Singapore is an extraordinary success story. In less than 50 years, it has gone from an impoverished island with no natural resources and a population a majority of whom were illiterate to a country of 4.7 million people with living standards that match those of the most highly developed industrial nations. From the very beginning, Lee Kuan Yew, the world-famous prime minister who led Singapore to this achievement, understood that education would be an essential element in the creation of a single unified nation from a group of clashing ethnic and religious groups and in the development of the kind of world-class workforce that would be required to fulfill the very ambitious economic goals he had set for Singapore.
Among the reasons that Singapore was so successful in building a world-class education system from such an unpromising beginning in so short a time are the following: 1) Lee Kuan Yew selected many of the most capable people in Singapore to serve in government, giving him a first class team to set policy and to get it implemented (many of Singapore’s civil servants have been educated at the best universities in the world and are paid salaries comparable to what they could earn in the private sector); 2) he made sure that government policy would be informed by intensive global benchmarking before policy was made, so that Singaporean policy would reflect the most effective policies and practices in the world; and 3) he made sure that Singapore would take special care not only in the development of sound policy but paid equal attention to the careful, deliberate execution of those policies. Singapore follows through.
There is perhaps one other factor of this sort that is important to mention. More than in most other countries, great care is taken, when new policies are considered, that they are designed in such a way that they complement the policies already in place, or that all related policies are changed, so that, in any case, policies and practices reinforce each other in their effects, creating powerful and highly effective systems. This is strikingly true in the arena of education. Because the improvement of education was, from the start, seen as a major strategy for accomplishing Singapore’s ambitious economic objectives, the country’s economic needs have played an important part in defining education policy.
Education policy-making in Singapore has gone through three distinct phases. In the first, the focus was to produce basic literacy in a population many of whose members were previously illiterate. In this phase of education development, Singapore was selling cheap labor on the world labor market, and it was very important that that labor be literate.
In the second phase of the development of the Singaporean economic system, the government was seeking to shift its competitive advantage in the global labor market from being the low cost of its labor to the quality of its labor, so that it could compete for businesses that would not just locate in Singapore, but locate work in Singapore that would pay well. So the focus of education policy shifted from basic literacy to quality and to the retention of students in school. The focus of policy became how to get all students to global education standards. In this phase of the development of the education system, streaming was introduced at the end of the fourth grade, based on the performance of the students in their native languages, so that their teachers could pitch their instruction to the level of mastery of the students. At this time, however, after these second phase reforms had been implemented, the lowest track students in the streaming system were performing above the average performance of students in the industrialized nations, a remarkable achievement. The Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore was established to support the development of the different streams with high-quality and consistent educational materials. Much of this curriculum development was done with an eye to Singapore’s economic development needs.
In the 1990s, the government implemented the “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation,” program, the third phase of development of Singapore’s education system. The government had recognized that global economic leadership required not just a highly educated and skilled workforce capable of doing high value added work but a workforce that would have the habits of mind, values, attitudes and skills needed to develop leading edge products and services. So they focused in this stage on improving even further the quality of their workforce and on curriculum and instruction that would support the creativity and capacity for innovation of their students.
In 2004, the government developed the “Teach Less, Learn More” initiative, which moved instruction further away from the rote memorization and repetitive tasks on which it had originally focused to deeper conceptual understanding and problem-based learning. In 2008, the practice of grouping students into ability-based tracks was abandoned with students now sorted into three different “bands” in secondary school based on their ultimate educational goal. Although students take the majority of their classes within their bands, they can take classes in other bands depending on their aptitude. This new system has meant that 60% of all students take academic classes in upper secondary school. In 2009, art, music and physical education all gained a larger role in the overall curriculum. Recently, Singapore introduced the TEACH framework to further support teacher-led professional development and work-life balance, as well as earmarking funds for a more holistic approach to education in primary and secondary schools. Finally, the Ministry has rolled out new initiatives dedicated to providing financial aid for students in need, signaling a renewed commitment to educational equality.
Through all the phases of development of its education system, Singapore has put ever-greater emphasis on raising the quality of its teachers and its education leaders. Singapore’s teachers are drawn from the top third of their secondary school class. Beginning teachers are compensated at levels roughly equal to beginning engineers. They are trained in one of Singapore’s most prestigious higher education institutions. Singapore goes to considerable pains to identify the teachers with the greatest potential and then give them the training and job opportunities they need to climb up well defined career ladders that offer a variety of career paths to top teaching leadership positions in teaching, leadership and the ministry.
Though Singapore now boasts one of the world’s strongest school systems as measured by international comparisons of academic achievement, this has not come at the expense of vocational and technical education, at which it also excels. Central government planners were well aware that they could not achieve the nation’s economic goals unless they could offer the world’s premier companies highly trained technicians who had globally competitive skills in everything from factory automation systems to computer systems management. In the 1980s Singapore invited several of the world’s most advanced industrial nations to establish, at their own expense, specialized industrial training schools at the upper secondary level in that country. Some of these schools created programs that have since been consolidated under the aegis of the Nanyang Polytechnic, which has since become the hub of Singapore’s world-class technical education and training program.
Today, Singapore is home to one of the world’s largest and busiest ports. It is also one of the world’s major telecommunications hubs and a leader in consumer electronics, pharmaceuticals, financial services and information technology.
It is no accident that Singapore’s educational institutions, from its schools, to its polytechnics, to its universities, are among the most admired in the world. Once this tiny country had succeeded in raising its literacy levels to the point at which they made its relatively low cost labor competitive on the world market for low skill, low cost labor, it kept ratcheting up the skills of its labor force so that its people could add more and more value to the products and services it produced, resulting in a steadily rising standard of living for its people. The result is a population that is among the most technically competent in the world. Its challenge now, as it knows, is to make sure that it is also among the most creative and innovative in the world.
Singapore’s Education System at a Glance
Video: “Take a Lesson from Singapore,” Dan Rather Reports, HDNet
Video: “Education is Our Most Important Investment – An Interview with S. Iswaran, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Trade and Industry and Ministry of Education,” NEA Today
DEMOGRAPHIC AND ECONOMIC INDICATORS
Source: CIA World Factbook (September 2013)
and OECD Education at a Glance 2013
PISA 2009 Mean Scores by Country for Reading, Mathematics, and Science