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

Rattana Lao

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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 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.

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Southeast Asia

The Malaysian Model

Hareem Aqdas

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Prime Minister Imran Khan paid his visit to Malaysia later the last month, which was concluded as successful, endorsed by the Prime Minister of Malaysia- Mahathir Mohamad himself. The visit was planned for two days with the two prime ministers having a one-on-one meeting, followed by delegation-level talks. The visit provided an opportunity to further cement the existing friendly and cordial bilateral relations by enhancing economic, trade and commercial ties for the mutual benefit of the two countries. It has been a success in the view that it has been a way forward for the terminating of trade cooperation agreements between the two countries. At the end of the visit, the energy sector especially LNG, tourism, greater collaboration between high-tech industries in Malaysia and Pakistan, and possibility of Malaysian investment in Special Economic Zones were discussed.

Imran Khan was welcomed warmly by the Malaysian delegation on his arrival. The purpose of the visit was for Imran Khan to inspect analytically the Malaysian economic model as of how they have been successful in achieving a great economy, without the interruption of the West. Imran Khan with an intention of following the model Malaysia had adopted scheduled his visit. There is no qualm over saying that this decision is to be appreciated by the new government if they are successful in implementing in Pakistan whatever they learned in Malaysia. Malaysia by targeting on the direct social realities of their country has been able to achieve the zenith of economic and social success.

Malaysia has followed an indigenous economic model, basing their economy on purely autarky by developing products what their local conditions and society were in need indigenously rather getting the dictation from the western models of economy, without ever feeling the need of foreign assistance for their local expense decisions- the position where Pakistan lacks.

Malaysia has continued over four decades of brisk inclusive growth, declining its reliance on agriculture and commodity exports to become a diversified, contemporary and open economy. The profit of development have been extensive and the high levels of income inequity inherited at independence progressively reduced through a development model emphasizing impartial growth, including increased participation of the Bumiputera (ethnic Malays and indigenous groups) in the modern economy. Growth has been determined by a series of structural reforms and the country cultivated its complimentary geographical location on global trade routes to promote export-oriented industrialization and endorsing regional incorporation. This has facilitated the improvement of manufacturing, boosting growth, employment and yield by expanding access to global markets, capital, knowledge and technology.

Pakistan since its birth has been following the western model of economy where Pakistan does not decide what its economic needs ought to be, but the west decides what the Pakistani economy needs. This dependence on the west has lead Pakistan in having the detrimental economic situation it has today where the “Dollar” seems to be getting more expensive and the rupee, de valued, thus the economy crippling.

Socially, Malaysia stands as the only country globally that has in actuality criminalized war in their national law. The society has always been free from political turmoil since politics has been very stable for the country, unlike Pakistan.

It will be unfair if it is advised that Pakistan starts following the complete Malaysian model of economy since the politico-economic situation and history of both the countries have been very different, thus applying the exact replicated model will not be possible. Pakistan unlike Malaysia has been subject to political and economic instability, has witnessed change in policies, dealt largely with the menace of corruption, have had government that would reverse economic models of each incoming government to start anew etc. It was pointed out rightly by PM Imran Khan that if “Malaysia, with a population of 30 million people, has exports worth $220 billion, and we, with a population of 201 million people have exports worth $24bn, then clearly we are doing something wrong”.

A solution can be applied in the act that Pakistan rather relying on the West for its economic build up, shall shift its focus on countries with the similar background and a more tangible yet acceptable economic model as that of Malaysia and other Asian economic giants. Pakistan can try to learn from them and follow their economic models as a replacement of the West. Following a pattern of economic development of similar nations will be much easier to pursue, less exploitative and attainable compared to the unrealistic western models.

Pakistan should realize what their need is indigenously rather letting the west dictates it for them. The Western model has always been exploitative towards countries like Pakistan and this is the right time to abandon it and take other inspirations in view.

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Southeast Asia

Can disruption empower youth in politics? Interview with Malaysian Minister of Youth and Sports Syed Saddiq

Rattana Lao

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Bangkok – On a hectic Wednesday night, I rushed to the heart of Bangkok for an event hosted by Oxford Foundation and Talk Foundation. The audiences were debaters, students, and young politicians from leading Thai political parties eager to have a glimpse of ASEAN’s youngest Minister.

Eager to learn from his “success”.

A special guest was in town; it was a fireside conversation in the honor of Malaysian Minister of Youth and Sports, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman.

In the landslide election in May that brought Mahathir, a veteran, 93 years old, back to office, it was undoubtedly clear that youth voters were amongst the key component to that victory and Syed Saddiq was the player in that triumphant election.

Amongst all the techniques he used, he mobilized new millennials through social networks. With 1.5 million followers on Instagram, he told the audience how he used these online platforms for his political purpose.

Youth votes accounted for 41% of Malaysian electorates.

“On the eve of the election, we told everyone to watch Facebook Live at 10 pm. On that day, all Party members were garnering support through local places and online platforms to build up for the 10 pm Live. By 10 pm, we broadcasted Mahathir speech to the public.”

“The parents’ and grandparents’ generations were still with the current government. So, we relied on youth. We asked them to use their cell phones and they showed that to their parents.”

“It worked”.

When asked what can youth bring to politics, Saddiq seemed fixed that “disruption is the only way to go”.

“We need to disrupt, disrupt the old ways of doing things, disrupt old politics, disrupt corruption.”

“The lowering of voting age is the case in point where disruption is a successful technique to champion youth agenda.”

Malaysia has recently been successful in lowering the youth eligibility to votes from 21 years old to 18 years old.

He was not naïve, however. He went on to elaborate his points that one needed to “pick the battle”.

All politician do.

Saddiq gave an interview that it is important for youth to strategize their precious voices for things that matter to them. Saddiq was confident it was education, a better and fairer education system, employment, and good standard of living.

“I said time and again that the Ministry of Youth and Sports must work hands in hands with the Ministry of Education. The two issues are different, but intertwined”.

In a casual, meticulous, leather jacket, Saddiq won the crowd on that day with his wit and humor. Instead of talking top down and being patronizing, the young politician was vibrant with energy and optimism.

He was on point.

The night was straightforward and inspiring. A young man aimed high and succeeded. He brought a new face to the old politics of Malaysian longstanding cronyism.

Saddiq stood tall and high as an epitome of youth empowerment.

But youth in politics is nothing new. The 1970s in Thailand democratic demonstrations to topple military dictatorship, the Vietnam war uprising in the United States or the recent rounds of youth activism for debt, LGBT and sexual harassment as well as the Apartheid Disinvestment in the 1970s to 1980s saw youth participation in good numbers.

There is no debate on whether the young are powerful. Of course, they are. The power of the young is immeasurable and there is a lot youth can bring to politics.

But youth in politics must bring more than young faces in the old regime. Youth in politics requires a new way of thinking – disruption perhaps – but how to make it sustainable? Youth in politics demands us to take ourselves seriously and reflect respect in our opinion as something serious and accountable.

When talking about youth, most of the time, it is the case that the loudest and most privileged are the ones that get heard and make noise. How can the new system ensure all kinds of youth voices count?

This reminded me of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. If I could paraphrase the Broadway famous song:

“Do you hear the youth sing? Singing the song of angry men and women and gay and the poor? This is the song of young people who will not be slave again.”

To make politics work for youth, it must not be a rich boy game.

The fight has just begun. I wish you well.

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Southeast Asia

Letter to heaven: An eulogy to Luang Poo Boonyarith Bundito

Rattana Lao

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Luang Poo Boonyarith with a Pagoda in the Thai Forest

Everyone knows him as a great monk who was an exceptional teacher of meditation. From the royal family to a layman, Luangpoo Boonyarith Bundito was well loved and respected.

Luang Poo Boonyarith was a forest monk who ordained since the age of 31. Like forest monks before him from Luang Poo Mann Puritat to Luang Poo Chob Thannasamo, he followed a strict tradition of solitude. For decades, he traveled to the furthest parts of Thailand and remained there on his own. For at least 9 years, he lived by himself in the peak of a Karen Mountain in the Northern Part of Thailand.

“The karen has an innocent mind” he said in his meditation preaching.

In 1974, he was sent by Wat Bawornnivetviharn on a diplomatic mission to preach Buddhism in Australia. During more than 30 years of his tenure there, he built, strengthened and taught the beauty of mediation to foreigners and Thai alike.

An epitome of what a modern diplomacy is.

With his compassion and open-mindedness, he welcomed Christian, Jewish and Muslim into his temples to learn how to meditate, even though they were clear not to be Buddhist.

He was equally straightforward to them. “Meditation and Buddhism is intertwined and Buddhism is a religion, not a philosophy nor a lifestyle”.

Something that would kill the New Age followers.

I had the privilege of knowing him since I was nearly four years old, where he would stay at our house during his trips and sabbatical to Bangkok. Sometimes he stayed for a couple weeks, sometimes that would last for a couple months. At least for 20 summers, we were lucky enough to host him.

While his disciples came to our house to seek truth and find peace, for a 4 years old me, Luang Poo was my English tutor. Having been fluent in French, German and English, Luang poo was a great linguist who paid attention to details of grammatic rules and depth of meaning and complexity of the vocabulary.

He is an avid reader – with extensive collection of books on philosophy, history, maps, arts and great classics. His gifts for me involved pens and notebooks, collection of postcards from foreign lands I never been or books I had never heard of.

At the age of 16, he gave me Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. With the density of idea and complexity of vocabulary, I quickly returned it to him.

He insisted: “keep it, when the time comes, you will get it.”

I did. When I joined Thammasat as an undergraduate student, Brave New World became my favourite, inspiring reference to make a difference in a toxic society.

As I became more interested in graduate schools and had my eyes on the most prestigious scholarship in Thailand, the Anandamahidol scholarship under the royal patronage the late king Bhumibol of Thailand, our conversation became more intense, focused and intellectual.

We debated ideas. With his wealth of knowledge on world history, we would always talk current affairs and politics. Theories and concepts.

Who would have thought a forest monk would be on point on world political affairs?

Luang Poo continued to guide me through the hardship of graduate schools. We would talk on the phone on the books I read, the papers I wrote and the difficulty things were for me to conceptualise.

“Sati, Ninja, Sati.” Conscious that meant. He said, “one word at a time. Never skim”.

He loves dictionary so he taught and trained me to open up every word I don’t understand.

If you open his books, you will find scribbles on the sideline on the explanation of words he did not know or his interpretation of them.

As studying theories became more complex, that kind of attention to detail allowed me to be on point, concise and succinct.

He said however that a Buddhist is not a theorist. A Buddhist is a doer. Test the theories, he meant.

When I consulted him with the idea of creating UNITE Thailand, he was on board and gave me the most life changing advice to an idealistic me with heavily foreign influences.

“Forget the theories, forget democracy, forget Buddhism, make kids happy, as many as possible.”

We did.

Before the tragic day of the 14th of November 2018 where he parted this world for heaven, he has suffered severe health issues and complication for 7 years that he could not talk, move or eat by himself.

He was the educator who loved Thailand so much. The last sentence he ever said to me was “a great person is one with gratitude. We are indebted to this land, be good. Be kind. Be nice. Be helpful.”

Thailand loses a great monk who taught them Dhamma. I lost a grandfather who helped me through the intensity of life, who taught me to read, write and question, who taught me the beauty of life, the necessity to serve our society.

Enjoy heaven, Luang Poo.

I will always remember you.

Ninja.

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