“Educate to survive:” The key to Singapore’s educational success Photograph by Zanyasan

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.

Rattana Lao

Rattana Lao holds a doctorate in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and writes on education and development. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand.