In the past 150 years the small city-state of Singapore has been subject to British colonization, forced to participate in World War II, and briefly involved in a merger with Malaysia that ended in riots and killed dozens of civilians. Even after gaining independence in 1965, Singapore’s citizens continued to wage war against one another (Goh). The Singaporean government, headed by Lee Kuan Yew as the Prime Minister and Yusof bin Ishak as the President, faced the insurmountable task of dealing with economic, environmental, educational, security, and social problems in this fragmented society. In 1965 Singapore’s conditions looked very similar to many developing countries today; yet Singapore now ranks 3rd in GDP per capita, 9th in the UN Human Development Index (compared to Canada in 12th place), and very high in a number of other rankings concerning education, healthcare, life expectancy, quality of life, personal safety and housing (Goh). As a result of British colonization, Singapore’s economy relied heavily on entrepot trade, meaning trade in which imported goods are re-exported, sometimes with, and sometimes without further processing or packaging (Goh). After gaining independence, Singapore decided to rely on its only natural resource: its people. The answer to Singapore’s success, how it managed to transform itself from being considered a third world country to a first world country in only one generation, is education.
After gaining independence, one of Singapore’s primary concerns was to build social cohesion out of ethnic diversity, division, and political instability. At the time, the main ethnic groups in Singapore identified primarily as Chinese, Malay, or Indian, rather than Singaporean (Goh). The government’s first move to ameliorate this issue was to create good, public primary school education. The idea was to give the younger generations a real sense of what it meant to be Singaporean. By putting children of all different ethnicities in the same classroom and giving them a sense of unity, the Singaporean government managed to create a sense of solidarity and national identity. It was crucial for this first generation of young Singaporeans to be raised with identical values, as they soon became the workers and policymakers of Singapore.
Before independence only the affluent had been educated, but by the early 1970s Singapore had achieved universal primary education and universal lower secondary education (Everest-Phillips). One of the pillars of Singaporean education in those early years of independence was bilingualism. It became mandatory for students to begin taking English in primary school, but after pushback from Singapore’s citizens who complained that their children would lose their mother-tongue and their culture, Singapore’s government created language streams in Chinese, Tamil, and Malay, that were all taught alongside English (Gopinathan). It was important to the citizens of Singapore that while they stood together as a united front, they did not forget the different cultures that originally made up their populace.
What has set apart Singapore’s educational systems from other countries’ is how Singapore’s government created a culture of continuous improvement and future orientation. As articulated by Linda Darling Hammond, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, “The mission of the [Singaporean] schools is to prepare students to work at jobs that do not yet exist, creating ideas and solutions for products and problems that have not yet been identified using technologies that have not yet been invented” (Gopinathan). Singapore’s government wanted to shift from a labour-intensive economy to a capital and technology-intensive economy. Instead of trying to incorporate technologies into workplaces where laborers would be ill-equipped at using said technological innovations, the Singaporean government decided to grow a technology competent generation from the ground up, also giving them time to boost tech-focused industries to be ready for an influx of engineers (Goh).
Starting in the 1980s Singapore developed several educational programs, referred to as the “New Initiatives”. By 1987 Singapore had rapidly expanded schooling through secondary education and managed to standardize their system (Gopinathan). Next, Singapore slowly created independent schools to give them greater management and curriculum authority. This also allowed for the top 20% of students to benefit from an accelerated program (Gopinathan). Singapore also began to allocate more resources to improvements in teacher education and working conditions for true bottom-up innovation. By the late 1980s, teachers in Singapore were, and still are, entitled to 100 hours of professional development per year and given more opportunities for postgraduate study (Gopinathan). Senior and Masters teacher positions have been introduced as well as training for school leaders so as to create more job mobility in education sectors. The “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” vision was posited by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1997 (Gopinathan). This included an emphasis on critical thinking, a diverse curriculum, and the attempt to instill a lifelong passion for learning in Singaporean youth. This reform in particular was supposed to target not just students, but all of Singapore, promoting a supportive social and cultural environment and encouraging every individual to engage in learning and self-improvement (Goh).
In the 21st century Singapore has engaged in further reforms to integrate growing technologies into schools. A push for patriotism contributed to curriculums that better acquainted students with their own history, strengthening civic commitments, and highlighting Singapore’s core values. In 1991 these values were clearly articulated by the Singaporean government as the Shared Values: 1) Nation before community and society above self, 2) Family as the basic unit of society, 3) Community support and respect for the individual, 4) Consensus not conflict, and 5) Racial and religious harmony (Seng). Once these values were formalized it was decided that the best way to instill them in Singapore’s citizens was to teach them in school. Thus Singapore’s government created the Civics and Moral Education (CME) curriculum, in which all students were taught respect, responsibility, integrity, care, resilience and harmony, also with the help and involvement of their parents (Seng). Beyond this Singapore has shifted from a more rigid secondary system to one that provides different tracks and subjects to meet a range of abilities and needs, such as vocational and technical subjects. There are now specialized schools for sports, math and science, science and technology, visual and performing arts, and “future schools” that focus on IT (Gopinathan).
Today Singapore has been hailed as a focal point of entertainment, human capital, innovation, technology, tourism, trade, and transport. Singapore today is a world leader in a variety of areas: Singapore Airlines is 2018’s “World’s Best Airline”, and it is the only country in Asia to have a AAA sovereign rating by all major rating agencies (and only one of only eleven countries in the world to have received this rating). Other Singapore accolades range from world’s smartest city, to third-largest trading centre, to fifth-most innovative country (Goh). This enormous progress over the past fifty years is credited to a capable public administration committed to its citizens’ needs. Singapore’s accomplishments come down to successfully matching supply with demand of education and skills. This included a clear vision and belief in the centrality of education for students and the nation, persistent political leadership and alignment between policy and practice, a focus on building teacher and leadership capacity to deliver reforms at the school level, as well as building strong fundamentals before introducing flexibility and choice (Goh). Besides defense, the education sector receives the largest share of their GDP per year (Gopinathan).
On the downside, Singapore has one of the highest rates of income inequality, thus putting pressure on Singapore’s values of equality and meritocracy. Moreover, one in four people living in Singapore are non-residents, meaning they are immigrants who are in Singapore temporarily (Yeoh). This situation also puts strain on Singapore's patriotism and identity. The Singaporean government continues to revisit and revise the school system, attempting to rectify these imbalances of income inequality and fracture of national identity. This drive toward attaining good education is sustainable because the nation possesses the economic and social environment that would allow its citizens to reap the full benefits of their investments in educational pursuits. For Singapore, its most important resource is its citizens, who are seen as the most fundamental element in the nation-building process, and, as such, education and training are at the heart of the nation's wider economic plans.
Everest-Phillips, Max. “Commentary: Helping Developing Countries Achieve Growth Isn't Complicated. Just Look at Singapore.” Channel NewsAsia, 16 Sept. 2018, www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/united-nations-developing-countries-development-public-service-10708170.
Goh, C. B., & Gopinathan, S. (2008). Education in Singapore: Development since 1965. IN B. Fredriksen & J. P. Tan (Eds.), An African Exploration of the East Asian Education (pp. 80-108). Washington, DC: The World Bank.
Gopinathan, S., & Sharpe, L. (1999). Preparing for the next rung: Economic restructuring and educational reform in Singapore. Journal of Education and Work, 12(3).
Seng, Tim Lin. “Shared Values.” Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board, 13 July 2015, eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_542_2004-12-18.html.
Yeoh, Brenda, and Weiqiang Lin. “Rapid Growth in Singapore's Immigrant Population Brings Policy Challenges.” Migrationpolicy.org, Migration Policy Institute, 2 Mar. 2017, www.migrationpolicy.org/article/rapid-growth-singapores-immigrant-population-brings-policy-challenges.