SINGAPORE – Since the PISA results came out in 2015, announcing that the Singapore Educational system ranked number 1 in the world in terms of Maths and Science, all eyes have turned to Singapore – hoping to learn its secret recipe. Visitors flooded into Singapore asking similar questions of what the country did right to get there. But the path to Singaporean educational success is not a straightforward account that can be xeroxed elsewhere in the world. Rattana Lao talked with Professor S. Gopinathan, Academic Director of the HEAD Foundation and an expert on Singaporean Education on this 50 years journey to inculcate strong meritocratic values and the price Singapore has to pay for this miracle.
Q: Is Singaporean education the number one in the world?
It all depends by what it meant by number one in education. If you go by international assessments like PISA, Singapore is the best. But it has not always been the case. For a long time, Finland was regarded as the number one. To answer this question, it depends on the results. But it is definitely a high performing system, consecutively top five in term of TIMSS and PIRLS. If you take that broad view, Singapore can be described as a high performing system across number of international league tables.
Q: What are some explanations for Singaporean educational success?
I would answer this with a 3 C’s framework: Context, Culture and Capacity.
In Singapore, the economic and cultural contexts demand emphasis on human capital building. Given its small size land, small population and limited resources, education is the key for national survival. Singapore needs education to work in order to create strong economy. The cultural context also plays a significant role. Singapore is a very small country that needs to accommodate so many differences. We are divided in terms of race, religion, ethnicity and culture. There are 75% Chinese, 15% Malay Muslim and 7-8% Indian. You have the major religions in the world as well as major cultures in the world. How do you build a cohesive nation? Education is the answer. It is the key for Singaporean survival.
The second C is culture. We believe that if we can build a culture of aspiration and achievement, both individuals and society will benefit. Singapore is influenced by Chinese and Indian cultures and the two cultures have high regard for learning. This helps to pave the way for the concept of meritocracy in Singaporean society. Nobody is entitled to anything, the rewards depend on your ability and your effort.
The third C is capacity in the system to implement a complex educational reform agenda. This is the key ingredient that is missing in developing countries. Reform agenda comes and goes every now and then and the question to ask is whether the country has any capacity to withstand such changes. The more ambitious your reform agenda is, the stronger your capacity needs to be. In Singapore, we never enact any law that we have no intention to implement.
Q: What role has the government played in instilling meritocratic value?
The capacity and ideology of the first government played a pivotal role in Singaporean educational success. The first cabinet, with charismatic and visionary leaders, realised the need to instill strong meritocratic values amongst its people. It created a strong and effective government able to act on policy and capable of implementing long term visions. The government believed then and believes now that hardwork will pay off. More importantly, the government continues to put a strong cadre of civil servants to the positions of power at the Ministry of Education, while being generous about educational funding. Leadership from this Ministry has helped to lead educational success in Singapore. Most importantly, the government in Singapore leads by example. They deliver what they promise. Credibility and responsiveness of the government really matter.
As a result of the above, the government has been successful in cultivating meritocratic norms amongst its people.
Q: Do you recommend the Singaporean model to other developing countries?
That’s a very difficult question. I would not recommend Singaporean model as of now to other developing countries. The conditions that I talked about are not there. But there are some features of some policy planning and implementation that one can learn from Singapore. Singapore did not do everything right. For example, it took us more than 50 years to get to the bilingual proficiency we have now. But the government has been able to take a hard and unpopular decision e.g. with regard to English in the curriculum in order to promote long term plan. The three C’s are something essential to Singapore success and they would be very hard to replicate elsewhere.
Q: What are the weaknesses of Singaporean educational model?
Most people would agree that we have produced a system that is highly competitive and with a high degree of elite reproduction. Middle class parents with money and resources are able to equip their children to cope better with schooling demands. The official system is supported by a $1 billion Singaporean Dollar “Shadow Education System.” They bring a lot of cultural and educational capital into the picture. This can create vast inequality within the system. The high degree of meritocratic society can also breed elitism. Those who start off away from the starting line can continue to fall behind.
Malaysia’s Efforts in Improving Education: Lessons for Developing Countries
Malaysia’s efforts to tackle education challenges, particularly through the establishment of a ‘delivery unit’ that tracks results, can help other countries seeking to improve implementation in the sector, says a new World Bank report.
The report, Improving Education Sector Performance: Lessons from the Delivery Unit Approach, highlights the role of the Education Performance and Delivery Unit, or PADU, under the Ministry of Education, in improving education outcomes, a key government priority.
The report examines how PADU facilitated program implementation and delivery of results through the Literacy and Numeracy Screening program, or LINUS. Unlike other interventions, the LINUS task force – comprised of several divisions – worked closely with agencies across government to provide an effective framework for coordination, tracking, monitoring and reporting.
“Following the World Bank’s analysis of the LINUS approach, we are glad to share the approach with other countries seeking to improve education outcomes,” said Dato’ Seri Mahdzir bin Khalid, Minister of Education. “As we progress, we will constantly refine ways of delivery and continue to engage relevant institutions such as the World Bank to gather feedback and improve implementation.”
The Government Transformation Program, announced in 2009, set improving education outcomes as a key priority, and a detailed plan in the Malaysian Education Blueprint followed. Making improving education outcomes a national priority can elevate the profile, stakes, and resourcing for the initiative. Building in evaluations of impact into the program design would further bolster efforts to improve education outcomes.
“The delivery of the essentials of a thriving nation – better schools, healthcare, public transportation – is a mutual goal of all nations, but implementation is a common challenge. The delivery unit approach taken by Malaysia is a creative and effective way to address this challenge,” said Faris Hadad-Zervos, World Bank Group Representative to Malaysia. “This report distills useful lessons learnt in improving the performance of its education sector, and makes recommendations to bring Malaysia one step closer towards its aspirations of becoming a high-income country.”
The study is the latest installment in the World Bank Group’s Outbound Knowledge Report Series that curates, distils and disseminates Malaysia’s development experience. This report is part of the Malaysia Development Experience Series, which strives to capture key learnings from Malaysia that are relevant for developing countries around the globe as they transition out of poverty and into shared prosperity.
Asia’s dark underbelly: Conflicts threaten long-term stability and development
A host of conflicts, stretching across the Asian landmass from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and northwest China, are likely to spark violence, complicate economic development, and dash hopes for sustainable stability.
The conflicts and tensions range from ethnic strife in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iran, mortally wounded Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, embattled Baloch nationalism in Pakistan, disposed Rohingya in Southeast Asia, and widespread discontent in Iran, to iron-grip repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Xinjiang. Individually and collectively, they promise to create black swans and festering wounds that threaten economic growth and social development.
Stripped to their bare essence, the conflicts and tensions have one thing in common: a quest for either cultural, ethnic or national, or political rights or a combination of those, that governments not only refuse to recognize but are willing to suppress with brutal force.
Repression and military action are designed to suppress political, ethnic and/or national, and economic and social grievances in the false belief that a combination of long-term suppression and economic development will weaken ethnic and/or national and political aspirations as well as undermine dissent.
That is true in case of the Rohingya and Uyghurs as well as for brutal repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and northwest China, and military actions such as the Turkish intervention in Syria’s Afrin.
Problems in the Middle East and South Asia are aggravated by a debilitating struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran that threaten to destabilize the Islamic republic and Pakistan, have already produced a devastating war and a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and are dragging the Horn of Africa into its orbit.
If history teaches anything, it is that only a minority of autocrats have achieved economic and social development. General Augusto Pinochet ensured that Chile is the only South American member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), albeit at a high human cost, while Asia gave birth to tigers like South Korea and Taiwan.
Moreover, Asia’s multiple conflicts and tensions do not distract from the fact that by and large, the continent is flourishing economically.
History, however, also teaches that ethnic and/or national aspirations explode with vehemence the moment opportunity arises. Seventy years of communist rule in the Soviet Union failed to smother nationalist sentiment in parts of the empire like Chechnya and the Caucasus or erase nationalist differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Forty-seven years of communism did not prevent nationalist sentiment from breaking Yugoslavia apart in a series of bloody wars in the 1990s in the wake of the demise of the Iron Curtain.
Carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, modern Turkey has failed to erase demands for Kurdish cultural, if not ethnic or national aspirations, through economic development and political integration based on the principle of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who founded the republic, that “happy is he who is a Turk.”
Similarly, Palestinian nationalism is alive and kicking 51 years into Israeli occupation of lands conquered during the 1967 Middle East war.
The aftermath of the 2011 Arab popular revolts, involving a concerted counterrevolution co-engineered by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, has laid bare the essence of current conflicts and disputes: a determination of regimes to impose policies on minorities or states at whatever cost.
The UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar is a case in point as are Asia’s multiple ethnic conflicts. They erupt in a world in which post-colonial borders are being called into question in countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar and Pakistan.
The Rohingya, amid the dizzying array of ethnic and national conflicts stretching from the Middle East or West Asia to China in the East, exemplify the problem in, perhaps, its purest form. Potentially, the Rohingya could become Southeast Asia’s Palestine.
What makes the Rohingya unique is the fact that their aspiration, unlike Palestinians, Kurds, Baloch or Uyghurs, does not involve attachment to a specific piece of land despite a centuries-old history in the Myanmar state of Rakhine. That is also what potentially enables creative thinking about a solution that could open the door to innovative thinking about a multitude of other conflicts.
To many Rohingya, lingering in abysmal conditions in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazaar, after some 650,000 fled repression and terror in Myanmar, securing a sense of belonging on whatever territory that guarantees them protection from persecution as well as economic and social development, is more important than returning to an uncertain existence in Rakhine state. “All I want, is a place to which I can belong,” one refugee said.
Few Rohingya, analysts and officials believe that an agreement that in theory allows Rohingya in Bangladesh to return to Rakhine state will solve the problem. Even if the Rohingya were allowed to return in significant numbers, something that many doubt, nothing in Myanmar government policies and statements suggests that they would be anything more than a barely tolerated, despised ethnic group in a country that does not welcome them.
The makings of a Palestine-like conflict that would embroil not only Myanmar but also Bangladesh and that could spread its tentacles further abroad are evident. In a rare interview with Al Jazeera, Mohammed, a spokesman for the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) using a false name, predicted that suicide bombings constitute the next phase of their effort to secure a safe and stable existence.
The Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, a charity associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of South Asia’s deadliest groups, claimed in December that it had established operations in Rakhine state where it had distributed blankets and cash.
“We attacked them (the Myanmar military) because they refuse to give us our basic rights as citizens. Again and again, [the] Myanmar government lies to the world. They say they treat us well and give us rights, but they don’t. We are unable to travel from one place to another. We are not allowed to run a business. We are not allowed to go to university. The police and military use various way to suppress us. They beat, torture and humiliate us. That is why we decided to stand up,” Mohammed said.
Preventing the Rohingya issue from spiralling out of control and becoming a problem that can no longer be contained to a specific territory, much like the multitude of similar conflicts, disputes, and repression-based regime survival strategies across Asia, requires out-of-the box thinking. Short-term repression and efforts to impose one party’s will at best buys time and sets the scene for avoidable explosions.
With out-of-the-box thinking a rare commodity, nationalism and protectionism on the rise, and regimes, emboldened by an international community unwilling to stand up for basic rights, able to go to extremes like the use of chemical weapons against rebels in the Syrian province of Idlib, long-term prospects for stable and secure development in Asia are dimmed and potentially threatened by predictable black swans.
Our teachers need a stern lesson
It is no surprise that our local news reports on education have usually been replete with how bad the Thai learning system is.
From a national perspective, the country’s recent Ordinary National Educational Test (O-Net) test results for Grade 12 students reveal the average scores are below par in all subjects. The only subject that the average score is higher than 50% in is Thai language. This does not mean the average quality of students’ Thai language competence is high or adequate.
The World Bank’s report provides a bleak picture of the level of Thai language attainment among students. Its report states that 32% of 15-year-old students in Thailand are “functionally illiterate”. This means their reading comprehension is so poor that they barely understand what they read, hence they even struggle to survive or cope with menial jobs.
When it comes to an international comparison, Thai students are falling behind their peers in Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. This is most evident in the Programme for International Students Assessment (Pisa) which evaluates the ability of randomly selected 15-year-old students to attain scientific literacy, reading literacy and mathematics literacy. Sadly, for the past 10 years, Thailand’s performance in the Pisa test has never met the world standard. The average 15-year-old Thai student is 1.5 years academically less competent than their peers in Vietnam.
Thai educators are well aware of how bad the system is. For decades, considerable energy, attention and resources have gone into education reform in order to revamp the system. However, the system has not changed much. Since the National Education Act was promulgated in 1999, the system is still heavily centralised and overtly unequal resulting in low academic achievement of students.
One of the main problems of the Thai education system is the rampant rote learning pedagogy. Thai classrooms apply a top-down approach that lacks interactive engagement with students. Teachers stand in front of the class with the expectation to know it all and be the masters of knowledge, while students are given limited engagement and thus show little enthusiasm.
To make matters worse, teachers are not always present in class. The Quality Learning Foundation reported that Thai teachers spend more than 42% of their time outside the classroom.
Worst of all, Thai schools are overloaded with demanding curriculums. Students are expected to know so many topics without being provided with substantive explanation or examples of difficult concepts. They are expected to learn through memorisation rather than understanding, or acquisition of knowledge.
In the recent bi-annual meeting of Anandamahidol scholars, Charas Suwanwela, President of the Education Reform Committee appointed by the current government, offers a compelling insight to the reform process. He highlighted why the two decades of education reform do not produce the needed result and what needs to be done.
Firstly, our education system must shift from a top-down approach to a bottom-up one. By all standards, the Thai system needs greater decentralisation. Reformers of the 1999 National Education Act were aware of this and put decentralisation at the forefront. However, realistically speaking, most — if not all — decisions and resource allocations still depend largely on the discretion of the Ministry of Education, which is heavily bureaucratised and highly hierarchical. Such reliance and dependency has limited the ability of educational service areas to be able to perform.
“To successfully implement any kind of reform, such effort must be bottom up where everyone owns it. As things stand, nobody is accountable for educational problems in Thailand. We all blame each other but nobody takes charge of how things must change”, Mr Charas said.
Greater participation of the public and private sectors is needed. For so long, educational responsibility has belonged to the state, which leaves the rest of the society inert and irresponsible for change. But education is the responsibility of every party: The state, schools, families, private sectors, communities and even temples. Everyone must participate to make a difference.
Second, there must be a renewed sense of hope for teachers and students.
“Teachers and students must be empowered to become active agents. For teachers, they must be motivated to constantly acquire new knowledge to inform and inspire students. While specialisation teachers in all subjects are needed, we do not have the resources to do so. Therefore, teachers must be eager and empowered to improve themselves”, Mr Charas said.
The heart of it all, however, is that students must be awakened. In the new era of digital technology, students cannot rely on top-down, rote learning and memorisation as the method of education. They must learn to be digitally literate so that they can acquire information on their own. A digital revolution is needed for students to learn online, on-air and on the ground.
Third, education reform must take the issue of inequality seriously. Prasarn Trairatvorakul, National Economic Reform Chairman, recently shared his vision of the state-run Equitable Education Fund that aims to address educational disparity.
“A new law is being drafted to mobilise [financial] resources from national budgets, donations and lottery profits to create an Equitable Education Fund in order to mitigate educational inequality,” Mr Prasarn said.
“The annual educational budget is around 500 billion baht. This new law will propose that 5% of that will be allocated precisely to offer educational resources to support the most marginalised and underprivileged in the country. Starting from early childhood education, this new fund aims to offer financial supports for students up to upper secondary schools.”
The system cannot be overhauled overnight. However, with vision, collaboration and real commitment, there is a beaming light of hope that education in Thailand might improve over time.
First published in Bangkok Post, repost under author’s permission
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