Speech delivered at Government’s Strategy to Emerge Stronger From the COVID-19 Pandemic
Mr Speaker, Sir, first of all, I would like to declare that I own an education company as I will be talking about education in the rest of my speech.
The Deputy Prime Minister spoke extensively about the economic plans to address the post-COVID-19 situation in Singapore, but not enough on how to prepare our people for the future. Upskilling and re-skilling our workforce is part of the solution but it is a reactive approach. If upskilling and re-skilling were our only recourse, Singaporeans will always find ourselves one step behind.
Instead of focusing only on giving working adults new skills to survive the new economy, we should also look into preparing our youths to thrive in the future. Instead of preparing for jobs that we cannot foresee, we need to focus on building resilient growth mindsets in our young people today.
Why are Singaporeans losing out in the job market in our own country? Employers repeatedly cite the lack of creativity and risk-taking, not to mention poor communication skills as reasons for this. Our grade-centric education system was also cited as a contributory factor.
In addition to facing competition for jobs from foreigners, we are increasingly facing competition from machines as well. Currently, standardised written examinations often reward behaviours like memorising and regurgitating facts and standard answers but encouraging such behaviours make our people most vulnerable to being replaced by machines. What is not easily replaced by a machine, however, is the ability to think creatively, take risk and communicating and social skills. These are the same skills that employers find Singaporeans lack.
Now, with digitalisation accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is even greater urgency to hasten the pace of education reform as old methods of teaching and learning become obsolete.
We had been facing growing uncertainty even before the pandemic struck. The key to thriving in uncertain environments is adaptability. To help build the ability to adapt to different or changing circumstances, we need to provide a learning environment that is non-standardised and non-prescriptive, one that constantly contains elements of unfamiliarity. In other words, diversity.
Diversity is also an important factor in the fostering of creativity and innovation. The modern innovations of today have always required inter-disciplinary approaches to reach fruition, a point also brought up by the hon Member Cheryl Chan earlier. So, similarly, I believe that our educational system not only needs to be diverse in terms of curriculum, but in student mix as well.
First, diversity in curriculum. We need to offer a wider range of subjects to students and greater flexibility in choices and combinations. In other words, an a la carte approach rather than set menus. Here, I would like to quote the American psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow, who said, “It is no more necessary to study animals before one can study men than it is to study mathematics before one can study geology or psychology or biology.”
Take the range of Primary school subjects, for example. In UK, their primary schools have 11 core subjects including design and technology, history, geography and computing, plus three optionals. In Finland, they have 13 core subjects including environmental studies, religion, history, social studies and guidance counselling, plus optionals in art and skill subjects.
In Singapore, although we have nine core subjects, only four of them are assessed in the PSLE. This unequal treatment skews time and effort towards the four subjects, effectively further narrowing the range.
Secondly, diversity in student mix. The practice of streaming students with similar abilities and aptitudes into groups reduces opportunities for our students to interact with others who are different. This has already been highlighted in a CNA documentary “Regardless of Race”.
While MOE is moving away from streaming towards subject-based banding which removes the labelling, it does not change the fact that students are still grouped based on similar results in each subject. Students with different skill sets and interest will have few opportunities to share and discuss diverse thoughts and ideas. It also stymies broader social interaction and the development of people management skills.
Thirdly, diversity in pathways. Over the years, additional pathways have been created for older students. At the Primary school level, children are still on a single track with all Primary students taking the PSLE route. But as any parent knows, the PSLE is a stressful exam for students and parents alike because the outcome has very important implications on a child’s future education and development. While some feel the PSLE is necessary for Secondary school posting, there are others, like myself, who believe it is premature to assess students at the age of 12 to determine their educational paths. I therefore urge MOE to consider a pilot project of through-train schools from Primary to Secondary levels without going through the PSLE, to give parents the option to choose an education path that may be better suited for their children’s future.
With so much depending on the results of examinations like the PSLE, it is not surprising that Singapore students have a high fear of failure compared to students in other countries. In an OECD survey, it was found that three in four Singapore students fear failure as compared to a global average of 55%. I believe high-stakes examinations contribute to the building of such fears by making the price of failing too high to pay. Such fears can inhibit risk-taking entrepreneurship and the willingness to venture into the unfamiliar. Assessments should take into account the learning value of failing by giving them multiple opportunities to try again. A single failure should not mark you for life. For example, in the UK, national examinations like GCSE are conducted twice in May and November. I hope MOE can give our students similar chances.
To introduce greater diversity and differentiated learning into our education system, we need smaller class sizes. With Singapore’s total fertility rate dropping, the number of school-going children is decreasing. This would have been a good opportunity to decrease class sizes, but MOE has instead closed schools and reduced teacher recruitment. The number of education officers dropped from 36,400 in 2016 to 33,700 in 2018. The NIE intake dropped from 1,256 in 2016 to 556 in 2018. Not only is this a missed opportunity to reduce class sizes, it also reduces meaningful job opportunities for Singaporeans. I urged MOE to reconsider its approach.
In our local Universities, the tuition grants given to foreign students are already a recurring bugbear for many Singaporeans, and is a popular theme in media reports. Many Singaporeans are perplexed at why foreigners are given Government subsidies and question this use of taxpayers’ money. In Australia and UK, full fee-paying foreign students are an important source of revenue. In UK, these students contributed 11.9 billion pounds to the UK economy in 2016. In Australia, they contributed $37.6 billion to the Australian economy in 2019.
With good global rankings, our Universities should similarly be able to attract full fee-paying foreign students. We can adopt a similar model, develop this industry and use the revenues to further subsidise the education of local students. Foreign student enrolment, however, should not be at the expense of the enrolment of local students.
In conclusion, I wish to reiterate that we are not embracing customised learning to the detriment of our children. When we personalise education, we will be able to look at everything we do in life as an education in itself. No longer bound to a classroom, children will be free to learn from life, learning to think creatively, take risk and adapt quickly in youth. Children will become more resilient in adulthood and better able to handle any crisis that comes their way. Sir, I support the Ministerial Statement.