The Singaporean education system’s greatest asset is becoming its biggest weakness

Photo: mailer_diablo., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Singapore’s education system is internationally acclaimed but the driving force behind its success could be transforming into its Achilles’ heel.

By Maegan Liew

With limited natural resources, Singapore’s most valuable resource is its people. To cultivate its human capital, it relies on its education system. When most post-colonial states turned to primary resources exports for growth, the Republic built a leading education system that has moulded a world-class workforce and ignited the tiger economy.

The island nation’s education system is among the best in the world. Singapore has consistently led international rankings, such as the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA estimates that Singaporean pupils are nearly three years ahead of their American peers in maths.

Education has gone hand in hand with meritocracy

Singapore’s meritocratic system is not only crucial to its economic growth but is also critical to national stability. Students sit for tests and examinations that will determine their prospective development pathways at a young age.

Parents meticulously sign their children up for after-school tuition and enrichment classes in the hope that their child will gain the competitive edge. A rat race ensues as students and their parents are driven by the pursuit for a better grade and a better future.

By the time Singaporean pupils finish their primary school education, they have already embarked on an extensive national test-taking career. Their first crucial test comes in the form of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). PSLE, a national examination system for 12-year-old students, determines entrants into secondary school and critically shapes a child’s education pathways.

Most countries introduce national assessments and streaming for students aged 15-18 who have completed or are completing their secondary education. But by this age, Singapore’s high and low achievers would already have been identified and separated into different schools based on national standardised tests taken at the age of 12.

An education system structured in this way has led to an excessive fixation on grades which have come to define worth in the Singapore society.

Sources: Local schools network, nidirect, Study Malaysia,WENR (I),(II), OECD, ISSS

But Singapore’s stellar education system does not necessarily nurture a future-ready workforce that can take the helm of its economy

As new technologies continue to disrupt traditional industries, the workforce of the future needs to be creative, innovative, and adaptable.

However, the Republic’s present testing and grading system is not developing young innovators but, rather, good test-takers. Students sitting for examinations today will find themselves preparing for jobs that do not exist tomorrow.

Singaporeans need to have the tenacity to keep up with developments, but even more so, they need to be innovative to stay ahead of the times. Rote learning and memorisation of ‘correct’ answers to these examination questions will not prepare them for a future in innovation.

If its people are to remain the island nation’s greatest resource, its education system must provide the environment for such holistic development of its citizens.

Singapore introduces reforms to reduce the emphasis on grades

In a bid to ensure that Singapore benefits from the global digital transformation, the city-state has embarked on a Smart Nation initiative. The initiative strives towards the nationwide adoption of smart technologies and envisions the development of a leading economy powered by digital innovation.

Singapore is already making headway in the area of skills acquisition. Singapore clinched the top spot in human capital measures in the Asian Digital Transformation Index. The study cited the Republic’s focus on producing graduates with digital skills.

In recent years, Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) has also announced several changes to the education system for primary and secondary school students. From the removal of all exams for Primary 1 and 2 students to the introduction of wider scoring bands for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), Singapore’s MOE has embarked on sweeping reforms of the education system.

By moving away from an over-emphasis on academic grades, the education system can provide space for students to discover the joy of learning and experience a more holistic development.

Meritocracy in Singapore needs to go beyond ‘exam meritocracy’. Only when there are more pathways to success can Singaporean society move away from its fixation on assessment grades. When there are more channels to success, a bigger, more diverse pool of talent and human capital will emerge to drive Singapore’s economy.

Precisely what made Singapore’s students so driven, may now be holding them back

Singapore’s leaders have begun the transition towards reducing the emphasis on grades within the education system. But a corresponding change in mindset is lacking within Singaporean society, where ‘kiasuism’ is entrenched and the perennial need to get ahead is keenly felt.

Parents have expressed concerns over the implications of the recent reforms for their children’s prospects, shunning policy innovation and electing to maintain an outdated exam-focused model.

Kiasuism, or the fear of failing and underperformance, appears to be incompatible with innovation, which often involves repeated failures before success. A study by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) found that Singapore’s ‘kiasu’ culture may be holding the city-state back in the area of ‘innovation and entrepreneurship’.

Singapore’s kiasu streak has pushed its leaders and people to prepare for digital disruption, ensuring its workforce is equipped with valuable skills. But it has also pulled the city-state back in the area of innovation – the very essence of the digital revolution.

Singapore’s education system needs a mindset shift

The digital revolution needs innovators and creative thinkers as its leaders. Singapore’s mindset could hold it back from providing the leaders of the digital revolution.

Any changes to the education system must have the buy-in of society, and particularly Singapore’s parents – after all, it is the people that build the system. However, as long as academic results continue to be the determining factor for success among Singaporean parents, no amount of top-down reforms in the education system can change the mindset of its people.

The city-state needs to reassure its citizens that achieving strong academic results is not the only path to success. The kiasu mentality drives continual betterment. But the fear of failing impedes innovation. The biggest challenge for Singapore’s education today is how to wield the double-edged sword that is kiasuism in driving the country’s economy.


About the Author

Maegan Liew
Maegan studies Political Science at the National University of Singapore. She enjoys discussing international relations and seeks to better understand the world through writing.