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.
Infrastructure Drive, Strong Domestic Demand to Sustain Philippine Growth
The Philippines’ economic growth is expected to sustain its quick pace in 2018 and 2019 as the government’s infrastructure program is rolled out, says a new Asian Development Bank (ADB) report.
In its new Asian Development Outlook (ADO) 2018, ADB projects Philippine gross domestic product (GDP) growth at 6.8% this year and 6.9% in 2019, up from 6.7% in 2017. Rising domestic demand, remittances, and employment, in addition to infrastructure spending, will drive growth. ADO is ADB’s flagship annual economic publication.
“Along with domestic demand, the government’s infrastructure investments will fuel the country’s growth in the next few years, supported by a sound economic policy setting,” said Kelly Bird, ADB Country Director for the Philippines. “We expect this growth to further lift wage employment numbers, add to household incomes, and benefit more poor families across the archipelago.”
The Philippines remained one of the strongest growing economies in Southeast Asia in 2017. Domestic investment recorded 9% growth last year, moderating from a brisk 23.7% in 2016, although growth in fixed investment in industrial machinery, transport equipment, and public construction remained robust. Household consumption grew by 5.8% in 2017, from 7% in 2016, on the back of higher remittances and employment, with the unemployment rate falling by 1.3 percentage points to 5.3% in January 2018 as 2.4 million jobs were added. Public spending rose by 7.3% last year from 8.4% in 2016.
Consumer price inflation reached 3.2% last year from 1.8% in 2016 due to strong economic growth, higher international fuel prices, and Philippine peso depreciation, but well within the 2% to 4% target by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas—the country’s central bank. The country’s external debt further declined to 23.3% of GDP in 2017, from 24.5% of GDP in 2016.
Moving forward, ADB projects services will continue to drive GDP growth, along with manufacturing and construction industries. The approval of the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion law in December 2017 will augment tax revenues and provide additional fiscal space for more progressive public spending. The policy reforms are expected to yield additional 90 billion to 144 billion Philippine pesos ($1.73 billion to $2.76 billion) in tax revenue collection in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
With economic growth gaining momentum, inflation is projected to reach 4% in 2018 as global oil and food prices rise, and higher excise taxes on some commodities take effect. In 2019, meanwhile, inflation is expected to marginally decline to 3.9%.
The report notes there are external risks to the Philippines’ growth outlook from heightened volatility in international financial markets and uncertainty about global trade openness, although the country’s strong external payments position would cushion these effects.
A major policy challenge to the country’s growth outlook, according to the report, is managing the rollout of the government’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program, which is expected to raise public infrastructure spending to 7.3% of GDP by 2022 from 4.5% in 2016. The report provides suggestions on ways to enhance government capacity, including strengthening coordination between government agencies and improving technical capacity of staff within these agencies, and fostering stronger partnerships between government agencies, the private sector, and development partners.
Securing the future prosperity of the Greater Mekong Subregion
The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) countries have made stunning progress over the past quarter century. Once plagued by poverty, they are now economic success stories.
The GMS Economic Cooperation Program has contributed significantly to this transformation. Since it was established in 1992 as a means to enhance economic relations and promote regional cooperation, its six member countries—Cambodia, the People’s Republic of China, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam—have built a platform for economic cooperation that has mobilized almost $21 billion for high-priority infrastructure projects. Foreign direct investment into the subregion has surged ten-fold and trade between its countries has climbed from $5 billion to over $414 billion.
But the subregion faces challenges to its prosperity. Further reducing poverty, climate change adaptation and mitigation, energy efficiency, food security, and sustainable urbanization remain priorities of the GMS Program. Countries also face new challenges, including growing inequalities, rising levels of cross-border migration, and the potential impact on jobs of the fourth industrial revolution.
Moreover, GMS countries have agreed to significant commitments under the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
There are also emerging opportunities for the region, including incorporating new technologies in various sectors such as education, agriculture, health, and finance. GMS countries are situated at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia, and hence they can benefit from the increased momentum for growth in South Asia.
As GMS leaders gather this week in Ha Noi to chart the future of the program, it’s a good time to consider how a new generation of initiatives can ensure the GMS Program remains relevant and responsive to the subregion’s needs.
The Ha Noi Action Plan and the GMS Regional Investment Framework 2022, both proposed for adoption at the Summit, provide a platform for countries to strengthen their cooperation through continuous innovation. These two documents will have a sharpened focus on the GMS Program’s strategic goals of enhancing connectivity, competitiveness, and community in the subregion.
Connectivity, the first objective, has been dramatically improved. More than 10,000 kilometers of new or upgraded roads and 3,000 kilometers of transmission and distribution lines have been added under the program. These transport networks have been transformed into an interconnected network of transnational economic corridors, building on 25 years of work to extend the benefits of growth to remote areas. The Ha Noi Action Plan calls for the continued expansion of these economic corridors to boost connectivity both between and within countries.
The subregion’s competitiveness is improving through ongoing efforts to facilitate transport and trade flows, enhance agriculture exports, and promote the GMS as a single tourism destination after receiving a record 60 million visitors in 2016. Looking ahead, it will be important to continue cutting red tape and to remove remaining barriers to transport and trade.
Finally, communities are being strengthened through cross-border initiatives to control the spread of communicable diseases, expand educational opportunities, protect the subregion’s rich biodiversity, and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
GMS countries have identified a new pipeline of 227 projects worth about $66 billion under the GMS Regional Investment Framework 2018–2022. These projects will expand economic prosperity by developing cross-border transport and energy infrastructure.
ADB, which has been the program’s secretariat since its inception, expects to provide $7 billion over the next 5 years for a range of projects supporting transport, tourism, energy, climate change mitigation and adaptation, agribusiness value chains, and urban development. This builds on more than $8 billion in financing provided by ADB so far under the program.
To deliver these projects and make headway on other priorities such as infectious disease control and environmental preservation, strong partnerships are vital. The GMS Program depends on the collaboration of many stakeholders, including local administrations and communities, development partners, academia, and the media.
The GMS will benefit from strengthened partnerships with other regional and global cooperation platforms, leading to new opportunities for future development.
Partnerships with the private sector will also be increasingly important, and it is gratifying to see them deepening through the GMS Business Council, the Mekong Business Initiative, the e-Commerce Platform, GMS tourism and agriculture forums, and the recent Finance Sector and Trade Finance Conference.
I am optimistic that the subregion will meet its challenges and capitalize on emerging opportunities. By working together, GMS countries can deliver rapid, sustainable, and inclusive growth for another 25 years and beyond. ADB will continue to be an important and trusted partner in that endeavor.
Vietnam continues to reduce poverty
Poverty in Vietnam continues to fall, particularly amongst ethnic minorities, who saw their rate of poverty decline significantly by 13 percentage points, the largest decline in the past decade, says a new World Bank report.
According to Climbing the Ladder: Poverty Reduction and Shared Prosperity in Vietnam, released today by the World Bank, improving income from highland agriculture can help Vietnam further reduce poverty, which has fallen by almost 4 percentage points since 2014, to 9.8 percent in 2016. Ethnic minorities – many of them living in highland areas – account for 72 percent of Vietnam’s poor, and encouraging them to grow more profitable industrial crops may improve their earnings.
“Vietnam has achieved tremendous results in reducing poverty and improving the quality of life for millions. The decline in poverty amongst ethnic minorities is encouraging, and more focused efforts on improving their incomes can further broaden their opportunities and reduce persistent inequalities,” said Ousmane Dione, World Bank Country Director for Vietnam. “The aspirations of those with less opportunities cannot be ignored.”
Outlining recent trends and patterns of poverty in Vietnam, the report proposes solutions for that untapped agriculture potential in highland areas where the poor are concentrated. Land use and cropping decisions, for example, contribute more to agriculture income differences between households. Low-income families in highland areas use their land to grow basic crops such as rice or maize instead of raising more profitable crops such as coffee, black pepper, or rubber.
Improving access to credit may help highland farmers make the necessary investments for higher-earning agricultural production. Strengthening earning capacity can help narrow inequalities between groups. The average per capita consumption of ethnic minorities, for example, remains less than 45 percent of the Kinh and Hoa. Moreover, the poor faces a widening gap in terms of access to upper secondary education and improved water and sanitation.
At the same time, the report recognizes that 70 percent of Vietnam’s population is now classified as economically secure, including the 13 percent who are now part of the global middle-class. These income classes are growing rapidly, rising by over 20 percentage points between 2010 and 2017. An average of 1.5 million Vietnamese joined the global middle class each year since 2014, confirming that households continue to climb the economic ladder after escaping poverty. The rise of the consumer class changes society’s aspirations and the focus of the poverty and shared prosperity agenda shifts from combatting extreme poverty to effecting broad improvements in the quality of life and supporting the further expansion of the middle class. Rapid job creation and an ongoing transition to wage employment are driving gains in poverty reduction and shared prosperity.
The report suggests several areas of strategic priorities to further reduce poverty and promote shared prosperity, including:
- Boosting labor productivity and investing in infrastructure to sustain job creation and wage growth without losing competitiveness.
- Implementing education reforms designed to equalize opportunities and develop workforce skills.
- Spurring agriculture structural transformation through changing farmland use patterns, strengthening land user rights, and improving skills of the poor farmers.
While reducing inequality remains a challenge, the report notes that the number of individuals vulnerable to falling back into poverty declined to only 2 percent between 2014 and 2016. In contrast, the period saw the middle class expanding by more than 3 million people.
One of the prioritized areas under the new World Bank Group Country Partnership Framework with Vietnam for the period from FY18 – FY22 is inclusive growth, with a specific objective for the “economic integration of the poor and vulnerable groups” under which the Bank will provide support for targeted interventions to expand economic opportunities for people in lagging areas.
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