Singapore is keeping an eye on the future horizon of education


Singapore is keeping an eye on the future horizon of education

Singapore keeps on excelling in PISA, which makes Education Minister to warn the nation about complacency. Instead, the system seems to be under constant monitor – in order to improve itself. Personalized learning, adult education and good citizenship are key elements at the current agenda of the Ministry. This is not a bad recipe in the face of turbulent times, which may be ahead.

Among the latest PISA news coverage there was a headline that wasn’t so much a news at all: Singapore remains number one in education globally. In Pisa 2022 Singaporean students performed the highest in mathematics, science and reading. Quite interestingly, Singapore is one of the few countries, where PISA scores keep on improving.  

It is pretty eye-opening to see, that students in Singapore are three years ahead of their peers in the USA. Although giving a well-deserved credit to the system and to hard work done by students, teachers and officers, Minister of Education Chan Chun Sing advises the nation to avoid complacency. “If you don’t watch what’s coming, you may suddenly find yourself being outdated.”

This wisdom seems to be in the genes of the 58-year old island nation, which has relied from the very beginning of its existence on the only natural resource it has – its people. And to get the best out of its people, Singapore has kept education in the core of its nation mission. Minister Chan is clearly serious when noting, that the system needs to stay relevant in the midst of constant changes. “It is the duty and responsibility of educators to look farther ahead to see if they will continue to excel in future as well.”

Singapore excels in keeping the big picture in mind

Instead of piecemeal and poorly coordinated reforms, which characterize education systems in many countries, Singapore tends to set comprehensive system-wide goals for education. Government actively benchmarks other leading education systems and maintains active discussion with partners within the system and with the public. A distinctive characteristic of Singapore education system is a close relationship between the ministry, National Institute of Education and teachers. Few years back the Director General of the Ministry said he knows more than 80% of head teachers by name. 

Also parents need to be kept in the core of the discussion. Ministry maintains a portal, where officers respond to comments and suggestions published in media such as Straits Times opinions section. Tone of the discourse is notably constructive seeking consensus solutions to various concerns. When looking at the policies, there has been a shift from top-down control toward increasing school autonomy for curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. Centralized direction is giving way to more ecological whole-of-system approaches, which respond better to constant and sometimes sudden global change. Simultaneously, teacher-driven didactics is being slowly replaced by increasingly student-centric pedagogies. 

Urge to innovate

There are voices, however, who are worried about the shadow side of the acclaimed system, which still emphasizes excelling in exams. Earlier study conducted by the OECD showed that significantly greater proportion of students in Singapore were worried about their grades compared to their international peers. It is also noted, that despite the excellence in academic rankings, Singapore has produced proportionally fewer global leaders in science, innovation and entrepreneurship.

There is anyway something special in Singaporean honesty to see the snapshot, and to admit the facts. When then deputy Prime Minister, current President, Tharman Shanmugaratnam was asked about this by CNN a couple of years back, he replied that Singapore is an “exam meritocracy”, whereas America is a “talent meritocracy”. 

There seems to be a fertile mixture of pride and modesty in Singaporean mindset. A study conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies shows that 90% of parents regard the Singapore education system the best in the world. Instead of criticizing the system, parents seem to worry more about pragmatic issues related to schooling of their children. About a quarter of parents had faced difficulties in enrolling their children into a school of their choice, for instance. 
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education continues to evolve the system into direction, which it seems to consider right. In 2023 primary and secondary school students no longer needed to do mid-year exams. This was to give students more space to develop their own interests. Measures like this may well be steps toward society rich of innovations, which many experts are waiting to see more clearly. 

Technical education seeks inclusive approach

Vocational education has been a core of Singapore education mission, with an aim to attract skill-intensive industries to the country. A challenge is, that vocational education suffers from poor image compared to highly valued academic pathway. This is reflected in the overrepresentation of foreign students in vocational education, which is noted in several ministerial comments recently. Securing internal cohesion is clearly a priority amid increasing ethnic diversity. Not to mention widening income and knowledge gaps. 

Inclusive education, technical and vocational education and training and lifelong learning were the focus areas of the visit of the Second Minister of Education, Dr. Maliki Osman, to Finland in last October. Minister witnessed the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between ITE Singapore and the Turku Vocational Institute. It is easy to see several synergies between Finland and Singapore in VET. Keeping VET pathway relevant and attractive is very much in the interest of both countries. Finland also has a good record in offering cutting-edge professional skills through vocational higher degrees.
Higher Education – in the core of the national mission for success

Part of the future vision in Singapore is to increase the share of higher education degree holders in the labor force. As of the end of 2022 about 41% of the labor force had a university degree or higher. Upskilling the workforce is a respond to the demands of a more sophisticated economy. Part of the Singaporean aspiration has been to engage with leading universities internationally, and a considerable amount of students pursue their higher education degree abroad. In a small and knowledge-intensive nation like Singapore there must be a delicate balance between outbound and inbound students. According to UNESCO statistics 21 600 students from Singapore study abroad, whereas around 50 000 international students pursue their degree in Singapore. 

Singapore has rapidly become an attractive destination for foreign students. National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University both rank among the top 10 universities in Asia and the top 50 globally according to Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2024. Most degree courses are taught in English, and there are plenty of job opportunities available – around 100 000 vacancies according to the Ministry of Manpower. Students may be able to pursue citizenship after staying in Singapore for three years, with at least one year under a residence permit. 

This is a reference, when trying to attract talents from South or South-East Asia to Finland. Our messages and services need to be well in place to convince those, who might be interested.

What will the future hold for Singapore education?

If not a paradigm shift, at least a notable trend in the current educational thinking in Singapore is focusing on adult education. “Beyond the first 15 years to next 50 years”, as the Ministry notes. Adult education can be seen as a means to prevent societal segregation and to fight a generation gap between well-educated kids and their parents.

Another priority is customizing students’ learning with the help of AI in order to close learning gaps early in life. Getting academia and industry to work more closely together, getting whole of society involved, and investing in teaching fraternity are also pronounced in the current education portfolio. Many trends in Singapore education agenda point towards securing integrative and harmonious development of the society. Pace of the technological transformation, which is accelerated pretty much by advanced economies such as Singapore itself, needs to be contained in a coherent manner. Not to mention geopolitical and climate challenges, which become ever more apparent year by year.

Could Finland be part of the future of education in Singapore?

When considering Finnish offerings and collaboration with Singapore, the message is clear: there is always room for the best. No less is enough to raise genuine interest among officers and experts, who have seen it all. Any relevant digital solutions, for instance in the domain of AI, which have already shown their capacity in the global market, are potentially interesting here. Rather than testing or piloting anything, Singapore favors waterproof solutions with strong international reference. 

Finland is a constant highflyer in global innovation scoreboards, which makes it an interesting benchmark for Singapore. But how to translate globally acknowledged innovation performance into a clear-cut educational formula – that is a question, which even Finnish experts may not know the answer. It certainly has to do with freedom and creativity, but what is the right balance between play, creativity and hard work – that remains to be discussed. Maybe we should learn something from Singapore as well?
Active and open dialogue would be a way to find answers to many decisive questions. And to keep warm ties between Singapore and Finland blooming.

Text: Mika Tirronen and Pihla Eskola

Photo Embassy of Finland: Singapore’s Second Minister for Education, Maliki Osman, spoke at the joint reception for Finland and Singapore 50 years diplomatic relations celebrations.