Smarts No Longer Good Enough For Singapore Students

By Rhea R. Borja — June 23, 2004 6 min read
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A recent Singaporean film, “I Not Stupid,” recounts the travails of three 12- year-olds categorized by their school as not too bright. School officials streamed the boys into courses labeled “em3,” the academic basement of the country’s hypercompetitive education culture.

The first student, Kok Pin, is more artistic than academic, so his interests don’t fit into the school’s math- and science-heavy curriculum, much to his parents’ dismay. The second boy, Boon Hock, doesn’t have much time to study. He has to work at his parents’ “hawker stall,” or roadside cafe, to help make ends meet. The third, Terry, doesn’t succeed in school for different reasons: The movie portrays him as lazy and spoiled.

Many in this small but powerful city-state often smile and shake their heads in aggrieved amusement over their culture’s emphasis on education and the standardized tests that sort students academically.

To some, in fact, it may seem that education here is akin to competitive sports. Mathematics, science, technology, and other academic competitions abound, and the accomplishments of secondary and university students are routinely noted in The Straits Times, the nation’s largest newspaper. High-stakes test scores also make front-page news, in which schools are ranked first to last.

Singaporean students are also known the world over for their high test scores on international assessments such as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS.

So perhaps it wasn’t a surprise when “I Not Stupid” became a box office hit.

But many educators, political leaders, and businessmen and women here say the city-state needs more than just smart people. It needs entrepreneurs and leaders, people who don’t merely work for the multitude of locally based transnational firms, but who have the vision and courage to start and nurture them.

‘Being Nimble’

To satisfy those needs, Ministry of Education officials acknowledge that the education system must change from a traditional “learn and drill” approach to one that reflects a more Americanized style: student-directed, entrepreneurial, and creative. Other Asian countries, such as Japan and Korea, are also slowly transforming their education systems in that way.

Otherwise, Singapore will be in danger of becoming overpowered by its bigger Asian neighbors, such as Malaysia and China, say some observers.

“The world is changing very fast. It’s not a manufacturing-based, but a knowledge-driven economy now,” said Thiam Seng Koh, the educational technology division director in the Education Ministry.

Notes Robert Kozma, an expert in international education and the director emeritus of the Center for Technology and Learning at SRI International Inc., a research institute in Menlo Park, Calif.: “Singapore is very sensitive to its status in the global and regional economy.

“They see themselves as a player, but because of their size, a small player. They could easily be marginalized by global trends,” Mr. Kozma said. “On the other hand, they see themselves as being nimble and can change very quickly.”

Testing Rules

Still, test-taking is de rigueur in Singapore—indeed, the backbone of the education system. Students take exams throughout their 13 years of compulsory education, but the ones that count the most are the Primary School Leaving Exam at the end of Primary 6, or 6th grade; the Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education “O” Level exam or “N” Level exam, at the end of Secondary 4, or 10th grade; and the GCE “A” Level exam, at the end of Junior College 2, or 12th grade.

Increasingly, students are also taking other high-stakes tests, such as the SAT, to get into university. Against such a backdrop, academic competition in Singapore is fierce. Students who do well on the tests not only take more rigorous courses, but also attend better schools than do their peers who don’t score as well. Tests can determine whether a student will go to one of the best upper-secondary schools, such as Raffles Girls School or the Chinese High School, or end up in a neighborhood school.

Consequently, many parents spend hundreds to thousands of dollars each year on extra math-and science-preparation workbooks and practice tests for their children, after-school or weekend test-prep or drill courses, and, in some cases, even a private tutor—anything to get the edge to earn a highly coveted slot in a top school.

“It’s not good, the system the way it is. There’s too much stress,” one Singaporean mother said of the country’s cultural obsession with test scores.

“Parents here will do whatever they can for their children to get ahead,” added Joseph Tan, the director of support services at the Chinese High School.

Americans, depending on their views of the accountability provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, may see Singapore’s education system as either a cautionary tale or a bright hope of what public education in the United States can become.

“Singapore is an advanced warning of test-fixated education,” said Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based organization that opposes high-stakes testing.

“The fact that other Asian nations are moving away from this testing obsession to a more flexible one should remind American policymakers not to lose the positive parts of our education system.”

Teaching Risk-Taking

Singaporean officials, meanwhile, have tried to capitalize on many elements of the U.S. system. In the late 1990s, the city-state launched a national plan to integrate technology in education to help jump-start student innovation and abstract thinking.

“We have to prepare ourselves and our children to be discerning and astute users of information as well as creators of knowledge,” said Chee Hean Teo, then the minister of education, in a 1997 speech to introduce the technology plan in schools.

The Chinese High School is one place that’s taken the message to heart. Officials in the past few years have changed the curriculum and encouraged students at the all-boys school to craft business plans, often with the help of technology, for their ideas.

Kee Lock Chua, an entrepreneur and Chinese High parent, volunteers there as a mentor in an after-school entrepreneurship program that incorporates technology. Mr. Chua is a product of some of the city-state’s best schools, but he’s unlike most Singaporeans: He quit his job as deputy president at NatSteel Limited, a Singapore-based steel company, after 12 years to start his own dot-com company.

Many of his friends and family thought he was crazy for leaving a safe, high-paying, well-respected position for what they considered a pipe dream. In fact, Mr. Chua found it difficult at first to recruit workers for his new venture because they were afraid he wouldn’t succeed.

But his fledgling company, which provides voice-over Internet capability, an emerging technology that enables people to speak online, thrived. The number of employees grew from a handful to about 150, and the company, MediaRing.com Limited, opened offices in London, Shanghai, China, and Northern California. It went public in 1999.

Mr. Chua eventually divested himself of the company, and decided to take his entrepreneurial skills to another level. He is now the managing director of a global venture-capital firm, the San Francisco-based Walden International, which also has offices in Singapore. What he wants to do at Chinese High is to foster a sense of adventure and risk-taking in students, he said.

Singaporean culture frowns on people who don’t play it safe, Mr. Chua said, so he applauds the changes the Ministry of Education is making to the curriculum and especially the lead Chinese High has taken to produce more entrepreneurial and inquisitive students.

“The concept of failure in Singapore is not acceptable,” he said. “This is a country that’s never failed. But unless you encourage risk-taking, this country will stagnate.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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