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Singapore’s Education System: A Dialogue With Minister Heng Swee Keat

Minister Heng made the excellent proposition that parents and educators – especially the former – should be cognisant of what would be the best outcome for their children or students.

Last Saturday (November 5, 2011), I attended a dialogue session – organised by the Young People’s Action Party (YP) Political Discussion Committee – with Minister for Education Mr. Heng Swee Keat. I was considerably excited for the dialogue because: one, education issues have always been somewhat of a niche for me (having gone through the system first-hand – save for the university experience – I have always had my own insights and perspectives); two, it would be my first time hearing Minister Heng share about his plans for the Ministry of Education (MOE), and relevant concerns.

“How Do We Maximise Our Students’ Potential”?

Minister Heng started off the session by asserting that the ultimate aim for education in Singapore would be to empower individuals to embark on a lifelong learning journey, and develop a sense of ownership and citizenship. He also made brief references to his speech at the recent MOE workplan seminar, and talked about the importance of designing a “values-driven, student-centric” education model.

Throughout the dialogue, in response to a number of questions on the overall quality of education in Singapore, I thought Minister Heng made the excellent proposition that parents and educators – especially the former – should be cognisant of what would be the best outcome for their children or students. It should be comprehended that not every kid necessarily has the potential to excel scholastically or academically; therefore, parents must recognise and be supportive of their child’s abilities and endeavours, while schools and teachers should maximise learning opportunities for the student over a period of time.

I completely agree that usage of the term “neighbourhood school” – with its unfair stereotypes or associated labels – should be discouraged; the proposal to increase publicity of the excellent work schools have done should certainly be executed.

Strengthening National Education

Unsurprisingly, discussions on the new Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) unit – including Civics and Moral Education (CME), Co-Curricular Activities (CCA) and National Education (NE) – were extremely insightful. Minister Heng made the comment on the perceived dispensability of CME within schools (aware that academic modules have, more often than not, taken precedence), and how apathy or lethargy displayed by educators would send out misguided signals. He was also right to note that responsibilities for moral education should not be undertaken by institutions per se.

There is a lingering perception that NE remains largely propaganda-driven, which leads many schoolchildren to progressively lose interest in these forms of citizenship education.

However, as I had contended previously (here), there is a lingering perception that NE remains largely propaganda-driven, which leads many schoolchildren to progressively lose interest in these forms of citizenship education. Beyond the pedantic reliance on textbook resources and adherence to one-dimensional features, the MOE can seek to engage students through different non-partisan grassroots or volunteerism activities. To be fair, before further evaluations can be made, commentators should look at the amendments and recommendations that the new CCE unit would roll out in the future.

Language Policies And Bilingualism

The importance of getting language policies right cannot be understated; based on a number of personal anecdotal instances, I asked Minister Heng whether more should be done to review our approaches and methodologies in these areas (here); specifically, I called for more initiatives to be undertaken at the pre-school level (here), as well as the diversification of assessments or examinations to ascertain all-round abilities (here).

There was another query on the need to improve the existing Chinese language syllabus and curriculum, because it was purported that there was a disproportionate reliance upon the “han yu pin yin” pronunciation guide, and that the continuous lowering of standards – to compromise the weaker students – should not be the way forward.

As evidenced during the intense public debate that unfolded after former Minister for Education Dr. Ng Eng Hen talked about the possibility of reducing the Mother Tongue weightage at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), it is impossible to please the two distinct groups of stakeholders. Still, with these trade-offs in mind, the MOE must be realistic with its expectations, because it is not viable to expect every student to achieve a high level of proficiency or fluency in the languages.

I think we have done well in terms of establishing English as the primary working and education language (though dissenters would be quick to point to individual cases of gross ineptitude), but there is potential for growth. Minister Heng acknowledged that more would be done to heighten oratorical levels for tonal languages, make assessment more reflective of real-life usage, and also enhance home environments for learning.

Other Issues

Higher Education Faculty Ratio, And The Teaching-Research Conundrum (here). It was recognised that the quality of teaching at the respective institutions should be raised, with the student-faculty ratio a key point for analysis. Teaching and research should not be an “either-or”, and learning should not be professor-centric per se at the higher levels.

The worry is that if a student does not do well in the A Level examinations, what are the options open for him or her?

Safety Nets For Junior College Students. I thought this was a valid concern, especially for those in the Integrated Programme (IP): the worry is that if a student does not do well in the A Level examinations, what are the options open for him or her? This is certainly an area – in terms of post-secondary education – that the MOE could look into.

Parent-Centric Education. It was observed that there as a gap in communication between schools and parents (information asymmetry), particularly so because students are expected to be that bridge. It would be beneficial if parents could take a more hands-on approach, so as to comprehend school pedagogies and programmes more clearly.

General Thoughts On The Session, And Minister Heng

In my opinion, the dialogue was professionally organised; the primary reason why the level of discussion was high was because there was a good representation of participants from dissimilar backgrounds (teachers, entrepreneurs, parents, graduates et cetera), who knew what they were talking about. While this was one of the best sessions I have attended for quite awhile, I still believe that we need to move beyond the rhetorical dimension (here) for more concrete, tangible changes to be considered.

So many of the good ideas will remain untapped if nothing is done to continue the engagement and discourse beyond the session itself.

Minister Heng was a very confident and competent speaker; and I was most impressed with his ability to bring in his personal anecdotal examples of his school visits in Singapore and overseas (which, at the same time, gives the impression that he has done a tremendous amount of homework to render our education system more holistic and effectual). For greater outreach, and to continue the momentum gained from the past six months, Minister Heng could consider penning these experiences online.

All in all, a good afternoon which highlights our potential for growth and change.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


4 thoughts on “Singapore’s Education System: A Dialogue With Minister Heng Swee Keat

  1. …completely agree, most impressed, extremely insightful… my dear, while I continue to be sceptical about the purpose and usefulness of such dialogues, your liberal spray of superlatives suggests that you have been overwhelmed not only by giant but also by that exclusive invitation to meet the giant. It is going to be a sad day if you were to be co-opted one day into the system like Dr you-know-who and conveniently forget your youthful activism and sense of rightousness in your earlier days. However, When the day comes, I will not blame you or your choice for we all need jobs and need to move forward in our lives and career, and you will be grateful that your teenage interests have posited yourself in one advantageous rung above the others. Not everyone can remain detached and unmoved from the dangling goodies, and continue to critique without fear or favour from the side or outside of the system.

    Posted by Lindsys Q | November 9, 2011, 4:28 pm
    • I would like to respectfully disagree; yes, I do concur that I might have exaggerated rhetorically, but it does not change my opinion (as I tweeted during the session) that this was one of more constructive dialogues I had attended in the past few years. I didn’t agree with all the points that he had made, primarily because action – in terms of policies enacted – would speak louder than words per se; but that does not alter the observation that he was adept in his usage of anecdotes and personal experiences, and insightful with his oratorical presentation.

      The primary challenge with such dialogues organised by different groups (your scepticism is understandable) is that they hardly transcend the “rhetorical dimension”; that is, what happens to the questions and recommendations put forth by the individuals after the session has ended? Follow-ups are poor, and platforms for genuine or detailed discourse are far and few between.

      Nonetheless, I appreciate your comment. Compared to the many before me who have been involved or written actively, I have a long way to go. I cannot be right all the time, so it is heartening to see that people care (and indirectly help me growth – in terms of my writing and general development). Thank you.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | November 9, 2011, 7:31 pm


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