Singapore: Education Policy Dilemmas


Matthew Burke

Skills are clearly the scarce resource of this emergent post-industrial 'knowledge based' global economy. Cities and regions compete to develop, attract and retain experienced managers, specialist technicians and other knowledge workers - individuals who are the basis of world competitive businesses such as tradeable services and niche-market manufacturing.

It is therefore no surprise that in April last year Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong announced 'It is talent, talent, talent, not money, money, money, that will lead to success'. His Government is placing a heavy emphasis on revamping education to embrace the taking of risks as one of a number of actions they see as stimulating venture capitalism, 'technopreneurship' and economic development. Yet there are much more pressing needs in the education sector.

Most of the population needs no convincing about the values of education. Yet there are certain groups, mainly ethnic minorities, who are over-represented in the more than 1,500 children that are not enrolled in any form of daily schooling (whether for educational or special needs). A debate about the introduction of compulsory education has resulted. Minority communities feel threatened by how such legislation may impact on religious duties and education. The counter-argument is that access to the job market is clearly related to academic performance and literacy, and by having acceptable primary education and secondary education the status of such minority communities will inevitably rise.

There is also the problem of 'Singlish', the range of dialects spoken by Singaporeans in the local community. Singlish is not simply a form of mispronounced English, it is a syntactically distinct language with an amalgam of influences from mainly Chinese dialects. The threat it poses is if schoolchildren and future adults are no longer able to distinguish it from, or to function in, 'standard' English - even amongst the teaching profession itself. The recent Ministry of Education decision to send 8,000 teachers to language training represents the seriousness with which the situation is officially regarded.

But perhaps the most pressing concern relates to tertiary education. Singapore, while capable of attracting numerous high-wealth professionals and skilled technicians to its shores each year, suffers the loss of many of its most promising youth overseas. There are about 20,000 Singaporeans studying abroad every year, mostly at the tertiary level. That a significant percentage decide to stay permanently in their host countries is a considerable loss to the nation, despite the potential links to the rest of the world they then create.

How the Education Ministry seeks to deal with these issues will determine whether the Singapore of the future will have to rely on attracting skilled managers, technicians and other knowledge workers from overseas - their availability being something that cannot be taken for granted in a rapidly changing world - or whether Singapore will itself develop a home-grown pool of such individuals, sufficient to meet the needs of the nation.

WATCHPOINT: Can the government lower the proportion of Singaporeans studying overseas who choose to stay permanently in their host destinations and retain these skilled individuals?


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