• Two related issues in particular caught my attention during the recent parliamentary debates — 1) the Happiness Index, brought up by the Chairman of the Workers Party; and 2) the response of the Minister for Education to the question raised by the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education on the meaning of examinations.

      It so happened that recently, a parent related to me what he had learnt about classroom learning in the primary schools. He was reluctant to subject his four-year-old child to such a heavy burden at a tender age. Yet, at the same time, he had felt “threatened” by what he learnt about the school system; thus, he was thinking about migrating. Based on the distress and helplessness on his face, it was hard not to discern the unhappiness of his family.

      Professor Lin Pei-Jung from Taiwan was invited here in August 2011 to participate in a seminar on education policy during which she shared about Taiwan’s experience of enacting early childhood education policy. The Taiwanese government took charge of the overall planning process by undertaking surveys, studies, consultations with representatives from various sectors, and a series of public hearings. Based on these sources, it formulated and enacted the legislation that led to the implementation and amendment of diverse policies. The academia of education had initiated the move of reform in 1997, which was acted upon by various parties concerned from 2005 to 2010. And finally by 2011, the early childhood education integration policy was implemented. Such a long process of reform is indeed amazing! Was it a waste of time? Unproductive? Or was it thoughtful and farsighted? I guess we would only know by looking at the effects of the policies after their implementation.

      Education forms the basis of nation-building: everything is linked to it, be it character-building or the transmission of knowledge and skills. Broadly speaking, education does not only refer to what take place at schools, but also in the homes and at all levels of society.

      The committee made up of corporate representatives had, after the launch of the 21st Century Entrepreneurship Programme in 1999 to nurture local entrepreneurs, brought up the importance of education reforms. In response, the Government instituted some policy adjustments in education. Between 1979 and 1999, the world had undergone enormous changes; yet, our education system had not changed much, except for some piecemeal changes.

      At this juncture, it is important to be clear about the fundamental difference between ‘change’ and ‘reform’, and stop treating them as though they were interchangeable. ‘Reform’ refers to the improvement of an existing situation by making it better and more meaningful. It is both progressive and intensive.

      Depending on the conditions of the country, reforms could take place from the top down, bottom up, or both ways. In Singapore, we are probably accustomed to the top-down approach with regards to the enactment of education policies. This was what happened during the education reforms of 1979, as well as the separation and merges of institutes of higher learning thereafter.

      When we talk about ‘education reform’ this year, it should be predicated on an understanding of what is less than ideal, or truly problematic, so that we could reap the maximum benefits through the reforms. There are many issues that should be addressed:

      • the streaming system;
      • the examinations system;
      • the second language policy;
      • the lack of creativity;
      • the decline of morals;
      • the connectivity of education at the different levels;
      • the roles played by parents and the society;
      • the education philosophy and effects that are vastly different from our own like the Finnish system.

      Perhaps, we should undertake comparison studies and reflections on the above at a comprehensive and thorough scale so that we can draw up in-depth, targeted, and effective reforms. Just listening to the views of some parents or education practitioners at forums, or even suggestions sent in by other individuals, is simply not enough.

      But first and foremost, we must determine whether the society as a whole deems this reform process to be worthwhile, before embarking on such a comprehensive research endeavour. If acknowledged to be necessary, then a generous timeframe must be provided. Aside from encouraging specialists and academics to undertake the relevant studies, views could also be gathered from various parties via all kinds of channels and analysed before any policies are made.

      Do you recall the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts that was set up by the government and led by the late President Ong Teng Cheong in 1988? After active discussions within the arts and culture sectors, more than a year was taken to draft the “The Report of the Arts and Culture” that opened up new vistas in the development of the local arts and culture scene over the next 10 years. Why not do the same for education reforms?

      Whenever we talk about education reforms, it is inevitable that parents would come into the picture. The Minister of Education recently mentioned that, although parents do not like stressful examinations such as the Primary School Leaving Examinations, no one has asked him to abolish the system yet. Thus, it would seem that, after almost half a century of indoctrination, the society has generally accepted the yardstick set by the government to define talent and achievement which is academic results and income. So the first thing that education reforms should do is to break this “yardstick law”.

      In order to free ourselves from the obsession over scores and results, the concept of examinations must be challenged. Just imagine if we could do away with examinations for everyone under the age of 18. It will result to parents need not compete to get their children into the top schools; no one needs to feel stressed out over streaming and examinations; and thus everyone could have more time to enjoy family life; teachers could teach less, while enabling their students to learn more and they would finally enjoy pursing knowledge, fill confident and dignified for being embraced by the society.

      When Singapore becomes a society that no longer functions through the system of ‘streaming’ — one that prematurely eliminates academically weaker students from certain schooling options, then we could perhaps move a step closer to being a happy people. And that anxious parent I had mentioned earlier would no longer need to think about migrating.

      I genuinely hope that that day comes soon…

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