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Whenever world class education systems are highlighted, Singapore is always vaunted as a leading light internationally. Their system reliably produces students with good discipline, a ferocious work ethic and good grades. But what if these measurements have been useful, but one dimensional? Especially now the world and the workplace have changed?

What if the glorification of the academic individual only goes so far, and actually service to your community or nation is more useful?

We wanted to know more about the Singaporean education system: how it hasn’t yielded to complacency, and is now adapting to the modern world. So we travelled there and met with the director of SMU Academy, Singapore Management University, Dr Lim Lai Cheng.

A blueprint for the future

Singapore is producing A+ students. Everything is going in the right direction. The world is looking at the Singaporean education system saying ‘this is an absolute blueprint for the future’, and collectively it has the insight and reflection to say, ‘hang on, we’re not doing this as well as we could be doing it’. There’s more to life than an A+ grade. We asked Dr Lim when that ‘penny drop’ moment occurred.

“I need to pull you back a bit first, that we do not churn out just A+ students,”  Dr Lim told Renegade Inc. “This is a fairly stratified society. We’ve got very strong performers. We also have weaker students, weaker in the context of the academics. I would say different people have different strengths.

“The other thing is that it is not a sudden change of direction. Singapore has, since its independence in 1965, tried its best to build a system. And we’ve built a system from a lot of systems engineers. I will say that we’ve evolved, and as we’ve become a more sophisticated or more established economy, we started looking inwards. When political turmoil happened around us, and it affected the stability of the population within Singapore, that’s when we started thinking through some of these policies.”

More to life than a grade

But Singapore had the self awareness as a society to say there’s more to life than a grade.

“The world suddenly realised we are strong in the academics,” Dr Lim says, “but we’ve been working at it for a long time.

“And by the time the world realised that we were on top, we had already started changing gears.”

While the values and strength of character part has always been present, Dr Lim says Singapore’s focus has been on nation building, which she says is something that has always been a little different from the British or the American system.

“We always come from the idea of community, society and the individual,” she says.

“Education is not really for the fulfilment of the potential and the aspirations of the individual. It is for the good of a community.”

The west’s focus on the individual over society is an unenviable position.

“I don’t think that’s something we want to fully defend,” she says. “Because if we’re exposed to a lot of systems in the world, there are great things happening in different systems and parts of the world. I teach an undergrad module called ‘Education in Society’, and a lot of time the Singapore undergrads will say, ‘you know, if we were to be able to pick a system that would be different from the Singaporean one, and it’s something we really like, we would want a finished system’.

“I’ve known a number of the European systems and they’ve come from the idea of putting the self at the centre and then everything else comes from allowing the individual to flourish, and we’re at the opposite end.”

The education of national identity

Dr Lim says Finland is trying to work towards something nearing a more centralised system.

“We are trying to become more creative, to allow for a lot more individual aspirations to be fulfilled, and different tracts within our education system to allow for the recognition of different talents,” she says. “So we’re meeting halfway, I think, with a number of the Northern European countries.

“A lot of people envy our centralised systems, the fact that we are so performance driven, because we have systems and frameworks to track that. So if you come from a standpoint where you allow individuals to have as many opportunities as possible to flourish, then you can’t really track them, because you’re not meant to track them. You’re just hoping that the sort of environment you’ve set up would allow for the nation to flourish.”

Dr Lim says there is a rhetoric in Singapore amongst academics and social commentators who say that the nation has been instilling in its students from a young age, that Singapore is a very small, vulnerable country, where human resources are the only resource it has, and that is why it can’t afford wastage.

“This rhetoric goes on to that sense of getting a lot of educators also very aware of geopolitics in the region,” she says. “That Singapore is vulnerable, that national identity is crucial, total defence is important, and education is one strong pillar of total defence.”

That feeds into the national culture of self-sufficiency. Because no one else is going to look after you. Especially after 1965 when it became independent from Malaysia, when it suddenly found itself on its own and fending for itself as a nation.

Dr Lim says that cultural mentality is a hangover from that time.

“It is a hangover, and it is still something we’re very conscious about,” she says.

“And it’s also what spurs our introspection all the time, that we have to keep getting better. We’ve got to keep improving, otherwise we’ll be left behind.

“Some social commentators a bit more critical of government rhetoric would say, maybe that’s just a bogeyman, we’re okay and we should chill and not be so tense about this.”

Some might call this paranoia, but on the other hand, there’s another argument that if you’re standing still, you’re probably going backwards.

That’s true,” says Dr Lim. “But it is tiring, to say are we ok? Are we measuring up? We love being on charts, you know, top this and top that, because that gives us a sense of benchmarking, but then you’ll never be satisfied.”

A nation in transition

Dr Lim says Singapore is always going to be a nation in transition.

She recently wrote an article for the BBC saying to a lot of students in Singapore that it’s not all about the benchmark. We asked whether she encourages her students to find within them what they find to be fulfilling, because it is beneficial to society if you’re displaying your great talent.

You’re referring to the article I wrote for BBC and that’s probably a year ago now and things have moved on,” she says. “Things have changed. At that point in time we had a number of new rhetoric or axioms from our Ministry of Education, and it would be things like all schools are good schools, and that there are more important things in life than grades. You don’t need a university degree to be successful.”

Dr Lim says Singapore has not scrapped that thinking, but it has moved on to also say, let’s help students find their passion and get a sense of personal mastery as students progress through the education system.  

“That can even start from elementary school, so that by the time you’re in a position to decide whether you want to go to university or not, you will at least pick something you enjoy doing and then become very strong in that and have deep skills for the new economy,” she says.

The impact of the new economy has come to play a more significant role than it did at the time she penned the BBC article last year.

“That additional economy message plays out in a few ways,” she says. “One is that even from elementary school we’re helping students with career planning, getting them to understand what their passion is, getting them to play with things, learn coding, learn about jobs beyond the standard ones that their parents would have told them about, like being a doctor, lawyer or an engineer.

“It’s playing out also in the sense that we don’t want the education system to be like a front loading machine, as in everything you’re going to ever need in life is going to be all there and then you’re set for life.

“It’s going to be a continuous journey and you’ve got to keep re-skilling yourself, which then backs that rhetoric that you don’t need a university education to be successful because companies now value skills. If you are a strong programmer, you’re going to be more valuable than someone with a graduate degree in philosophy or social sciences or something.”

Imbuing entrepreneurship

When we talk about entrepreneurship, broadly in the west, we often think of people like Mark Zuckerberg as the entrepreneur, but actually we’ve lost sight because self-motivation means that you have to dedicate yourself to something you find fascinating enough to sustain you.

We asked Dr Lim whether that is something Singapore is trying to imbue in young students.

“The schools have started with entrepreneurial clubs,” she says. “The spirit must be innovation, it must be an enterprising spirit, that curiosity. How the schools are going to put this agenda in together with all the demands of parents, especially still looking at grades and good schools. It’s going to be a challenge.”

Dr Lim says some may argue that entrepreneurship cannot be taught, and encourage throwing students or young workers into the deep end,  letting them learn how to deal with the hard knocks. But she says it is important to provide support that gives them a chance to come back and start again.

You can’t really teach it” she says. “But I guess an enterprising spirit can be built within an environment that allows for a lot of discovery and curiosity, I think you can set that kind of environment from a young age.”

Dr Lim says that in the early days, Edward De Bono’s philosophy of ‘Six Thinking Hats’ was a part of Singaporean curriculums, in a bid to nurture creativity in young people, but she says she doesn’t think it worked very well.

“I’ve seen the best and most creative elementary schools in Italy, in Austria, where the four year olds are swaying to Vivaldi and there’s art on the streets,” she says.

“I think creativity has to be built within an environment that allows for street art, allows for untidiness.

“Singapore is just a bit too tidy and clean. I think we try our best within a school setting but with a lot of limitations.

“We try to bring in the music and the arts, but if I talk from the point of view of an education policy maker, we don’t have enough arts and music teachers who are trained. When I went through school, the art teacher was just someone who had some spare periods and was just told to do arts and music and who was just singing to a piano. I didn’t pick up an instrument, I didn’t learn to read scores. So we didn’t have specialists in art and music, and we’re still trying to hire a lot of them to get them trained to be in our school system. But the music and art lessons tend to be crowded out by the hard sciences and the humanities subjects, the ones that really matter.”

While most educators want to see a change, Dr Lim says Singapore is realistic enough to know that the change can’t just be an ideal.

“Parental expectations, the universities that take their students in, they want to see more than just average grades,” she says.

Should school be an addendum to education? Should real education actually be happening at home? Because schools in the west get an awful lot of blame because parents are working all hours to pay off huge debts, and actually they say: ‘if you fail my child, it’s your fault, it’s nothing to do with me’.

“We have quite a bit of that too, because in Singapore both parents work,” says Dr Lim. “We are seeing a younger set of parents who are willing to sacrifice, meaning we’ve got ladies, professionals, who are willing to take time off, a few years off work, just to be with a child. So I think the more educated, younger parents, they’re going to say it doesn’t matter, the income, you know, we will manage, but it’s more important that I spend time with the children in their growing years. So I am fairly optimistic that there is still a strong sense of responsibility for education for a child at home.”

The countries to copy

Educator and author, Graham Brown-Martin tells Renegade Inc. that countries such as Singapore, Canada, and Finland have been regarded for many years as the leaders by most international metrics, and as a result have come to be regarded as the ones to copy.

“When a UK government official, for example, becomes the education secretary, off they trot to Singapore, or Finland, or Canada, to come back to the UK with a messianic vision of how to transform our education system, which to date has been around more rigour around academic subjects,” he says.

“And more testing. And even more testing. And if that’s not enough, let’s have some more testing. That’s what got us here.”

The issues around education, and particularly subject based education that’s measured by tests, is what comes out at the other end. What do we want to come out of the other end?

“Currently, we may have a child that comes out of school with straight A’s in a whole bunch of subjects but actually lacks autonomy,” he says. “Surely part of an education, part of school, is that we end up with autonomous learners, i.e. those that can solve problems themselves. Because the kind of jobs that we’re going to see in the future are ones, well I haven’t done that before, but I know how to figure out how to do that.”

Brown-Martin says the UK has an education system which is about be made completely irrelevant by the fact that all that information will sit inside AI, or a machine that will do those kinds of jobs. But he says this is actually good news because what that means is that we can robotise or automate the work, and humanise the jobs.

“One of the interesting studies was the Harvard longitudinal study,” he says. “It’s the longest study of what it takes to live well in the world, what it takes to be healthy, what it takes to be happy and so forth.

“It’s not the car you drive, or the job that you have, or the place you went to school. It’s relationships. And yet nothing in our education systems addresses that.

“And I think that’s something that we need to start bringing into education systems, because surely our education systems are about how we thrive, not just economically, but as a society.”

Tune into the rest of the episode above to find out how business is reacting to changes in the education process.

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