Policy changes are inevitable and urgent if Singapore is going to remain viable not just in terms of GDP growth but also in ensuring that its citizens are able to enjoy a quality of life commensurate with their toil, that its children don’t become psychological wrecks, and that demographic transformation does not occur at the expense of the locals.
Eliminate streaming in primary school
It is important to eliminate the streaming process, especially at the primary four level. Cognitive functions in young students must be given the chance to develop before any categorisation and training is effected. Experienced teachers and those with specialised training should be assigned to provide weaker students with added attention and time in an effort to level up the classroom.
Singapore’s education system has always been geared towards producing the talent for the type of industry the government considers important. The latest flavour of the month is life sciences (the previous one being Information Technology). Upon the discovery that there is big bucks to be made in the field, the Ministry of Education inanely but expectedly announced that life sciences terms will be taught right from primary one up through to the pre-university level and beyond. Words such as cell, gene, germs, etc., will form part of the vocabulary taught to first graders from 2001.
The education minister related that this was because the government had to prepare Singaporeans to ride the “Next wave in scientific and technological innovations.” Ho Ching, one of the chief planners of Singapore’s economy and Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter-in-law, weighed in that there was a “need to review Singapore’s education system to bring about a greater emphasis on the biochemical and biomedical fields.” There is little attempt to reform the educational system.
Stop training students for the economy
This utilitarian approach continues through to the university level. Top students at the National University of Singapore will now be enrolled in a special curriculum where they will be trained “for the new economy.” One of the programme’s new recruits duly boasted: “It prepares you for the new economy well in allowing you to understand and use the links between the sciences and the arts.” Another hoped that the new scheme would give her “an edge in the job market.” In 2001, the government announced that it intends to attract top colleges from the United States and Europe to set up university programmes in Singapore. Of course, these courses will centre on disciplines such as medicine, engineering, business, and information technology. Tellingly, and unsurprisingly, the body charged with this task is not the Education Ministry but the Economic Development Board.
The PAP’s education policy is a massive effort to teach students what to think, not how to think. The amount of work that the system places on young students is beyond comprehension. Professor Roger Schank, director of the Institute of Learning Sciences in Northwestern University, pretty much summed up the matter when he said to Singapore’s educators: “You don’t have a great education. Your sense of a well-educated man is someone who has memorised all the facts.” The reduction in volume of material students are expected to cover cannot be over-emphasised if we are to produce well-educated, not just well-drilled, students.
Education must remain a process where an individual learns to discover oneself and, in doing so, endeavour to improve the human condition. For our future, it is important that we teach our children that reading and learning can be enjoyable and intrinsically rewarding.
In this regard, does the PAP have a clear idea of what education is or should be besides defining it in terms of dollars and cents? Who is the educated Singaporean? What qualities would we like to see in her? How should education serve the needs of Singapore over and beyond economic considerations? Why are Singaporeans not reading as much as their counterparts in other countries? These are not esoteric questions. They are fundamental issues that are essential in the formulation of sound educational policies. As long as we fail to understand and address such issues, we will be caught in a cyclical pattern of making patchy revisions to our educational system that will lead us nowhere.