In the 1960s, the newly independent city-state of Singapore sought assistance from the World Bank to transit from being a developing country to a developed nation by way of stimulating human resource development. Julienne Chan charts the success of this bold policy.
Without significant natural resources, Singapore’s rise to become a global economic hub was made possible by deliberately introducing educational policies that produced a skilled labour force. Human resources were the driving force that attracted foreign direct investment from large multi-national corporations, many of which now have their regional headquarters in Singapore.
Having benefitted from knowledge sharing, the Singapore Co-operation Programme reaches out to countries across the world to develop bilateral educational and training-related programmes.
Singapore’s educational model is based on English as the main language of instruction, but a compulsory bilingual education policy ensures that each ethnic community retains its linguistic roots.
Maths and science knowledge
In Singapore, education is compulsory from 7 years to 17 years, and effective in the development of maths competency. Singapore consistently tops international maths and science knowledge and skills benchmarking.
Singapore has a linguistically and ethnically diverse population of about five million people: 76.8% are of Chinese heritage, 13.9% Malay, 7.9% Indian and 1.4% are made up of others. Primary education, which usually begins at age seven, is free for all citizens.
Singapore has a history of ethnic violence, with racial riots in 1964 and 1969, but racial harmony has been the basis for much of the social engineering visible in education and housing policies.
Community-based ethnic groups were set up to assist various communities in achieving a level playing field in schools.
Schools in Singapore celebrate Racial Harmony Day to reinforce the value of respecting diversity. But for all the measures taken, racial prejudice still exists at a subtle level.
Surveys conducted by the National Institute of Education (NIE) reveal that 80% of Singaporean children socialize exclusively with their own ethnic group.
Older textbook illustrations reinforce certain stereotypes, with Chinese children depicted as “diligent” while Malay and Indian children are invariably portrayed as being more "playful”.
The Council for the Education of Muslim Children (CEMC) looks into the educational challenges faced by Malays to help them to gain better qualifications. Tuition, subsidies and quotas can be provided to families in need.
Human resources were the driving force that attracted foreign direct investment from large multi-national corporations.
The Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) addresses the issue of Indian learners who are lagging behind their peers.
For the Chinese population, associations such as the Lee Foundation, and the Shaw Foundation, take over and intervene, usually through providing scholarships.
As education materials continue to be refined, it is encouraging that Singapore’s own National Institute of Education monitors teaching materials for bias.
In 1959, when Singapore gained its independence from Britain it was decided to retain English as Singapore’s first language. Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister and founding father of modern Singapore, was an Oxford-trained lawyer.
This decision has helped with racial integration within Singapore and economic integration with other Anglophone countries. Language is the key in business communication and with English as a first language, Singapore’s workforce is capable of working with all Anglophone countries.
The Bilingual Policy was implemented to promote economic growth and the modernisation process. As J Clammer writes in his 1985 book, Singapore: Ideology, Society, Culture, “English is seen as the language of technology and management, and the Asian languages as carriers of cultural values.”
However, Singaporeans now speak English and an Asian language, usually Mandarin, Bahasa Melayu, or Tamil, and they can act as connectors between English-speaking nations and Asian countries such as China and India.
Maths is a basic skill necessary for all trade and accounting, and forms the foundation for the scientific and financial research and development that has allowed Singapore to move up the value chain. Singapore students consistently outperform their peers from more than 50 countries in tests such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS). These tests are used to benchmark the science and maths knowledge and skills of students internationally.
South Africa, Namibia, Nigeria from the Sub-Saharan continent, along with other countries such as Canada, the US and Libya have adopted the Singaporean approach to better their students’ performance.
South African students performed less well than many of their African peers in the TIMMS test of 2007, where South Africa came second last.
South Africa’s Education Minister, Naledi Pandor, responded by imposing a moratorium on Timms testing to avoid further embarrassment!
Fortunately there was another more constructive response. Adapting Singapore Math for South Africa, Jack Garb, an educator and former principal at King David Linksfield Junior, noticed Singapore’s consistent top TIMMS rankings, and started a project to adopt the Singaporean mathematics syllabus for South African pupils. “The teaching approach is embedded in the materials, providing a teacher with clear guidelines every step of the way,” he said.
South Africa could emulate Singapore with more stimulating educational materials and better-trained teachers supervised for effective follow-through.
By adopting methods such as making the textbooks colourful with bold fonts, students are better engaged in the learning process. Jack Garb works together with the Organisation for Educational Resources and Technological Training (ORT) of South Africa to manage this project. Zoliswa Binza, a grade two teacher at Zenzeleni Primary School in Alexandra Township in Johannesburg, who has been part of Garb’s project since 2008, was quoted in The Teacher: “Since I became part of Singapore maths, I could see changes in the way I teach and the way learners interact with me.”
The project targets pupils from grade one to grade three and has been implemented in 30 schools in Soweto, Orange Farm and Tembisa.
Since then, the moratorium on TIMMS testing of South African students’ math performances has been lifted. In 2011, South Africa improved by 63 points on the TIMMS ranking.
While it is necessary to build up human capital, it is vital not to destroy all that has been established. African countries and Singapore, at independence some 50 years ago, started with similar GDP figures.
Having been able to avoid strife, Singapore has had a comparatively peaceful environment for good educational policies to take root. War, the lack of basic education and health benefits, along with autocratic dictators set many African countries back. That dark time has passed.
The blessing of natural resources, by way of oil, minerals and precious metals, became a curse in African countries, attracting companies that extracted natural resources, without creating jobs for that many Africans.
While Singapore has highly-paid politicians, the lack of corruption means that educational investments are applied effectively. With a foundation of peace in Africa, pragmatic principles of educational policies mean the future is shaped for the next generation.
This article was first published in African Business magazine, June 2015 issue. Copyright IC Publications 2015. Published under permission by IC Publications www.africanbusinessmagazine.com.