The se­cret of Sin­ga­pore’s suc­cess

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Lee Kuan Yew’s achieve­ments have been the sub­ject of much global dis­cus­sion since his re­cent death. But one as­pect of his suc­cess has been lit­tle men­tioned: the in­vest­ments that he, and his suc­ces­sors, made in ed­u­ca­tion. His strat­egy, he would of­ten re­mark, was “to de­velop Sin­ga­pore’s only avail­able nat­u­ral re­source, its peo­ple.”

To­day, Sin­ga­pore rou­tinely ranks among the top per­form­ers in ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment, as mea­sured by the OECD’s Pro­gramme for In­ter­na­tional Stu­dent As­sess­ment (PISA). More­over, though a city-state of just five mil­lion peo­ple, Sin­ga­pore boasts two uni­ver­si­ties among the top 75 in the lat­est Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion World Uni­ver­sity Rank­ings, the same num­ber as China, Ja­pan, and Ger­many.

How did that hap­pen? What did Lee Kuan Yew and Sin­ga­pore do right?

For starters, it should be em­pha­sised that Sin­ga­pore’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem was not de­signed de novo by Lee Kuan Yew and his col­leagues. Rather, it was built on the very solid foun­da­tions in­her­ited from Sin­ga­pore’s Bri­tish colo­nial past. In con­trast to many of his con­tem­po­raries among post­colo­nial lead­ers, Lee Kuan Yew was not afraid to em­brace what­ever el­e­ments from that past that would prove use­ful to the na­tion-build­ing en­ter­prise.

Nowhere is this ap­proach more ev­i­dent than in ed­u­ca­tion. Many of the coun­try’s pre­mier ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions – for ex­am­ple, the Na­tional Uni­ver­sity of Sin­ga­pore (founded in 1905), Raf­fles In­sti­tu­tion (founded in 1823), and the An­gloChi­nese School (founded in 1886) – sig­nif­i­cantly pre­date in­de­pen­dence in 1963. More­over, the cur­ricu­lum for sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion is mod­eled on the Bri­tish O level and A level qual­i­fi­ca­tions (with some adap­ta­tion to ac­count for the gen­er­ally higher av­er­age at­tain­ment lev­els of stu­dents in Sin­ga­pore). And, though in­fra­struc­ture is by no means ne­glected, the pri­mary fo­cus of ed­u­ca­tional in­vest­ment is stu­dents and teach­ers.

A na­tional sys­tem of gen­er­ous schol­ar­ships en­ables the best stu­dents to avail them­selves of an ed­u­ca­tion at some of the world’s pre­mier uni­ver­si­ties, even as Sin­ga­pore de­vel­ops its own world-class in­sti­tu­tions. More­over, with start­ing salaries above the na­tional me­dian, the teach­ing pro­fes­sion at­tracts, de­vel­ops, and re­tains some of the best grad­u­ates.

More­over, Sin­ga­pore’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is un­abashedly mer­i­to­cratic (some might say elit­ist) in its fo­cus on iden­ti­fy­ing and de­vel­op­ing the very best tal­ent and, equally im­por­tant, di­rect­ing it to­ward public ser­vice. Gov­ern­ment schol­ar­ship re­cip­i­ents are obliged to serve in the public sec­tor for a min­i­mum of two years for ev­ery one year of study.

The same mer­i­to­cratic ap­proach gov­erns the devel­op­ment and pro­mo­tion of teach­ers. Top-per­form­ing teach­ers are given lead­er­ship re­spon­si­bil­i­ties with­out ex­ces­sive re­gard to ten­ure, and there is a re­volv­ing door be­tween the ed­u­ca­tion min­istry, class­rooms, and school ad­min­is­tra­tion. Ed­u­ca­tors are fre­quently sec­onded to carry out pol­icy work. Many sub­se­quently choose to re­turn to the class­room.

The elit­ist ten­dency in Sin­ga­pore’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is tem­pered by the fact that qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion is avail­able for all lev­els of aca­demic ap­ti­tude. Sin­ga­pore is rightly proud of its elite sec­ondary and ter­tiary aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions, but one could ar­gue that the hid­den gems of the sys­tem are the hun­dreds of neigh­bor­hood schools, in­sti­tutes for tech­ni­cal ed­u­ca­tion, and poly­tech­nics that pro­vide high-qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion for all.

Sin­ga­pore’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is re­lent­lessly for­ward­look­ing. From adopt­ing bilin­gual­ism with English (in ad­di­tion to the mother tongue of Man­darin, Malay, or Tamil), to its fo­cus on science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing, and math­e­mat­ics (STEM), Sin­ga­pore an­tic­i­pated many of the key ed­u­ca­tion strate­gies be­ing adopted by to­day’s pol­i­cy­mak­ers.

The choice of English was driven by his­tory and a multiethnic so­ci­ety’s need for a com­mon lan­guage. But it was also a pre­scient recog­ni­tion of English’s rapid emer­gence as the lin­gua franca of global com­merce and science, and that once en­trenched it was likely to re­main so for decades, if not cen­turies, to come. In this re­gard, too, Lee Kuan Yew dis­tin­guished him­self from other post-colo­nial lead­ers of his gen­er­a­tion. Rather than pan­der­ing to nar­row na­tion­al­ist sen­ti­ment and opt­ing for the ma­jor­ity lan­guage and cul­ture, he and his col­leagues chose to adopt a global lan­guage for a global city.

Fi­nally, Sin­ga­pore’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem evolves with the times and in light of new ev­i­dence. In the 1990s, Sin­ga­pore’s pol­i­cy­mak­ers, con­cerned that their ap­proach to ed­u­ca­tion might be some­what reg­i­mented and overly fo­cused on STEM, be­gan to pro­vide av­enues for ex­cel­lence in the hu­man­i­ties, arts, and sport. That re­bal­anc­ing is still on­go­ing, with a new em­pha­sis on iden­ti­fy­ing ways to foster cre­ativ­ity and en­trepreneur­ship.

For Sin­ga­pore’s found­ing fa­ther, ed­u­ca­tion went be­yond for­mal school­ing. As he put it in a speech in 1977: “My def­i­ni­tion of an ed­u­cated man is a man who never stops learn­ing and wants to learn.”

In­deed, Sin­ga­pore’s world-class ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem will be one of Lee Kuan Yew’s most en­dur­ing lega­cies. It was fit­ting that his state fu­neral took place at the Na­tional Uni­ver­sity of Sin­ga­pore.

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