The Singapore “Education Condition”

I recently read an article written by a friend on “Modern Education: The One Best/Worst System“, and it provoked so many thoughts. It’s well worth reading it in its entirety (I read it very slowly).

Thought I’d share some excerpts, which are such an apt rendering of the “education condition” (vs the “human condition”) we face today, and I’ve added some reflections too.

It has struck me that modern education is more engineered (or engineering) than ancient education. Ancient systems of education were more about ‘this is who we are’ and ‘this is what we do’, as seen from countless studies of ancient cultures and oral traditions. Modern systems of education are designed to produce factors of production in an economically optimal way (whether or not we can figure out what has to be produced).

The phases of modern education seem to be consistent in every system. At some point, a state, confederacy or other large organization thinks of education not as something that is intrinsic to the human condition, but as a preparation for life. This preparation is seen first as necessary for survival, and then as a necessity for economic productivity (which in modernising societies is perceived as tantamount to survival).

It made me wonder again, what is an education system really for?

Education has always been lauded as the silver bullet in breaking the cycle of poverty. It seems to be indisputable that every good child should go forth and try their best to excel in school. Even today, I tell my kids that they are so privileged to have open access to a ‘good education’, and that they should thus make the most of it, and try to excel.

Is it too cynical to think of modern education, or more specifically, Singaporean education as purely a means to the end of economic progress / survival? Some dissenters would be happy to caricaturise the system as a factory producing human widgets for Singapore Inc, only to disproportionately prosper the rich owners of capital.

Whatever it is, from the 1970s – 1990s, the Singaporean education system certainly had a clear and unapologetic stance towards being engineered to produce a work force with the skills that would drive economic progress. Certain disciplines and faculties were widely promoted, and classes opened to drive students towards graduating with certain degrees and skills.

The scholarship system is also clearly geared towards producing personnel in the required disciplines, to fill certain positions. Which is not wrong in itself.

Economic progress (prosperity? growth? non-stagnation?) is easy to pooh-pooh, but most of us rely on it, more than we care to admit. But the knowledge that the education system serves very distinctly as a means to an end (not a wholly dishonourable one at that), is sometimes overlooked in our myopic fixation on the here and now, on T-scores and the like.

Then, so what if we are now more aware of this? Should this galvanise deliberate choice to be a non-widget? Should we yearn for a return to ancient education (as something that is intrinsic to the human condition, as opposed to the training of mere factors of production)?

I suppose it’s not easy, and might not be wholly desirable to do so. There is sufficient room for choice, to a large extent, in today’s system, to determine what course of study one ultimately pursues. We are slightly less Orwellian than being tagged from birth to eventually apply for a Life Sciences course in 18 years’ time, so to speak.

In many ways, encouraging students to specialise in areas where they can find jobs, be productive, and work to the glory of God, is not a bad thing. It shows foresight, and is almost necessary, for planners of a nation’s continued survival and relevance to the rest of the world. And ultimately, I guess it is up to the individual, to choose the area of study and work that he or she will devote most of his / her time to, according to their priorities in life.

What I found really insightful, was the article’s rendering of the tuition situation we find ourselves in. My guess is that MS is a reference for tuition/enrichment.

… the system has shifted away from one that is driven by quality of school and teacher, towards one that is driven by performance of student. It is like choosing bioengineering and GM seeds to compensate for bad soil, bad farming practices, and bad farmers (or at least, indifferent soil, farming practices and farmers). Once you go down that road, you will not bother to think about good soil, good farming practices and good farmers. Rather, you will look at the huge crop yields from your GM seeds and imagine that the soil, farming and farmers are good because you are using GM seeds.

But is such a system bad? In a warped way, it isn’t that bad. You’ve produced self-modifying GM seeds and GM-seed laboratories. This means you no longer have to invest in the messy business of skilled farming; any fool can plant the seeds and get a good crop. In fact, with fertilisers from some specialist corporate entity (let’s refer to it as MS), you don’t even need to bother with soil quality. MS fertilisers with MS GM seeds will do it all for you.

The downside, of course, is that you are now beholden to MS. If you ever need good farmers, good soil, good farming practices, it will be a long, hard struggle to get them back — especially after you have redefined ‘good’ to mean ‘makes adequate use of MS stuff’.

I feel that this is the tragedy we are faced with today. There are good teachers labouring out there, but what the system prizes and rewards is the performance of a self-modifying GM seed.

What then?

Some enlightened consumers will then look at the system and aim for philosophical reform. This is like trying to farm organically instead of by relying on MS. It is expensive, only rich people can afford it, and even though the rest of us can’t afford not to have it, it will remain that way. Worse, a lot of cheap knock-offs will be created that look like the expensive stuff but get results by dirty means — this is the case with so-called ‘traditional Chinese medicines’ that have liberal helpings of steroids mixed into them.

What then can be done about modern education? The answer is, “Not much.” It is all a farrago of misapplied science and misconstrued statistics. The challenge that an educational reformer faces is to find good educational research and have it cleverly applied by good educators. That, my friends, is another story altogether.

It is probably also another story altogether to ask if an educational reformer can only be one from the top. Can there be educational reform from the bottom-up? If more parents eschew MS and work with good farmers to organically farm, does it mean that there will be less of a GM system?

Realistically, as long as GM results are lauded and rewarded in the short-term, my guess is that it will be hard. Perhaps one of the first steps should be to stem the migration of disillusioned good farmers who join MS in ever-increasing numbers, thus exacerbating the vicious cycle of having an over-concentration of resource in MS, further depriving organic seeds of good farming.


This has gotten too long already, but NMP Kuik Shiao-Yin’s recent speech in Parliament also resonated with me. The media only highlighted the ‘sexy’ populist passages, but to me, this was the paragraph that stood out.

On changing the National Habit of Fear, the scarcity mindset of the zero-sum game and the kiasu tuition arms race by parents today, Shiao Yin cites contentment as the alternative.

“So the most honest alternative to scarcity is actually not abundance, but satisfaction. It’s the mindset that says “Whatever we have, it’s enough. I have enough. I am enough. So I want you to have enough too.” It’s what allowed that famous “Jackpot Auntie” to give away her casino windfall of half a million dollars not once but twice to charity. When reporters asked her why she would do something like that when she wasn’t rich, she just said, “I have all that I want”.

When we are satisfied, we are far more willing to give something of ourselves. From that mindset of satisfaction, will flow a desire to share decisions, information, recognition, profits and yes, the tax burden for social spending. Only when we are deeply satisfied will we want to subtract some value from ourselves to multiply the value that can be had by all. “

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  14 comments for “The Singapore “Education Condition”

  1. Dee
    April 29, 2016 at 9:40 am

    Thought provoking and very relevant discussion for parents! Singapore’s education climate has always been branded a pressure cooker and academic results are celebrated. Only in recent years, there’s an attempted shift to enhance other aspects of a child’s development but yet, it always syncs back to their scores. Oh well… Guess that’s the tricky part of having little or nearly zilch natural resources and the only chess pieces we have are its people.
    Dee recently posted…“Being a Mother” Should Go On Our Resumes – Why Not?My Profile

    • May 3, 2016 at 10:18 am

      Yes, I do agree that it’s Singapore’s reality at the macro level that if its people do not work hard, we really will be pushed back by the tide because as it is we always have to swim upstream. At the micro level, the tuition culture is really deplorable though, and I do wonder if we can have a tuition-free society that still prides itself in the quality of hard work. Perhaps the tuition culture is also driven in part by parents who have to put in too many hours at work, that they do not have the time to help their kids themselves. What a vicious cycle.

  2. April 29, 2016 at 9:48 am

    Now that S has entered Pri Sch, I can see why so many parents say that the education system is so stressful. The quest for grades makes it hard to cultivate curiosity and a love for knowledge because it’s now expected and even demanded of you if you don’t want to fall behind. Going against the flow is not easy especially when our kids are the one in the system and we just have to keep them grounded that grades solely do not define them.
    Susan Koh recently posted…First family run for 2016 at The Music Run by AIAMy Profile

    • May 3, 2016 at 10:16 am

      Yes, it’s not easy and to a large extent we are trapped because we also don’t want our kids to get totally demoralised from consistently not doing well. And I guess many of them do have the potential to do well if they work hard. There’s always such a tension between getting them to be industrious, and not stressing them out. Sigh!

  3. April 29, 2016 at 9:54 am

    Education system has always been in the discussion. grading in psle.. choosing of schools .. tuition.. Sometimes there’s so much of it that it comes to the question: is it what parents want or what the children like and can achieve.
    Phoebe recently posted…Tulipmania Rediscovered : Ottoman Empire (The Origin of Tulips)My Profile

  4. April 29, 2016 at 10:51 am

    Education System is a topic where we find different opinions and constant brainstorming tends to go on to improve it. According to me, education should be such that kids won’t feel the stress of it and something that will prepare them for life in a fun and hands-on way.

  5. April 29, 2016 at 12:14 pm

    To me, education is a lifelong process and doesn’t stop just when you end school. We need to focus on it journey, rather than a means to an end. I think that would help lessen the stress and burden some of our children (and parents!) feel in the current education system.
    Ai Sakura recently posted…Bub & Me: Singapore’s First Snoopy Run!My Profile

    • May 3, 2016 at 10:14 am

      Agree it is a journey, and hot-housing is just like forcing your body to sprint at the starting line of what’s a 100km race. Counter-productive in the long run.

  6. April 29, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    The Singapore education system had been a long debated subject amongst the parents, the man-in-the-street, educators and law makers. Personally I think there are 3 broad groups of parents: 1 who still subscribe to the 90s school of thought that drilling our kids are the right and only way to success. 2 – those who want a more liberated education and cite overseas education systems as the way to model after. 3 – those who in between 1 & 2. I think Singapore is very unique in our methods and education system. We strive to be the best in the world because we are that small; but the climate is changing towards more empathy and more inclusive education. Agree with your ” When we are satisfied, we are far more willing to give something of ourselves…”. Thanks for sharing thoughts. 🙂

    • May 3, 2016 at 10:13 am

      Maybe when more parents have ‘been there done that’ and realised that academic success is not all it’s cooked up to be… then society will start correcting the crazy slant towards pursuing that 100 marks at all cost.

  7. April 29, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    I can read many points which only parents can understand and feel the pinch. When even parents start comparing their kids based on the school they are attending without even seeing how they confidently they are growing. I dont think so results are the only indicator of success.

  8. April 29, 2016 at 6:17 pm

    Yes, I wish the educational system is more holistic. Instead of just teaching based on a book. Result books should never define success.

  9. May 3, 2016 at 9:36 am

    We are in it, it is hard to get out of it, unless:
    1) We leave S’pore
    2) Opt for International Schools when our children have completed PSLE
    3) Have the money because of (2)
    4) Homeschool

    I am still struggling within myself how not to go with the flow.

    • May 3, 2016 at 10:12 am

      You have definitely been thinking through this! I guess we can try to swim against the tide to a certain extent, and hope more people join us. There might not be much change ultimately, cos Singapore has its own geopolitical realities to grapple with, but I think starting with the ‘we have enough’ mentality, there might not be such a crazy arms race in terms of grades.
      Migrating is not really an option that most would consider, international schools have their own problems (low standards of morality?) even if one could afford it, and homeschooling is really not the best option for every family / mother.

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