Why has Singapore failed to prepare its citizens adequately for the knowledge economy? Part 2

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This is Part 2 of 2. To read Part 1, click here.

 The Singapore model—why it struggles to produce knowledge workers

If we accept the argument that the average Singaporean worker will, compared to his/her paper credentials, underperform in a knowledge-based role, it is worth discussing some of the environmental and institutional reasons why.

This essay points to several factors: the nature of meritocracy in Singapore, the country’s pedagogical approach, the socio-political climate, and materialism.

Meritocracy

This section will build on an earlier chapter in this book, “Good meritocracy, bad meritocracy”, by discussing the specific challenges Singapore’s meritocracy has faced in the grooming of knowledge workers. It draws largely on the work of Stephen J. Appold, who, when at the National University of Singapore in 2001, published a paper entitled, “Is meritocracy outmoded in a knowledge-based economy?”

Appold’s main thesis now seems prescient: “I suggest that meritocratic institutions for selecting and grooming elite labor will become increasingly counter-productive. They become so by increasing labor costs and the need to import highly skilled labor. They can also encourage the emigration of some of the most highly trained members of the labor force. Further, they can decrease productivity by discouraging a large proportion of the labor force. Meritocracy may also be at least partially responsible for Singapore’s rather unique labor demography.”[i]

There are several critiques of Singapore’s meritocracy vis-à-vis knowledge work:

  • Early sorting of potentially valuable workers out of the system

Singapore’s meritocracy sorts students based on relatively narrow educational criteria. As entry to one school can greatly influence admission into the next, students compete ferociously from a very young age.

Today this pre-sorting begins at the preschool level, where children from higher-income families can afford to attend premium institutions while some of those from lower-income families do not attend preschool at all. This places them at very different starting points when they enter primary school.

This pre-sorting tends to demotivate students who do not make it into the elite streams. Some who can afford to will emigrate. Late bloomers have few pathways for educational or career mobility.

“My answer is preliminary and, without additional information, highly speculative,” Mr Appold wrote in 2001. “A system of meritocratic selection has placed large numbers of capable individuals in non-promotable pools, increasing the need to import labor.”

  • Meritocratic assessment not necessarily correlated with job performance

Those who finally make it may not necessarily be best suited for the job at hand—the correlation between narrow paper-based achievements and knowledge work performance is tenuous. “Although meritocracy is an achievement-based system of stratification, the criteria for the allocation of jobs are not necessarily relevant to the performance of those positions,” says Mr Appold.

Therefore, performance in Singapore’s highly competitive educational system can be a poor predictor of eventual knowledge work quality. One could argue that this holds true for any labour market. However, Singapore society’s laser-like focus on paper achievement perhaps exacerbates the market inefficiency. Hence the argument here is not that paper achievements are irrelevant; but rather that there are many other desirable attributes that Singapore’s meritocracy does not incorporate in its selection process.

There are supply and demand elements at play here. On the labour supply side, there exists a parental and societal culture that greatly values paper achievements over other pursuits. In terms of labour demand, there are many managers in both public and private institutions that continue to place an excessive premium on educational performance from yesteryear—as opposed to current professional attributes.

In 2010, a Singaporean who now works at The Economist Group applied for a job at a Singapore ministry. As soon as this person sat down for the interview, the interviewer said, “I’m sorry, but I see you come from the wrong school.” It was perhaps said tongue-in-cheek, but it nevertheless reflects the attributes that catch government recruiters’ eyes.

  • Institutionalisation of performance and hiring norms

Over time, meritocracies can breed a strict adherence amongst managers and recruits to performance and hiring norms that can seem archaic in a knowledge economy.

All the performance critiques mentioned above—less willing to challenge convention or question authority; more afraid to take risks/move out of comfort zone; and more likely to display a silo mentality with poor cross-collaboration skills—are arguably as much symptoms of labour supply issues (e.g. educational system) as they are labour demand characteristics (e.g. bosses’ wishes).

So, for instance, an average Singaporean worker may not be as willing to challenge convention or question authority partly because of that person’s development and upbringing—but also surely because that person may have, early on his/her career, worked for a Singaporean manager who discouraged those very things.

One axiom in Singapore’s labour market is that, compared to the traditional Singaporean boss, foreign bosses are often much more encouraging of reports who want to speak out, take risks and seek to expand their roles.

The behavioural characteristic that perhaps best demonstrates the tension between managers and workers is the Singaporean need for “face time” at the end of the work day. No matter how early they start work, many Singaporean workers feel the need to remain in the office well past a certain hour.

In some professional situations, workers feel they cannot leave before their boss does; in others, they feel that they have to outdo their peers. Often, no proper work is being done at these late hours—or, more likely, work is stretched out over the day in an unproductive fashion, in anticipation of the long hours.

This characteristic also again exposes the difference between the “manual work” and “knowledge work” mindsets. With manual work, there is an emphasis on “quantity”. Knowledge work, however, stresses “quality”.

Some Singaporeans in a knowledge work environment seem to believe that their performance depends more on quantity—time spent at the desk—rather than the quality of the work. Many of their bosses may feed this impression.

  • Meritocracies can discourage creativity

Strict meritocracies can dull a person’s creative instincts. If educational and job assessments are based on narrowly defined criteria, there is little incentive to experiment; rather, students and workers are prone to improve themselves only along those fixed parameters.

“In a situation where promotion is difficult and one is judged by immediate colleagues and superiors, it is easy to see how a meritocracy would discourage creativity,” says Appold.

Taken together, these critiques show how Singapore’s meritocracy probably has, over the years, resulted first in a sub-optimal selection of knowledge workers; and second in a professional environment where knowledge workers cannot develop fully.

There are hence several aspects of Singapore’s meritocracy that should be adjusted to enable it to better prepare Singaporeans for knowledge work.

At a macro level, Appold’s suggestions from 2001 are as relevant today. “The alternative to meritocracy is not to refrain from judgments about individuals but to delay them as long as possible, selecting on performance rather than merit. The early selection of elites through meritocratic processes serves to reduce the competition that encourages work effort by discouraging the majority of the work force. Maximizing the number of people in the pool of skilled, experienced workers may increase work effort and smooth labor supply bottlenecks. The alternative entails softening the boundaries of credentialing, decreasing faith in early judgements, and tying rewards and position more closely to performance than to criteria.”

These chime with many of the suggestions made in an earlier chapter of this book, “Good meritocracy, bad meritocracy”, as well as comments from some senior politicians—in September 2012, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s deputy prime minister, called on Singapore to foster a “continuous meritocracy”.

The government has made efforts to temper Singapore’s meritocracy. For instance, upgrading the standards and perceptions of vocational institutes over the past decade has partly mitigated the negative impact of early sorting on students who may have been streamed out of their desired field.

Pedagogical approach in schools

Singapore’s primary and secondary educational system is generally regarded as one of the best in the world. Singaporean students frequently score highly in international comparisons—for instance, out of the 65 countries and economies that took part in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009, which analyses the performance of 15-year olds, Singapore students ranked fifth in Reading, second in Mathematics and fourth in Science. The UK’s education secretary Michael Gove, among others, has repeatedly praised Singapore’s educational system.

Despite these accolades, it is apparent that Singapore’s pedagogical approach may not be preparing Singaporeans well for knowledge work. The main issue is an over-emphasis on rote learning—as opposed to process learning—coupled with insufficient attention on developing critical thinking skills.

The government has spent much time over the years analysing these pedagogical challenges and tweaking the educational system to address them. For instance, major policy initiatives include the Thinking Schools, Learning Nation effort in 1997, in a bid to foster greater creativity and innovation in students; the shift away from considering only GCSE (A) Levels for university admissions, following recommendations by The Committee on University Admission System in 1999; and the introduction of the Integrated Programme (IP) in selected schools in 2004.

Indeed, the underlying driver of many of these policies has been the need to prepare students for work in a knowledge economy. A related impetus was the sense that while Singapore’s educational system was doing an impressive job of instructing the majority of students, it was not advanced and flexible enough to accommodate students at the very top, who may have been held back in their development, particularly compared to their peers in countries such as the US.

There is certainly a sense in the labour market that these efforts have been moderately successful, with fresh Singaporean graduates perhaps more adept than previous generations at thinking critically and speaking out (notwithstanding other more general critiques of “Gen Y” globally).

Nevertheless, there is a long way to go: Singapore society—including parents, students and teachers—continues to place an excessive, unhealthy emphasis on rote learning, hampering efforts to groom knowledge workers.

Socio-political environment

There is a strong case to be made that Singapore’s brand of benevolent developmental authoritarianism was perfectly suited to the country’s early stages of development, but is completely ill-equipped to serve as a base for a knowledge economy.[1]

There are two strands to this broad argument. The first concerns the state’s role—as an economy transitions from an industrial to a more knowledge-based one, there is arguably a need for government-linked companies to retreat to allow more space for small-and-medium enterprises to flourish.

That discussion, while valid, is beyond the scope of this essay. The focus here is on the second strand, which concerns the socio-political environment’s impact on the average worker’s psyche and behaviour.

In a conversation in 2004, Michael Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School, told me that a benevolent authoritarian state, supported by strong institutional pillars, allows swift decision-making, effective policy and rapid implementation, and does away with some of the time-consuming ordeals of a nascent democracy, like petty politicking and populist grandstanding.

However, Mr Porter also stressed that when a country develops into a more service-oriented and knowledge-based economy, freedom of thought and expression become crucial.

This essay argues that the system that has served Singapore so well through its early stages of development is now proving inadequate. It has failed to foster the active, engaged citizenry that is the lifeblood of a knowledge society.

The government has for long seemed to believe that Singaporeans can grow into creative workers while having narrow, closed political minds.[2] That seems like wishful thinking. According to Waltraut Ritter, a knowledge management consultant, “Although there is no hard substantive evidence, there are signs that a completely free mind—free of fear, free to think or say anything at all—will be able to better innovate than a partially closed mind.”

A critical point here is that foreigners who perform knowledge work in Singapore are not encumbered by the same mental restrictions. They rarely read the local newspapers and are not immersed in Singaporean political affairs. For instance, a US citizen working in Singapore will probably spend a lot more time intellectually engaged with the US’s vibrant media and political scene than with, say, The Straits Times.

It is notable that all the other developed East Asian states—Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—have undergone political and social liberalisations well before Singapore, in tandem with their own respective transitions towards a knowledge-based economy.

There are, of course, many developmental experts and economists who might argue that Singapore’s current political “stability” is preferable to, say, the political paralysis one finds in Japan or the rough-and-tumble nature of Taiwanese politics.

Maybe. But it is probably no coincidence that all those countries have domestic populations that, compared to Singaporeans, are arguably more creative, dynamic and willing to take risks.

Hong Kong is a particularly relevant comparison. Hong Kong grants its citizens only limited electoral powers yet they enjoy all the traditional democratic pillars—including a free and independent press, thriving civil society and freedom of expression—one finds in liberal societies. Singapore is the inverse: its citizens have full electoral powers yet do not have access to those same institutions and freedoms.

In other words, Hong Kongers cannot really choose their rulers but, aside from that, live in a thriving democracy. Singaporeans can choose their rulers but live in a relatively listless democracy.

If we accept that Hong Kongers are more creative, dynamic and willing to take risks than Singaporeans, then an argument can be made that of the two illiberal democracies, Hong Kong’s is more favourable to the fostering of knowledge workers. That, in turn, should provide guidance to authoritarian regimes that are managing economic and democratic transitions.

It is also worth comparing Singapore to Malaysia, given the countries shared histories and cultural make-ups. A Singapore-based global product head at a US technology firm told me that the firm’s Malaysian recruits are more dynamic and entrepreneurial than its Singaporeans. Even though the Malaysians may not be as well qualified, they have more of a “can do” spirit and are more adept at their jobs. It is a view shared by several other executives from different firms.

For most of their histories, Malaysia and Singapore have seen single-party rule with relatively restrictive socio-political climates. However, one might argue that Singapore’s government—helped by the country’s small size—has been much more successful in controlling and dominating national discourse. Another reason could be that the Singapore state has been much better at providing for its citizens, breeding a greater dependence—hence, there is less need for people to act or think independently.

To surmise, the point here is to demonstrate that an authoritarian state is probably better at grooming citizens that will keep their heads down and work hard on defined tasks without asking too many questions—ideal for a “manual work” environment.

“They say people can think for themselves? Do you honestly believe that the chap who can’t pass primary six knows the consequence of his choice when he answers a question viscerally, on language, culture and religion? But we knew the consequences. We would starve, we would have race riots. We would disintegrate.”

– Lee Kuan Yew, The Man & His Ideas, 1997

By contrast, a more liberal democratic state is better at grooming citizens who will constantly challenge accepted wisdoms and can work with a lot of autonomy—ideal for a “knowledge work” environment.

What can be done to improve Singapore’s socio-political environment vis-à-vis knowledge work?

Perhaps the most desirable change is a liberalisation of Singapore’s media. Scores of senior HR and management executives have expressed the view that the government’s stranglehold over Singapore’s media is completely at odds with the desire to build a knowledge economy with workers who can think critically and discern right from wrong, truth from falsehoods.

Citizens and workers take their cue from what they see and hear around them. Until they believe that society condones open, honest criticism and questioning, they may never really feel comfortable doing the same at work.

Among other things, Singaporeans journalists have to be free to express themselves. In every other knowledge economy in the world, the best journalists shape opinion and provoke critical thinking. In Singapore, for the most part, they are news reporters.

The focus on media reform here is also because other political and social liberalisations that might help the knowledge environment—including greater political diversity, a more active civil society and greater freedom of expression—are well underway, particularly after the 2011 general elections, when the ruling PAP delivered its worst-ever electoral performance.

Materialism

Another reason why Singaporeans may not be performing to the best of their abilities in a knowledge role is because their materialist instincts draw them away from their ideal vocation to the one with the highest pay.

This is undoubtedly a global phenomenon. Amidst the soul-searching in the US in the wake of the global financial crisis, there were remonstrations about Wall Street’s magnetic pull on much of the country’s graduate talent. But the effect in Singapore appears to be magnified, i.e. materialism is more intense and consequently the skills-job mismatch is heightened.

“This ‘work for pay’ phenomena is also why companies hire expatriates over Singaporeans,” says a Singaporean who worked for many years in North America as a top executive at a global consumer goods firm. “My hypothesis is that most Singaporeans do not optimise their talent because they are not working in occupations that they love or which they are good in. All the top executives I have met have developed their talent not for money but because they love what they do. The money is a by-product. So, my observation is that the culture in Singapore severely distorts the talent market. You have a bunch of natural cricket players trying to play soccer because Manchester United pays well.”

In Singapore, with limited ways to spend one’s time, and few other means of building social capital, consumerism and materialism reign. Money therefore becomes the primary objective of professional life.

In a 2007 paper, Phyllis Ghim-Lian Chew at NTU called Singapore a materialistic and capitalistic society. “There is a very significant Singaporean trait that favours pragmatic ideals of immediate functional value and an indifference to relatively abstract concepts such as “culture” and “identity”. This materialistic perspective has catapulted Singapore into the developed league of nations and resulted in a population fearful of losing its economic advantages.”ii

Therefore, perhaps more so than in many other developed democracies, Singaporeans work in order to earn money—rarely for love, passion or interest, which are important motivators for knowledge work. The spiralling cost of living in the country, particularly with house prices, has exacerbated this challenge. For instance, many peers have commented that they would love to do something else but are too heavily invested either in their current property or the one they aspire to.

A related challenge is that Singaporeans can exhibit a peculiar short-termism when it comes to financial reward. An American venture capitalist in Singapore related anecdotes about several Singaporeans in start-ups, who during hiring negotiations are much more concerned with having a guaranteed 13-month bonus than in stock options.

All that said, it is not going to be easy broadening workers’ ambitions beyond financial pursuits. It is not even clear that society believes change is needed. Indeed, a traditional labour economics viewpoint might suggest that individual workers are behaving rationally—albeit with a short-term outlook—by seeking out the highest-paying jobs.

If anything, with Singapore’s concerted efforts to attract wealthy migrants from around the world, and the consumerist temples that have inevitably followed in their trail, it would appear that the country is being infused with more materialist instincts, not less.

Conclusion

If this essay’s thesis—that the average Singaporean worker will underperform in a knowledge role relative to his/her own paper credentials—is true, there are several implications for Singapore’s labour market.

When analysing firm-level behaviour in Singapore, it may be the case that at any given wage, a firm is more inclined to hire a similarly-qualified foreigner than a Singaporean for a knowledge-based role, because they believe the former will be more productive.

Indeed, just three years ago—before foreign worker numbers became a big public policy issue—I met several HR consultants who admitted that they have altogether stopped looking locally for certain hires, because the search costs are too high. Meanwhile, firms that can practise wage discrimination may choose to do so, offering the perceived lower-productivity Singaporean a relatively lower wage.

Furthermore, if, as a result of foreign-worker restrictions, firms are forced to hire more Singaporeans into knowledge roles than they otherwise would, this might have an impact on the firm’s overall productivity.

On a related note, in such an environment, Singaporeans who can demonstrate knowledge-work performance at the very highest levels—i.e. positive outliers to the general Singapore trend—will be in a strong bargaining position and their wages will be bid up.

At a broad national level, in order to drive productivity gains amongst locals, Singapore will have to focus on improving some of the softer aspects of the country’s knowledge environment—including liberalising the socio-political climate—in addition to the traditional focus on harder, technical improvements.

Finally, it is worth considering why, from a developmental perspective, Singapore did not make more aggressive efforts to improve the country’s overall knowledge environment at a much earlier stage. Much of the country’s focus has been on tweaking the educational system, with little attention paid to, say, the nature of meritocracy or the socio-political climate.

There are two probable reasons. First is Singapore’s extremely open immigration policies for highly-skilled workers, which have essentially meant that for knowledge roles, Singapore-based firms have always had access to a global talent pool. Therefore, at an aggregate level, any potential deficits in the local labour market would not have been immediately apparent.

The second reason is that Singapore’s economic success, in particular the rapid transition from a trading and low-cost manufacturing hub in the 1960-70s to a service- and knowledge-dominated centre by the the late 1990s, probably entrenched certain ideas and mental models amongst the governing elite about what makes Singapore tick.

These ideological biases made it difficult for the country’s educational, institutional and social infrastructure to reform and adjust to the demands of a knowledge-based economy. In other words, given that “the Singapore model” was successful in fostering talented, hardworking workers during Singapore’s early development through the 1990s, there would have been little impetus for significant change to prepare for knowledge work.

Indeed, it is only recently—with the benefit of multi-year observations of Singaporeans in knowledge roles—that more insightful analyses have emerged. That does, however, imply a greater urgency for Singapore to enact specific reforms in order to better prepare Singaporeans for work in their own knowledge economy. Among other things, this will boost Singapore’s overall productivity, lessen the dependence on highly-skilled foreigners and reduce resentment amongst Singaporeans against similarly-qualified foreigners who are currently being chosen over them for knowledge-based positions.

——————

This essay will be part of a compilation, “Hard choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus”, edited by Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, which will be published in early 2014.

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[1] Perhaps a more accurate descriptor than “authoritarianism” of Singapore’s political system is an “illiberal democracy”. I use both interchangeably here—the reasoning being that Singapore’s illiberal democracy is one governed, for all intents and purposes, by an authoritarian state.

[2] Government calls for greater political participation are only a very recent phenomenon


[i] “Is meritocracy outmoded in a knowledge-based economy?” Appold, Stephen J. The Singapore Economic Review, Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 18

[ii] “Remaking Singapore: Language, culture, and identity in a globalized world” Chew, Phyllis Ghim-Lian, Amy B. M. Tsui and James W. Tollefson (eds.), Language policy, culture, and identity in Asian contexts. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007, pp 75

Top image credit: http://www.hongkiat.com

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22 responses

  1. Thank you Sudhir for sharing this fantastically thoughtful piece. It’s particularly timely for me as this exact issue is something a colleague and I have been discussing over the past week. I’m an American expat and have been in Singapore for a year now working in the field of marketing.

    From the perspective of the marketing industry, I believe it’s going to be a huge challenge for Singapore in the years ahead to convince marketers and agencies to resist the inexorable pull of China and keep their regional operations based here. Up till now, the benefits of a stable government; well-educated, English-speaking work force; geographic centrality; and MNC-friendly economic policies have made Singapore the default choice for regional HQs.

    But I think we’ve reached a tipping point where the pros are outweighing the cons, with the lack of capable talent being among the chief downsides of Singapore (already, it’s incredibly rare to see a Singaporean in a director or executive level position at any global marketer or agency with a regional office here).

    This Ad Age article from 2012 speaks to this shift: http://adage.com/article/global-news/cincy-singapore-p-g-moving-key-hqs/235288/

    Some marketers, like P&G, are just starting to move operations to the region, and they’re still choosing Singapore. But those with experience in the region are already bypassing SG. Here’s a telling quote:

    “Jiri Kulik, senior VP of Reckitt Benckiser’s Latin America operations, noted that RB is focused on putting marketers in key countries within the regions—such as moving headquarters for China from Singapore to Shanghai … ‘It’s very nice living in Singapore,’ he said, ‘but you are not close enough to the Chinese consumer.'”

    And RB isn’t alone—just one more case in point: “Johnson & Johnson has even moved the global headquarters of its baby-care business from the U.S. to Shanghai, partly because that ‘s where Cindy Lau, the executive who was named to run it last year, lives.”

    Increasingly, China is not only where the market is, it’s where the best talent in the region is to be found. And Singapore’s historical reliance on foreign talent to fill these sorts of “soft” roles has, ironically, left the country poorly positioned to take advantage of the shift in the world’s center of gravity towards Asia.

    So, this is a very long-winded way for me to say that I agree wholeheartedly with your thesis that there must be “a greater urgency for Singapore to enact specific reforms in order to better prepare Singaporeans for work in their own knowledge economy.”

    One area that I hope you have an opportunity to explore further in a future piece is the “need for government-linked companies to retreat to allow more space for small-and-medium enterprises to flourish.” I see this as a critical issue because, as you note, government-linked companies quash SMEs and the innovations they spawn. As quasi-monopolies, these companies also effectively eliminate the possibility of failure and are, in my opinion, an important enabler of the culture of working for money rather than passion or interest.

    Thanks again!

    • Dear Ernest, thanks a lot. I learned much from this. As you say, there’s a lot more to be explored–the GLC/SME story is interesting from so many angles–hope to eventually find the time to do it! take care

  2. An excellent piece! Timely, and very concisely put. I am an ex-teacher, writer (both fiction and non-fiction), had been an entrepreneur, and now i am in the corporate world, so I have the privilege of looking at this issue from both the educator’s point of view, as well as one who looks at things from outside the education system. Now I look at it from the concerned parents perspective.

    I totally agree with you. Currently, I am writing a book on the 4 most critical 21st century competencies a student will need if he is to succeed. The reason why I am writing the book is because i look at my own children and asked if the current education system will give them the edge in the 21st century. What do teachers need to do? What do parents need to know? What do our children need? By this, I dont mean they need more programs, but what mindsets and competencies. I am glad that your views re-affirms some of the conclusions i have reached. You put them in a more scholarly perspective than I ever could.

    Thanks for the insightful read.

  3. Fantastic piece. I’ve always compared the Singapore education system to an old world war II bomb just waiting to explode.

    I’m a product of the Singapore system. Yet I’ve always felt something was drastically wrong with the culture here; it was like being Truman in the Truman Show. Too many times I felt I was being punished when I tried to break norms. From an analytic point of view, not only is the system discouraging creativity, it silences, ignores or punishes those who flout the rules of the game. Socioculturally, and this is a very subtle but powerful effect, because our values and hence yardsticks are ordained materialistically, the people around us who operate by these tried and tested conformist styles reject our novel ways of doing things. Yes, I’m referring to social capital: I personally have more intellectually flourished friendships with foreigners than Singaporeans in general. Instead of shunning my ideas, they welcome the radicality.

    Like that how to promote entrepreneurship sia?

    • “our values and hence yardsticks are ordained materialistically”.

      your comments remind me of my experience writing a book on Malaya while based in Singapore, 2006-12. During the creative process, I used to have conversations with foreigners, including lots of Malaysians. We would always exchange ideas about my arguments, or narrative style and structure.

      But when I spoke with Singaporeans, the conversation often–not always–quickly zeroed in on the “pragmatic”–“What kind of a career are you trying to build?” “Can you make a living off the book?” “What % of the sales do you get?”

      Of course, there is value in understanding the economics of it. But I think we Singaporeans focus too much on that even during the creative and ideas stage; I’m as guilty as anybody, have had to check myself sometimes when commenting on other people’s ideas.

      thanks for your thoughts
      S

    • It is clear that MOE fiddling with our education system to further its political purpose leaves it flawed and wanting in some of these critical ways that Sudhir’s article and others here are addressing. Yes, more people are getting an education, and of a kind that leaves many unable to think independently, expansively and with depth. It is an impoverished system that allows people with, say, a certain disposition or goal(s) to benefit from it. But this is going even further than what Goh Keng Swee originally intended when he started tweaking the system. He was concerned that our education system was turning out people who are not able to think (independently, creatively, boldly). I think he also realized that there are late bloomers, and so the introduction of the ‘express and normal’ stream to allow ‘slower’ students to learn and grow at their own pace without losing a place in it. GKS’s approach to education was to broaden the role and effectiveness of education, but it has since been controverted to identity and produce a ready supply of the cream of the crop ripe for the picking. This is a narrowing of the role and purpose of education, and an impoverished one.

      I believe that the role and purpose of education should be freed from the dictates of MOE for good reasons. So what is the kind of education do we want our children to have? I offer the following points for consideration:

      1. Is education merely the passing on of knowledge?
      If it is just for the sake of knowledge then trips to the local library could fulfill that. Instead let us look at the classroom as a place where knowledge is exchanged, discussed, dissected, and debated. This is to encourage mutual efforts for teachers and students to learn and grow as a result by engaging students in the process to curiosity, to inspire, to challenge, to think, and to ask questions.
      2. If knowledge is for its own sake, have we reduced it to a one-dimensional and ultimately self-defeating endeavour?
      So the danger from such a starting point risks compartmentalizing knowledge and an end in itself. Instead, we need to see education as an enriching and nurturing journey, an opportunity to bring out the human potential in right and good ways. Unlike people in Monsanto who are putting their knowledge of genetic engineering to adverse effect for society but reaping huge and ongoing financial returns for the company. Or say Microsoft and its monopoly of its operating system holding the world to its business and marketing practices for far too long. So yes, how we put our knowledge to use, good or bad, can be discussed if not settled in the classroom. Therefore, in essence, education is about moral values and ethical principles too!
      3. Is education merely a paper chase to ensure a financially and materially rewarding life?
      It is undeniable that many would want to have a financially and materially rewarding life for ourselves and children. But will not society and our families be ill-served when this is the main focus, if not the sole focus of education. We can challenge ourselves, our children and society to higher inspirations and goals in life surely! We want to ask honest questions of ourselves today – are we becoming doctors, lawyers, accountants, bankers, entrepreneurs, politicians, etc, because there is money to be made in those professions? Or is there more to the end of a professional calling? Have we considered seriously the vocational calling of being a doctor, a lawyer, a professor, an entrepreneur, a social worker, etc – for the betterment of society? Otherwise education as an end in itself spells trouble for society. Bankers who ace the financial system to enrich themselves without regard to the social costs to families, livelihood, institutions, and societies as a result of their actions. So the social compact and trust were eroded along the way. A higher purpose for education is the undergirding principle.
      3. Can we make education open a window or vista to more learning, understanding, and applications beneficial to societies, which includes the individuals? Of course, firstly education should not be made to be a social-engineering tool in the hands of the govt of the day or capitalists. Secondly, free it from being a paper chase, or the production of scholars, or the production of a requisite supply of a sufficiently educated workforce. Go beyond compartmentalized learning and manipulation to incorporate interdisciplinary learning, bringing out the essential ability/quality of making the correct co-relations, critical and analytical skills, independent thinking, and ability to form our own conclusion or conviction about what is.

  4. 2 Comments

    1. I find the quote attributed to LKY misplaced when framed in the context of your argument. Firstly, LKY was in a discussion on what he felt was endangering Singapore’s racial harmony. Though there were elements within it which hinted at controlling the thoughts of Singaporeans, his intentions in that statement were construed to be that of “the PAP will do what is good for Singapore”. He was determined to rule but not to control the minds of the people. Let them think and talk but control the symptoms/problems when they manifested itself.

    Yup. Just my two cents worth on that particular part.

    2. In part 1, when you discussed at length about the need for meritocracy being almost an anathema to producing knowledge workers, I felt you really hit the nail on its head. However whenever you mention the word, “average Singaporean worker” I struggle to put a profile of a person to it. At the moment based on the make-up of our workforce, do you think that the average worker is a person who needs to be innovating and questioning daily? My opinion is not. The job profiles put out and the demands of supervisors seems to in fact imply the exact opposite. Since the demand for workers is of a particular type, it cannot be said that the education system produces workers who are not creative knowledge workers since the system requires the exact opposite.

    Many Chinese and Indian students I have met abroad speak of the need to innovate and often they view themselves as being above-average, and hence their need to innovate. They almost exclusively reserve a condescending tone for those who don’t. My hypothesis is that the Singaporean education system needs to begin pushing students to see themselves as knowledge workers (even if they are not),and begin thinking of themselves as not just competing amongst themselves but against the world, the throngs of hungry, driven students from the developing world.

    Meritocracy should be the improving force and not the impeding factor in helping produce more knowledge workers. Harnessing it in a productive fashion though is the crux and I believe that it all starts with a simple mindset shift to seeing oneself as a knowledge worker from the onset.

  5. Comment from a Singaporean who migrated to Canada long ago:

    People in Singapore think that your tertiary scores are very high — contrary to the facts. By people, I mean the guys I talk to, many of whom you know. Much of this is also socio/political. When Lee Kwan Yew built the nation he built it on Confucian principles. I remember him saying once that the Singapore system was not transportable to the West because of cultural differences. It requires obedience, ritualistic conformity to the bureaucracy and all that good Confucian stuff. Unfortunately, the guy lived over 2000 years ago, and those are fundamental concepts are not really relevant in a corporate environment in 2013.

    Historically, my observation about the Singapore people is that we have hurtled from one dictatorial system to another. First, we were forced to be subservient to the British. Then, we chose another system that has turned out to be a form of “neo-colonialism”. Yes, it does come with all those scholars that end up in the bureaucracy and the East India Company [aka Temasek]. So, our country has been built on obedience to a master — unlike the United States which is built upon rebellion to British colonialism. History does shape the soul of a nation.

    But Canada shows that nations can change. Built on the “United Empire Loyalists” Canada wallowed in old-fashioned British values, protected by a tariff wall. When that wall came down under the NAFTA agreement in 1994, Canadians faced death or change, as they realized they couldn’t compete with the Americans unless they became as competitive. Today, Canada is still not as aggressive as the US — but it is probably 80% of the way there. But Sudhir, it takes a threat like death to change nations. As long as there is a cocoon, the caterpillar will remain this ugly worm, not realizing its true potential as a butterfly. Hey, maybe not a good analogy as the poor bastard dies in three days…ha, ha.

    I’m sensitive to this as I was born a Singaporean with the Western soul and mind. I remember writing to my parents after being in Canada for one month saying that I may have found “home” as I had been in this country for four weeks and no one has told me not to “talkback”. At home, I was harassed daily about this terrible flaw in my personality. Still have it – it is incurable!

    I have a friend who runs the Asian arm of the international consumer goods company in Singapore. I challenged him recently on why his company did not hire local Singaporeans in management roles. His answer surprised me. First, he said that they don’t come to the interviews, indicating that there was somewhat low interest in international careers. Then he said “they speak bad English compared to the Indians”. Apart from the inconvenience of having to train them in language skills, he looked upon it as an indication that these were not people who sought to excel in everything that they did — the most fundamental of which is speaking your language properly. Frankly all of this surprised me. Not sure what is at work here.

  6. From a Chinese Singaporean in his mid 30s:

    As someone who has largely lived on the margins of the system (long story!) I’ve always felt the same hunches that you have put down. My friends often ask me why I’m not like a Singaporean! Even my wife who is a foreigner said as much to me before we got married during her first visit to Singapore.

    I just want to add two comments. Firstly, it’s well and good to critique the system, but for those within it, it’s hard for them to find vindication outside of it until their talents are finally recognised. I considered myself in this category until recently but frankly enjoyed what I was doing too much to let it bother me. It may even be dangerous to speak out as it would often be interpreted as personal disgruntlement rather than the ability to see systemic problems for what they are. There is often a narrow line between the sage and the village madman. The point is that not only is there a narrow criteria in measuring achievement (grades, KPIs, bonuses, etc), but the institutions themselves that judge who are the ‘best’ are narrow too – too few judges with too narrow focus – it’s a double whammy. So everyone in Singapore accepts that a PSC scholar is tok kong but what about the couple that adopts 30 cats? People think they’re crazy instead. And when our scholars fall (and there have been far too many lately), because of the amount we’ve invested in them, it’s suddenly the national psyche that takes a beating (Schadenfreude aside).

    Secondly, the problem of the knowledge economy goes deeper than simply being better at gearing people for the knowledge economy. What is missing globally are ‘big picture’ specialists or generalists. Partly we’ve lived through a generation of generalists who may have been appealing instinctively but wrong in the details (Marx, Durkheim, Hayek, Keynes, Friedman, etc). Partly the world has gotten a lot more complicated and a vanishingly small number of people are able to put all the parts together again to analyze the whole (and inevitably attract a flurry of criticism when they try). Partly it’s because the education system is geared for training specialists in narrow fields, who may be brilliant in their respective fields, but then struggle when it comes to broader context. Yet such people are often inevitably asked to make this step because they were judged to be brilliant in a narrow field. Wall street bankers, to use your example, are a good case in point where at a micro level they made brilliantly creative firm-level innovations to boost profits, but at a macro level were disastrous. The problem is deeply structural that goes to the heart of modern capitalist societies.

  7. From a 30-something year old British-American who has worked in many countries, incl Singapore and Taiwan:

    Initial reaction:
    1. Much of your problem statement could apply to Taiwan too which undercuts your point on democracy. V little innovation here – and it’s a problem. What role does Confucianism play?
    2. Hong Kong is a mercantile, entrepreneurial culture – financial success has never come from being part of a bureaucratic elite – huge contrast to Singapore / Taiwan. I think the govt’s hiring policies out it in a role analogous to wall st in singapore.
    3. Intellectual curiosity – so little in singapore. When hiring in singapore I started asking all candidates where they had travelled abroad. Most had been to Europe and the US. V few had been to SEA as it was perceived as dangerous. I think that is very telling.

  8. From a Singaporean who works at a consulting firm here:

    One of the hypothesis why the Singapore model is designed in its
    current form is to serve a political purpose. To maintain a
    semi-authoritarian system, you do not want people to have too much
    creativity or ability to think outside of the box. I recall one
    Singaporean Minister said they want to train engineers, doctors,
    technicians and people with all sorts of technical skills, but not
    musicians, artists and people with a lot of creativity. The official
    reason given was that these creative people do not have much economic
    value, but one unspoken reason is these people are also more likely to
    question and challenge the existing system which could cause trouble
    for the government.

    So on the surface Singapore allows freedom of thinking and expression,
    but in reality through education and local institution they eliminated
    people’s ability to think freely. Thanks for Mr. Lee’s genius design
    of the system.

  9. From a Singaporean who studies at an American university:

    You alluded to this throughout – though for me, the key question is whether the limited development of Snigaporeans’ social and emotional intelligence in the education system (and society) subsequently stunts their ability to reflect their true abilities for knowledge work. In other words, while I fully agree with many of the behaviors you pointed out, I wonder if some of them stem from an inability to advocate for changes or express their ideas in a constructive fashion; I know of many Singaporeans (from all walks of life) capable of critical thinking, but cursed with the chronic lack of communication skills.

    Also, I think the education system has a bigger role to play that you may give it credit for. The problem is that the tweaks (including Project Work) are ill-conceieved/delivered at best, contrived and artificial at worst.

  10. Hi Sudhir
    Thanks for writing about this. I’m presently doing postgraduate research in the field of educational research and have interviewed a few individuals involved in setting up the large-scale educational research program for Singapore in around 2003. The response so far, has been even when working as talents coming from abroad to Singapore there have been limiting conditions of action (as compared to their countries). My work is trying to move away from looking at individual dispositions, traits and behaviours to trying to understand the conditions of (intentional) actions people have within a delineated (institutional) context which may limit or facilitate actions through a system of costs and benefits (for example, many mentioned the sensitivity needed in conducting certain kinds of research and so on). These conditions pre-exist in the forms of rules, etc. Some perceived limiting conditions seem to be drawn from past events but I guess with what has taken place recently with Cherian George some of these are also applicable and real in the present context. I think foreigners feel there are less costs attached to their more risky actions (they can always return to their country) and locals might feel that they have a lot more to lose – a couple of people I spoke to did mention this. Would be interested in some of your thoughts about all this.

    • Those fears, about being maligned, sidelined and/or marked and also of protecting one’s rice bowl, are real. With the Singapore govt being the ‘major or biggest’ employer here the sense of vulnerability is not just imagined or perceived, but real. I think you have to look at your research from the perspective and reality that it is a complex political, socio-economics and educational policies and network. Interlinking them allows control, realization and status quo. Understandably the unstated ideology and goals filter down so that through ‘fear, intimidation, perceived risks, personal costs in terms of career, effectiveness, identity and place in society, future and wellbeing of family members, etc’ are big risks/price that are determinants to how an individual would respond/behave. Of course you know well that to ensure your educational research is honest and taken seriously, anecdotal accounts will not convince the authorities. And substantiated evidence may not be forthcoming for the reasons of fear, repercussions, and high personal costs again. This alone is revealing – that the control and fear factors are pervasive and real. But the lack of evidence does not mean it is not the truth. It just means that the truth is buried deep

      Let me share a piece of anecdotal account by a friend, who is in the teaching profession, during lunch: If a doctor is not subordinate but would rather resign from a medical establishment, they (the govt owned/linked hospital) will ensure that the doctor will not be able to find employment elsewhere. Is that pervasive and ominous whisper? In one of the recent Population White Paper debate in parliament, a WP MP revealed that we have over a million people unemployed, of which 900,000 want to work if there are jobs for them. Juxtapose this fact with the reality that there are at least two million foreign workers/talents who are in the employ of govt-linked companies, govt agencies and stat boards, and the private sector. Another dot linked, another piece of puzzle matched.

      Best wishes to your research!

  11. Sudhir, either Singapore looks at its own people as uniquely endowed with specific talents and gifts or we look at each one as merely a statistics or economically instrumental rather than a human being with one’s own goal(s), aspiration, inspiration, and self-determination. The different admission quota for each discipline or specialty in universities are economically predetermined and artificial. This has disadvantaged those who are too poor to go overseas for their tertiary education, and in the long run pay a price in being shafted into a job or role that they are not equipped to do well.

    Of course, what you mentioned about the fear factor plays a big part in tiny Singapore where things are beyond well regulated. The fear of losing a job, fear of losing a promotion and increment, fear of losing one’s place in society, of not being able to keep up with the Jones, fear of losing face, etc, seems to be a condition that plague many in our society. it has become a materialistic and consumeristic society, so much so that we are also fast becoming one of the biggest polluters in the world as a result. Has any country, relative to their size, have as many retail outlets or supermalls as there are in S’pore? As many hawker centres, F&B outlets, foodcourts, cafes, and eating places, etc per square metre? And as many hospitals on this tiny island?

    Your point about meritocracy is also spot on, since the kind of meritocracy touted by those in govt has distorted reality, and true and authentic talents could very be bypassed because the conformity factor weighs heavily in the final assessment. That makes meritocracy a rubber stamping procedure that fools only those who swear by it. It is not just a pointless exercise but is getting ridiculous, superficial and artless.

    I concur with much of your other points, and would not go into them. But one point I would like to add is crucially how we live and work together to grow our society and people. Do we nurture in such a way that we recognize people as individuals uniquely one of a kind, with their own personality, attributes, identity, dignity and sense of direction and destiny? Or are we mere cogs in a one big economic wheel that gets fitted into it regardless of how willing and how suitable a person is? As is the current way of doing things on this island with growing the economy as overarching priority, and much else are secondary. Or is it time that we recognize that that way has been a costly endeavour, if not experiment. It is time to do things differently: by recognizing that freeing people to be who they can be, freeing people to use their particular intellect, their skills, talents, interests, specific knowledge and inclination to build a thriving society and people, and a real economy that flourishes as its workers do too? And this may mean that we do not work like clockwork, but we work effectively in a society and workplace that is richly blessed with people who realizes their uniquely their respective potential, as well as collectively, without losing their own identity, dignity and place in life and society as a result – because there really is no need for that to be the end result if conformity is a thing of the past! So let’s get real!

  12. “They say people can think for themselves? Do you honestly believe that the chap who can’t pass primary six knows the consequence of his choice when he answers a question viscerally, on language, culture and religion? But we knew the consequences. We would starve, we would have race riots. We would disintegrate.”

    – Lee Kuan Yew, The Man & His Ideas, 1997

    This statement says more about LKY than it does about those who can’t pass primary six, blah, blah…

    LKY obviously thinks that a person’s intellectual ability and viability is measured only by what level of education did one pass!!? We know for a fact that not every one is academically inclined. There are entrepreneurs who have little or no education, but they are resourceful and enterprising. And that is all that is good for them to make good in life. And those who thus succeed in life saw the need to build schools and hospitals or any other infrastructures and institutions that benefit and nurture their country and people. And it is done because inevitably education plays an important role with an open economy and an increasingly interconnected world. William Carey, a cobbler, educated himself, and went to India and did a lot of good work there.

    Formal education uses a ‘fixed’ approach to determine a person’s academic ability – the written exam. In S’pore we know that it used to be just rote learning. Memorize enough, spot the right questions, or practice hard on pass years’ exam questions – to do well in exams. But is that a sure measure of a person’s ability to think and react to situations? Is LKY implying that having a PhD means that holder will be even more superior in his/her thinking faculty specifically in relation to language, culture and religion the areas he indicated? Does he not see that as a lop-sided thinking failing to take into consideration many other aspects that help a person think well or otherwise?

    Firstly, failing to pass primary six may not be the failure of the individual but may well be due to other factors in the person’s life. The person may well grow up to think better without being told how and what to think or know or even read, Yacob Ibrahim recently let slip about MDA’s policy to tighten control over online media, which is one sure way of producing people who do not know how to think for themselves let alone have an opinion about language, culture and religion.

    Secondly, if an individual is engaged with society and its issues, and takes the trouble to educate oneself one can follow and critique any arguments, pros and cons. Let’s face it, we all need guidance when we first start out. But an education is a failure when we still need crutches to help us think. So yes, education is a help to a good extent. But it could also dampen and hamper independent thinking when conformity, fear, or costs to thinking otherwise is forbidding.

    Thirdly, I should also ask LKY whether anyone with just a secondary education will be able to do the job of prime minister of a country, or even be the president of a nation? John Major was elected PM of UK at one time. Wee Kim Wee was made president as endorsed by PAP. He had only a secondary four education, and became a journalist. If we follow LKY’s argument we should question whether Wee was intellectually up to it to understand and question the issues and people he followed up with in the course of his journalistic life?

    And does it mean that LKY, with a Bachelor’s degree in law, thinking in a balanced way? Or as his statement seems to claim, dare we say it is faulty logic and making the wrong co-relation? I think it is a way of thinking that shuts out other factors that has equal bearing on the issue he is trying to impress. At least we can see that his thinking was not quite up to par when it comes to the efficacy of higher education and his overhyped quality as seen by Lee.

  13. Hi, Im a Sporean whom just happen to do basic research and is now happily doing so overseas. My experience at one of the ‘top’ university in Singapore wasn’t positive. Unknown to all the uni’s basic science research is sorely mal-funded with the exception of life sciences. We struggled with funding and this is true to all my colleagues’ lab. But the lab i was in was certainly the ‘poorest’. However if you take a short bus ride to a certain research polis, you find drastic differences in terms of funding and facilities. Frankly i can tell you for sure our research productivity is higher than that certain polis’. It might help to know that unis are funded by MOE and that certain polis is by MTI. We always joke that the polis is just a waste of taxpayers money as a advertisement to impress investors and in hindsight now i feel it is so true.

  14. Singapore has failed to encourage creative people , as this gives problems of citizens accepting all that the government says . It has also failed to change its economy and because of an excessive population can no longer provide enough food and water to be sustainable , and like many other nations will be exposed to climate change an ocean level change .

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