November 25, 2002
Singapore planning

So once again I type "Education" into google, and hit number one is this, from the Straits Times:

Education for education's sake best for S'pore

I REFER to the letter, 'Education system has evolved with nation's needs' (ST, Nov 22), by Ministry of Education director of planning Tang Tuck Weng.

He said that what The Straits Times has called 'Singapore's famously rigid education system' is seen differently by objective external observers. He then quoted a statistical ranking, that placed Singapore in fourth place in its ability to meet the needs of a competitive economy, and said that far from being rigid, our education system has responded to changes in the needs of the nation and the economy.

What's good or bad about Singapore's education system?

But objective observers are less likely to spot the less-obvious faults of the system than someone like me who has gone through the system and moved on to study in America.

Mr Tang's answer demonstrates the key problem with the education system in Singapore.

The rigidity of the education system stems from the fact that it is focused not on educating people, but on meeting the needs of the economy.

His use of the statistic simply substantiates my belief that the Education Ministry sees its main role as a producer of manpower for Singapore's economy.

It is still based on the old-style idea of centralised planning, with a ministry taking in all data and making a decision as to what sort of education is necessary for our children, with the belief that this will fit into the kind of economy we have in mind.

This is fine if the Education Ministry and the Government make no mistakes.

But …

Teh Peijing then goes on to describe a recent Singapore government imposed disaster concerning the manufacture of Singaporean engineers:

… I remember that not too long ago the Government was rather vocal in encouraging people to become engineers.

Which turned a lot of his friends into unemployed engineers. Now, says he, he notes a similar obsession with bio-engineering.

He votes instead for what he calls "all-round education":

I believe that the Ministry of Education should focus on educating Singaporeans, for the sake of educating Singaporeans.

I believe that an education system focused entirely on giving Singaporeans the best all-round education, without considering the short-term needs of the economy, might be better for Singapore in the long run.

What we need is not a workforce that is deemed necessary by economic planners, but a workforce that is creative, dynamic, independent, rounded, passionate and entrepreneurial. I think such a workforce has a higher chance of survival in an increasingly fluid global economic situation.

Which sounds okay, but what exactly does it mean? What if the result is a plague of American-educated humanities academics who could no more turn out "entrepreneurial" Singaporeans than they could train bio-engineers?

For it is at this point that Mr Teh (I'm hoping that this is the correct way to address the gentleman) reveals that he too believes in the power of government to prophecy the future:

All in all, while the ministry has done an admirable job so far, we ought not to be complacent. Would it not be better to have an education system that pre-empts, rather than evolves in response to, changes?

To me, actually, it sounds worse. "Pre-empts" changes?

What I think we have here is an argument between one semi-deluded, my guess-is-better-than-yours centralist and another. Although Mr Teh talks much sense when he criticises his rival, I wonder which is actually better for Singapore, unemployed bio-engineers or unemployed "all-round education" persons?

Could it be that what Mr Teh really wants is a generation of ("passionate") political trouble-makers? Because that's what he would probably get. It might be no bad thing.

"Might" being the important word there.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:38 AM
Category: Politics