“These are Singaporeans’ single-minded focus on examinations and grades and the accompanying high stress levels, and social mobility and inclusions in schools, as moving up the socio-economic ladder becomes harder” (Heng Concerned Over Exam Focus And Social Mobility, Mr. Leonard Lim).
Education Minister Heng Swee Keat’s speech during the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) budget debate is a fair reflection of the perspectives that have been articulated by Singaporean stakeholders (Heng Concerned Over Exam Focus and Social Mobility by Mr. Leonard Lim, March 14, 2013). More hearteningly, instead of hastily accepting all the recommendations that have been posited by members of the public, the MOE will be engaging in more consultations with the public, who would also benefit from these conversations. For instance, while Finland has been heralded as possessing the greatest education system in the world, it would be naïve to postulate that all the positive attributes can be replicated successfully.
Transformation has been quite remarkable in Singapore’s education landscape. We have been moving beyond academic focuses, as more pathways have been created to cater to individuals who might be more talented in the sports, arts, or vocational instruction. Within scholastic domains, while I believe that standardised assessments remain necessary for evaluation and benchmarking, I concede that more can be done to address the way we test, so as to reduce incidences of pedantic memorisation and mechanical regurgitation. Calibration can take the form of diversified assessment modes, or strengthened feedback or reflection exercises.
Nonetheless, the biggest challenge the MOE faces – as Minister Heng rightly highlighted – is one of social mobility. For any meaningful discussion to take root, the ministry would have to analyse how students from lower income-households have performed in school vis-à-vis those from higher-income families. With tuition in vogue and expensive enrichment enterprises becoming more ubiquitous, many reckon that the promise of education as “the great leveller” is no longer accurate. Hence, the overall performances from the national examinations could be sorted based on each household’s median income. Along the same tangent, we could also see if these students do benefit from the many scholarships offered.
Quality – and affordable – pre-school education will give young children the head-start they need, and the relatively low cost of public education in Singapore has been productive. Yet, with the proliferation of more activities within and without the school, the parents of these aforementioned students might find it difficult to fork out money for payments or purchases. Do we envision structural changes to complement short-term aids and bursaries?
It is a tough balancing act, because while we champion social mobility by empowering lower-income households, it would be tempting – but foolish – to begrudge Singaporeans who have done well and prospered. No eventual policies will please everyone, but at the very least opinions have been sussed out, and participants will emerge more empathetic and enlightened through the exchanges with their fellow citizens.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.