Monday, September 17, 2007

Education in Singapore

Singapore has not done too badly in Education over the last fifty years. What we have now is the envy of many other countries. But Education is a continuous process and we still have much to do to carry on our journey. What were some of the important events that happened; how did they happen and what did we do? If we know some of the answers to these questions they will help us have a better understanding of our Education system and our own role in the process.

Education means different things to different people. Depending on who you are, you will have your views about Education and how it should be treated in so far as it affects you, your family and your fellow citizens. The common questions asked include the following:

a. What does Education mean to you? What do you want to be educated in?

b. Modern Education seems to ask the following questions. Is Education

(i) a necessity you need for your job.

(ii) an opportunity or something essential for the future,

(iii) an investment for better returns in terms of income, better jobs or social status for the individuals and the nation as a whole? Or

(iv) a business to be promoted for Singapore to become a knowledge based economy and an Education centre?

c. Personally what do you want to be educated in and for what purpose? What must you do to achieve your goals? How much are you prepared to sacrifice in terms of financial and opportunity costs for your education.

d. What are the motivating factors that will make you do what you have to do?

You will have to answer these questions yourself. I will share with you my personal experiences in the various positions I went through with my limitations, the changing environment and motivating factors. We share many commonalities and differences from which we can learn from each other. How did we, I and my family, together with some of my colleagues and friends, cope and escape from the poverty trap? We avoided being condemned for life as part of the forgotten generation because of conditions we thought were beyond our control. These conditions include foreign domination, interferences, colonialism, war, internal strife between parties with conflicting interests resulting in national chaos. Every one of us has a role to play. If we make our contributions together we can make a difference. What matters most is our attitude. Education is the building up of human capital. It is not the job of one man alone. It is a collective contribution from everybody. The resulting benefits must not be confined to only a few and their families but must benefit, and seen to benefit others too, our community, our country and our fellow men. There can be no peace if poverty is not checked.

Education Policy in Singapore during the colonial era

There was no education policy for development in Singapore and Malaya during my grandparents’, parents’ and my own early days. British policies during the colonial period in Singapore and Malaya were meant primarily to serve British interest. The demand for education was not widespread because of the cost which the poor could not afford. Parents prefer that their children work to supplement household income or do household chores, especially the girls. Still the supply did not meet the demand for more education. Under these conditions voluntarism had been an integral feature of British colonial education policy. The colonial government only set up a few primary and secondary schools for those who could afford or some, like my parents, who were prepared to make personal sacrifices for their children’s education.

The various communities, especially the Chinese community, contributed a very significant part in finance and management in building up our schools and our country. This is the positive side. At one time 50 % of the school students in Singapore were from the Chinese schools. When Singapore became self governing, and later an independent country, this colonial legacy of schools supported by voluntary contributions from the communities including the establishment of a Chinese language Nanyang University created some serious problems for the Government of the day. Thank goodness many of these problems have mostly been resolved. We can look to a future where opportunities are made available to develop individuals to the maximum of their capabilities and potential with everybody playing their part. However we still have to meet the challenge on how to meet the needs of the less fortunate who cannot even afford to accept what is being offered now.

Goals of my primary and secondary Education

Both my grandparents ran away from the poverty of China in the later part of the nineteen century. They never had much education and had to struggle for their living in Malaya. They “educated” themselves on the job. My paternal grandfather became a self taught businessman with a skill he learned from his jobs. My maternal grandfather became a self taught Chinese physician with some help from a Tibetan monk. How they wished they had more education which meant more knowledge, experience and skills to make a better living. My father was very proud that he attended St. Xavior’s Institution in Penang where he obtained his Junior Cambridge certificate. Later he got a diploma in short hand dictation through private studies. This enabled my father to get a job in Medan, Sumatra as a clerk earning a monthly salary of Malayan $ 60 during the great depression in the 1920’s when there was widespread unemployment throughout the world. My father married my mother and had to live away from Penang, their place of their birth. When I was born I was left to grow up with my maternal grandparents while my parents remained in Medan. This was the first payment my parents made to give me some kind of education. They made many more sacrifices in later years to see me through my school and university education.

My maternal grandfather’s concept of education was to make me study some of the Chinese classical books where hopefully I would learn how to read, write, and count and to appreciate some Confucian values of filial piety and hard work and the need to help those in need. He kept me at home and taught me personally himself. My grandfather died when I was 7 years old. I joined an English primary school after that. My goals then were to study hard, honour my parents by doing well and set a good example for my younger siblings to follow. I never had any pressure to do well for material rewards or punishment. I worked hard on my own as my guardian, my illiterate maternal grandmother, was in no position to help me in my studies. However she gave me the moral and emotional support I needed. She made it clear to me that life can be very miserable if one is poor and illiterate. I was an excellent student and had a few double promotions in school. I sat for the Junior Cambridge examination at the age of 14 years old when the S.E.A. war broke out. Then my future appeared to be destroyed. I lost 5 good years in the prime of my life because of this. I will share with you how I overcame some of the difficulties I encountered. My wife and friends who came from different backgrounds may see things differently. They may have different stories to tell with different emphasis on different factors that made them what they are. Whatever differences there may be we share and enjoy some common accomplishments on the projects and things we did together. That makes our working together meaningful and worth while. We have common motives which we shared.

Goals of my children’s education

When it comes to my children’s education I made sure that they understand the importance of education. Education can give them at least two good things. One is to train their minds and make them more of a human being who can think and make the right decisions and not like animals which live by their natural instincts of survival and procreation. Many animals are happy with their lots by staying in captivity and be fed like some people in the colonial days. I do not belong to this class. I do not want my children to belong to this class either if I can help it. We have to work hard for what we want otherwise we just exist.

Second, common knowledge and statistics have shown illiteracy and poverty form viscous circles which may be difficult to break. The common way we know to break out of this viscous circle is through hard work, backed by right values and attitudes. These abstracts, which are not easy to quantify, have to be learned and practiced through education at home, in schools and in our environment before their effects can be felt and appreciated.

My wife and I never forced our children to study for specific professions or occupations. We gave them the exposures necessary for them to make their own decisions with some guidance. We gave them the assurances that we will back them through university education if they do their part and qualify. I know how important this assurance can be as it was something I never had myself. I never dared to think of having a university education as my parents could not afford it. My only hope was through working hard on my own to get a scholarship which I did. After that the rest was up to me.

Two of my daughters are medical specialists practicing on their own. My son is a mechanical engineer doing his own business. They have families of their own. They and their families have many things which I never had before. My wife and I considered that we have done our job in bringing them up the best we can. We treasure the family. Our children do not have to sacrifice their family lives for the sake of their careers or occupation because they have to live up to the Joneses. But we still help out where we can. Further we hope we have imparted to our children the importance of keeping the family together. We still have our regular family meetings every week. We hope that our family will remain intact long after we are gone and that we have shown a good example of how the family can be kept together. Concentrating on the family may have cost our children opportunities to advance in their careers but we are happy with what we and they have.

As regards our grandchildren their views on education and life are very different from ours. However they are our children’s responsibilities but it is good for us to know their thinking especially when we have had experience educating others besides our own children.

Important changes after Singapore became self governing in 1959

Since Singapore became self governing in 1959 Singapore’s education system has undergone many major changes. We now have a system where many opportunities are available which never existed before. Because of the numerous choices possible it has become a problem to some. It is a system many other countries envied us for the way we try to build up our only resource, our human resource, into our human capital, through education for our future.

Education in Singapore is managed by the Ministry of Education which directs the Education Policy. Many parties from all walks of life are involved in this process. It is not an enviable position to be in where the Ministry is expected to please all the people all the time. As individuals we have to take responsibility for what we do ourselves. I think all those involved have done a good job in one way or another for themselves and the country under the circumstances. We must however continue to do more, especially for the less fortunate that still form a substantial percentage of our population. The less privileged too must themselves do their part through hard work backed by good values and attitudes to stand out and avoid being forgotten among the lost generations like some of our ancestors were. We can be in control and change some of the conditions that affect us. To those who are more fortunate, do not take too many things for granted and over indulge. Instead concentrate more on creative thinking and opening up new frontiers and not just passing examinations. History teaches us that even great empires collapsed if their people lack this. This message is still good for our times.

Lee Kum Tatt

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