance on fossil fuel as the primary energy source to surmise the points made above: If everyone is going after more fossil fuel, it will just run out faster, and become ever more expansive. More efforts and new technologies to improve the extraction of fossil fuel are only short term solutions and are like double edged swords. In other words, it is not a sustainable long term solution. Nevertheless credits need to be given to the role and benefits fossil fuel has played in powering advancements in the world and people’s lives. Alternative source of energy is the way to go moving forward. Not long ago in the span of human history fossil fuel was once an alternative energy source.  In the process of seeking and creating viable alternative solution, new demands and needs will be created. This will in turn generate new opportunities for various sectors in the economy and drive new growth.

Singapore is at a watershed moment to decide whether to make this paramount shift and open to new windows of opportunities and growth. While others are still studying or importing its current model, will it be able to amaze the world again in creating another attractive model to export to the world in the next decades.

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  1. Avatar of HJ
    HJ March 12, 2015, 11:12 am

    Some interesting and positive development and message from the Ministry of Education in Singapore:

    “Beyond learning for grades, to learning for mastery”

    “Learning for Mastery, Learning throughout Life, Learning for Life”

    ” 6) With these changes, we built a good education system, developed our people and grew our economy. But there were also inadvertent negatives. In our minds, ‘study book’ became increasingly about examinations, grades and qualifications.”

    ” 7) A strength – in focusing on academic grades – can be over-done and become a weakness, as we leave little time to develop other attributes that are necessary for success and fulfilment.”

    ” 8) Students tell me of the stress they faced because of the high expectations placed on them. The chase for better grades fuelled a tuition industry. It created a vertical stacking of qualifications, as well as the tiering of schools in the minds of parents, based mainly on academic results – a hierarchy of grades.”