Given what has transpired in the past week news and commentaries not about The Man are hard to come by in Singapore, so here’s a collection of eight articles from my five months in Finland last year:
Helsinki has a lot of charm. Simon, a Singaporean based in the city with his family, hosted me for a night, showed me around the city, and helped with my bulky luggage from point to point. Having been here for eight years, he has first-hand perspectives of the Finnish culture, and we chatted briefly about socio-political issues in the two cities (as we did in the past, over the Internet). He spoke about the transparent process of labour strikes here, the history and politics of the country, and the ability to lead a simple life here.
An ordinary student union rarely looks beyond the boundaries of the university, celebrates its event-and-welfare-organiser tag, and embraces the status quo with governance proposals which make marginal differences. A great one does not neglect these duties, but it understands its more meaningful ability to make an impact in the community and the country, cherishes and fights for its independence, and is consequently valued for its contributions. And by most measures, the student unions of Finland have done a great job.
These common items come from Finland’s maternity package, given to its expectant and adoptive couples. The one-of-its-kind box is a standard gift granted by Kela, the government agency responsible for social security programmes, via the Finnish Maternity Grants Act. 154 days after the pregnancy an application can be made, and a card from the local post office would then be sent to the family for the package to be picked up.
University league tables and ranking lists are in vogue, and even with the country’s outstanding education system there have been reforms – and further calls for reforms – in the universities of Finland. There are concerns that not many Finnish universities are featured in these top-100s, and the rector of the University of Helsinki remarked last year that “[g]enuine structural reforms must be made, not only in the name of the universities themselves, but in the name of the Finnish economy, competitiveness, and education”.
There are more ways to ease the needless anxiety associated with these high-stakes examinations too. In Finland at the Aalto School of Business there are two or three examination sittings each semester, and if the student does make these two or three attempts the better grade would be registered. If at the first attempt the student is not confident a written “Do Not Grade” on the cover page would be duly acknowledged. Moreover papers are usually four hours long. Candidates do not realistically require that length of time, but the absence of that time factor means they are not rushing to churn out content as fast as possible or crafting “time management” strategies, and actually focusing on the questions.
The speeding ticket is an example of a day-fine – or päiväsakko in Finnish – which takes into account the financial means of the offender. Besides speeding most infractions are punishable with a day-fine, which is calculated by subtracting 255 euros ($440) from the person’s monthly net income (based on taxation data), and then dividing this sum by 60. If the fined person has dependents then the amount can be reduced further. The minimum fine is 6 euros ($10). If desired the demand for a fine can be contested in a district court.
I spent two days at Kivistön koulu in Vantaa, a city and municipality which borders Helsinki. Away from the city centre and tucked away in a sparsely forested neighbourhood the two buildings of the elementary school housed well-equipped classrooms, an indoor sports auditorium, a music room, as well as a computer room and a crafts-and-carpentry workshop. The 300 students were from the first to sixth grades (aged seven to 12), and for the week the classes did special multicultural projects on various countries of the world.
During this sojourn – and after, I would imagine – one of the most common questions is whether Singapore can do what Finland does. We could draw lessons, yet while doing so understand that mechanisms do not function in isolation, and there are elements of a system which cannot be conveniently replicated. We have an education system that works, and it could be enhanced as educators are granted more autonomy in the classroom, and greater emphasis on non-scholastic achievements for students. We might look at the many Finnish newspapers in envy, but the two countries do not share similar geographic characteristics.