In his hour-long speech in Parliament on Friday, Singapore Education Minister Heng Swee Keat painted the strategy for his ministry for the next 50 years – to learn for life and skills, and not for grades. In what is perhaps the finest manifesto for the ministry in decades, Heng outlined in no uncertain terms, where his ministry is headed and urged all Singaporeans to adopt this new philosophy.
The Singapore education system has hitherto been effective in developing good test-takers. This has led to great rewards for those who could study, or had the resources to engage good tutors, to outshine the others in the system. And to the victor come the spoils. Under the government’s famous “meritocratic” system, resources are poured into those who excelled in school, those who triumphed over others who could not. It made Singaporeans self-centred, and suspicious of fellow-Singaporeans, for fear of them “stealing” their just rewards. It degenerated the system into a highly competitive environment, one where Minister Heng admitted would lead to a “dystopian future where stress levels climb”. Dystopian! That is a very strong word for the undesirable side-effect of our race for grades.
Yet who’s to blame for this? The government, of course; the very people who now want to change the status quo! I remember when I was a regular in the Singapore Armed Forces some 20 years ago, when there was a disgruntled murmur within the officer ranks of “farmers” and “scholars”. Farmers were those who rose through the ranks through sheer determination and hard work. Skill and life. “Scholars” were those who were promoted by virtue of their education qualifications, the prize of the paper chase. Yet, even within the scholar ranks, there were scholars and their were Scholars. This is determined by how well you did in ALL your A-level and undergraduate-level exams. And they paid those who rose to the top of the heap handsomely. The Administrative Service was created for such people, creating an elitist organisation that provides opportunities that mere mortals can never dream to partake of. Dystopia was built by them.
The undesirable side-effect
This has built an eco-system of ultra-competition. The tuition industry mushroomed, something that Minister Heng obliquely alluded to in his speech of wanting to eradicate. Parents started pushing their children to doing more “extra-curricular” classes. And, in a bid to increase their children’s ability to enter into a choice school, which the education ministry made all the easier to spot by publishing the ranking results of schools, parents even pushed children to go for dance, music, drama, and art classes. They will do everything in their power to create a difference for their child, a competitive edge. Fellow classmates were not friends, they were the competition!
The new normal
Yet, it is darkest just before dawn, and Minister Heng, in his speech, which, while didn’t amount to an apology, did identify their mistakes. (Dystopia, remember?) By identifying the new normal – one which exhorts the push for skills and life – he was not aiming at the children who are, or are yet to be, in school. It was targeted at parents and employers. After all, the dystopia had a willing partner – parents. And since employers constituted parents, there was this irrational push for employees with a university degree. And obviously this also caused the rash of private education institutes, hoping to cash in on the dreams of parents whose child didn’t make it into the national university system; some of which were fly-by-night establishments. Although largely eradicated by the Council for Private Education (CPE) in Singapore now, it does show the heights to which parents, and by extension, employers, continued to feed the frenzy. This new normal seeks to stop all this.
The proof of the pudding…
As the old adage says, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Yet I have not seen much of the pudding. Minister Heng’s speech was only a HINT of the pudding. Sure, the government has put in place all the SkillsFuture initiatives – the Earn and Learn scheme, the SkillsFuture Credit, the Workforce Skills Development initiatives – all good, and all necessary to build the new normal. But the government has not gone to the source of the problem – parents and employers. Saying that they have to change their attitude but not making it mandatory, is a very weak attempt to change a long-held conviction. The builders are missing the corner stone, which, ultimately, may prove to make the system a toothless dog - all bark and no bite. Most telling, perhaps, would be in the upcoming elections. Let’s see if the government will field a majority of O-level and A-level candidates (one or two will just not cut it!) – those who had focused on skills and life, rather than on simply obtaining a paper. If that does not happen, then the government may well be that toothless dog.