The Flipside

The problem with Singapore’s education system

Do Singaporean students lack drive? And if so, why? (AFP file photo)


In a new column called "The Flip Side", local blogger Belmont Lay lets loose on local politics, culture and society in his weekly musings. To be taken with a pinch of salt and with parental permission advised. In his latest post, he talks about what's wrong with Singapore's education system.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat has come out openly to say that a lack of drive in Singaporean students is worrying.

And it is not as if he is completely wrong.

Look, I do agree. Some students lack drive. They want to be spoon fed. They want everything served on a silver platter. And they ought to be despised.

But at the very same time, it is not their fault.

It is daunting to be consistently motivated in Singapore, whether you're a student or otherwise.

So herein lies the greatest irony of all: the very first hurdle to be overcome is our education system.

Result-oriented education

Anybody who has gone through 15 to 20 years of studies in Singapore will tell you the same thing. There is an overbearing focus on grades and paper qualifications are elevated to unholy heights and worshipped.

Students are taught to be risk-averse in our rigid and conformist education environment. Plenty of precious energy and attention is diverted to practicing answering questions correctly.

The school curriculum runs on a syllabus with answers to questions that are either right or wrong. And there is limited upside to being too creative when taking exams.

Students are reduced to giving textbook answers to textbook questions.

Walk into any Popular bookstore and tell me it doesn't make good money selling 10-year series textbooks and assessment guides providing model answers.

Eventually, it is difficult to unlearn the bad habits instilled by education.

Risk-averse national education

And this brings me to my next point.

Even our national education preaches the need to err on the side of caution.

The entire narrative of The Singapore Story is couched in the language of risk aversion.

What are some of the things we've been told over the years?

One wrong move and we'll lose everything we've ever built.

Singapore is barely a country, let alone a nation.

We're a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, so think twice before doing or saying anything that will jeopardise whatever we've achieved.

Singapore cannot afford to have too many competing factions and competing interests.

Singaporeans must all act as one and move ahead as one.

We must take the lead from competent leaders.

Doesn't any of these aphorisms sound familiar to you?

Make no mistake at all because to be driven requires fuel.

And to be driven to do anything remotely spectacular and risky, that fuel should come in the form of risk-bearing behaviour, an attitude that is robust to failure and an unyielding desire to have fun while at it.

Sadly, none of these values can be taught in schools.

Fix education system

All these issues mentioned so far are related to why students might not be as driven as they should be.

Students cannot feel like they are in charge of their own destinies.

So, whoever in the future is going to fix our education system has to acknowledge that things operate on a vastly different logic outside of the education realm, and channel that knowledge back into classrooms.

This means, no more focussing on giving the right answers. Because the right answers sometimes don't exist.

And for a start, students need to find out about the alternative histories of Singapore.

Only then will they realise that the future is even more open-ended than the past and they can be the movers and shakers who will take Singapore into any desired path next time.

Because as it is, the education system simply doesn't train people to be deviants who tinker and meddle with the established order.

Singapore badly needs "tinkerers" -- people who are daring, who can fidget about, diverge from the beaten path and bear the risk of experimentation.

Daunting rules

But the truth of the matter is, this will be impossible to achieve as the rules and regulations that govern Singapore are exceptionally daunting at times.

Simply put, restrictions to curb your enthusiasm are institutionalised. And you don't even need a student to feel that way.

Take for example, Tan Jee Say, the guy who ran in both the General and Presidential elections last year.

Just last week, he set up a base in Orchard Road to host discussions.

He acquired the space lawfully. He is paying rent. Everything he is doing is above board.

But it now appears he might be flouting some terms and conditions because "hosting political activities" doesn't fall under the tenancy agreement of "restaurant and office use only".

I mean, come on, right?

All he wants to do is gather some people every week to sit in a circle and talk about stuff.

Why make things so difficult?

The way forward then is to shake up the foundations of our education system. Free up the requisite spaces.

Relinquish the stranglehold on people, while letting them decide on what can or cannot be done.

Until then, we'll see if we can get students to feel more driven.

Belmont Lay is one of the editors of New Nation, the third most overrated online publication in Singapore.